Robin Young: Forever Catching Fireflies in a Bottle

by Laura Bernieri

Robin Young is perhaps the only woman alive who has won a Peabody Award for excellence in documentary work and has also hosted a cooking game show. From the sublime to the ridiculous, Young at 49 has lived many incarnations in this life alone. She has just signed on at WBUR to co-host the hour-long midday interview show HERE & NOW. More on that later. But first, how did this native New Yorker wind up in the Hub?

 Robin Young in her office in Cambridge ably assisted by her "found" pooch Homey. She also hangs out with a Chihuahua by the name of Moe.
Photo credit: Jose Ramon Garcia

After graduating from Ithaca College in 1972, Young stopped in Colorado for a brief stint as a governess to pay her way home to New York from California. Remember; it was the seventies. Cable did not exist. There were only three networks, some fuzzy UHF channels and that oasis, PBS. It was a pivotal day when she flipped on the television and surfed over the slim pickings, settling on the public broadcasting station. There she discovered a colorful children’s television show about an urban block called Sesame Street. Enchanted by the intelligence, wit and commitment to building community with diversity, Young decided, "Anything really smart comes from Boston." So she followed the yellow brick road to WGBH in Boston, only to be told, "Aw, Honey, they shoot that show in New York."

  Robin Young and Bobby Orr visit beleaguered ice-locked fishermen in Quebec, Labrador on a special mission for a Special that aired on Boston's Channel 7. Robin produced and hosted "People Who Make a Difference." This was Orr's first interview after retiring from his life on the ice.

Photo courtesy of Robin Young

But Young had already made up her mind that she had been drawn to Boston for a reason. She heard that WSBK Channel 38 was hiring. The environment there was almost exclusively male. But Young, undaunted, landed the enviable job of assistant directing the Red Sox and the Bruins’ games under the watchful eye of Bob Whitelaw, now the head of New England Sports Network. At 23 years old, Young whipped off a fiery letter to WBZ radio’s Dave Graves demanding to know why there were no women at the station. Graves promptly rung her up and asked, "What are you doing Saturday night?" Infuriated, thinking he was asking her for a date, Young was subsequently embarrassed to find out he was offering her the midnight to five AM shift. She was also hired to host a women’s public affairs program at Channel 7.

Robin Young, along with being hugely talented, was in the right place at the right time. She was a frontier woman who benefited from the government ordered quotas newly implemented in the 1970s. In 1976,she teamed up with co-host Marty Sender, and later Barry Nolan, to create EVENING MAGAZINE, a format that fused news with entertainment. Westinghouse fought for the 7:30pm time slot. "In the 70s and early 80s, you had to beg to get human interest stories on a network newscast," Young explains, "and they were usually closers. EVENING MAGAZINE for many was the first video of a live birth they’d ever seen, the first woman talking about mastectomies, the first video inside an FB111 or on the set of a movie. There was no People Magazine, ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHTor tabloid shows or network magazines."

This was at the time when news was transitioning from film to videotape. Young remembers taping of the first television profile ever done on Bruce Springsteen. The videocams had "dew sensors" which reacted to moisture by shutting down. As she followed Springsteen backstage, the sensor reacted. Young resourcefully pulled out her hair dryer and blasted the sensor until it dried off.

Among her favorite stories are some of the early ones for Evening Magazine. She remembers the profile of Lou Sternberg, father of herfriend, comedian David Sternberg, who was paralyzed from the neck down except for the use of his right thumb. While she was interviewing him, the bed had to be constantly moving up and down to operate his lungs. Thus was the cameraman also constantly moving up and down to keep Lou in the frame. Remember; this predated the trendy handheld craze and there were no steadicams. As Young explains, "Once in Lou’s orbit, you had to get used to Lou’s rhythm."

