Monday, January 12, 2009

Ketzel Levine: As Jobs Vanish, the NPR Whisperer is Uprooted.

Plants talk to her and she talks to them. Living plants somehow get wind of her Living Plant reports on National Public Radio and she's just as tuned into them. She also talks to people and they talk to her and many others nationwide through NPR.
She has just finished her NPR series called, “American Moxie: How We Get By.” It's about people coping with today's mass catastrophic job loss and financial nightmare. Her final “Moxie” report contained an unexpected personal footnote. As if to demonstrate the truth of the “Moxie” series, she told listeners that she herself had been laid off.

She said that “as a direct result of the current economic crisis, I have been laid off from my job. I was told almost two weeks ago, but it's only today that I'm sane enough to tell you.” She said that she had been “spending most of my time careening around the five stages of grief ....” You can listen to this final report, her “swan song,” on the NPR website.

Ketzel Levine's last day on the job as a senior correspondent for National Public radio is January 12. Actually it is today as I write this. I'm thinking of you today, Ketzel, as are many, many other listeners who have taken you into their homes, on the road – and into their hearts.

She went to work at NPR oh so long ago as an eager, fresh-faced 24-year-old. She walks out the door 30 years later still relatively young in years but no longer young as far as the job market is concerned.

Ellen McDonnell, the director of morning programming, told The New York Times that she had misgivings about Ms. Levine becoming a part of the story. “As a reporter, you never want the story to be about you,” she said. “I also recognized a very unique opportunity for Ketzel to tell a story that lots of people can relate to. She found out in a very personal way what it's like to have to start over again and to have the moxie that she spoke about.”

Ms. McDonnell also said that the end result “was kind of eerie” and was “not something that any of us anticipated.” But, as it turned out, NPR could hardly have told a story with more gripping human interest. What a great ending ... the reporter loses her own job!
Hey, it got my attention and here I am writing about it.

Ketzel Levine thus becomes yet one more victim of the financial meltdown that is fracturing the lives of millions of Americans. How bad is it? We've had bad recessions before, such as in 1974 and 1991-92, but jobwise this is the worst since 1945. That is the year World War II ended.

What a year it has been!

The numbers for 2008 are in and they are jaw-droppingly awful. For the year, we lost 2.6 million jobs. We now have a veritable national army of unemployed: 11.1 million, not including a few uncounted millions more looking for work and not finding it. This monumental unraveling of the job market puts us on track for 10% unemployment in 09. That's one out of 10 American workers.

This past year, we have seen giants of Wall Street toppled: Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, the swallowing of Merrill Lynch by Bank of America, taxpayer bailouts of Insurance Giant AIG and financial behemoth Citigroup, the government takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which together service half of all residential mortages in the U.S.

We have seen photos of dazed Lehman Brothers employees lugging boxes of personal items out the front door of the majestic Lehman Brothers skyscraper. Companies like Citigroup and AIG, deemed to big to fail and saved by taxpayer billions, shed many thousands of workers. Ditto hat-in-hand auto companies. Ditto belly-up big retailers like Circuit City, Linen's 'N Things, and others too numerous to list here.

Small businesses with 500 or fewer workers, which employ half of all American workers, are not just reducing employment; they're slashing it with broadswords. When the money is not coming in and credit has dried up, the quickest way to stay afloat is to let workers go. Everybody knows people who have lost their jobs. Many are out of work for the first time in their lives. Unemployment offices are swamped.

Newspapers, facing relentless declines in circulation, are cutting staff as never before. My favorite newspaper, The New York Times, which I have been reading daily for over 50 years, has just mortgaged its building to raise cash. Another great newspaper, The Wall Street Journal, has been bought out by Ruport Murdock. It's newsstand cost has since soared, doubling in one year. Now will the Journal's journalistic excellence be gradually replaced by Murdock's trademark thoughtlessness and pandering?

Fear reigns and feeds on itself, creating a vicious downward cycle in home prices, employment, manufacturing, and general ecoomic activity. Americans lucky enough to still have a job live in cold fear of losing it. Many put aside retirement statements unopened, unable to look at sickening losses.

Home foreclosures are at levels not seen in decades and are rising while home prices continue their freefall. Today's mantra is hoard cash, don't spend, and hunker down. But when people cut back on buying goods and services, businesses large and small are squeezed all the more -- which leads to yet more layoffs.

The proverbial rainy day is here. And it looks like it's going to be here for quite a while. As its announced job cuts demonstrate, National Public Radio is not insulated from this financial chaos. In recent years, it has depended on corporate underwriting. Suddenly, it is no longer there the way it has been. Interest payments of about $10 million a year from the bequest of the late Joan Kroc, the McDonald's heir, have been wiped out in the sharp downturn in the financial markets.

