As the first employee of National Public Radio and the first producer of NPR's first news program, All Things Considered, Jack Mitchell had the opportunity to make an indelible imprint in broadcast journalism. His broadcasting career also included 21 years as director of Wisconsin Public Radio and 12 years on the National Public Radio Board of Directors (three years as chair).
"I believe my contribution at NPR at the beginning was that I had a disisnterested agenda," he said. He didn't want to be a star reporter, or do arts features. He was interested in the overall product and getting that right. "And it pretty much lasted," he said. "It's about the same now as it was then, the basic form was there." He said he saw himself as an "academic journalist."
In an interview, Mitchell said that All Things Considered began as alternative programming. "Alternative was the word we kept using, something that would be edgier. And we kept trying to define what it means to be an alternative. It's not alternative any more and it's partly because the other media declined so much. CBS radio news isn't what it was and the TV news isn't what it was. Public radio moved into the vacuum. It's now the main stream alternative, probably the most journalistically conventional and responsible news media in radio."
One of Mitchell's best memories of his early days in public radio was the week that Nixon resigned, the same week he was appointed to head the news department. As an alternative to what the other media was doing, NPR decided to open up the phone lines and let people talk about the experience. People responded with a wide spectrum of viewpoints. Even those who were glad to see Nixon leave were not thrilled about it. "Everybody said it was a sad day. The thoughtfulness and articulateness of the audience was very impressive to me."
Asked if in his role as journalism professor he still encountered young people interested in a career in radio news, he said yes. "A lot of kids want public radio. But nobody is talking about commercial radio. That's not very satisfying."
Jack Mitchell's contributions to broadcast journalism have been recognized with a number of awards, including the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's Edward R. Murrow Award. It's public radio's highest honor.