Two other unforgettable characters include "Noah", a nine year old Robin met in the middle of the L.A. riots that turned her coverage around as she reported from his eyes; and painter Andrew Wyeth, who walked out of the interview after the first question because he "hated the subject." Young hauled him back by his microphone wire and he said, "Let’s talk about you. Are you married?" When she answered no, he replied, "Good God, girl, what’s wrong with you?!"

Young has a continuing passion for the mini-doc, one hour or less. "I have a single fire fly I’m trying to get into a bottle." It is her ability to do just that which attracted NBC to hire her as a correspondent for the TODAY show. NBC and the public liked her so well that she filled in for Jane Pauly as a co-host. Then CBS hired her as a fill-in anchor for CBS This Morning. The encomiums Young has garnered over the years are enviable. In 1984, the Boston Globe’s Jack Thomas wrote of her profiles for Channel 7, "The temptation is to say that Robin Young does locally what Barbara Walters does nationally, but that would not do justice to Robin Young’s work."

Thomas goes on to glowingly review the four segments that were airing that night at 9pm: 1) A rare look at what’s good about life in a public housing project in Charlestown; 2) a visit to a family of struggling potato farmers in Caribou, Maine; 3) behind bars at a tough women’s prison to talk to mothers of young children; 4) a heroic account of a 36 year old man whose left leg was amputated below the knee, but who nevertheless completed the Cape Cod triathlon. What a line-up!

  Robin Young with her production team for the Iron Man Triathlon Special featuring amputee Pat Griskus (shown here seated with his wife Robin in the front row). Standing left to right: Tom Ryder, cameraman John Baynard, photographer Lucy Cobos, Robin Young and Sound Man Clint 00000.

Another Boston reporter gushed that her profiles were "television at its best... intelligent without being condescending, sensitive but not maudlin, fast-paced but not frothy."

In 1990, Tom Shales of the Washington Post hailed her Los Altos AIDS story as great television. Entertainment Weekly called the piece "elegantly simple" and gave her an "A". Young says, "While people like Brandon Tartikoff and Barry Diller loved it, they could not put AIDS on with advertisers. It sounds impossible now, doesn’t it? But then came Magic Johnson."

Robin subsequently produced and directed a documentary financed by Gary David Goldberg (of MOONLIGHTING and SPIN CITY fame) which focused on five children in crisis. It was shown at the first White House Summit on Children’s Issues. For Barry Diller and Fox TV, she produced a piece on a young filmmaker from South Central Los Angeles...who turned into Oscar-nominated John Singleton. Shales is quoted as saying that Robin was "the best thing about the ill-fated infotainment debacle, USA Today on TV."

"How does the viewer distinguish between the cynical manipulation of a story by the tabloids and the real reverence that a story deserves?" asks Young rhetorically. "How do you tell a story nowadays and not leave the feeling that it’s been told before?" And perhaps this is Ms. Young’s best contribution to the field of video journalism: She has always fought hard for the pithy human interest story. Her stories had profundity but their entertainment value never suffered either.

Robin Young accepting the Ace Award in 1992 in Los Angeles from Larry King. She won the award for the "Los Altos Story," an aids documentary that also won her the George Foster Peabody Award.  

Of course, it doesn’t hurt when one is as attractive as Robin. The male friends whom I told that I was profiling Robin Young all had the same reaction (including my husband). "She’s a babe." They especially cotton to her voice. One man told me he is haunted by it, several times turning up the radio on his car only to find that it is that knock-off Terry Gross. (Just kidding, Terry, you’re great.)

I have to elaborate on the babe part for a moment. One might think that, with such a busy career, Young had no time for relationships. Au contraire. It turns out she’s had some fabulous relationships with demanding high-powered men. It’s not something she willingly talks about; but I press my reluctant subject to make the point, especially to young women, that the best guys can actually be attracted to you for your brains.

