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Lisa Simeone considers many things

THE BALTIMORE SUN

There is only one way to properly interview Lisa Simeone: wine and dine her.

"Food and wine. Absolutely. No question about it. Big-time. Somebody who doesn't appreciate food and wine, I'm sorry, I don't care how great a personality, sorry. There's nothing we have in common if you can't appreciate a good meal."

Which brings us to Sotto Sopra, where Simeone is assured her car won't be towed outside on Charles Street and, sorry, they are fresh out of the rockfish but try the broiled red snapper in a lemon-caper dressing. Simeone orders a champagne drink called kir royale, and with her red snapper, she will have a glass of Frascati -- which she pronounces in perfectly robust Italian.

Simeone, a long-time fixture in Baltimore broadcasting, is approaching her first anniversary as host of National Public Radio's Weekend All Things Considered in Washington. She's a MARC-train's length away from local radio, but she still lives in her Charles Village home with her husband, Tim Munn, and their two-became-five cats. In 10 years, we might not want to know her cat totals.

She's a graduate of St. John's College in Annapolis, a graduate of the master's writing program at Johns Hopkins University and a graduate of 13 years of being a co-host for WJHU's broadcasts of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Simeone, nevertheless, has alarming gaps in her education. A native of Pittsburgh, the 44-year-old Simeone reveals over lunch that she has never heard of former Pitt quarterback Dan Marino, a Pittsburgh legend. That really isn't so surprising; the woman didn't own a television set for 20 years.

A two-hour, all-expenses-paid lunch can be a decadent excursion -- especially on a school day, a Tuesday, which is actually half of Simeone's weekend. Weekend All Things Considered is broadcast from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays, and can be heard locally on her old stomping ground, WJHU (88.1 FM). The program features what Simeone likes best: people and issues, people and their talents, people and their observations. All things are considered, just as they were last Tuesday over broiled red snapper and Frascati.

Important issues face public radio -- issues of community involvement and responsibility to local programming, issues of local ownership, issues of corporate underwriting and public radio's never-ending dependency on donations for survival. But we didn't get to most of those questions.

When considering all things, one must be open to discovering that Simeone is allergic to mussels, has fallen head-over-heels for Seinfeld and Frasier reruns, and doesn't get the whole Sopranos thing, while all her NPR colleagues trade videotaped episodes as if dealing contraband. Simeone has her favorite MARC conductors. She believes Venice is the perfect place on Earth. And her NPR business card is way cooler than anyone else's.

And Lisa Palma Simeone, fortunately, likes to talk:

I wrote down just a few of the subjects and issues you've broadcast in the past year -- jazz trumpeter Freddy Hubbard, The Wayne Brady Show, exploding crow populations, transracial adoptions, Julian Bond, the Baltimore train tunnel fire, Proposition 36 in California, the G8 summit protests, altered fish genetics, Mike Douglas and the dangers of low tire pressure. What are you not interested in?

I can't stand football. It's an idiotic game. I hate, loathe and despise football. I went to a high school where football was king. I think Lance Armstrong is the most incredible athlete in the world. Now that's an athlete.

Do you miss being on local radio?

I can't say I miss it -- although I miss being live [most of her NPR show is prerecorded]. Also, on national radio, you don't get the connection with your audience. One of the most wonderful things about public radio is the connection that local public radio stations have with their community, and a lot of that is being lost.

Why?

Public radio is going the way of commercial radio, which [means] it thinks it's dependent on ratings. And my personal opinion -- and this is not the opinion of NPR -- is that public radio is not supposed to be about ratings. Sorry. The whole reason that it's public is supposed to be to answer to the community.

As you know, a community-based group led by Marc Steiner intends to buy WJHU. Would you ever want to own a radio station?

God, no. I have no business sense whatever. I'm the last person who should do that.

For Halloween, you once came to work at WJHU dressed as a dominatrix, complete with a riding crop -- which, I now understand, the leather-shop owner had to instruct you on which end to use. I can't picture employees dressing up at NPR.

Yes, they can, absolutely. Halloween is on a Wednesday this year, and I was thinking about what I'm going to wear. I want to be unrecognizable -- until I open my mouth. I know there will be a wig involved.

Why is radio such an intimate medium?

Because the imagination is involved. You got this little box talking to you, and when in life -- except on radio -- do you concentrate exclusively on somebody's voice? Never. Radio is just a voice. That's why people love storytelling. That's why Garrison Keillor is so successful, because he tells a wonderful story.

Have you ever met him?

No, but I have met Michael Feldman [the host of Public Radio International's Whad'Ya Know?]. I adore him. I once sent him a publicity photo of me from WJHU and I put, "Dear Michael, Will you marry me? Love, Lisa. P.S. Please hurry with your answer as I've also asked the Car Talk guys." He sent me back a handwritten -- I have it framed at my office at NPR -- a handwritten note in green ink that said, "Dear Lisa, Can we live together first? Or how about a long weekend?"

Why hasn't the TV bug bit you?

I've done a lot of TV, mainly public-radio fund-raising. But I really don't like TV. It's such a big friggin' production: the lights, the camera and the makeup and every little speck they come to pick off you and the hair this way and the director hissing in your ear, "Smile! Smile!" It's just so much hoopla for so little.

[At this point, Simeone's attention is won by another. The red snapper in lemon-caper dressing has arrived. "Ooh. God, that is beautiful. That is a work of art, that is a work of art. What kind of wine do you have by the glass? ... I'll have Frascati."]

You told The Sun in 1999: "My goal in life is to never work full time for any one employer again." Yet, here you are working full-time for NPR.

I know. I question myself sometimes. I refused the job for months. I told them I don't want to work weekends, and I didn't want to work full time. I like my nice, lazy, free-lance life. But I finally realized I don't have to do this job forever. It might open some doors. Who knows where it could lead? It might be fun.

You don't have any kids. Why?

You know, my mother has been asking that lately, and she's never done that. "You get rid of those cats and have some babies!" I adore children, I do. And every time I see a -- you know, you wouldn't ask a guy that, would you? It's very curious, you wouldn't ask my husband that.

Here's where you are dead wrong.

[Dead air.]

... OK, you called me on that. Let's change the subject. Ask me a question.

Are you enjoying your salad?

Sort of ... Do you laugh on the air?

Yeah, I do. I think I wouldn't have, had I been schooled by NPR. I thank God I was not. Thank God I came up in local radio. There's a lot of people who are afraid to laugh on the air. I think it's that they are afraid they will be perceived as less than serious.

But humor is crucial.

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. A sense of humor is definitely rare, and that's why people who are funny are sought after in everyday life. It's such a rare and awe-inspiring thing. I'm not funny. I don't have that thing.

Well, I think writing Michael Feldman that letter is funny. By the way, if I pledged $50 to my favorite public-radio station, would you record a greeting on my answering machine?

Of course! But how could I prove that you pledged? I'd have to see a canceled check.

Last question, and it's not about having children. Did you enjoy the interview?

I always enjoy a free meal, are you kidding?

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