For 35 years, Faith Middleton was an institution on WNPR: a quiet, easygoing presence far removed from the regional "shock jocks" who dominated much of commercial radio during that time. (She was also named Best Radio Talk Show Host in this magazine's "Best of Connecticut" awards for 11 straight years.) Besides directly interviewing Middleton, this profile views her from the perspectives of her WNPR colleagues, as well her then-spouse, Fern Berman. It follows Middleton from her early days as a journalist (which includes a brief stint as the editor of Connecticut Magazine in the late '70s) to finding her calling as a the host of The Faith Middleton Show, which at the time of the article's publication was celebrating its 25th anniversary. Middleton kept that show going for another decade, until ending it in 2015 and turning her attention to her weekly Food Schmooze show, which itself ended in 2019.
This article is being posted to the web in June 2021 as part of Connecticut Magazine's 50th anniversary celebration.
Twenty-five years ago, Faith Middleton found her comfortable home on the radio dial—and in the lives of her listeners.
By Alan Bisbort
Photography by J. Misencik
Faith Middleton is a nice person. She doesn't just play one on the radio. She has played a nice person for 25 years now, as host and executive producer of Connecticut Public Radio's “The Faith Middleton Show," broadcast live from New Haven's WNPR studio. The show is such a reliable Connecticut institution—it’s also heard in New York and Rhode Island—you can set your Seth Thomas dock to it Monday through Friday from 3 to 4 p.m.
Perhaps it’s Faith Middleton’s incorrigible good nature that makes it hard to tell where her show ends and her real life begins. Indeed, she has the same disarmingly sincere manner in person that she’s displayed for the past quarter-century on her show. It anything, her sincerity is even more pronounced in person. Like Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall character, Middleton punctuates her comments with thoughtful pauses, deferential asides, self-effacing remarks. Like Annie Hall, she also dresses stylishly but modestly, and she is unfailingly polite. When you ask a question, she gives the question her full attention, she really wants to connect. She believes, she says, that an interview “is a meeting of two hearts and two minds." She is not being all touchy-feely New Agey when she says stuff like this. She really means it.
They don’t make people this nice, do they?
In her quarter-century behind the microphone—a milestone that will be celebrated at a Nov. 5 event at the old G. Fox Building in Hartford—Middleton has interviewed more than 7,000 guests. These range from the venerable (Kate Hepburn, Aaron Copland, Walter Cronkite) and literary (Arthur Miller, Virgil Thompson, Allen Ginsberg) to legends of music (Marian McPartland, Dave Brubeck), art (Christo) and stage (John Houseman, Colleen Dewhurst); and then there are those guests who are uncategorizable (Zippy the Singing Dachshund). Nonetheless, when the tables are turned— when the interviewer gets interviewed—she confesses, “I feel so embarrassed saying things about myself.”
What Middleton does should not be remarkable, but it is. She has retained her poise in a genre known to get nasty or mean at the slightest dip in ratings—what she calls the “raw meat" genre of talk radio.
Her questions are generous without being softballs, and she follows her subject down side roads that neither expected to pursue when they set out on their conversational journey. Without being confrontational, she manages to unearth things that few interviewers can.
“Good interviewing is about listening," says Middleton, seated in her New Haven office, located approximately 15 feet from her New Haven studio. “Many of the raw-meat radio hosts aren't interested in listening, only hearing the sound of their own voices."
Some think of her as the Anti-Rush (Limbaugh) and/or the Anti- Howard (Stern), but she considers neither of these real broadcast journalists.
“What they do is entertainment, such as it is,” she says with a sigh. When asked what she would say to Rush Limbaugh if she had him as a guest on her show, Middleton says, “l would want to spend a lot of time exploring his childhood, to find out what experiences made him what he is today. He was clearly the victim of bullying, because he enjoys bullying too much. There’s a defensiveness at the root of what he does, have you noticed?"
For Middleton, the way to connect with guests on live radio—the broadcast equivalent of tightrope-walking without a net—has built- in contradictions.
“As an interviewer, you come into an interview with questions you want to ask," says Middleton, pointing to the pile of material on her desk, her notes for this afternoon’s show. “And then you discover questions during the course of the interview. The whole art of the interview is, then, making judgments about when to go off the road to follow Idea No. 2 and how far you can go down the road before it’s too late to get back to Idea No. 1. When you’re on the air, it’s crucial to be able to make these judgments."
