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Not your average day job
Renee Montagne co-host of National Public Radio's Morning Edition sits in a studio at NPR affiliate KNAU on the Northern Arizona University Campus Thursday afternoon. (Jake Bacon/Arizona Daily Sun)

The first thing Renee Montagne did after being hired to co-host "Morning Edition," National Public Radio's enormously popular morning news and information show, was to order black-out curtains for her windows at home.

Montagne would be needing them to hold back the radiant light in her Santa Monica beach cottage so that she could be asleep at 3 p.m., in order to get up at 11 p.m.

"I'm in the office by midnight," said Montagne, who spoke Thursday, before appearing at an event for KNAU's 25th anniversary celebration at the High Country Conference Center. "The show on the West Coast starts at 2 in the morning. I'm done by 4 a.m. I walk outside and it's black outside."

"Morning Edition" is the most widely heard broadcast news program in the United States (www.npr.org). Since 2004, Montagne has been broadcasting from NPR West in Culver City, Calif., with co-host Steve Inskeep in Washington, D.C.

Adding a West-Coast perspective balances out coverage, she said.

"Coverage can get quite focused on what is happening in Washington," Montagne said. "The reason they wanted to put me in L.A. is to have a sense of place … The places I pick to go tend to be all out West."

TIGHTLY RUN SHOW

The pattern of rising early for "Morning Edition" began with Bob Edwards in November 1979, when he hosted the first broadcast of the show.

Today, tight schedules still rule at the stations on both coasts, where about 39 staff coordinate the production. There are six staffers, including Montagne, for the NPR West broadcast.

News segments run about 6 1/2 minutes, to a maximum of 7 minutes, 15 seconds, Montagne said.

"It goes by very fast, even for us, and you're watching that clock," she said. "If you let them talk, you haven't done a good interview. If you jump in, then you're rude."

Ellen McDonnell, who produces "Morning Edition" and is the director of morning programming for NPR, came up with the concept of having two hosts, one on each coast.

Montagne said there are no drawbacks to the two-coast program and coordination is easy.

"We run on clocks," she said. "We came up with innovations that are pretty old-fashioned."

Some of the low-tech innovations include a TV in the studio and a talk-back button.

"You can actually talk to the producer, editor or director as you're interviewing; I can see them," Montagne said. "We finally put in a phone with one big red light. If it lights up, grab it. He'll say something that I can respond to."

Montagne said radio is an "ear medium."

"I'm so used to processing the world through my headset," she said. "Any telephone call is intimate. People start pouring their hearts out."

STUNNING MOMENTS

There is no one interview that is most memorable, she said.

"I have a number of coverages that I've done that stick with me — big moments in history, like Afghanistan," Montagne said. "South Africa feels like part of my being at this point. The things that flash in front of me are not known people, but like the first potter who came back to Kabul. There he sat on the top of the hill, working his pottery. Those moments are just stunning."

One fun interview was with Paul McCartney, who was late and came in singing the song, "Don't Walk Away Renee," by The Left Banke.

"He plunked himself down on the couch and said, 'I bet that happens to you all the time.' So, I had Paul McCartney sing my song."

Some of her most difficult interviews were during the presidential campaign.

Often, she had only a few hours' notice before talking to the three lead candidates: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain.

"You have a million questions to ask them," she said. "You have to be fair, but you have to be tough… These presidential candidates are quite good at turning the conversation back to what they want to say."

One of the hardest was an interview with McCain after the Russian invasion of Georgia in August.

"He wanted to stay on Georgia," she said. "There's a fierceness about him. We had to end the interview before we got to what I thought were the key questions."

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Many people work on broadcasts. Reporters write introductions for their stories, but Montagne and Inskeep often change them.

"Steve and I will play with the introductions to make them more our voice, or the show's voice," she said. "We write all the interstitial lines."

Producers and editors put it all together, so shows flow seamlessly.

"There's nothing more collaborative than radio, except film, maybe," Montagne said. "We're certainly not out there alone."

Betsey Bruner can be reached at 556-2255 or by e-mail at bbruner@azdailysun.com.

Montagne: A West Coast perspective

Montagne was born in Oceanside, Calif, but traveled all over as her family moved with her father, Bud Montagne, a career Marine.

In 1973, she graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of California, Berkeley, with a B.A. in English. She said her favorite writers are Marcel Proust and William Shakespeare.

Today, she writes her own scripts, which she said is "reasonably expressive:" "You can tell people's work. If they're a good writer, you know who they are when you hear them."

Over the years, Montagne has done thousands of interviews on a wide range of topics, such as Kurt Vonnegut on how he survived the World War II firebombing of Dresden, Germany, and transformed it into his novel. "Slaughterhouse Five."

In the spring of 2005, she took "Morning Edition" to Rome for the funeral of Pope John Paul ll, co-anchoring broadcasts from Vatican City.

After September 11, 2001, Montagne traveled throughout Afghanistan, interviewing people from farmers to an infamous warlord, producing three series on the country.

In 1990, Montagne journeyed to South Africa to cover Nelson Mandela's release from prison. She continued to report from South Africa for three years. In 1994, she and a team of reporters were given an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award for their reporting.

Montagne has also been honored by the Overseas Press Club for her coverage of Afghanistan, and by the National Association of Black Journalists for a series on Black musicians going to war.

— Betsey Bruner, Sun reporter, and NPR Web site: www.npr.org

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