Neal Conan, a radio virtuoso who as a rigorous journalist and congenial raconteur anchored NPR’s flagship call-in program, “Talk of the Nation,” for 12 years and contributed to Hawaii Public Radio, died Tuesday at his farm in Hawi on Hawaii island. He was 71.
His wife, the travel writer, poet and essayist Gretel Ehrlich, said the cause was brain cancer.
In a broadcasting career that began when he was 17 and lasted five decades, Conan worked for NPR in New York, London and Washington as an executive producer, foreign editor, managing editor and news director.
He helped shape the network’s pioneering newsmagazine, “All Things Considered.” In 1991, while covering the Persian Gulf war, he and Chris Hedges of The New York Times were held hostage for nearly a week by the Iraqi Republican Guard.
“Neal was old school,” Hedges said by email. “I say this as a compliment. He was not flashy. He was not a self-promoter. He never took the easy route. He held himself to the highest standards. He cared.”
His caring won him a George Foster Peabody Award and three Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards for his work at NPR.
Conan devoted considerable time to planning the live two-hour weekday afternoon “Talk of the Nation.”
“A lot of work goes into planning it,” he once said. “Once you open the microphones and start the show, the first time a guest opens his or her mouth, the show changes and it’s not the show we planned.”
He tried out for the job the week that began Sept. 10, 2001. His second day was Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists attacked in New York and Washington.
Sue Goodwin, the program’s executive producer, said that Conan’s “stunning skills as a journalist, combined with his expansive sense of humanity, created a unique moment in public radio.”
“Talk of the Nation” was canceled in 2013, replaced by “Here and Now,” a program produced by WBUR in Boston. Conan announced at the time that he was returning to his original role — as just another radio listener — but that passive stint was short-lived.
He joined Hawaii Public Radio in 2014, and in 2017 he began a radio program and podcast called “Truth, Politics and Power” from Hawaii, where he had settled to farm macadamia nuts. He also produced “Pacific News Minute” for Hawaii Public Radio until November 2019.
Neal Joseph Conan III was born on Nov. 26, 1949, in Beirut, Lebanon, where his father, Neal Jr., a doctor, ran the medical school at the American University. His mother, Theodora (Blake) Conan, was a homemaker.
When Conan was young, the family moved to Saudi Arabia, where his father worked for Aramco, the oil company, and then to New Jersey and Manhattan. He attended the Loomis-Chaffee School in Windsor, Connecticut, and the Riverdale Country School in the Bronx.
Instead of enrolling in college, he cajoled WBAI in New York, one of the nation’s first listener-supported radio stations, to hire him, and then badgered the staff, from engineers to announcers, to tutor him in the basics of broadcasting.
In 1982 he married Liane Hansen, who was the host of NPR’s “Weekend Edition Sunday” from 1989 to 2011 and briefly a co-host of “Talk of the Nation.” Their marriage ended in divorce in 2011. In addition to Ehrlich, he is survived by two children from his first marriage, Casey and Connor Conan, and two sisters, Arline Sutherland and Lucy Stumes. A brother, Michael, died before him. He and Ehrlich split their time between Hawaii, Montana and Wyoming.
“Respectful, objective and superbly grounded, Neal Conan was exactly the man we could least afford to lose,” said Ted Koppel, the longtime anchor of ABC’s “Nightline.”
In his final program on NPR, Conan said he would continue to listen to the network and to support it with contributions. But he added: “I need some services in return. Go and tell me the stories behind everything that happened in the world today. Explain why it happened, and how it affects our lives. Do it every day. Tell me what’s important, and don’t waste my time with stupid stuff.”
As for himself, he said that even after some 5,000 hours on the air, “there is still so much to talk about, but that’s going to have to be enough.”
In an email, Scott Simon, the host of NPR’s “Weekend Edition Saturday,” said of Conan: “There are thousands of people whom he interviewed, or from whom he took questions, and millions of listeners, who are left with a direct, personal memory of his kindness, intelligence, and eagerness to hear what they had to say. That’s the kind of legacy that just grows.”
Conan performed in virtually every capacity at NPR from 1977 until 2000, when he had what he described as a midlife crisis.
“I ran away with the circus,” he told Wavelength, NPR’s magazine, in 2013, “and took my radio with me.”
The “circus” in his case meant the opportunity to do live play-by-play radio broadcasts of baseball games. He figured — correctly, as it turned out — that covering the minor league Aberdeen Arsenal would demand the same conversational skills he had applied so effectively in covering national political conventions.
Finally he could shed the burden of journalistic objectivity, as he explained in “Play by Play: Baseball, Radio, and Life in the Last Chance League” (2002).
“Reportorial detachment is good, but it’s nice to finally be for something,” he told The New York Times in 2000. “I want these guys to win.”
As the 2000 presidential campaign and the baseball season competed for the public’s attention, Conan acknowledged that he sometimes wondered whether taking a sabbatical from NPR to broadcast minor league baseball had been the right thing.
“But then, a fan asked me to sign his glove,” he said. “That never happened at a convention.”