Until ten years ago, Meghna Charkrabarti was preparing for a life as an environmental scientist, having earned both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in this field. But, in 2001, Chakrabarti abruptly abandoned the scientific career path, deciding instead to pursue a career in public radio.
“When I was halfway through my master’s degree,” says Chakrabarti, 35, it was “time to be honest with myself. And, the honesty was, I didn’t want to do engineering or science as a career, because I didn’t think that I had that much talent in it. And that was a really important realization, because I come from a family of very talented scientists.”
After completing her master’s, Chakrabarti was home, unemployed, chopping tomatoes while listening to WBUR, when the idea occurred to her to write a letter to the station, asking if there were any employment opportunities. To her surprise, Anna Bensted, producer of the “Inside Out” documentary series, called her, telling her that she could not hire her, but that there was volunteer work available as an intern. And this is how Chakrabarti got her start with WBUR.
But why public radio? Chakrabarti says, “I was a public radio listener since I was this high. I have always enjoyed writing a lot, and did journalism in college, on the side. So, there was obviously an unrecognized passion for that. Now, why radio in particular? That was where a lot of great journalism was happening…I also happen to be in a town that has one of the greatest public radio stations in the country, so why not give it a try?”
In the aftermath of September 11, WBUR, which bills itself as ‘Boston’s NPR News Station,’ organized a new program, ‘On Point’ hosted by Tom Ashbrook. Chakrabarti was hired as a producer for the show, and, within a couple of years, also became the program’s director. She continued her behind-the-scenes role on ‘On Point’ until 2006, then began doing on-air reporting on energy and transportation issues affecting New England. She was later cast into the spotlight as a fill-in host for ‘Here & Now’, WBUR’s national midday show.
Then, in May, 2010, WBUR expanded its weekly public affairs program ‘Radio Boston’ to a weekday schedule, and selected Chakrabarti as the program’s host. She was later joined by veteran NPR journalist Anthony Brooks as her co-host. WBUR’s website describes the show, which airs from 3-4:00 PM, as introducing the listeners “to newsmakers, big thinkers and artists and bring us stories of relevance to Bostonians here and around the region.” ‘Radio Boston’ executive producer Mark Navin says, “We really see ourselves as a transitional program. We want to do a little bit of the afternoon talk show format, but we also want to do a little bit of the news magazine format that ‘All Things Considered’ represents.” ‘All Things Considered’ is the flagship evening commute news program on NPR, airing from 4-6:00 PM.
Chakrabarti greatly admires the relaxed, incisive interview style of Terry Gross, host of NPR’s ‘Fresh Air’, and wants ‘Radio Boston’ to include more of the in-depth interviews that ‘Fresh Air’ is known for. “We absolutely want some of that in every single Radio Boston. I want some of that as a host to be able to show that part of my style and personality,” says Chakrabarti. She recently had the opportunity to perform just such an interview with comedian Rachel Dratch, taking the time to delve into Dratch’s career, her local connection (Dratch is from Lexington), and her thoughts on the role of women in comedy.
Chakrabarti has no formal journalistic training, but feels that this is, in no way, a detriment. “I think journalism school is a waste,” she declares, “because journalism is still, at its core, an apprenticeship craft. It’s a craft. So, the only way to really, really, really learn it is to do it, and to do it every day.” Her co-host Brooks, who also has no formal training as a journalist, says, “I wouldn’t be as strong on that as Meghna, because I know there are a lot of terrific journalists that come out of some great journalism schools…I think that if you’re lucky enough to go to a great journalism school, I don’t see that it could hurt you. I know the way that senior journalists in this profession think, and the first thing they’re going to look at is what experience do you have…The quickest way to get that experience is to do it.”
Her scientific background has been a great asset, Chakrabarti strongly believes: “I think my training as a scientist and engineer really contributed to how I approach the stories as a journalist…that’s what I feel is the greatest skill set that I brought over into journalism.” Executive producer Navin concurs: “Having another kind of academic background, as Meghna does, as Anthony does, as a lot of people here do, it gives you a good basis for being a good journalist, because you know, academia is all about research and discovery, and that’s what journalism is all about.”
The ‘Radio Boston’ staff consists of only six people, including both hosts. Each program typically comprises three or four segments on a wide range of topics. Much of the research for each segment must be performed by the hosts themselves. The process of arriving at story topics for each show is complex, derived from news and cultural events, the interests of the hosts, and requests from the community, especially the arts community, for attention. Chakrabarti says, “We have to cover things that are in the news with intelligence and passion and analysis…We absolutely would be totally remiss if we didn’t talk about Occupy Boston…But we have to cover things 1,000 miles away from the news, that are the opposite end of the universe from the news. I think that’s one of the things people love public radio for, they can hear things they may know nothing about.”
Rising from a volunteer intern 10 years ago with no radio experience, to co-hosting a popular local affairs program on WBUR, it would seem that Chakrabarti’s decision to enter public radio has been a good one. Asked about Chakrabarti’s success and what the future might hold for her, co-host Brooks says, “Meghna has the essential qualities that all successful journalists need…she is relentlessly curious and relentlessly energetic. And she is very, very intelligent. And if you put those three characteristics together, you have the basic building blocks of what makes a good journalist. So, I think that Meghna can take this as far as she wants.”