Neal Conan, who spent 36 years with National Public Radio and 11 years as the host of the network’s Talk of the Nation died Tuesday in Hawaii of glioblastoma at the age of 71.
I met Neal almost 50 years ago, at a small, hopeless FM radio station in New York City, WRVR. Neal spent much of what would have been his college years, if he’d attended, working at New York’s Pacifica noncommercial radio station, WBAI, where he took his first radio job as an engineer.
When I first knew him, while we hosted a WRVR news program together, he used to wear a railroad engineer’s cap. “They don’t make announcer’s caps,” he’d explain.
The Neal I knew 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 took turns explaining what had hooked us on radio. Neal didn’t invoke the great broadcast news oracles of our youth. He was a high school senior, spending a lot of time at the office of his physician father who, Neal recounted, “had an FM radio so he could play easy-listening music to drown out the screams of his patients.”
But it was on that radio that he heard something different — WBAI, a public radio station in the middle of a fundraising drive.
How he stumbled onto public radio
“People didn’t talk like people on the radio,” he recalled in a 2007 interview with Public Radio Arizona’s Wavelength magazine. “I stumbled across this unbelievable conversation where people were telling really bad jokes and were laughing. You heard women’s voices (very unusual in those days). You heard Midwestern and Brooklyn accents, people with passion who cared about what they were doing and wanted to involve me.”
He went to work there soon after.
And in 1977, he joined NPR, where he held an astonishing variety of jobs. He was, at various times, the line producer and executive producer of All Things Considered. In 1987, he ran NPR’s coverage for a year as news director.
As a reporter and host, he covered confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominees, two Olympic Games, President Bill Clinton’s impeachment and presidential debates. Abroad, he won a handful of awards for his coverage of wars in the Middle East and conflict in Northern Ireland.
In the final days of the Gulf War in 1991, while reporting from southern Iraq in the U.S. battle to liberate Kuwait, he was captured by the Iraqi Republican Guard and held hostage for a week, along with New York Times reporter Chris Hedges.
How he combined his love of radio and baseball
Among Neal’s passions were military history, comic books and — perhaps, above all — baseball. (Especially the New York Yankees.)
His love of the game was such that he took a sabbatical in 2000 to live out his dream — but took radio with him — working as a Minor League Baseball announcer for the Maryland team Aberdeen Arsenal.
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.
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’s most prominent role at NPR was hosting the daily call-in radio show Talk of the Nation. He tried out for the position the week that began on Sept. 10, 2001, in what became a crash course: 9/11 was Neal’s Day Two on the job.
His stint in the baseball world, he said, was surprisingly great training for those long, demanding days. Having to give play-by-play commentary for three-hour games, Neal told the Los Angeles Times in October 2001, “gave me much more stamina, much more ability to think off the top of my head.”
Talk of the Nation was canceled when NPR opted out of talk-show production in 2013 and Neal left the network. True to his predictable unpredictability, he went to Hawaii to become a macadamia nut farmer. He lived there the last several years of his life with his wife, the writer Gretel Ehrlich, as well as at her home in Montana and Wyoming.
Inevitably, of course, there was still radio in his life.
In Hawaii, he worked at Hawaii Public Radio as a commentator on Pacific News Minute. When then-President Donald Trump entered the White House, he returned to national airwaves to give historical and political context to the new administration with a program called Truth, Politics and Power.
On his 70th birthday, in 2019, Neal received bad news: He had a malignant brain tumor. He would fly to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., for treatment, where the prognosis was never encouraging. But his friends and fans hoped against hope that he might somehow pull this one out.
How he wanted to be remembered
Earlier this year, he sat down with his nephew, former NPR journalist JJ Sutherland, for a long interview about his life.
Asked how he wanted to be remembered, Neal put it this way:
“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. So, that, I think more than anything, is what I would like to be remembered for.”