Jane Lindholm, "Vermont Edition" retired VPR host and now creator and host of the popular podcast "But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids." Photo: Adrian Hicks.
by Joyce Marcel, Vermont Business Magazine If you had a laboratory and wanted to cook up the perfect public radio host, the results would probably come out looking a lot like Jane Lindholm. She has all the ingredients you would expect: child of academics, well-educated, well-traveled, curious as hell and unafraid to try new things.
Lindholm even describes herself as a “back seat listener:” She was one of those little kids in the back of the car whose parents drove around listening to public radio; by default, she grew up hearing everything from “Car Talk” to discussions about the Holocaust.
Lindholm retired last month after 14 years as host of Vermont Public Radio's essential noon-time talk show, “Vermont Edition.”
But now her beloved, oh-so-familiar voice will be known not only state-wide but world-wide; for the last five years, she's also been the creator and host of the popular podcast “But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids.”
She left “Vermont Edition” to concentrate on the podcast, which now reaches at least 83 countries and has a series of books coming out soon.
When I met Lindholm for this article, it was by computer; she was in her living room, sitting in front of a colorful painting.
When I asked about the artist, she said “Ann Cady, a local artist who was my art teacher when I was a little kid.” It was a reminder that although she's traveled around the world, she is still a Vermonter by birth and by heart.
Yet Lindholm had been away from Vermont for years when she came back to be the first host of Vermont Edition.
Photo: Jane Lindholm, "Vermont Edition" retired VPR host and now creator and host of the popular podcast "But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids." Photo: Daria Bishop for VPR.
In the process, she became Vermonter's everywoman, “our proxy,” as John Van Hoesen, the senior vice president and chief content officer at VPR, likes to put it.
“Jane is out there with us,” Van Hoesen said. “Jane is an excellent reporter. She prepares, she asks hard questions, but she also has empathy. People say, 'Jane asked that question just the way I wanted it to be asked.'”
My interview with her was made more interesting by the fact that a professional interviewer was interviewing a professional interviewer.
We were both wary; it took a few moments to build some trust.
Once we started talking, however, I found her to be unexpectedly fresh and innocent for a 42-year-old mother of two with roots in academia, study abroad time in Kenya and Chile, a Harvard degree, several travel books under her belt, a former job as director of the public radio show “Marketplace” out of Los Angeles, and 14 years on the radio in Vermont.
I also found her insightful and unexpectedly funny.
On Lindholm's last “Vermont Edition” show in March, tributes poured in from all over the state and from as far away as Washington, DC. US Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), for example, called her “a Vermont institution.”
“Her probing but gracious style of questioning has endeared her to VPR listeners, myself included,” Leahy told the listening audience. “Her research and her breadth of knowledge impress us with every new show. And her curiosity makes us curious. From apples to zebras, Jane knows her subjects. Jane, we will miss hearing you on Vermont Edition... You've made Vermont an even better place.”
Love was definitely in the air that day. Governor Phil Scott offered this: “Hey, Jane, Governor Phil Scott here. And I wanted to join Vermonters across the state recognizing your years hosting Vermont Edition. Through your hard work and dedication you've asked tough, but fair questions, held elected officials accountable, myself included, and kept your listeners informed. Although you'll be missed on Vermont Edition, I'm sure you'll continue to have an impact on new projects and future endeavors with VPR. Thanks again.”
Lindholm's frequent VPR co-host, Bob Kinzel, added that he's done, “Somewhere around 240 or 250 appearances with Jane over the last 14 years now, and what I've concluded is that Jane does some of the best interviews I've ever heard at the local, state or national level. And one of the reasons is her exceptional quality to listen to ask an intelligent question and then listen to what the guest has to say. It's really becoming a lost art. You know, many hosts these days will ask a question, then move on to the next question and move on to the next question. Jane doesn't do that. She listens to the answer, and it opens up an unexpected and spontaneous topic of conversation.”
Melody Bodette, senior producer and “co-conspirator” of “But Why” summed it up when I talked to her last month.
“Jane is really a joy to work with,” she said. “She always has great ideas. If I come up with something half-baked, she has a way to make it better. She's always looking for the exact right guest or the exact right wording, and things are always better because of it. She's definitely brilliant. At some point she's operating at a different level than some of the rest of us.”
Lindholm was born at Porter Hospital in Middlebury.
“My parents both worked at Middlebury College, and we lived in East Middlebury when I was a little kid,” Lindholm said. “My father was in the Dean of Students Office at the time, and he was later the Dean of Students. My mom worked in admissions.”
Both of Lindholm's parents also taught; the family's academic roots go deep: her grandfather was Dean of Admissions at Bates College in Maine.
“Both of my step-parents are also, or have been, teachers,” Lindholm said. “And so education was always really important: curiosity, lifelong learning and a sense that you went to school not just because you were supposed to, but because it was fun and interesting and learning things was the coolest thing that you could do. It was what I thought life was about. You know, your job on the Earth is to learn new things and discover and be curious and ask questions and figure things out.”
