Armed With Microphone and Admitted Biases, Public Radio's John Merrow Covers Education

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The teenagers were told to giggle, exaggerate "macho swaggers," and let their voices crack. Their money was never refused.

They had collected 156 bottles of liquor and beer before they stopped. Mr. Merrow confronted the merchants and later broadcast their candid admissions of guilt.

The only person arrested because of the incident was Mr. Merrow. He was charged, briefly, with "inducing minors to purchase alcohol." Weeks later the charge was dropped.

Relishes Colorful Stories

He admittedly relishes his more colorful stories--like the series of broadcasts from juvenile detention centers that begins early next month--but to characterize Mr. Merrow as the Mike Wallace of the playgrounds would be a misrepresentation.

In this week's segment of the radio series he will be looking at alternative schooling, and later this season he will examine schooling and daily life in Mennonite and Amish communities. In a past show, he took listeners along as he stood with his microphone amid a group of angry parents protesting in a West Virginia textbook dispute.

Listeners to "Options" accompanied Mr. Merrow to a Dartmouth College admissions meeting and heard the staff chortling as one student applicant, who they agreed was brilliant but socially underdeveloped, was said to be better suited for MIT.

Segments of the half-hour program are sent to 200 NPR member-stations twice each week at 6:30 p.m. to be broadcast at their discretion. Some stations schedule the show at a daytime hour, but an NPR official said that a survey the network conducted on the subject three years ago found that 50 percent of the stations carried "Options" when it was first sent. NPR does not have a precise estimate of the number of listeners the show attracts.

Broadcasts Cover Many Topics

Mr. Merrow and his staff have been producing the twice-weekly radio broadcasts for seven years. They have covered a wide range of education- and child-related topics--including home schooling, learning disabilities, math anxiety, and many others--with a philosophical perspective Mr. Merrow best described in a New Republic article on tuition tax credits:

"Tuition tax credits are probably bad education policy and bad tax policy," he wrote. "But there is one good argument on the other side: the need to shake up the public schools and the monopolistic-minded people who run them."

He likes to "shake up" people both in and out of public education, he says, because in educational controversies where many choose sides, there is one group whose needs are often ignored--the children. And he believes, based on such experiences as the one he had in Connecticut, that Americans are not always the child-loving society they think they are.

Such beliefs are the source of most of the show's negative criticism, according to Barbara A. Reinhardt, co-producer and reporter on the show. "Occasionally people will write with a concern that we are coming down too hard on public schools. That is the most common form of criticism. It's easy when you are not teaching to go in and criticize," Ms. Reinhardt says.

Mr. Merrow's work at NPR is based on varied journalistic and educational experiences. As an undergraduate English major at Dartmouth College, he wrote for the school paper and worked as a stringer for Sports Illustrated and The New York Times. After graduating in 1964, he taught in a high school for two years "because some people I respected said that if you didn't know what you wanted to do, you should teach."

He entered a doctoral program in American studies at Indiana University, but left after earning his master's degree. He says he was "getting bored looking up footnotes."

After a brief period teaching English at predominantly black Virginia State College, he received a fellowship in 1973 to participate in a newly created doctoral-degree program at Harvard University that stressed the use of education as a tool of social policy.

Men like Daniel P. Moynihan, now a senator and co-author of a tuition tax-credit bill pending before Congress, focused the program on how society uses schools, rather than the actual workings of the schools themselves. Mr. Merrow found that perspective fascinating, and admits its direct influence on his approach to education.

'Coordinator of Communications'

In 1974, Mr. Merrow took a job at The National Institute for Educational Leadership in Washington, "in the same way you pick a college course, for the professor," he says. In this case, his mentor was Samuel Halpern.

"A brilliant Washington insider, but also an idealist. He offered me a job with a vague description--'coordinator of communications'--to let me find my way. Then he was ready to back me to the hilt."

Mr. Merrow found he was "not temperamentally, or perhaps not intellectually, suited for sitting around and thinking." So the institute gave him $10,000 to start a "Washington Forum."

"But it was a lousy idea," he says. "I was just supposed to rent a hall, fill it, and bring in an important speaker."

He decided to try radio instead. He took the institute's funding and "knocked on the door at NPR "

After producing about two dozen programs, Mr. Merrow went looking for new sources of funding. He received grants from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation and the National Institute for Education, two groups which, along with NPR, continue to provide the show's core budget.

Imparting Values to the Young

His Harvard experience had instilled in him, he explains, a belief that "school and education are not synonymous." So "Options" is about how U.S. society treats its children as much as it is specifically about education. Mr. Merrow is interested in how Americans impart their values to the young; consequently, only about half of the programs are focused on schooling itself.

He says that he would change the program's name if he were starting over, deleting "education" from the title. "Education has the defect of being a boring-sounding subject, because school is a lot of times boring. Some of the professional-educator types have really taken the fun out of learning."

Mr. Merrow is proud of the fact that, of the hundreds of programs he has produced, fewer than a dozen were what he calls "a studio of talking heads." He, co-host Ms. Reinhardt, and associate producer Rebecca Witten, who conceives of many of the show's topics, edits, writes, and sometimes reports, take their microphones wherever they find children.

At times, he resorts to theatrics. He introduced a visit with a handicapped child in an institute for the retarded as a meeting bringing his audience "face to face with the human spirit triumphant." After a Los Angeles youth who got a B in senior English failed in his attempt to read aloud into the microphone, Mr. Merrow suggested that perhaps someone should be blamed "for the crime of failing to teach our children to read."

Talks to Students and Teachers

He believes the best way to find out what is going on in the schools is to talk to students and teachers, not to administrators.

"It's true that it's often the case that the lower the status the better the radio copy. You have to talk to the kids and teachers to come up with something you can vouch for. The top officials give the official point of view, which is often that there are no problems."

Mr. Merrow is also planning a PBS series that is, he says, "on children, not schooling at all."

Radio station WCTA in Minneapolis is currently raising funds for the program, to be called "Your Children, My Children." Being readied for broadcast in the fall of 1983, the eight-part series will include segments on sexuality, hunger, health care, and "children as property.''

"Options in Education" has won a number of awards, but Mr. Merrow remembers an early Washington experience that keeps him from letting it all go to his head.

Shortly after coming to Washington to work in 1974, Mr. Merrow learned that President Gerald R. Ford was to address a conference of the American Association of School Administrators.

Convinced that he had answers to many of education's pressing problems, Mr. Merrow offered a number of specific recommendations in a letter to President Ford.

He was thrilled when he saw an advance draft of the speech and found that it concluded with his recommendations and attributed them to a thoughtful and insightful observer of the education scene.

But, says Mr. Merrow, the President must have reworked the speech on the way to the conference, because the final version cited his comments as the ideas of a misinformed and "nave" individual.

Vol. 01, Issue 09, Page 07

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