Founded in 1970, NPR has grown mightily in the past dozen years. 26.4 million people listen to NPR programs each week and 8 million visit NPR.Org each week. It has expanded its news operations while many of its journalistic peers and competitors have cut back. It maintains correspondents in both Iraq and Afghanistan, one of the new American news orgaizations to do so.

Altogether, NPR is cutting 7% of its work force. It is laying off 64 people and will not fill 21 vacant positions. It is canceling two daily radio programs, Day to Day and News and Notes. NPR will still have more than 800 employees, including 300 journalists.

NPR has issued the obligatory statements saying that the layoffs are driven entirely by a projected $23 million budget shortfall arising from the economic recession. Ellen Weiss, NPR's Senior Vice President for News, said that the layoffs were “not a judgment” on “smart, talented and hardworking journalists.”

In other words, it's nothing personal. It's just the numbers. Tell that to Ketzel Levine and the others who are losing their jobs at NPR. On her NPR blog, Talking Plants, Ms. Levine wrote: “Through no fault of my own (management assures me 'it's not personal'), I've been laid off from NPR.”

She has had a long, productive association with NPR. She started in 1977 producing Voices in the Wind with Oscar Brand, honing her skills as an arts producer. In 1979, she began with “Morning Edition.” When the program became the first NPR show to offer sports coverage, she took “no more than an irrational passion for the Yankees,” according to NPR, and created the sound of NPR sports. She introduced radio audiences to two legendary broadcasters, Red Barber and Frank Deford.

She then took a leave from NPR and worked for the BBC in London for several years. She returned to NPR as an arts reporter for a few years, only to leave again in 1990 to study horticulture and landscape design. She immersed herself in the green world, becoming a plant lover and gardener extraordinaire.

Two years later, Ms. Levine was back again at NPR, this time as a commentator for Weekend Edition Saturday with a new moniker, “Doyenne of Dirt.” “For ten years, she and Scott Simon entertained Weekend Edition Saturday audiences with their ever-irreverent gardening shtick,” according to a brief NPR bio.

Meanwhile, she began writing about plants and gardening, contributing to Horticulture Magazine, The Oregonian (her home is in Portland, Oregon), and publishing a book in 2,000, “Plant This! Best Bets for Year-Round Gorgeous Gardens.” In the same year, she returned to Morning Edition as a senior correspondent.

Ms. Levine did stories like touring the Bush Texas ranch with Laura Bush to reporting on the world's flora. The latter assignment, according to NPR , “took her to places as varied as a dairy farm in Vermont to an ancient case in Hawaii.” In 2007, she launched her own NPR blog, “Talking Plants,” in which her love afffair with plants was on full display along with, according to NPR, “her trademark wit and irreverence.”

But now the plant whisperer has been uprooted from NPR. She is being forced to reinvent her life and there is no known instructional manual for that. NPR may say that her layoff is nothing personal, but it is. It has to be.

Numbers may have ruled the overall layoff decision, but Ms. Levine is not a number; she is a person. She was among the 64 employees with names and personalities chosen for layoff while more than 800 employees with names and personalities were not.

Ms. Levine professes to have no hard feelings toward NPR. On the contrary, she takes pains to say that she has loved working at NPR and considers the people she worked with there to be family. At the same time, while confirming the rumor that she has been laid off on Talking Plants, she exclaimed, “That's my life!”

Now I do not know Ms. Levine personally. I know her only through her work on NPR. You might say that I am a fan. But I thought that she and her story say much about the economic quicksand that America is stuck in -- and sinking fast in, say a lot of normally sane economic experts. It is pervasive. It is deep. It can pull anyone under.

We tend to think of layoffs as something for the common folk, those who toil in factories, assembly lines, restaurants, and the Wall Marts and Home Depots of America. It's not for people like Ketzel Levine. It's not for professionals. It's not for talented pros with intelligence, wit, a public following, and a full Rolodex. It's not for plant whisperers.

Except that in this recession, which with its perfect storm of multiple economic collapses(housing prices, employment, financial markets, confidence), it is. Ketzel Levine and many like her have become dollars to be excised from the payroll just like the worker on an auto assembly line. Nothing personal. The budget decides.

For Ms. Levine, as with any of us, getting laid off IS deeply personal. It is rejection. In her case, it is public rejection. Even if she is part plant, the human part of her has to hurt like hell. Like everybody laid off, she suddenly faces no regular income. If that's not scary, what is? Bills have to be paid, period. And if they are not, all hell breaks loose. Let's hope she has a decent severance.

On Talking Plants the first day of 2009, Ms. Levine said:

“I was given the news 36 hours ago and I've been on the proverbial roller coaster ever since. Earlier this morning, when I took my first shot at this blog item, I wrote something to the effect that my being rift was not personal,'it's just what it is.' And that, wait for it, 'I've been one lucky woman, why should it end now?'