A seminal experience happened when she was eight: her parents divorced. She and her younger brother have two half-siblings who are now in their early 20s.
“My dad lived in Middlebury my whole life, and my parents had joint custody,” Lindholm said. “My mom moved to Massachusetts. She went to work at a prep school in Wellesley and then later at Brooks School in North Andover. “She was assistant headmaster throughout my high school and college years, and my brother and I got to go to that school, which we otherwise wouldn't have been able to do. We lived on campus. We were faculty brats. But we were always back in Vermont on weekends and summers.”
Photo: Jane at her High School graduation. Courtesy Jane Lindholm.
The divorce affected Lindholm deeply.
“I think one thing that having divorced parents when I was young taught me was that all adults are human beings,” Lindholm said. “They're not just your parents. It was very clear to me from the start that my parents were individuals with flaws, really wonderful aspects of their personalities, and challenges. And marriage and love were not just something that happened in the background.”
Relationships are hard and humans are flawed, Lindholm learned.
“That extended to my parents in a way that I think a lot of my peers never had to grapple with until they were adults,” Lindholm said. “It was hard. I wouldn't recommend to anybody having their parents divorce, but it was great, because it gave me a chance to see how complicated people in relationships are and how everybody's trying their best. And that doesn't always mean that they're doing the right thing, or they're doing good by everybody in their life. But everybody is always trying. And I appreciated that.”
Both of her parents remarried.
“So then I have four parents to learn from, which was great,” Lindholm said. “My mom remarried right away. My stepfather stayed home and took care of me and my brother. So he did all of the transporting from one place to another and getting us to our sports games and making dinner and breakfast. In my dad's case, he remarried few years later, so for a few years it was just us and our dad when we were home on weekends.
Different states, different homes, different experiences.
“There was a different rhythm to our days when we were in one household or another, because we tended to be with my dad on vacations and weekends,” Lindholm said. “So we weren't in school, we weren't rushing around quite the same way. But we got to keep some of our traditions the same, which was nice — like going to the Ice Show in the winter at Middlebury College, and spending our holidays in Maine where both of my parents are from. So we still had a continuity from before the divorce to after the divorce that I think helped us as well.”
For a while, Lindholm's parents worried that she was growing up too fast.
“Well, I thought I was a little adult,” Lindholm said. “I listened to all the adult conversations. I would read my parents’ novels, these complicated novels about the human experience, when I was eight. I certainly didn't understand them all, but I thought I was pretty wise. I was the peacemaker. I always wanted everybody to be happy. I was always working to try to figure out who was unhappy and why and how could I fix that. I think they bought me Legos and Barbies when I was nine to say, 'You need to be a kid. Just go and play. You can't start worrying about everybody.'”
During high school and college Lindholm worked as a counsellor at a summer sports camp in Maine, at the dining hall at Middlebury when she was back in Vermont, and as a waitress at Mr. Up's Restaurant and Pub in Middlebury after she went to Harvard. She also tutored in Spanish in college.
Lindholm chose Harvard because she didn't want a school with family connections. She wanted her admission to higher education to be on her own merits.
“Harvard wasn't really on my radar, but I had started rowing in high school, and Harvard had a really good rowing program,” she said. “I thought I might want to row at a top collegiate level, so I started to look at schools that had good rowing programs. And one of the teachers at the school where I lived — I babysat her son — said, 'Oh, I'll take you to Harvard.' I thought, 'Oh, yeah, this is okay. I'll apply here.' I applied early to Harvard and got in, and then I applied regular admission to Yale and got rejected. It was an easy choice because I only had one school. So I was really thrilled to get into Harvard.”
She graduated Harvard with a BA in Anthropology, but she says she didn't enjoy the experience.
“It was not the college experience that I had hoped for,” she said. “My parents told me that college — especially a place like Harvard — was going to be a place where everybody is smart, and interesting and engaged. A place where there was a free exchange of ideas, and people were curious about one another, and everybody had something interesting to say and to share, and where the professors were supposed to be the best in the world, so they were going to be engaging you in really interesting and tough, rigorous ethical thinking, academic thinking. And they were going to push me in my writing.”
What she found instead was a lot of competition.
“I got a sense that everybody had one reason that they got in — the thing that made you special enough to go to Harvard,” she said. “And so people were always wearing that badge. In conversations, it was like 'Why are you here? What's the thing that you do better than anybody that got you in?' And I was an omnivore. I wanted to learn about everything. It wasn't as if I had like seven patents to my name, or I had already discovered some star in a faraway galaxy. I was just a smart kid who liked school and liked people.”
A back injury ended her rowing career.
“It felt like I had lost that thing that gave me the 'in,'” she said. “So then I was trying to figure out and find myself again. Also, professors at Harvard are wonderful, but a lot of them were not particularly accessible. And I was not particularly a go-getter in going to their office hours. I think I would have been better placed at a smaller liberal arts school where all of the teachers really knew their students — like my parents did.”
Radio Behind the Scenes
While Lindholm was still at Harvard, she found a good outlet for her curiosity: Harvard's student-produced “Let's Go” series of travel books.
