Life Lessons at National Public Radio

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Fourth-year English and drama major Aylin Zafar took off on a plane for the East Coast this summer for the UCDC Summer Internship program, where students get a chance to live and work in the heart of Washington D.C. Zafar turned her back to those flag-pinned politicians and headed to 635 Massachusetts Avenue, along with 54 other interns, to work at the headquarters of National Public Radio.

New University: NPR is one of the most respected news outlets out there. What was the best piece of advice you got in the newsroom?
Aylin Zafar: One of the people I got pretty close to was Stephen Thompson, the founder of the entertainment section of The Onion. He was telling me to go to class the least amount you can while still making the grade, and just to do as much as you can outside. School is not really going to help you.

New U: What were the other interns like?
Zafar: We come from all over the country and there’s a wide range. Most of them are undergrad, but there was a good handful that were older or in grad school.

New U: You were heading to Washington D.C. Why not intern at the White House?
Zafar: NPR was my number one choice. This was one I’ve always wanted to do. I feel like it’s one of the last unbiased news sources out there that shows both sides with really interesting commentary. The goal of radio or writing is to be able to have someone be sitting there in the car, after they’re already home, but [they’re] still sitting and waiting to hear the rest of the story. That’s what they tried to teach us to strive for. They did a lot of workshops and every week brought in a different reporter, producer or director.
What’s great about NPR is that even though you hear these people’s voices every day, and you hold them on some sort of pedestal, … they’re such down-to-earth people and so willing to help interns. I was really surprised about that. They’re really committed to high-quality journalism.

New U: In your experience, what makes NPR different from other news outlets?
Zafar: I think the numbers are pretty staggering when you think about it. The digital media news director, Dick Meyer, used to be at CBS. He told us CBS news only has eight Washington reporters and we have 52. And in terms of world, on the ground foreign correspondence, they only have 54 and NPR has 153. The thing is that news-gathering is no longer done by the actual news sources. People just go to Google news and Yahoo news, you know, and it’s all Reuters and [Associated Press]. NPR is really committed to have their own people out there.

New U: Being one of only 55 applicants chosen out of 1,000 must have made your job stressful. What were your responsibilities?
Zafar: I was the communications intern and it was great. It was a really interesting time to be there; there was so much movement within the department. I was more on the internal communications side, so that was really interesting to see how everyone stays connected throughout the world. I think I spent most of my summer doing a show called “Intern Edition.” It’s completely produced and directed by interns. For the Web site, I wrote a blog on the D.C. music scene.

New U: How was the D.C. music scene?
Zafar: It was amazing. The music scene is called “go-go,” and it’s not a scene well known outside the area, what they call the DMV —D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. I started researching it before I went out there. I was into one of their artists named Wale, a hip-hop artist that’s up-and-coming. I decided I wanted to do my main story on him. He’s not a go-go artist, but those are his roots and what infuses his music.

New U: Did you get to meet him?
Zafar: I called him and said, “Hey, sometime in the next three weeks can we do an interview?” “Well, you can come to the music video shoot in New York on Sunday.” I was completely unprepared for that. I hadn’t been trained on the equipment yet. I spent a whole night at the office researching all his music to make sure what questions to ask. And the next day I was on a bus to New York.

New U: Who else did you get to meet?
Zafar: The second time that I met him was by chance; I was interviewing one of his touring band people, Tre. He’s part of this go-go band called UCD, which is a really big go-go band in D.C. First he showed me around; we were driving in his car in the streets of D.C. He showed me where he got shot and he said that 75 of his friends got murdered by the time he was 18. Seeing that side of D.C., which is easy to gloss over — I think it was a really unique opportunity to see who really lives there, who makes up that city. Those are the people that own that city, not the politicians — these are the people that give it color, that give it life.

Zafar’s work at NPR can be found at www.npr.org/internedition.

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