Middleton is good enough at this delicate art to have won two George Foster Peabody Awards. She has a devoted audience that is growing all the time, via live Internet broadcasts, and has, for eight years running, been voted “Best Local Radio Talk Show Host" by the readers of this magazine—a magazine that, for a time in the late 1970s, she edited. She has even taught a course called “Art of the Interview" at Yale University.
“All kinds of kids took the class, because interviewing is something everyone does and will do without thinking," she says. “It’s a great skill to have in your life, no matter what your calling." Characteristically, she never assigned her students to listen to her own show, thinking that would be “totally egotistical.”
Hard as it may be to accept in these jaded, toxic times, the title of Middleton’s 1996 book—The Goodness of Ordinary People (Crown) —accurately reflects her world view. Or, as National Public Radio's Susan Stamberg puts it, “In this age of noisy, often insulting, talk radio, Faith Middleton makes radio that talks from the heart. Faith
is one of the most genuine, direct and generous broadcasters in America. Listeners respond to her generosity of spirit with remarkable stories."
MORE RADIO PERSONALITIES FROM THE CONNECTICUT MAGAZINE ARCHIVES:
- 'Those Drive Time Morning Men' (Oct. 1981)
- Bob Steele a Connecticut radio legend, in 'WBOB' (March 1978)
- Ready or not, it's Don Imus: 'The I-Man Cometh' (Nov. 1991)
- Meet Sebastian, 'Radio's New Bad Boy' (Aug. 1986)
"She is the same person on or off the air," says Fern Berman, Middleton’s spouse of three years. “We’ll be at a restaurant and people will turn around and just say, 'Are you Faith?’ not ‘Are you Faith Middleton?’ but, you know, on a first-name basis. She is so happy talking to people. She feels it’s a service to the community, the show. It’s sincere niceness.”
Berman should know. She met Middleton in April 2002. As the head of her own Manhattan-based public relations firm (Fern Berman Communications Inc.), she had long been aware of Middleton's reputation for excellence, saying, “New York publishers fight to have their authors interviewed by Faith, who is credited with bundling the national success of more than a few novels."
But Berman was not keen on meeting Middleton in person, especially on something as tenuous as a blind date. The setting was enticing enough—Thomas Henkelmann’s Homestead Inn in Greenwich, which has since become a favorite of theirs.
“A mutual friend of ours told me, ’You have to meet her—l think she’s free,’” recalls Berman. “I went kicking and screaming, even grabbed someone from my office to go with me. I walked into the room and there was that breathless moment. That was that. We were married Oct. 6, 2002.”
Middleton and Berman took their vows in New York in front of a minister and a cantor. Brooklyn-born, Long Island-reared and a confirmed Manhattanite since she was 20, the high-energy Berman has taken famously to the slower pace of Connecticut. The two now share a house in Branford, as well as occasional stopovers at Berman’s Manhattan residence.
For all her accolades, Middleton insists that she backed her way into a career in radio. She had, in fact, a thriving career in print journalism before she heard the airwaves beckon. After high school in Hartford, she went to Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic. Pressed for money in order to stay in school, she dropped in unannounced at the Chronicle, Willimantic’s newspaper. On the third try, she was told she was the women's editor and given a desk.
Bang, just like that, the English major was suddenly a journalist. Though she was still in school, she worked full-time as a reporter at the Chronicle, where she homed in on her specialty: human-interest stories.
“She was, from my point of view, a very smart, involved and high- achieving student," says Bruce Clements, an English professor at ECSU who was also a mentor to Middleton. “I understood that she had loads of academic work and outside work, but I also knew that she was one of those students whose work, whenever it was handed in, would be good. So I cut her some slack now and then.”
Clements, who retired from ECSU in 2001, saw qualities in Middleton as a student that she has developed over the past three decades. The two of them were on a student-affairs committee.
“It was a catch-all committee, very '60s, and the goal was to make the student community a better place,” says Clements. “Even then, community was very much what Faith was about. I think, in general, students were at an advantage back then. They were able to perceive that the world was larger than just their campus. And they felt that they were bound to win that larger struggle. They were willing to submerge their personal problems to tackle the more pressing problems of the world."
From the Chronicle, Middleton went to the Journal-Inquirer in Manchester, then the Providence Journal, then Connecticut Magazine. Offered a job at Washingtonian magazine, she developed a case of cold feet just before moving to the nation's capital.