First she edited two books, then, right after graduation, she went to Spain for the summer to write a travel book of her own. But while she was there, one of her closest friends, also working for “Let's Go,” was killed in a bus accident in Peru.
“I had to come home because I really wanted to be at her funeral, and be with her family and her boyfriend,” Lindholm said. “I didn't feel like I could stay in Spain. And so I was home and really at loose ends when I got the call.”
“The call” was from National Public Radio in Washington, DC. It seems that while she was at Harvard, she had written to NPR telling them how passionate she was about public radio and asking if there was some way she could be a part of it. But she had never heard back.
“I always enjoyed public radio,” Lindholm said. “I was one of those backseat listeners. I listened to Boston's public radio stations all through college. And none of my friends were listening to public radio. We were getting ready to go out on a Saturday night, and I was the 21-year-old listening to Garrison Keillor. It was just something that appealed to me. And I got really lucky, because I wrote a cover letter that said, basically, I'm somebody who loves public radio, and I'd like to get involved in it.”
She had already tried to become an intern on Boston's popular public radio show “Car Talk.”
“I had written to the Car Talk guys,” she said. “And a year or so after I had sent them a letter saying, 'Do you ever take interns?' they got back to me. I guess they had lost my letter. And one of the producers found it in somebody's desk when they were clearing things out. And so they said, 'We'd love to have you if you want to be an unpaid intern.' But by then I was studying abroad in Chile. And so I couldn't do it. But I had this interest.”
Then NPR called.
“I was offered this internship by this great woman who became a mentor, Carolyn Jensen,” Lindholm said. “She died several years ago, but she was great. She, I think, liked the fact that I was interested in everything. She liked that I had studied anthropology and not necessarily journalism. And she liked that I was a travel writer and sort of an adventurous spirit and that I had studied abroad in high school and college. And I think all that fit with the show which she was making, which was a co-production with National Geographic. If you're a kid who grows up listening to public radio, and then for your first job you get to go work there, how cool is that?”
Photo by Adrian Hicks.
Yet Lindholm had enough savvy to turn down the offer because the internship was unpaid.
“She said, 'Okay, we'll pay you,'” Lindholm said. “So I went to DC and worked at NPR for a year and a half.”
The program was called “Radio Expeditions,” and it went around the world recording explorers, scientists and adventurers. Producers would come back with hours of sound.
“One of the shows was with the Elephant Listening Project, which collected the sounds of elephants and documented them and identified how they were communicating across long distances, and how elephants talked to one another,” Lindholm said. “I didn't travel with them, because I was a lowly intern, but they would record weeks of this adventure, then bring it back to the studio and create three or four 12-minute pieces that aired in 'Morning Edition.' The pieces were full of natural sound and carried the story through.”
Ambitious and eager, Lindholm set out to learn as many radio production skills as she could: mixing, engineering, sound editing, reporting, booking guests, etc.
“I'd work Monday through Friday for 'Radio Expeditions' and then on Friday afternoons into the night, I would go down to the 'Weekend Edition Saturday' show and work,” Lindholm said. “Then I'd come in on Saturday and work a shift with that show. That's where I learned how to edit. I learned how I could cut interviews and put them on air. I learned about sound through “Radio Expeditions,” which had a lot of different ambient sound, but I wasn't doing much of that editing myself.”
One story she reported was an odd one about fish.
“Fish were jumping into fishermen's boats in some lake in the Midwest, I think, knocking over fishermen and injuring them,” she said. “You got to just bring up these interesting things. And then I worked for 'Talk of the Nation.' I got to book some shows for that. And I did a lot of person-on-the-street interviews for that.”
Lindholm discovered that she enjoyed hearing her own voice on the radio.
“There was this thing called vox pop, where you're getting voices of people talking on one subject,” she said. “And I would always make sure that I had one moment where you could hear me asking a question. In 2002, we had the DC Sniper, and it was very scary for people. And I remember, at one point, volunteering to go do vox pop for that, and I was in a parking lot at a grocery store in the DC area. People were ducking and weaving and trying to get into the grocery store, because they didn't want somebody to pick them off. And I remember thinking, 'This is a dumb idea. Why did I decide to volunteer to come out and stand out here and try to interview people for this?'”
But basically, Lindholm loved working at NPR.
“It just was neat,” she said. “You got to meet people. Linda Wertheimer had retired — I don't know whether she was pushed out or retired from her hosting position. And the new desk they gave her was right next to mine. So she would come over and say hello, and give me a little shoulder rub or sometimes drop off a pastry and it was like having a cubicle next to royalty. It was very cool.”
The job might have been cool but the money wasn't. So Lindholm refreshed her waitressing skills at the legendary Birchmere folk club.
“It was awesome,” Lindholm said. “I would work the day at NPR, go home, and then bike over to the Birchmere to work shows for the evening. I got to see some amazing musicians.”
Some of the bigger names she saw: Lyle Lovett, Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris, Greg Brown and John Hiatt.
Lindholm found herself practicing anthropology on the audiences.