“What was she on? I could use some of that tonight, as I look over at the clock and see that in the last hour I've written three sentences and chewed my nails and cuticles down to stumps. I've also been eating compulsively, only the richest most fattening things: organic peanuts, candy-coated toxic peanut M&M's, and for my last act before sleep, organic cashews.

“In truth, there is no reason on earth why I shouldn't continue having a long and lively career. It could be in radio, in print, online or in public lectures, on TV shows and in books. But there's a journey in between and it heads right through the land of loss, which is where I'm reporting from tonight, live! And up to my neck in decades of memories of the people I've met and the places I've been because of this job ... and the nail-bitten terror that the loss will drown me and I won't be able to breathe....”

I'm happy to report that already Ms. Levin does not seem in danger of drowning. As for not being able to breathe, she is excitedly gulping down oxygen as she opens a new web site and plans for a botanizing expedition to Turkey where she will commune with some of her favorite plants.

Her new web site is aptly called Ketzel Uprooted. On her home page, she describes herself as a “public radio slut with a red hot passion for plants, hiking, botanizing, classical music, and liberal to left causes, with a wealth of empathy for the human condition.”

Does that sound like an NPR employee? I don't think so. Even before her last day at NPR she was already no longer an organizational potted plant with bosses(though one given a great deal of freedom); she is an exotic wildflower happily blowing in the wind, free of all bosses and organizational restraints. Whether she wants to be or not, she is a model for other fired working stiffs in these misbegotten times.

I wonder what the plants have been whispering in her ear.

While neither confirming nor denying back and forth whispering between her and her beloved plants, Ms. Levine says the conversation would not include cliches like "When one door closes, another opens," and "Some things happen for a reason," although she's hoping they are true. It would include embracing the following from her personal layoff survival manual:

*YOU DID NOTHING WRONG! You're the same person with the same talent and (fill in name of company that dumped you) cannot take that away.
*GOOD THINGS DO COME FROM SUCH AN INSULT. You will get through this and land firmly on your feet.
*ENJOY THE HIATUS. Take advantage of the chance to rest, re-create and re-focus.
*GET SOME SLEEPING PILLS! Sleep is good, no sleep is very, very bad.
*YOU ARE IN OUTSTANDING COMPANY. Welcome to the world of the un- and under-employed!
*YEAH, THIS SUCKS They should have dumped (fill in name of lesser talented co-worker).
*WALLOW IN ANGER AND GRIEF. Then once you feel it, get up, shake it off and get going.
*NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! Do not take on a rommate to save cash.And above all, remember this:

So long and keep moving.

P.S: I thought of getting in touch with Ms. Levine with questions about her layoff: how she was actually told, whether she had any idea it was coming, how it is affecting her life, how she is going to pay the bills, the names of people who should have been laid off before her and why, how she sees herself in five or ten years, how she thinks she will feel walking out of NPR on her last day, her true feelings about the layoff, and, naturally, her love life.

Of course, I haven't called or e-mailed her. No one wants a stranger coming out of nowhere asking personal questions, especially in a time of great stress. But, given who Ketzel Levine is, I have a feeling that soon, very soon, we are all going to get an earful on Ketzel Uprooted. I think this layoff is going to take Ketzel Levine to new heights that could never have happened if she had stayed at NPR.

PPS: Anybody out there interested in the story of how I got laid off from my job during the recession of 1991-92 after 26 years? If you are, raise your leg. Just what I thought. No interest. Crap.

E-Books by George Pollock

"State Kid: Hero of Literacy" is fiction based on his  real-life experiences  growing up in foster homes; "Last Laughs," is the true story of how five foster kids (he and four younger siblings) found their way in life and each other. "Killers: Surprises in a Maximum Security Prison," is the story of the author being locked up for 23 hours with killers in a maximum security prison;  "I, Cadaver" is about the author's postmortem adventures and mischief in the anatomy lab at UMass Medical School. “A Beautiful Story” demonstrates the art and process of creative writing as a 16-year-old boy goes all out to write a story good enough to get him into an exclusive college -- on full scholarship; and "A Long, Happy, Healthy Life," which is about how to live the title every single day.

P.S. Hey, I gotta live, don't I? That reminds me of a story. Years ago when I was an editor at an educational publishing company, I was begging my boss for a raise. “I got a wife and kids, a mortgage, bills,” I whined. “I gotta live, don't I?” He paused, leaned forward, and said evenly, “not necessarily.”



At June 06, 2009 2:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i live right outside of Portland and enjoyed ms. Levine when she was on npr. i hope all is going well for her and that she carries on.


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