Neal Conan, Former Host Of NPR's 'Talk Of The Nation,' Has Died
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
There has been a loss in NPR's extended family. Neal Conan, who spent 36 years at this network, 11 years of that hosting Talk Of The Nation, died of a cancerous brain tumor. He was 71 years old. Our longtime colleague Robert Siegel knew Conan for almost 50 years and has this remembrance.
ROBERT SIEGEL, BYLINE: We met at a small, hopeless FM radio station in New York City, WRVR. Neal never went to college. He spent much of what would have been his college years working instead at New York's Pacifica non-commercial radio station WBAI, where he worked as an engineer before ever going on air. When I first knew him and we did WRVR's news program together, he used to wear a railroad engineer's cap. He would explain they don't make announcer's caps. Neal was funny, smart and 100% radio with an incurable curiosity and the silvery voice of an Irish tenor. Last year, a few of us NPR old-timers gathered on Zoom, and we took turns describing what had hooked us on radio. Neal did not invoke the great broadcast news oracles of our youth.
NEAL CONAN: Well, I was living in my father's office in my senior year in high school. And he had an FM radio, so he could play easy listening music to drown out the screams of his patients.
SIEGEL: His father was a doctor. He heard WBAI on that radio and went to work there soon after. Later at NPR, he held an astonishing variety of jobs. He was at various times the line producer and the executive producer of ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Back in 1987, he ran NPR News for a year. He was a reporter. Here he was in the States at a Ku Klux Klan rally in Connecticut in 1980.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We got to get a little more distance here. That cross is going to be hot when it's lit.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah, really, I know it.
CONAN: Robed and hooded Klansmen stood in a circle. They marched three times around the cross. They saluted with their torches three times.
SIEGEL: And here he was abroad during the first Gulf War in February 1991.
CONAN: U.S. forces fired first, killing five Iraqi soldiers and taking seven prisoners and destroying five Iraqi tanks. In response, the Iraqis hit the U.S. patrol with indirect fire, probably artillery called in by the Iraqi patrol leader.
SIEGEL: In 1991, while reporting from southern Iraq on the war to liberate Kuwait, Neal was taken captive by the Iraqi Republican Guard, along with New York Times reporter Chris Hedges. It took diplomatic efforts to get them released. Among Neal's passions were military history. He did a story about the Boer War that was legendary. It sat on the shelf at ALL THINGS CONSIDERED for years, for lack of anyone else to share his enthusiasm for it - also comic books and, when they got a cultural upgrade, graphic novels and perhaps above all, baseball, especially the New York Yankees. His love of the game was such that Neal lived a fantasy himself. In 2000, he took a sabbatical and worked as a Minor League Baseball announcer for the Aberdeen, Md., Arsenal.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
CONAN: There's a ball lifted deep into center field. Fowler has room. He's on the warning track and drops the ball.
SIEGEL: It didn't produce a dream career, but it did produce his book "Play By Play: Baseball, Radio And Life In The Last Chance League." For many years, Neal lived radio at work and at home. He was married to Liane Hansen, who hosted NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday for many years. That marriage ended in divorce, but together, they raised two children, Connor and Casey. Neal Conan's most prominent role at NPR was hosting Talk Of The Nation.
CONAN: From National Public Radio News in Washington, I'm Neal Conan. And this is Talk Of The Nation.
SIEGEL: He tried out for that job the week that began on Monday, September 10, 2001. Sept. 11 was Neal's Day 2.
CONAN: In New York City this morning, airplanes crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center. In Florida...
SIEGEL: Talk Of The Nation was canceled in 2013, when NPR opted out of talk show production. Neal left and, with his predictable unpredictability, moved to a macadamia nut farm in Hawaii. He lived the last nine years of his life there with his wife, the writer Gretel Ehrlich, as well as at her homes in Montana and Wyoming. Of course, inevitably, there was still radio in his life. In Hawaii, he hosted a politics show, and he did commentary for Hawaii Public Radio.
CONAN: Kiribati is supposed to receive new ferry boats from China as part of its reward for switching diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to Beijing. For Hawaii Public Radio, this is Neal Conan with the Pacific News Minute.
SIEGEL: On his 70th birthday in 2019, Neil got the bad news. He had a malignant brain tumor. He would fly to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., for treatment. The prognosis was never encouraging, but his friends and fans hoped against hope that he might somehow pull this one out. Earlier this year, he sat down with his nephew, former NPR staffer JJ Sutherland, for a long interview about his life. How did he want to be remembered?
CONAN: I was lucky enough to be part of establishing what, I think, is now a really important news organization in this country. And for NPR News to have advanced so far from the organization that it was when I joined it and become so important - and there's never been a more important time for an independent news organization in this country than right now (laughter). So that, I think, more than anything is what I would like to be remembered for.
SIEGEL: Neal Conan, whose voice graced this network for many years in many ways, always in the cause of smart, wonderful radio - I'm Robert Siegel.
CHANG: Neal Conan died today at the age of 71. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.