“I loved seeing what kind of crowds there were for different shows,” she said. “You'd be like, 'OK, it's a country show. It's gonna be beers and cosmos tonight.' And cosmos are the worst, if you're waitressing, because you always spill them, and people are always mad. You can also get a sense of which audiences were going to tip better than others. I loved it there.”
Life Is a Highway
Lindholm still had a “Let's Go” assignment to write a book on Chile, so during the summer she took a six-week leave from NPR. She returned, but Australia beckoned.
“I went to Australia for my last book with 'Let's Go,' which was a year and a half after I graduated,” she said. “And that's when I left NPR totally, to do that book and then travel for a while.”
Even with her dream job in hand, travel was more important to Lindholm.
“Travel, and finding a way to do it where I could not be just a tourist,” she said. “So finding ways to get paid to travel was really key for me. My friend had died in Peru, and then two other people from my graduating class died in that first year after we graduated. I knew them both, and they were both in accidents while traveling. And so I really struggled with that idea of traveling being dangerous, and I felt in all three cases that it could have been me. You know, you feel a connection. I felt they were making choices that were similar to the choices that I thought I wanted to make. I really struggled with it.”
During that same year Lindholm's father had a chance to go to Cuba, and she “kind of, half intentionally,” forgot her passport so that she couldn't go with him.
“I just couldn't do it,” she said. “So when I had this opportunity to go to Australia, and I felt ready, I thought 'I need to do this. This is a part of who I am.' I wanted to get back on the horse. And how often does one get an opportunity to go work in Australia and get paid for it?”
Lindholm thought she might go back to NPR when she was finished with her travels, but life was planning to take her in another direction.
“I got 'Let's Go' to basically buy me a ticket from Boston to Australia,” she said. “But then, instead of a return ticket home to the US, I asked them to buy me a return ticket that went first to Bangkok and then was open from Beijing back to Boston, at whatever date I wanted. And they said yes to that!”
Lindholm's stepfather was living in Beijing and she made plans to join him.
“I figured I could do some traveling in Southeast Asia and end up in China about six or eight months later,” she said. “But as it turned out, it was during the SARS epidemic. A lot of the border crossings closed. I think the whole southern Chinese border was closed. I traveled through Southeast Asia first, and then I met my husband — my now husband — in Thailand. He's British, and he was traveling around the world. Eventually, we traveled together in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Then I traveled home with him to Wales, and stayed with him in Wales for a month. Then I flew from Wales to Beijing. So I ended up in Beijing, but only for a few weeks.”
If you're having whiplash right about now, then you're right; all of this happened in the two years after she graduated from Harvard.
When Lindholm finally got back to the States, she landed in Middlebury without a job.
“I did some filing in one of the admissions offices at Middlebury College, and I think I did some waitressing there as well,” she said. “And then I applied for and got hired by 'Marketplace' out in Los Angeles.”
“Marketplace,” owned and produced by American Public Media, is a business news radio program; it provides, with attitude, a look behind the economic news of the day. It also does a daily stock market report and analysis.
Lindholm was hired to be an associate producer, but after a few months the director left and she moved up to that job.
She was now spread very thin emotionally: she was living in Los Angeles, her family was in New England and her partner was in the UK. Still, she loved the job and stayed for about three years.
“The job was really interesting, and there were all these new skills to learn,” Lindholm said. “My job was to arrange the pieces in the show in a way that made sense. So I tried to figure out the arc of a half-hour program. What do we want it to sound like? What stories should go first? What's the most newsy? But also, what's going to pique listeners’ interests and carry them into the next story? And how should that flow go? I was sort of the designer of the show.”
She was also the “proofreader” of the sound.
Jane Lindholm with Governor Shumlin in 2013 at the site of the new state hospital in Berlin. VBM file photo.
“I was the last person to catch anything that was wrong with the audio,” she said. “I mean, other people should be listening to it first. But I was sort of the backstop; if something was wrong with the audio, I was the last person who might catch it. I was working with really wonderful audio engineers, so I had the opportunity to sort of apprentice with them to learn more about mixing, which I hadn't done at NPR because it's a union shop. That's how I learned about sound engineering.”
Lindholm was also in charge of picking the “interstitial” or bumper music — the music played between segments.
She tried to pick music that would both sonically and thematically go with each segment; she also started a popular blog about the music she played on the show. The music led to, of all things, a possible part in television history.
“It turns out that the creator of 'Mad Men' said he first heard the theme music for the show on ‘Marketplace,’” Lindholm said. “That was the music that he said, 'Oh, that's going to be perfect for our show!' I mean, somebody else could have been playing it, but it was a group that I often played on the show. And so that's my one claim to fame — maybe I influenced the theme music for 'Mad Men.'”
Lindholm also started doing some freelance reporting and discovered that she enjoyed it.
She did stories for “Marketplace,” for the local public radio stations in Southern California, for the late and lamented Saturday morning sports show, “Only A Game,” and for other national shows not owned by NPR, which would be considered a competitor.
“I had a wonderful time and I loved learning how to report,” she said. “I got to do some really fun stories.”