In the 70s, Robin hung with Tommy Hadges, one of the original founders of WBCN and now an internationally respected radio consultant. In the 80s, she lived in Boston with guitar virtuoso Pat Metheny and collaborated on his first video. Metheny wrote themes for her TV specials and, to this day, encourages her to pursue her dreams. She still has fond feelings for two-time Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist Stan Grossfeld of the Boston Globe. In this day and age when it is increasingly difficult to tell a story in a fresh way, Young says of Grossfeld, "Even if it is a path you feel you’ve been down before, his camera is at a different angle."

Steven Bochco’s partner, co-creator of HILL STREET BLUES, Gregory Hoblit wrote Robin a fan letter when she was at the Today Show. She carried it around for a decade before she ever met him. "Greg is one of the great television directors ever. He pioneered the handheld camera, the reality look of HILL STREET and L.A. LAW, creating the look for NYPD BLUE." Hoblit has now traversed into features, directing PRIMAL FEAR and the recently released critically acclaimed FREQUENCY.

"I’ve been blessed!" Robin beams as she reflects on how supportive these relationships have been. Did I mention that her brother is John Savage? Her former brother-in-law is Robert Duvall? In fact, she comes from a family of actors. Robin Young has, all her life, been surrounded by intelligent, artistic bright lights.

She has always wanted to do another full length documentary. The subject Young has chosen for this time around is a torch singer whose career was extinguished by cancer before she was ever discovered. This story takes us forward to Robin’s current career incarnation as, after discussions with former flame, Tommy Hadges, and admiration for another former beau, National Public Radio’s Scott Simon, she has opted to pursue radio. While working several years ago at WBOS as a morning disc jockey, Robin received a CD from Sculler’s impresario Freddie Taylor by a singer named Eva Cassidy. Young was blown away, gave the CD airplay and hundreds of calls started jamming the phone lines. In a January 1999 Boston Globe feature, Joan Anderman writes of Cassidy’s "astonishingly broad interpretive range, her natural feel for phrasing, and the clean, clear beauty of her voice."

"Eva rewrote ‘Over The Rainbow,’" asserts Taylor, "totally reinvented it."

After listening to Cassidy’s cover of Curtis Mayfield’s "People Get Ready", Anderman describes her as "a jazz diva, an ernest folk singer, and a fiery soul screamer" rolled into one. Robin was able to get Sting to listen to Eva’s rendition of "Fields of Gold." She has him on camera saying that he was quite territorial about that song, arrogant even, only to be brought to tears by her totally different vocal interpretation.

"Anyone out there want to fund a movie?" Robin queries. "I’ve thought about doing the Eva Cassidy story digitally and releasing it online because it can be so interactive. You can watch the doc, listen to her music, learn about the melanoma that took her life, link to her website, talk to her family."

  Robin rests an elbow on a stack of tapes, the work she loves. She continues to have a passion for the mini-doc, one hour or less. "I have a single firefly I'm trying to get into a bottle." NBC hired her for that ability. She also filled in for Jane Pauly as co-host of the TODAY SHOW.

It is only one of the plethora of ideas that Robin Young now brings to her employer, WBUR. "I’m thrilled about WBUR. I like the challenge of working with just two voices," Young enthuses about HERE & NOW which she co-hosts with Bruce Gellerman. "It’s extremely intimate. And BUR is one of the few places left where you can do things outside the tabloid realm. I’ve often said that Scott Simon’s Saturday morning radio show on NPR is ‘the greatest show on television’ because there are more images and they are more varied than anywhere on television. Plus, while being incredibly challenged to keep up the high standards of public radio in general and WBUR in particular, radio does give me a break from the stomach-churning world of catching-the-moment-on-tape."

The mother of a million stories, Young travels at a steady pace. This profile was constructed on the run, as I endeavored to fulfill my mission to get this very unique, Harvard Square-based firefly in a bottle. Now I know how Mike Taibbi felt, Robin’s news correspondent colleague from Channel 7, when he recently got together with her and said, "Catching up with you is not a meal, it’s a retreat."

Laura Bernieri is the President and founding partner of Brighton Avenue and the co-producer of NEXT STOP WONDERLAND.