As an undergraduate at Rutgers in the late 1990s, a job in talk radio wasn’t exactly at the top of Megan Ryan’s list of career choices.
The medium seemed like an old-fashioned platform as news media was on the brink of the digital age.
Fast-forward to today and Ryan, a 1997 media studies graduate of Rutgers University-New Brunswick, is the head of Live Radio at WNYC, where she executive produces both The Brian Lehrer Show and All of It With Alison Stewart, participatory radio shows that air back-to-back every day between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
“In this day and age where there's so much content and so many things you can choose, live call-in talk radio is this old-school thing that's kind of new again,” says Ryan, who studied at both the School of Communication and Information and Mason Gross School of the Arts.
“Talk radio has elements of social media in that you can participate in your own voice in real time. And it has those democratizing qualities with moments when the host, the caller and the person they're interviewing — who could be the mayor of New York City — are on the line all together. I think that's really special.”
As the executive producer of two different radio shows, Ryan works with the hosts and producers to bring ideas to life for content and distributing information while also helping to build a robust community of people exchanging ideas.
“In my experience, people who work at public radio really care,’’ she says. “They care about news and information, truth, the listener and the special trust that the listener has placed in us to say what we know to be fair. And to speak truth to power when it matters.”
This realization became even more apparent during the 2020 election cycle, when Ryan and the team of producers created a series of national call-in shows that began in November 2019 called America, Are We Ready? The series aired on public radio stations around the country, and featured conversations around the election and the issues at stake.
“As we were setting the stage for the election year and preparing what was supposed to be a fairly traditional run of election year programming, things began taking all kinds of wild turns that I did not expect,” Ryan states. “We're normally planning specials for the big primary nights and debates and we were going along with that. Then everything changed so much between the pandemic, debate schedule changes and more. We had created this umbrella of America, Are We Ready? So, we just kept raising it to put on these national call-in shows at different points throughout the year.”
Ryan’s knack for improvising was also helpful during her time at Rutgers. She started as an independent major, crossing disciplines between journalism, art and film. It wasn’t until she studied abroad in London and found a program with a hybrid of all of these subjects under the name media studies, did she realize there was a blueprint for what she wanted to study.
Upon graduating, Ryan moved from her hometown of Metuchen to New York City, where she began doing freelance work at Newsweek as a photo researcher. It was during this time, when she was also working at off-Broadway shows and art galleries, that her interest in radio developed after falling in love with listening to talk radio as an adult.
Applying for radio jobs was not easy during that time since it was not clear what kinds of credentials she needed, but a chance opportunity on a show called Satellite Sisters led Ryan to WNYC during the aftermath of the 2000 election.
After 9/11, WNYC began a shift in the kind of content they provided for their listeners and served their interests better. Ryan was moved to On the Media, a different national call-in show, where she honed her skills working in radio. In 2009 she was asked to fill in for the senior producer of The Brian Lehrer Show while they searched for a replacement. Ryan ended up in the job full-time and moved into the executive producer role, where she has worked since.
As a news and information show host, Brian Lehrer talks to guests and listeners about everything from politics and economics to current events and world news — and of course, local New York City affairs. One of the biggest lessons Ryan has learned so far: remember that there is a human behind every viewpoint.
“Our listeners expect us to call out untruths when we see them and to be objective and tell the truth. Something we started thinking a lot about was that people can have different points of view about issues. People can have different policies that they think are the right solution to a problem,” Ryan says.
“We want to be fair and cover all sides of conversations like that,’’ Ryan said. “At the same time, there are norms of democracy that just are so ingrained that if something is rubbing up against what would traditionally be considered a norm of democracy, we need to let our listeners know that we see that.”
Living in Brooklyn with her husband and two children, Ryan is grateful for the path life took her on. “Radio is storytelling and storytelling is powerful,” she says.
And for anyone wondering what it’s like to work with Brian Lehrer, one of the New York City’s most recognizable radio personalities, Ryan says it is exactly as his fans would imagine. “The values that he puts out on the show are the values that he lives as a person, as a boss and as a team member. It's awesome."