One was about bull riding, of all things. Lindholm and her stepfather used to enjoy watching bull riding together when she was a teenager, and California, it turned out, had a circuit.
“I wanted to do a story about why there were so many Brazilian bull riders in professional American bull riding,” Lindholm said. “Why were they in America when there is a bull riding circuit in Brazil? Is it just about money? Is it something else? And they were winning, you know. So I went to this bull riding event in Southern California to start reporting. While I was there, I discovered that the more interesting story was that bull riding had overtaken hockey as, I think, the fifth most watched televised sport in the US. They were selling out Madison Square Garden every year in New York, which is not what you think of as the hotbed of the bull riding culture. So that was a story I did.”
Lindholm used her vacation time to visit her boyfriend; they talked every day.
“An eight-hour time difference is actually kind of nice, as it turns out for long distance chats, because we could talk right before he went to bed,” she said. “And right before I went to bed was the beginning of his workday.”
Coming Back To Vermont
Still, two weeks a year of vacation, Lindholm realized, was not enough time to see her partner and her family. Also, she realized she was not going to be offered a full-time reporting job on “Marketplace.”
“It felt like I had maybe hit the top, the ceiling of where I was going to be able to go in that organization,” Lindholm said. “Hosting wasn't really on my radar, but I wanted the scripts that I wrote to be ones that I also said. I thought a lot about what it would be like to be a scriptwriter for a president, for example, and have your lines be attributed to somebody else. What that would feel like, and what kind of ego you have to have to be OK with somebody else reading your lines. I was OK with it, but I wanted to see what it was like to be able to do it for myself.”
Lindholm began to look around for the next step in her life/career.
“My husband and I had gotten engaged, so one path might be to go to the UK,” she said. “But it felt like I might have a better opportunity in the US. I don't think the BBC takes very kindly to American voices these days. And my grandparents were still alive and back East, and my half-siblings were little and I wanted to be more in their lives. And here I was, living in Los Angeles.”
So when she went home at Christmas one year, she asked for informational interviews with VPR and Maine Public Radio.
“The Maine people weren't available, but John Van Hoesen from VPR was,” Lindholm said. “And so we met at a coffee shop in Rutland. I said I just wanted to introduce myself — we knew each other because I had worked with VPR on news stories a few times already. I said, 'You know, I'd like to come back East if anything is opening up. I hope you'll let me know.'”
Although Lindholm didn't know it at the time, VPR was already in the process of creating “Vermont Edition.”
Photo: With a tranquilized bear cub. Courtesy Jane Lindholm.
She originally applied for the job as host and another job as a producer, but she withdrew from the producer search because she really wanted to be on-air. She auditioned and the rest is history.
“I withdrew the producer application because it was pretty similar to what I was doing for 'Marketplace,' and I was already doing it on a national scale,” she said. “It didn't feel like it was going to be new skills or a new adventure or the step that I wanted. But I very much wanted the host job. And I didn't think I would get it, but then they offered it to me.”
The new job felt scary to Lindholm. She had never been live on the air for an entire show.
“I'd done a lot of on air, and I had directed a lot of live shows, so I knew intimately how a live program works,” she said. “I knew what happens if you blow the part where you're supposed to stop talking; you only have a certain amount of time, and then you have to be out. So I knew what it was like if a host isn't getting out. And I know how to make the music end right. But I had never been the voice in front of the mic for that. So it was terrifying.”
VPR put together a solid team to back Lindholm, ran a series of trial shows, and the show took off.
“Our talk show is a total team effort,” Lindholm said. “It's very much a group process. Typically, throughout the history of the show, we've had three full-time producers at a time, and one host. Then there's somebody called the director, who's running the board. They're turning on the mics and bringing in the phone calls, but they also have other jobs at the station. They're not with 'Vermont Edition' all the time. And then we also have somebody who screens the phone calls. But the core crew of the show was three producers and the host.”
Everyone pitched ideas, and together they figured out the content of each show.
“Then each topic usually gets assigned to one of the producers,” Lindholm said. “They go off to figure out, 'Is this the right angle,' and 'Who are the right guests for this topic?' They'll pre-interview guests and figure out what they think the lineup of the show should be, and then do some research. The night before the show they'd give me that research. And they might say, 'I've got these two guests. Who should a third be?' And I'll say, 'Well, I think we need the voice of a teacher in this, or could we get the voice of this person? Or have we managed to get somebody from other parts of the state? Is there geographical diversity?' So we'd pass ideas back and forth. Then I'd read the research; it's sort of like cramming for a test. I'd read the research the night before, and then the morning of, I would write the script, do other research that needed to be done, write out a series of questions, and go live at noon.”
Lindholm controlled the on-air content; every day was a high-wire act and she loved it.
“I wasn't somebody who loved listening to talk shows before I hosted one, but I loved hosting one because you had so much control over the conversation,” she said. “And I wasn't reading a script. I had to think on my feet and go where the conversation took me and if somebody said something fascinating, you could veer away from what you thought you were going to talk about and dig into that. Or if something went wrong, you were live on the air. We didn't have a 'bleep' button. We didn't have a delay. What was happening is what listeners heard. I liked that excitement and adrenaline.”
