Host of WGBH radio show “Under the Radar,” Callie Crossley has built her career in broadcast reporting out of curiosity and dedication to a wide range of topics from politics, pop culture, to history. As a visiting Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow and the 2018 Wheaton College honorary degree recipient, Crossley discussed her career, relationship to broadcast reporting and journalism on campus in early November.
“My first job was in Memphis, Tennessee, my hometown, and I was a reporter, a general assignment reporter, which means you do everything. It was part-time for three months and then I was full time after that,” Crossley recalls. “It was great for me because I got to know the community, I was really green. You know, you can be smart and get the information, but putting that information together in a way that makes sense to people and gets to the point and shows every side of the issue, and all that? It takes a minute to do it well. So I had a lot of mentors along the way who were very kind, you know I had a couple of guys who worked at opposite stations, one of them just said to me at a press conference ‘really you just have to do better, your stories are just boring.’ I had all the stuff there but it was just boring. He really just said, ‘Look. No.’”
I was so anxious about getting it right! I remember the time he commented on a story, sending me a note saying, ‘Yes, good! This is great, now stay on that path.’ And along the way, if you’re really interested, you make sure to pay attention to the people who do it well.” Crossley states. “I sought mentors, I listened to mentors, I worked really hard on self-improvement, a lot.” During her first job in Memphis, she visited New York City, the hub of journalism, taking every opportunity to learn to do her job better. From her CBS station in Memphis, she moved first to Indianapolis and eventually to Boston, while expanding her style and reporting trying to find a place where she could not only receive feedback but present relevant stories.
In the last five years, Crossley’s narrative style has expanded not only into hosting her own programs and being a guest panelist on multiple panels, on such programs as “Beat the Press”, Fox 25 and CNN, while developing her voice as a weekly commentator.
“You know, you’d think it would be so easy because obviously, I could just give my opinion all the time, but getting it on paper in a way that it makes sense to people is hard. So, my biggest charge to myself now is that I write a piece and I’m so concerned that I’ve given you all the sides if there are sides, that sometimes I forget to tell you how I feel. A couple times my boss has caught me, times when I couldn’t fully make up my opinion, so I’d try and to this mushy-mashy thing that I thought worked very well, and I was being clever, and my boss has said: ‘Okay what is it?’” Crossley laughs.
She reiterates that it is vital to remember in commentary and opinion journalism that pieces should be both based in fact while also creating a cohesive narrative arc with an opinion. “You can even change your opinion, but you can’t get away with not having one.”
However, Crossley is clear that the line between opinion and reporting fact should be clear and defined. “That’s the thing I think annoys a lot of people who are news consumers. They don’t mind that people have opinions, just don’t put them in the places they don’t expect to find them, and they’re very annoyed by that. If I’m reading a piece about the building that burned down, I don’t want to hear your opinion that they should have hired more firefighters, if that is an opinion of the person on the paper or television or radio, that’s fine, that’s a separate thing.” She continues, “what people don’t like is that the lines crossing. And I have to say in many cases the lines have crossed and it isn’t good.”
Cable news outlets are often blamed for the crossing of boundaries when it comes to opinion, to statement of fact, and drawing on the important point of authority, she speaks to how finding credible sources is key to understanding where news is coming from in two parts.
“A source should be identified as coming from a place of knowing something.” Crossley states. “If you know what your perspective is, you’re in your room by yourself in your perspective. Make it your business to go find the other perspectives and get out of your bubble. That’s just a simple thing people can do. By that I mean, let’s not go to the conspiracy theorists, but to the people who are knowledgeable in their own arena and have a good sense of why they feel this way and are easy to understand too. Because you need someone who can explain to you exactly why this is. One of the reasons I started watching “Morning Joe,” that’s Joe Scarborough on MSNBC, is because they’d be talking and he’d say ‘that’s all well and good but from a conservative viewpoint, that is not conservative,’ and then he would explain, ‘in this instance, this is what conservative means.’”
This first step in finding credible sources, by identifying who is speaking and why, is key. In the second, Crossley expands on perspective, addressing the importance of primary sources. She encourages readers, “not to accept that anybody who’s put up as the supposed expert or knowledgeable about it is such until you know how they’re able to speak, from what background they’re speaking from.
“That’s why I appreciate more than a name on screen with a title under it, I appreciate more a line of copy under it [the name] saying something like “for the last 13 years, Megan has been the head of all Nutella processing,” for example. That’s what you want, people as close to the primary source, in the same way, that college students would learn about primary sources, that’s what you’re looking for in your new information – who is your primary source.”
In her own life, she has had to constantly work on holding herself accountable for providing accurate information as a radio host. Discussing “Under the Radar,” she constantly must remind herself to do what should be a simple task but is easy to overlook. “One of the big things that I have to remind myself to do on air is, because as a listener I realize how annoying it is, is when you’re talking and talking and you forget to re-identify who the speaker is, and you have to keep doing that. Because a listener can come in at any point and go, ‘Well, I don’t know who that is.’” Reiterating her earlier point, she states, “Again, if you don’t know who’s speaking, you don’t know their authority on whose speaking. So that’s important.”
In creating her show, Crossley not only keeps in mind from what knowledge base people are coming from but also from what experience. While many panels around politics and culture often cycle through very visible experts, or as Crossley calls them the usual suspects, for “Under the Radar,” she works to curate a wide net of speakers and experts.
“It doesn’t make sense to use the same four people. That’s just lazy. So we’re not going to do that. So right away a couple of things happened. Right away, you get more women, persons of color because they aren’t part of the usual five. And I want to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with the usual suspects! They’re great! They’re just overused, and you can use someone else. What sometimes is even equally frustrating because the usual suspects have tried to tell people to use other people, saying ‘hey, have you tried my colleague’ and gotten ‘no. we want you.’ But that’s not my thing.”
Crossley smiles, remembering one anecdote in the process of requesting speakers. “I laugh because I had an interesting conversation with a guy who called in. We had been trying to reach out to a woman who was head of this thing, she was going to get back to us and the next thing we know he’s calling back saying, ‘Oh, she told me what you were talking about and she said, you know, that I was probably the best person to do it.’ So my producer said to me, ‘What should I do?’ and I said ‘Call him back and tell him, no, thank you, I knew who I asked for.’ And he was highly offended. Then he thought he was doing himself a favor of listing where he had been interviewed many times, so I wrote back, ‘This is exactly why I was not interested in having you. You’re not following me.’”
This acknowledgment of those overlooked by the mainstream has benefitted Crossley and her work, setting her and her show apart from the abundance of content. “It is very intentional. That’s the word you’ll hear around conversations of inclusion and diversity, and that is why I am very professionally intentional about this. That doesn’t mean I don’t have all kind of folks on, but when you focus on who you haven’t been hearing from it really opens up your world. It certainly has opened up my world.”