Ten Minutes With Alan Chartock
The Man Who Likes Getting in Trouble
Alan Chartock has been sounding off on issues from national interest to local concern since 1981, when he became president of WAMC Northeast Public Radio. Up by 3 a.m., Chartock commutes, exercises, and wraps his first radio program before most of us are awake. A political-science professor emeritus at the University at Albany, he publishes the Legislative Gazette for journalism students and pens two columns that are read in the Berkshires and across the region. At 73, he has no plans to slow down.
What is your greatest achievement at WAMC?
We started with a station that was totally broke, and the last several fund drives we raised $1 million. Keeping the station alive is my greatest achievement.
What makes you well-suited for your work?
I don’t know. I get a tremendous amount of credit for things that happen, but I don’t know how they happen. When I took over WAMC, it was basically a 16-hour-a-day classical-music station and an original member to National Public Radio. I should tell you that NPR and I do not always see eye-to-eye.
You remember Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner in the 2000 Year Old Man when he’s asked if he knew Robin Hood, and is it true that he robs from the rich and gives to the poor? And he says, “No, he robbed from the rich, he robbed from the poor, and he kept everything.” That’s NPR. Member stations needed a national and international news gatherer, so we all put our money in, and NPR was going to work for us. Now the tail is wagging the dog.
What drives you to get to work by 4 a.m.?
I come from a family of doers. My mother worked at least two or three jobs at all times. She was a community organizer on the West Side of Manhattan, a professor at Hunter at night and head of Riverside Neighborhood Assembly. Every breed of political cat was in our house all the time. Mayor Wagner. Senator Ohrenstein. Senator Blumenthal. Councilman Weiss. Freud said that our characters are set by the time we are four years old; I think mine was. My mother was a profound influence.
Did you want to go into politics?
I remember being in the taxi with my mother and her friend, who asked, “What do you want to be, dear?” And I answered, “I want to be a Congressman,” and my mom piped in and said, “Not before me!”
Why didn’t you?
I don’t like what they do.
Any living political heroes?
You’ve interviewed hundreds of people.
Thousands. What’s the secret to a great one?
What I love to do is to find out about them. I remember talking to Mark Volpe, who is a good friend and head of Boston Symphony, and I asked him about his relationship with his wife. The second time we did an interview, he said, “I’m not talking to you. I was on the couch for weeks after that.”
Is it challenging not to bring in your biases?
I suppose, but I always try to give them an even break.
Do you have an heir?
There’s a famous Mickey Mantle quote. Some guy asked, “Mickey, what will happen when you can’t play centerfield anymore?” And Mickey said, “They’ll find somebody else.” If I drop dead tomorrow, that station keeps going, no question about it.
Do people feel like they know you?
I can’t tell you the number of women that come up to Roselle [my wife] and say, “I wake up with your husband every day.”
Was being known ever a problem?
Once. A guy took his car and rode over Roselle’s beautiful gardens. He left me a little present, a rolled up towel with garden shears.
People have strong opinions about you. Is that part of the job?
I think it is. I had a stalker for 25 years. A real stalker.
Does it impact your work?
Unfortunately, my motto is “I like getting into trouble. I just don’t like it when I’m there.”
What made you a music lover?
I was at Buck’s Rock Work Camp and Pete [Seeger] was up on the big stone porch. It changed my life. We have a band, The Berkshire Ramblers. We play at various charity events.
Why the banjo?
My cousin, Harold, sold me a banjo for two dollars, and I was off.
How did you come to this Victorian home?
Roselle had a colleague at Monument Mountain [Regional High School] who lived here, and she loved it; and when they decided to sell, Roselle said we want to live here. What did we pay? $149,000. The third floor is famous in that Pete Seeger stayed over one night, so it’s the Pete Seeger Suite.
What is it about Pete Seeger?
He was a man who really, truly believed in concepts that everybody articulates but doesn’t really mean. If he talked about world peace, he meant world peace. Pete stands alone as a human being that I have known.
What’s it like to live in Great Barrington?
We’re a block from Lake Mansfield. Walking distance into town. We have a bit of land. We feel like we’ve died and gone to heaven.