As the show progressed, Lindholm began building trust with the Vermont audience.
“They know that the conversation is happening live, and you're not cutting things out, or changing, or taking away something that might have been interesting that a guest said,” she said. “If you screw up as the host, they hear that too. So I think that it helped me develop a real rapport with listeners that I really appreciated.”
One such dedicated listener was Burlington's waterfront developer, Melinda Moulton.
“I have been a staunch Jane Lindholm groupie since 2007, when I first heard her on 'Vermont Edition,'” Moulton told me. “Jane is a Vermont superstar. She wraps her stories up in a veil of humor, intelligence, compassion, and relevance. When her show is over, the thoughts and feelings from that moment stay with us for a long time afterward. It takes real talent to be able to understand a subject so well that you know what questions to ask in order to put forth a radio show that will intrigue and educate your public. It also takes a love of humanity to excel at opening up and inspiring people to talk freely and with comfort. Jane has this gift and she always interjects her sense of humor and lightness of being which makes you feel like she is your friend even though you really do not personally know her. She is a friend to all of us here in Vermont.”
Just a few years into the show, in 2011, Vermont got hit with Tropical Storm Irene and Lindholm became the voice of VPR.
“That was a remarkable time,” she said. “We were a little bit slow off the mark. VPR didn't understand just how big the problem was, and how devastating it had been. So we weren't really as present as we wished we had been on Sunday, during the storm. But then on Monday, we got to the studios and realized this is something that we need to be on all day, every day. So 'Vermont Edition' went live for two hours at noon and then another live hour at night instead of a rebroadcast. So we were doing, for that first week, three hours live a day, just trying to pass along information as the news was happening. Where the National Guard was working that day. What was happening with roads that were totally impassable. Connecting people.”
Vermonters really appreciated what the station was able to do.
Photo: At the Global Strategic Maple Reserve in Quebec. Courtesy Jane Lindholm.
“We heard from a lot of people who said, 'I don't have any internet, I don't have any phone, but I have my radio and I can listen to you,'” Lindholm said. “One woman said that every day at noon, she and her kids and her dog would get in the car because they didn't have electricity, they didn't have a radio, but she would get in the car and turn on 'Vermont Edition' because it felt like a time where she was connected to other people. And that was really gratifying to me.”
It is typical of Lindholm's ability to take risks that she most enjoyed the difficult shows.
“I like shows that asked Vermonters to grapple with something complicated or uncomfortable,” she said. “One that doesn't have easy answers. Not black and white. It was most gratifying to me that listeners were willing to have that conversation on air with me. So we would talk about things like why we have a culture of drunk driving.”
We have a culture of drunk driving? The conversation wasn't about the laws against drinking and driving. Instead, it questioned why it seems to be OK here to have a few drinks and then get in the car.
“That's not something that's cultural everywhere,” Lindholm said. “But it is in a lot of rural communities. My husband grew up in rural Wales and he would never — I mean, that just was so far from what he would have ever thought was acceptable. That made me realize it is not a universal cultural idea that it's OK to drink and drive. But it is in Vermont, and it has to do with our rural nature. But it has to do with other stuff, too. And so that was what we were going to talk about.”
Conversations about gun rights and gun restrictions were also complicated, nuanced and difficult, but Lindholm kept them respectful.
“These were conversations where people felt like they learned new things or were able to safely share their perspective and have it be heard,” Lindholm said. “Those are conversations that were the most gratifying to me. And they were possible because of the format of a talk show. You can't do that in a reported show or a show like 'All Things Considered.' But you can do it in a show like 'Vermont Edition.' That was something I liked a lot.”
Lindholm liked the breadth and depth of the people she was able to interview.
“We had a mandate to cover the culture and events and news of our region, and that's a pretty broad mandate,” she said. “So you can do anything. You can talk to whoever you want. You can have whatever kind of conversation you want on the air. That freedom was exhilarating. So we could do anything from a bird show with Bridget Butler one day to an interview with Bernie Sanders the next day. And then on the third day, you might be talking about the manufacturing sector in Vermont. And then on the fourth day, high school sports. I loved that variety, because I like learning about everything. So it was just fun.”
Of course there were mistakes and disasters. Times when the technology failed. Times when the power went out. Times when the phone lines were down but she was still on the air — alone. Times when the callers were racists or conspiracy theorists.
“But that's just part of the game,” she said. “That's part of the job. You can't take it personally. And once you've established yourself as a host, and you have a rapport with your listeners, often they feel protective of you. If somebody is just being a jerk, the audience is going to side with you, not the jerk. You have to figure out what's the appropriate amount of time to give these people, versus giving them too much time.”
Then there were the politicians. They could be especially difficult, often during debates. Lindholm wouldn't name names, but she remembered one man who always called her “ma'am.”
