The producers

The article was published in the Aug. 24-30, 2005, issue of the Irish Echo.

By Peter McDermott

Jim Colgan's work is heard every weekday morning in the East Village where he lives, and throughout all of Manhattan. It's broadcast, too, across the Hudson River in New Jersey; on every numbered street, avenue and road in Queens; in Brooklyn's poorest neighborhoods and also its toniest; in suburbs and hamlets upstate and those of Connecticut.

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And let’s not forget Staten Island. How could you when Matt is on hold, waiting to have his say? On another line, Brian from the Bronx wants to talk to his namesake, who’s a broadcasting legend in his own lifetime.

It’s part of Colgan’s job as producer to allow listeners to be heard on WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show,” which has been dubbed the “smartest talk in town.”

The 26-year-old Dubliner is usually responsible for at least one segment of the 10-12 noon program. On a recent Friday, he produced the “10:06″ – code for the lead item that occupies the first half-hour, after the national and local news.

He’d spent much of the previous day immersed in its subject — the allegations that the Able Danger military intelligence unit had tracked Mohamed Atta and several of the Sept. 11 hijackers in 2000.

“It’s a complicated story,” he said.

“Prepping” the segment also required him booking the guest speaker, New York Times reporter Philip Shenon, writing the script and more than a dozen questions for guest host Mike Pesca, standing in for the vacationing Lehrer.

But Pesca, a skilled National Public Radio professional, didn’t simply mouth words Colgan had given him.

“The host can’t go in unprepared; he has to ask the right follow-up questions,” Colgan said, adding that Lehrer does a lot of his own prepping.

“Engineering this, it’s fulfilling, seeing it happening,” he added.

He remembered being impressed by “The Insider,” starring Al Pacino. “That’s about someone who’s just a producer [Lowell Bergman of ’60 Minutes’]. I know it sounds corny to say I was inspired by a Hollywood movie,” he said, laughing. “But you don’t have to be all dolled up and yet you’re playing such a prominent role in people getting informed.”

Colgan, who grew up in Sutton Park in a family of four children, joined the “Lehrer” program as a full-timer less than three years after his 2000 arrival in the United States on a J1 Visa.

“I didn’t meet Jim until he joined WNYC, but I knew straight away that he was suited to the business,” said the show’s senior producer, Nuala McGovern, who is also from the north side of Dublin. “He’s really been instrumental in helping shape the show over the past few years.”

Colgan, who studied philosophy and economics at Trinity College, was always focused on a career in journalism.

After he came to New York he worked with the Irish Voice and freelanced for papers back home, such as the Sunday Business Post and the Irish Times. He also got some broadcasting experience reporting news for RTE Radio and locally for WNYC.

Meanwhile, he was teaching classes in computer skills at Emerald Isle Immigration Center in Woodside to help pay the rent and he continued to pursue a radio career by interning on three shows at WNYC, which is headquartered on the top floors of the Municipal Building in Lower Manhattan.

“I loved the newsroom,” he said. “But I clicked with ‘The Brian Lehrer Show.'”

Said the 33-year-old McGovern: “He brings our attention to a lot of things before they’re in the mainstream, like podcasting — that’s a real skill as a producer, identifying something before it breaks out.

“He’s also relentless,” she said, citing how he’d booked former Senator George Mitchell at very short notice to talk on the show about the recent IRA statement. “He’ll work to get the job done. He has curiosity, which is a good trait in a producer, but he’s able to do the follow through.

“He’s ambitious, and yet very easygoing at the same time,” McGovern added. “He gets on with all his colleagues.”

Lehrer paid a similar compliment to his senior producer in 2003. “She’s an absolute delight to work with,” he told the Echo then. “She’s always on an even keel. She can juggle eight balls at once, which often she’s called upon to do.”

Drumcondra native and University College Dublin graduate McGovern immigrated in New York in 1996, and began her radio apprenticeship with “The Adrian Flannelly Show.”

Now a U.S. citizen, she recently married an Englishman who works in financial risk management.

“A Devon boy. Very fond of Ireland, Guinness and golf,” she said.

She leads a team — Colgan, his fellow associate producer Ilya Marritz, production assistant Prima George and intern Marta Castaing – that is young, enthusiastic and technologically adept.

On a recent morning, McGovern pressed one of the buttons in front of her and said into a microphone, over the voice of the guest: “90 seconds.” No cabdriver, stay-at-home mom or politician could hear her, but Pesca nodded.

She said: “My job is to make sure he has got all the pieces of paper he needs.”

Much as Lehrer had indicated, McGovern was remarkably relaxed and good-humored during the broadcast. She fielded numerous emails and carried on multiple conversations with her control room staff; she also found time to discuss with the news department putting the Fire Department 9/11 transcripts, which had just been released, on the station’s Web site.

All the while, she kept on eye on the call-screening system.

“WNYC is part of the conspiracy” was a typed summary of the view of one caller not likely to make it on air.

The last segment of the day, airing at 11:40 and produced by Colgan in association with the newsroom, concerned a Sunday swim in Beacon to raise awareness about the Hudson River and its increasing use as a clean water resource. The guests were Alan Zwolling, who heads a committee that aims to build a swimming pool in the river, and the legendary folksinger Pete Seeger.

The producers are always concerned that guests will be available when they call and are usually in touch the day before and again the morning of the broadcast. “We’re obsessive compulsive,” McGovern said.

The control room was worried about the 86-year-old Seeger who seemed vague when reminded earlier about the segment. When he was called during the show itself, the others could hear Castaing say to the singer: “WNYC. Mr. Seeger.” And after his reply, she explained: “It’s a radio station.” But Seeger, a friend of Woody Guthrie and early mentor to Bob Dylan, was lucidly eloquent as soon as the interview with Pesca began. “He’s fine,” a relieved Colgan said.

During the broadcast, Colgan asked McGovern that instead of the show’s theme music if they might exit with an excerpt from Seeger’s 1961 song “Sailing up my Dirty Stream,” which ends: “I’ll dream that some day, though maybe not this year, my Hudson and my country will run clear.” She agreed.

It was an example of the improvised thinking that is required of a radio producer. Another part of the job is thanking the guests off air when they’re finished.

“Is that Brian Lehrer?” the folksinger asked the Dublin-born producer.

No, said Colgan, he wasn’t

He might have added — not yet.