NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith filled in as host of Weekend Edition Saturday while the regular host, Scott Simon, is on vacation. For the occasion Keith did a personal story about the letters she wrote to NPR personalities — including Simon — when she was a 15-year-old in the San Joaquin Valley town of Hanford and listened to public radio on her parents' car radio. "Living in a town where 80% of the population have four legs and udders and the high school a nationally recognized milk tasting team, I need some outside help," she wrote to Simon. He answered. So did Cokie Roberts and Liane Hansen.
That little letter-writing campaign — and the people who responded — changed my life. And I don't mean that in some abstract way.
First I heard from Cokie. Whatever you do, don't major in communications, she said. And then Scott Simon invited my family to his home, where we sat on a peach-colored leather couch and my little brother played with Scott's ancient cat. His advice: Consider majoring in philosophy. I did. It was one of the hardest things I've ever done, but it taught me how to break apart arguments, how to ask the right questions.
Liane Hansen responded, too, and invited me to write essays about being a teenager that aired on Weekend Edition Sunday. Ultimately, that led to my first real radio job.
And it all started with a letter. A letter with mediocre spelling and questionable punctuation. Sitting at Scott's desk, getting ready for this week's show, almost 19 years to the day after I sat on his couch getting advice about college, I'm still so grateful that my teen idols at NPR took the time to respond.
Sometimes all it takes to make a difference is to write back.
Keith joined NPR in 2009 as a business reporter, after reporting stunts at KQED's "The California Report" and in KPCC's late state capital bureau in Sacramento. Her website includes free tips on how to make good radio.