“It was very clear that he was ma'aming me because he didn't like the idea of a young woman talking to him and asking him questions,” she said. “I sometimes found it helpful to be a young woman, because people underestimated me. I could ask a sort of a sweet question and catch them in something and then follow up with, 'Well, that wasn't how you voted two years ago. What changed your mind?' You could throw them and that sort of discomfort would get them off of their talking points.”
Lindholm felt that older women sometimes pushed her harder than men to prove herself worthy of their conversation.
“I think men sometimes underestimated, but women were more hostile,” Lindholm said. “I won't name names, but I think there have been well-established women in Vermont who made me prove myself more than they made my male counterparts prove themselves.”
As an example, Lindholm mentioned a poet she interviewed who was abrasive and appeared to think that Lindholm hadn't read her books. Yet a few years later, the same poet was interviewed by a man who clearly hadn't read her work, and yet she just proceeded with the interview.
“It was like, 'Wait a minute. If I had asked you that question, you would have bristled. And you didn't with him,'” Lindholm said. “So you get a sense that until you've proven that you have done the work and you deserve to be there, it's sometimes women who are who are less willing to embrace me.”
The point was always to find common ground with the guests.
“Sympathizing with people was not my job,” Lindholm said. “But if your job is to treat someone with respect, and find their humanity, you're going to find it in most people. As I said before, about my parents, most people are doing the best they can.”
It helped that Lindholm remembered something her psychology professor at Harvard had taught her: People's actions make sense to them, at the time they're making them.
Photo of Baby Jane Lindholm. Courtesy photo.
“So nobody's doing something that they think is the wrong choice, or that doesn't make sense,” Lindholm said. “There's always a rational reason in that person's head for their actions. So I felt like my job was to find empathy. And push people when they were saying something that was wrong or disrespectful. Not to give a pass to anybody for being terrible in one way or another, but to understand them as humans and to try to get to the bottom of what their motivation was. And when you do that, I think, you can always find something appealing about people. I still think that, for the most part, that's where we make the most progress in conversations: When we're trying to understand that most of the time most people are trying to do their best.”
Then in 2016, as a side hustle, Lindholm started “But Why.” It was the first podcast from VPR that wasn't a radio show first. The format was simple: children sent in questions, and Lindholm and her producer, Bodette, tried to answer them. (Bodette wanted it noted that Lindholm began the show long before her own children would be old enough to be interested in listening to it.)
The show was an unexpected hit and forced Lindholm to make a difficult decision.
“It was demanding more time,” Lindholm said. “And 'Vermont Edition' is a full-time job that demands time and attention. It got to the point where I just felt like I couldn't do both and do either one justice. Fourteen years is a long time to host a show and for Vermonters to have my perspective in the host seat. It felt that maybe it was time for somebody else to be directing those conversations with Vermonters.”
Still, it was hard to give up such a powerful platform that was so exciting, challenging and so much fun to do.
“But as we think, in Vermont and in this country, about diversity, equity and inclusion, and new voices and bringing new perspectives, it felt like maybe it was the right time for me to leave that show and for somebody else to come in, and be able to be that voice,” Lindholm said.
“But Why” answers children's questions, like, “Is it OK to break a rule?” and “Why do we compete?” It tackles questions about racism and death. These are tough topics.
“We don't tackle things like, 'Is Santa Claus real?'” Lindholm said. “We're probably never going to.”
Death was one motivating idea behind the show, Lindholm said.
“We've tackled questions about why do people die?” she said. “What does it feel like to die? We had a woman on from a grief center; she specializes in death. She talks with children most of the time. And she said, 'Nobody knows what it feels like to die, because you can't talk to somebody after they're dead. But what we do know is a person who's dead doesn't feel any pain. It's not the same as being asleep. Your body doesn't work anymore. So no parts of your organs are working. So there's no way to feel pain.' One of the messages she wanted to get out, and that we wanted to get out, was that it doesn't hurt when you're dead. And then we talked a lot about why do people die? Why do living things die? How should we think about this? How can you try to get through those feelings of sadness when someone dies? Or what can you do to be a good friend to somebody who's dealing with grief? It was one of the reasons I wanted to do the show.”
Gender is also a topic of some curiosity.
“We've tackled questions about where babies come from?” Lindholm said. “We've done what makes a boy a boy and a girl a girl. We don't do much about sexuality, because our audiences are mostly four- to nine-year-olds. But we'll do just about anything. We don't shy away from questions that are challenging.”
Photo: Interview with a butterfly. Courtesy Jane Lindholm.
Bodette said the reason the show is so successful is that its listeners can tell that Lindholm cares.
“Right when the lockdown started, we got an email from Chicago,” Bodette said. “The son is struggling, the dad has health issues, they live in a high rise, here's his question. Jane went to the office, got a 'But Why' hat, some stickers, and wrote the kid a hand-written note saying she'd heard he was having a hard time and she's thinking about him. We got an email back with a picture of him smiling and wearing the hat. If someone sends a personal note to Jane, she almost always responds. She's been invited to birthday parties. She hasn't been able to go yet, but she's definitely right there with a happy birthday greeting for them.”
While there are many podcasts for children, only a handful are done by public radio stations. What made “But Why?” unique was that VPR was willing to take on a kid's podcast when other radio stations weren't doing it.
