David Greene, from Central PA to NPR

Written by Tim Lambert, WITF Multimedia News Director | Feb 23, 2012 10:01 PM

The clock showed 5:00 a.m. in Moscow.

In a few days, National Public Radio's David Greene would embark on a nearly three-week journey on Russia's Trans-Siberian Railroad that would take him some 6,000 miles and across seven time zones. But for the moment, all the Pennsylvania native cared about was how his beloved Pittsburgh Steelers might fare against Kansas City. For the next three hours or so, he nervously watched online as the team held on for a narrow win. But unlike most fans in the U.S. who went to bed after the contest, Greene had breakfast.

The McCaskey High School and Harvard University graduate had an eventful year in 2011. The train trip was Greene's final assignment in Russia, ending his two-year stint as a foreign correspondent for NPR. He had also covered the uprising in Lybia, the Royal wedding in London and filled in as host on "All Things Considered" and "Morning Edition." Along the way, his work from Tripoli was honored by Boston University and WBUR-FM with the 2011 Daniel Schorr Journalism Prize.

Now, Greene's back in the U.S. and at a new post for NPR. He will split his time between serving as a fill-in host on "Morning Edition" and "Weekend Edition" and hitting the road to file reports for those shows.

"(My wife) Rose and I were getting to the point where we were ready to go home. It was a heck of an adventure," he said recently. "But, this job ... it seemed so perfect for me. I love hosting. To know that I will have nearly half the year to report and tell stories, it's just the perfect combination."

Greene grew up in Pittsburgh (hence, his affinity for the Steelers and all other Steel City sports teams), but spent his formative years in central Pennsylvania. He attended junior and senior high school in Lancaster.

Public radio was always a part of his life. His dad is a big fan of "Prairie Home Companion." His mom, Terry Greene, was an associate professor of psychology at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster County for nearly 17 years and an avid witf listener. The station "has an incredibly special place in my heart," Greene said.

Rose, who is originally from Ada, Ohio, likes to tell the story of how she found one of his college applications in which he described seeing himself as a public radio reporter in 10 years. Whether he remembers writing it, Greene wasn't that far off in his prediction. He graduated in 1998 and arrived at NPR in 2005.

Greene's style is conversational and engaged, while not overly formal. "Mr. Honey Voice," one NPR colleague joked during a visit to witf a few years ago. His storytelling skills bring listeners into the room with him.

"It's as if we'd be sitting in a living room and I'd be telling a friend why I like the book so much or sitting in the studio with a senator, asking the sorts of questions, having the conversation that I think listeners would imagine themselves having if they were sitting there," he said. "I think that's the feeling and the relationship that we can have with our listeners."

Before being hired at NPR, he got his start at The Baltimore Sun. He spent several years at newspaper and covered the impeachment proceedings against President Clinton. But, the foundation of his reporting skills came during a two-year internship at The Sun that placed him on the education beat in Carroll County, Maryland. Just south of the Mason-Dixon line is where he said he learned the best lessons in journalism. Covering stories on the local level, day-in-and-day-out, instilled in him a high level of accountability, he said.

"It's a small community. If you get anything wrong, you have people banging down the door the next day at the newspaper office downtown," he recalled with a chuckle. "It's where I feel like you see the real power of journalism."

Greene brought that sense of responsibility to NPR, where he continued to cover President Bush during his second term. During a joint press conference, the president and Afghan President Hamid Karzai were discussing new-found Democratic freedoms in Afghanistan. But members of the White House press corps noticed the area reserved for foreign press was almost empty. So much for freedom of the press, which was why Greene reported on how Karzai's government did not let Afghan reporters make the trip, rather than focusing on what the two men were saying at the lecterns.

"Getting away from the talking points and telling a story differently and telling what I think was the real story that day was an important moment," he said.

The one story that sticks out for Greene was something that occurred after his mom passed away in 2006 after a long battle with lupus and multiple sclerosis. A few months after the funeral, Greene found himself in Yuma, Ariz., as the president toured the U.S-Mexico border. On a blistering hot day, the press corps was hastily gathered in the desert for what was believed to be an important announcement. Minutes later, Bush rode past in a border patrol dune buggy. There was no major speech, just a photo-op.

