It isn’t surprising that NPR, the radio dial’s version of a liberal arts education, is where the majority of radio Reedies have found a home.
Susan Davis ’88, now editor and co-producer of Talk of the Nation, went to New York after graduation to be an art critic. With a dual major in art history and English (her crossover thesis explored a series of watercolors painted by William Blake for Milton’s Paradise Lost), Davis began the career climb, working as an editorial assistant for a series of art magazines. It was paradise never found.
“So boring,” Davis remembers, “sitting in a little cubicle with a computer and very little to do. My boss would get annoyed if I read a book or talked on the phone, but if I was typing, she figured I was working and left me alone. So I began to write.”
First, long letters to friends (this was pre-email), then poetry, which fast became her path. Davis began to publish a few things here and there, and spent two years as an editor at the magazine Poets and Writers. Then it was off to the University of Houston, where she earned her M.F.A. in poetry.
“The senior producer called me,” says Davis, “and said ‘You don’t have any of the experience we’re looking for, but this is the best cover letter I’ve ever read. Try the job for the week and see if you are any good at it.’ See kids, this is how your Reed education helps you in life!”
From the start, Davis was good at it. She quickly discovered a “natural affinity” between radio and poetry. “They are both just speech distilled,” she explains. “What makes for good poetry makes for good radio—it’s all about pacing and language and sound.”
Her knack for cutting together interviews and features eventually led her to Washington, D.C., and a position as editor and producer of an NPR radio documentary program called Soundprint. When the funding for that show dried up, Davis became an independent producer of “sound essays”—an apt description, as Davis believes that “radio works on people’s senses the way music does. And imagination is usually more powerful than reality. People own the images they create in their minds.” Along the way she met and married her husband, taught creative writing, and continued to publish poems in journals as respected as the Paris Review.
After working on NPR’s first foray into content for the web (an on-air essay backed with lots of material on the site—“I was making radio, and writing all the related articles and essays. It was the perfect liberal arts major job!”), Davis joined Talk of the Nation. This fall she will take a hiatus to teach writing, spend time with her husband and young daughter, and concentrate on completing a collection of poems.
Beyond the skills required to write indefatigable cover letters, “Reed taught me the power of analytical thinking, the pure pleasure of knowledge, and that there are as many points of view as people,” Davis says. “Nothing shocks me after Reed!”