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Exit Interview: WBEZ’s Ben Calhoun Returns To ‘This American Life’

After more than two years as WBEZ’s vice president of content and programming, Ben Calhoun is returning to the staff at This American Life. His last day at WBEZ was Friday. 

Ben Calhoun started at WBEZ in 2000 as an intern, later became a political reporter and then worked for 5 years at This American Life. In 2013, Calhoun was part of the reporting team that received a Peabody Award for a two-part documentary on Chicago’s Harper High School.

WBEZ’s Shannon Heffernan sat down with Calhoun to discuss his career, the WBEZ stories he loved the most and what’s next for him. Below are highlights from their conversation.

Shannon Heffernan: How’d you get started in public radio?

Ben Calhoun: I was doing college radio and I was delivering pizza for Papa John’s. And I was driving and I had like five orders. And I was listening to This American Life actually. It was the business conventions episode and my brakes went out. I had to drive the car into the curb to get it to stop. So I couldn’t drive my car, I couldn’t get back to the store, I didn’t have a way to call anyone, I had five orders in the car. I got out of the car and I don’t know why I did this — I don’t know how to fix brakes — but I touched the disc inside the wheel and I burned my hand. So I got back in the car and my hand is in throbbing pain, I have all of these problems piled up next to each other, but all I wanted to hear was the next moment in this story. … And I just felt like, I don’t know how the people who make this thing make this thing, but I have got to find out how they do it.

Heffernan: What prompted you to leave WBEZ and go back to This American Life?

Calhoun: I think that jobs like this one, there are things that you can be competent at but they can be just structurally hard. A lot of the work in a job like this one is defined by your place within the organizational structure. And that defines everything from the questions that get thrown at you to how you spend your time to your relationships with the people around you. And I think that at some point, I felt like I needed to be honest about how it felt like the trajectory of that squared against the trajectory of doing a different kind of work. 

Heffernan: So getting back more to making, it sounds like, if I’m decoding your (answer) a bit. Being more directly involved in the day-to-day of making a thing.

Calhoun: Yeah.

Heffernan: What’s next?

Calhoun: Well first, I have two weeks where I’m going to see a lot of movies during the day. I’m reading books. Since I’m heading back to This American Life there are certain wheels that I like to have turning in terms of cultural consumption. Certain magazines that I like to read and certain conversations that I like to be aware of. When I was a producer (at This American Life the first time) I used to read eight local newspapers a day. I think part of the next two weeks is just going to be getting those parts of the rusty machine that is my brain — getting those gears turning again.

Heffernan: Do you have a favorite story or project you’ve worked on at WBEZ?

Calhoun: It’s just so hard to pick because things were fun for different reasons. I think the thing that tied all of them together was Cate Cahan, who’s one of our editors here. She’s just always a partner in crime. 

At one point I came up with this dumb idea that I was going to see how many cuts of tape I was going to get in a 45 second spot, and I got seven, which is my record. It was incomprehensible. It went on the radio and I think that probably zero people understood it. ...

But then there were other stories, like there was this incident at the Democratic National Convention in 2008 where there was all this infighting in the Democratic Party in Illinois and then they had this big group hug at one of the delegation breakfasts. And it was just such a scene that unfolded. It was Jesse Jackson Jr. that set it off, and he ended up hugging the mayor, whom he had beef with, Michael Madigan was hugging Rod Blagojevich. It was just a great scene.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. Click ‘play’ above to hear the entire segment.

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