Greene quickly wrote a story about how ridiculous the scene was and filed it with NPR. Shortly after boarding Air Force One, he was asked to follow presidential spokesman Tony Snow into the mini-Oval Office. Expecting a hard time about what he had just written and wondering how White House officials heard it so fast, Greene was surprised when the president said he had heard about his mother's death and wanted to see how he was doing. The two talked for about 10 minutes. It was the most personal conversation he ever had with the president.

"It was just unexpected and really kind on his part, but you know, I had to go back and finish writing a story about what a goofball he was that day," he said. "(Talking with the president) was really powerful emotionally, but also it was a moment when I think I also realized you have to be a journalist all the time. You can't let the emotions get involved."

When Bush left office, Greene decided he wanted to move on, too. The grind of always being on call and telling stories in the context of politics led him to think about other ways he could flex his journalism "muscles."

One way was to hit the road for three months to hear stories of how the recession was hitting people during President Obama's first 100 days in office. The multi-media series "100 Days on the Road in Troubled Times," was an early attempt to utilize social media to engage listeners.

At an annual snowmobile blessing in one Michigan town, Greene met the owner of a business that made scoreboards in Ohio. It turned into a story about how the troubled economy impacted schools and the trickle-down effect it had on this gentleman's visit.

"It was the kind of story we probably never would have found and never would have told had I not been snowmobiling in Michigan and starting a trip down Interstate 75," he said.

But, the lure of adventure soon had Greene and his wife discussing uprooting for something new. Going abroad seemed like a good fit and the foreign desk in Russia had an opening. While Moscow wasn't exactly at the top of their list of places to live, they both eventually agreed it was too good of an opportunity to pass up. Rose had to leave a job she had just started in New York and David had to take three months of intensive language training in Russia for the move.

"It's not easy. It changes your life in all sorts of ways," he said. "Both of us would say mostly positive, but it's also a huge challenge."

His Russian still needs a little work, he joked. Greene can get around town and order food, but he relied heavily on NPR's translator. He had hoped to really dive into Russian culture, music, history and politics and bring it all to life for listeners.

He admits his two years in Moscow didn't quite follow the script he had written in his head, thanks to the royal wedding, Libya and other factors. But, he did learn a few things that changed his view of Russia and the former Soviet bloc countries. Among them was how so many people put more value in a powerful leader, in return for giving up some of the notion of a true democracy.

"One big reason that someone like Putin is so powerful is because a lot of people like him. They see him as a stabilizing force," he said. "All that said, (it) feel(s) like these are really changing times right now. ... I think that's going to make March so interesting when there's a presidential election."

Now in his new role, Greene said he knows he might be back in Russia to cover the election one day and interviewing a musician the next. He's not really going to have a beat to cover. Instead, he's looking at a world of possibilities when it comes to stories to tell.

Exactly the way he wants it.

SCENES FROM A TRAIN TRIP CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT: Tamara Ostrovskaya, left, and her sister-in-law, Albina Ostrovskaya, stand on the platform at Yaroslavsky station. Tamara is embarking on a three-day trip to Krasnoyarsk in central Siberia; At the Yaroslavsky Rail Terminal in downtown Moscow, passengers rush past the "0" kilometer mark signifying the start of the Trans-Siberian Railway. The world's longest rail line stretches nearly 6,000 miles and spans seven time zones, snaking its way across Russia through the country's major cities and ending at Vladivostok, Russia's Asian port on the Pacific Ocean; Storm clouds pass above a wintery landscape on the shores of Lake Baikal in central Russia. Baikal is the world's oldest lake and holds nearly 20 percent of the world's fresh water.

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SCENES FROM A TRAIN TRIP: Zhanna Rutskaya (left) and Sergei Yovlev share food on the train, which is traveling to the Russian city of Yaroslavl, about four hours northeast of Moscow. BOTTOM: Made up of dilapidated wooden houses set along snow-covered dirt streets, the village of Sagra lies near Russia's Ural Mountains, the natural border between Europe and Asia.

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Tim Lambert is witf's multimedia News Director and local host for "All Things Considered"

You can hear David Greene's NPR reports on witf 89.5 and 93.3

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