Lynn Neary, TMC ’71, who developed National Public Radio’s religion beat in the 1990s and whose longtime role as books and arts correspondent made her arguably “the envy of English majors everywhere,” is retiring this month after a 37-year career at NPR.
“Lynn Neary’s gorgeous voice has graced NPR’s airwaves for nearly forty years,” said Ellen Silva, NPR’s chief arts editor, in announcing the news. She described Neary as “one of public radio’s most distinctive and accomplished personalities,” “an incisive intellect,” and “a wise and generous mentor to scores of reporters, producers and editors.”
Neary grew up in Westchester County and in 1971 earned an English degree from Thomas More College, then Fordham’s liberal arts college for women. After graduation, she worked at a psychiatric hospital and as an actor and waiter before landing a job as a reporter at WRMT, a commercial radio station in Rocky Mount, North Carolina.
“I knew immediately I had found the right thing to do,” she told FORDHAM magazine in 2011. “I thought, ‘Oh my god, I found it.’”
She spent a year in Rocky Mount before moving to WOSU, a public radio station in Columbus, Ohio, for two years.
Neary arrived at NPR in 1982, and after starting as a newscaster on Morning Edition, she moved on to hosting Weekend All Things Considered, the weekend version of the network’s flagship news program, from 1984 to 1992. During that time, she covered such historic events as the fall of the Berlin Wall, Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, and the Tiananmen Square Massacre, and conducted interviews with illustrious writers and artists, including Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, and David Byrne.
Examining Religion from All Angles
In 1992, Neary joined NPR’s cultural desk, where she developed the network’s first religion beat, covering what she described as “the religious landscape” of the country at a time when religion and politics were beginning to intersect in profound ways. She did a four-part series on Islam in America, interviewed the Dalai Lama, and covered two papal visits to the U.S. In 1996, she earned an Alfred I. duPont award for her reporting on the role of religion in the debate over welfare reform.
“We want[ed]to be able to look at religion from a cultural perspective, a faith perspective, and also a political perspective,” Neary told WFUV’s Lauren Naymie, FCRH ’11, during a 2010 interview at Fordham’s public radio station. “It’s always a subject I’ve found kind of fascinating—what people believe in and why, and how it affects the way they act in the world.”
Since 2008, Neary has served as an arts correspondent at NPR covering books and publishing, reporting not only on new releases and authors but also on industry news and trends.
She has returned to Fordham several times in recent years. In 2010, she met with students at WFUV, guest taught a communication and media studies class, and addressed her fellow alumnae at a Thomas More College reunion, where she spoke about the need for journalistic objectivity amid the increasingly hyped-up, opinionated tone of cable news.
“People think, ‘How can you be really, really objective?’ Well, you have to be very open-minded,” she said. “When I was covering religion, I was meeting up with people who believed things, whether it was a political belief or their faith, that I did not believe at all.”
She also noted the value of her early experience in Rocky Mount, the kind of small-town reporting that she believes can be beneficial to young journalists. “It was a very good experience,” she told FORDHAM magazine, “going to another part of the country, seeing how other people live.”
An Acclaimed Career Comes to a Close
Neary’s tenure at NPR has been a lesson in the ways that stories—in the news and in fiction—can take on new relevance over time.
In 1985, she interviewed the writer Margaret Atwood about her book The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian novel set in a near-future theocratic society in which women are subjugated. Could such a nightmare scenario come to pass, Neary asked.
“[I]f you see somebody walking towards a large hole in the ground, you’ve got two choices,” Atwood told her. “If you want them to fall into it, you don’t say anything. And if you want them not to fall into it, you say, ‘Watch where you’re going.’”
In spring 2017, shortly before the premiere of the popular TV series based on The Handmaid’s Tale, Neary had the opportunity to ask Atwood whether our society had fallen into the ditch she said her novel was warning us about 22 years earlier. Atwood told her that we hadn’t yet, and that we still have the power to change things.
This kind of reporting, with an eye toward the social implications of art and policy, has earned Neary several honors throughout her career, including a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, a Corporation for Public Broadcasting Gold Award, an Association of Women in Radio and Television Award, and the Catholic Press Association’s Gabriel Award.
In a recent exchange on Twitter with NPR’s Ari Shapiro, Neary expressed sadness at leaving the station while declaring her optimism about its future.
“I will miss everyone at NPR so much but I am so glad to know that my generation is leaving it in such good hands.”