KCBX's pioneering news director, Randol White, established the station's news department in 2014. He is now moving on to host All Things Considered for Capital Public Radio in Sacramento. KCBX Reporter Bree Zender spoke with Greta Mart, an accomplished radio journalist, who is replacing White as KCBX news director.
Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and time.
Zender: Can you tell me about your background in journalism?
Mart: Sure. I grew up in a media-oriented family. My dad started his career as a news cameraman for KING-TV in Seattle. Then a friend of his invented this thing called a Steadicam, my dad bought the world's first commercially available Steadicam. He started freelancing and we moved to L.A. and he subsequently became one of the world's top operators. It was right when MTV came out, I started working with him when I was like 14 or 15 as a camera assistant and "gopher," I just loved hanging out on sets. He did music videos and commercials and movies. He married my step-mom who was a producer at KABC-TV in Los Angeles for 25 years. She wrote the news; we'd sit around the dinner table each night and talk about the news stories of the day. Then I went off to college in Boston, did a year at Trinity College in Ireland and I lived in Europe for a little bit. Came back, finished up my undergraduate degree [at University of Massachusetts at Boston], then I moved to San Francisco and started writing freelance stories for magazines, I got some things published in an Italian magazine. It wasn't until I was 34 that I got an opportunity to be a reporter on a weekly up in the Seattle area. As soon as I started doing daily print journalism, the clouds parted, it was like, "oh this is what I am supposed to do." My next job was on a tri-weekly newspaper in Martinez [California]. Actually I was the only staff reporter there, I covered all the beats, turned around maybe four or more stories for each issue. It was the oldest continually-published newspaper in the West, I could go back in the archives and find the headline that Lincoln had been shot, in my paper! So I felt like I was continuing a long-standing tradition and I really fell in love with community of Martinez. It's really unique, Joe DiMaggio was born there. Everyone knew my name. I took to wearing a trench coat.
Zender: Like a real journalist?
Mart: Exactly, exactly (laughs). And I'd have my little notebook. I just loved it, had a great time. But at the same time, I was living on my boat at the Berkeley Marina and every day when I would come out of my boat and step up in the cockpit, I would look directly at [UC] Berkeley's Sather Tower, the big clock tower. I would look at that and it seemed to me like Shangri-La. You know, I had never thought about going back and getting my master's. And so I applied, and was finally accepted into the program. It was really intense, two years, I had to kind of re-learn a lot of things. When you get to Berkeley [Journalism School], you get assigned to one of three hyper-locals, I was assigned to the Mission District in San Francisco. That's what I did for the first few months and then you choose which track you were going to go on, whether you're going to do documentary, whether you're going to do TV news or multimedia. And I took an Intro to Radio class. That's the first time I'd had any contact with radio broadcasting and again, I found that once I started doing it I said, 'this is what I should be doing.' And my professors agreed, they were very supportive. I took all the radio classes I could possibly take. And we had some great professors. Kelly McEvers came in...
Zender: She's the All Things Considered co-anchor, and she also runs the NPR podcast Embedded.
Mart: Exactly. Michael Pollan was my adviser, the famous food writer who is terrific. I focused my radio stories on food-related issues. I went down to Mexico and reported on the national soda tax, and I got to go to Cuba; I went to Cuba for 10 days and reported on organic farming there. At the J-school, between the two years all of us had to do an internship, and I only applied to one. It was in Sitka, Alaska, a great radio station called KCAW.
Zender: Alaska's a big state. Can you give us a vague [estimation of] where this is?
Mart: Sure, sure. Sitka is in Southeast Alaska. I was there for the summer of 2014. And then when I graduated [in May, 2015], a station in Haines, Alaska, which is also in Southeast but north of Juneau, they said, 'do you want to come up here and be the news director here?' And I said "I'm not quite ready to move lock, stock and barrel up to Haines, Alaska. But I will come in and fill in for the summer until you can get a permanent person." And so that's what I did. I went up there and I was their Morning Edition host and a reporter. I produced stories with another gal and loved it. Then I got a call from a public radio station out in Unalaska, which is about mid-way through the Aleutian Islands. And they said 'do you want to come out and be our news director?' I said well I'm not quite ready to move, lock, stock and barre to Unalaska, but I will come out and fill in until you get a permanent person, that's what I did, I went out there in September of 2015. I took over from a gentleman - he had done the same thing, gone out there for three months, his name is John Ryan and he's an investigative reporter at KUOW in Seattle. We worked together a short time, he taught me the job and then he left and I took over. I was only supposed to be there for three months, from September through December, but we couldn't find the person to come and replace me and if I would have left there would have been no news, I ended up staying until through May. So about nine months out there, lasted a winter, an Alaskan winter. I had a blast.
Zender: What do you like about radio?
Mart: I love it because for many people in remote places, the area's public radio station - it becomes a member of the family, it's company, it's community. And I experienced that myself. When I when I was about 30, I decided to rent a house in rural New Mexico. I didn't get any television or anything, I got one radio station and it was the station out of Taos called KTAO. It's not public radio, but it was community-owned radio. From the moment I got up in the morning, I'd turn it on and I would have it on all day. I'd [particularly] look forward to [this] English woman who did a show on Tuesday nights where she would play an opera for you and she'd explain it, break it down and explain the story and talk about the music. And that's when I really fell in love with opera...and I fell in love with public radio as a focal point for community, a one-on-one interaction with the wider world, a connection to stories from around the globe.