Note: This interview had been condensed for clarity and length.
It’s fair to say Melody Joy Kramer’s path to her current job leading digital and social media at NPR was round-about. Or, as she says, “serendipitous.” After all, the ingredients came from applying for a prestigious program, the Kroc Fellowship, which trains people, often not from journalism school backgrounds, to work in public radio. By her own admission, she wasn’t connected well in journalism as an undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. She wrote a humor column for the student newspaper and played trumpet in marching band. But she wanted to work in journalism, and sent dozens, maybe hundreds, of cover letters to newspaper editors — all with no bites. NPR bit, and it led to the Kroc program, which she left early to take a job writing and directing for the weekly news quiz show “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me.” She eventually made her way back to her South Jersey/Philadelphia roots and ran digital and social media for “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross. An earlier car accident had put her in rehab, and showed an up-close side of the medical profession that deepened her interest in medicine. At age 28 she left journalism to begin a five-year medial school program at Temple University. She left the program after a year, realizing her true calling was where she’d been all along: journalism.
Talk about your decision to leave journalism for medical school and then come back. Is there anything you learned about journalism — or just you as a person — in your time away?
I think when you’re in medicine it’s a greater time commitment. It’s very isolating. You go to class and you study for 8 to 10 hours, and then you go to sleep and do it again the next day. I think if you go in at (age) 22 it’s very different than going at 28. For me one of the reasons I went into journalism, I really like not doing the same thing every day. I worked a lot in an ER, and a major trauma center in a major city, you see a lot of things that are just awful. I said I don’t know if I can emotionally do this. I call it my sabbatical year, but it was the worst sabbatical you could have.
Quick word association. When your hear “innovation” what one word comes to mind?
Buy-in. You can’t innovate without buy-in, unless you leave or go around people. You either need buy-in from management or you’ll need to leave.
When you meet people for the first time, and they’re not in journalism, and you tell them what you do, what do you say? I ask because it seems so many people I meet still seem to think “journalist” means “newspaper reporter.”
It’s different now than when I first entered. Now, my job is to build tools that can make our newsroom more efficient. I build tools that help facilitate our journalism through sourcing. I’ll say we measure how well our stories do online.
What’s your daily news routine like? Is it scrolling through Twitter on your phone as soon as you wake up or reading The Washington Post in the breakfast nook? Something in between?
My parents got four newspapers delivered to the house daily. I don’t read a lot of print newspapers every day. My partner isn’t on social media. In the evenings I try to limit my social media time. I think a lot of people get burned out because they feel like they have to get online all the time. I don’t do that.
It’s fair to say there’s a certain culture — I dare to say cult — around public media fandom, particularly NPR and member stations. (I include myself in that cult.) From someone at NPR, what is the culture really like?
It’s a regular office. One of the nice things about working here is there are a lot of people who have been here a long time. I like to call it my dysfunctional work family. It’s a very close-knit group of people. And a lot of people here have traveled a lot with others who work here. But just like any other office. People always ask me “what’s it like to work with X?” Terry Gross has no ego. She deflects attention put on her. I really like her.
(Note: The above answer has been updated to reflect additional context, and change “neglects” to “deflects.”)
Do you think that public media culture — and by that I mean the deep, emotional connection that the audience has to the outlet and its employees — is really replicable elsewhere outside of public media? I just don’t see the equivalent of “driveway moments” for a cable news outlet or even The New York Times.
I don’t think it’s unique to public media. Humans of New York has it. It’s really good journalism. It’s telling stories in a good way. I’ve seen that at other places. I do think there is something unique about audio.
You worked at “Fresh Air” after your Kroc Fellowship. Is hearing Terry Gross say your name in the credits every day really as exhilarating as I think it would be?
It was probably neater for my parents. Or sometimes when I’ve done on-air pieces on NPR friends have said they heard my name on the radio. A lot of the shows on NPR have lost their credits. It’s nice when show keep the credits because they’re acknowledging everyone who works on the show. I appreciate that Fresh Air takes the time.
(Note: The above answer has been updated to reflect additional context not in the previous version.)
NPR does social media well, and I’m not just saying that because I’m talking to you. Why is that? Is it because the people working on it like you and previously Andy Carvin have been on top of it, or the executives let you all have flexibility to experiment? Or something else? Is the NPR audience just more, I don’t know, hip?
Because we have such a tiny staff, we’re kind of scrappy, and we’re also very in tune with our audience. We feel like we’ve built a community around the audience, and we all listen to public radio, too.
You’re from the Philly region but now live in D.C. So, Phillies or Nationals? Or maybe you don’t care about baseball. In which case I hope you can still agree that Yankees fans are obnoxious.
Phillies fan. I grew up with season tickets.
To up-and-coming journalists, those who are trying to make their way through school and find a career path that suits them, what do you say?
I always tell students there’s no one path. Everyone I work with came through a different path. My career has been very serendipitous. Things have fallen into place in a good way. One thing to realize, your first job is not your last job. It’s nice to know your personality. You won’t know what you like until you try something. I applied for like 99 percent of jobs in newspapers or print, and one in radio. And here I am almost a decade later working in radio.