“They were definitely taking a big risk there,” Bodette said. “But others followed. WBUR launched a kid's podcast about a year after. There was one already from American Public Media. Now we're kind of the big three of kid's podcasts.”
The “But Why?” podcast has been on so long now that some of its original listeners are aging out; new kids are coming in.
“We're approaching 10,000 questions from kids in 83 countries,” Bodette said. “Just yesterday we got an email from a kid in Iran. The majority of questions come from the US, Canada and Australia — English-speaking countries. We think the kids in other countries have a parent who speaks English or they're listening to the podcast to learn English.”
The podcast is a production of VPR; Lindholm and Bodette remain full-time paid staff members of VPR.
“I have the claim to the intellectual property rights,” Lindholm said. “When I conceived of it, I wanted to do this podcast with or without VPR. So it felt like being able to retain the intellectual property rights was really important at the time. As it turns out, we've made this show together for five years now. It really is a joint production at this point. It has benefited both me and VPR, and opened us up to new ideas of what we can do in children's programming and with podcasts. We were able to sort of experiment with the format and see what we could do and see what a national show might look like coming from Vermont.”
VPR pays for the show from its general fund, but it's not an expensive show to make, Lindholm said. The podcasts have advertisers, and the show's distributor, PRX, helps find national companies to advertise with them.
“I don't think we're in the black, probably, but between the ad revenue and listener donations, we do make money,” Lindholm said. “We bring in revenue from the show, but we're still being paid by VPR.”
Lindholm and Bodette spend about 80 percent of their time doing “But Why?”
“About 20 or 30 percent of our time is going to be taken up with other types of projects.” Lindholm said. “Since we just started, we don't know what those are going to look like quite yet.”
Penguin/Random House is publishing the series of “But Why?” books. The first is about farm animals, the second will be about the ocean.
“It's becoming a little children's media – I was going to use the word empire, but that doesn't feel right,” Bodette said.
Can You Hear Me?
Lindholm is a prolific Twitter tweeter.
She talks about her kids. Her runs. Bears in the backyard.
She also has established a popular Twitter feed following Governor Scott’s twice weekly COVID-19 press conferences (for much of 2020 they were three times a week). While most of the questions are related to health updates and pandemic-related issues, any question is fair game.
Lindholm’s tweets are in real-time. They’re an informative re-cap of the pressers. Lindholm will sometimes throw in her own two cents.
Her prodigious typing skills and quick sense of humor come in handy, especially when befuddled reporters can’t figure out how to *6-to-unmute or sometimes ask rambling and inane questions of the governor and other state officials.
The @JaneLindholm has been a fun and useful chronical of the two-hour broadcasts.
Obviously, “But Why” is Lindholm's chief project going forward (although she recently tweeted that she'd be a good host for the TV show “Jeopardy.” And she would.)
One thing is sure: Lindholm doesn't spend much time thinking about going back to the National Public Radio network.
“I thought that when I first came back to Vermont, it would probably be a three-to-five-year gig,” Lindholm said. “And then I would go back. I haven't been offered a job at the national level, but also, I really value the responsibility that local and regional reporters have. It feels different to me than what I experienced working at the national level. And the obligation you have to your audience, as a member of a shared community, is different. I think the journalism feels different, and it feels more authentic, because you're not dropping in to talk about people. You are reporting on your own community and your own people, so that responsibility is really great. I think it's really important, and it has become one of the things that I value most about working for VPR.”
Lindholm doesn't feel that work on the national level would be very different from what she's doing today.
“If I were to go to a national or international program, it would be to explore different topics than what we cover here,” she said. “It would not be because of the exposure you get, or because the recording is better.”
She's developed a new idea about fame, she said.
“It's big fish, small pond,” she said. “But I can't go for a run now in Vermont or go for a hike in the woods without people recognizing me. So I don't need a level of fame that's any higher than that.”
Lindholm and her husband, Adrian Hicks, live in Monkton. He works 12-hour shifts in the engineering department of GlobalFoundries. Sometimes she wonders about moving to the UK so the children — they have a son who is seven and a daughter who is four — can share their father's culture.
“And his first language is Welsh,” she said. “And we're not teaching our kids Welsh. They don't really have a great sense of where their dad grew up. But a move to the UK is not imminent. We've got a pretty nice life here. As a kid who left Vermont, fulltime at age eight, being able to come back and live here and be embraced as a Vermonter, and be a part of the Vermont conversation for 14 years has been more wonderful than I could have anticipated. It's just been an incredible privilege to be part of so many Vermont lives, and to be witness to all the things that have been happening in the state. And to have that be my job and my life is just wonderful. It's not what I thought I wouldn't be doing when I was 20, but it's been deeper and more gratifying than I think I ever could have anticipated.”
Joyce Marcel is a journalist in southern Vermont. In 2017 she was named the best business magazine profile writer in the country by the Alliance of Area Business Publications. She is married to Randy Holhut, the news editor/acting operations manager of The Commons, a weekly newspaper in Brattleboro.