"I felt so sad,” she says. “I just couldn't leave this area that I loved so much. For once I wanted to do something that was not for the resume—but then the panic set in. I thought, ‘What the heck am I going to do?'”
Fortuitously, she saw an ad for a job at Connecticut Public Radio and Television. Although she thought she had no shot at it, she interviewed anyway.
"I thought, 'Why would they ever hire me to go on the air?‘ I listened to my voice played back and thought it sounded ridiculous,” she recalls, laughing.
The network disagreed. They hired her and gave her a co-host slot for a show with Bill Henry, now something of a Connecticut broadcast institution himself.
Her eyes get wide at the memory. “I would do a semiserious piece of journalism and Bill would come on and do 'We’re in the Money' or some other wild Broadway show tune," she says. “It just didn’t mix, so they decided to give us each our own show.”
Between her print and broadcast journalism careers, Middleton has been interviewing people since 1968. She sees little difference between what she does on the radio and what she did in print.
“In both, I had the desire to communicate, to celebrate people's creativity. That fuels everything,” she says. “The ways that people find to be creative fascinate me—like the artist l once had on the show who used roaches to make roach art."
If she ever had a hero in journalism, it was Charles Kuralt. Like Kuralt, who pioneered the “on the road" genre, Middleton has produced an occasional feature for public television. Though she enjoys TV work, she much prefers radio, because radio is dependent on intimacy, at home as well as in the studio.
“Time seems to weigh much heavier on TV," she says. “With all the technicians and crews moving around, it's hard to make those connections with your guests.”
Middleton works hard to protect an air of comfort and relaxation in the studio. She arrives each morning, Monday through Friday, at WNPR, hunkering down with the materials that will comprise her show. Several bookshelves in the hall leading to her office attest to the amount of material she has to sift through weekly. The subjects vary widely. One day, she will have heady discussions on recent books of note, the next she'll tackle travel tips or financial planning, spirituality or politics.
Regardless of the subject and expected guests, she has read much of the pertinent material the night before and even begun jotting down questions she may want to ask. By the time she arrives at the studio, she, senior producer Lorie Mack and associate producer Cameron Henning begin ironing out the details. These include making sure all phone-in guests are verified, all props are in hand, all phone lines are in working order. This last order of business is crucial; a large part of Middleton's appeal is built upon her rapport with listeners who call in.
The secret of her on air rapport is to get her guests to feel at ease before they go on the show.
“I have a feel for people's psychology, and I want to create a level of trust,” she says. “Many people aren’t used to coming to interviews. It’s a nervous-making experience. We meet each other, sit down and talk about things that have nothing to do with the subject that we’re going to discuss on the air. I think people sense they can trust me."
Despite such tireless preparation, Middleton still insists the show is “seat of the pants," that she never knows how it will go. A constant worry is “Will this be the day that nobody calls?"—but that has never happened.
“We don’t screen our calls except to ask someone to say their name and where they are calling from,” she says.
Her office, which looks out on a green courtyard wedged beside the Audubon Court Parking Garage, is filled with Berman's eye-catching color photographs, mementos, clippings from newspapers and magazines, cartoons, books, books and more books. If her office is her home away from home, her studio is her living room. It’s surprisingly small, but is filled with comfortable old furniture and laid out in a way that reinforces the sense of contact between her and her guests. When there are more than two guests, the crush adds to the spirit of camaraderie. Perhaps because the studio is located so close to her office, the transition from thought to performance is seamless.
“She is so enthusiastic about what she does," says Berman. “She researches and reads everything. It’s amazing to me. She writes every script. She reads about 10 books for every three that go on the show and she can cover all kinds of subjects.”
Today is a Wednesday, so the show in preparation is the Food Schmooze, which is so popular it is rerun on Saturdays at noon. A sort of “Car Talk” for victuals, it began as a lark. “Food and wine is a passion of mine. I thought it would be fun to devote a show to that subject,” Middleton saw “It’s sort of shocking how popular it has become.”
Today's guest is Jacques Pepin, the well- known Connecticut-based chef. He has arrived early with Paco, his black poodle, in tow. While waiting to go on the air, Pepin chats amiably with Mack and Henning and, within 10 minutes, the entire assemblage is crawling around on all fours, playing with Paco. The tireless heir apparent to Julia Child's worldwide audience, Pepin enjoys being interviewed by Middleton and has done it so often over the years that the two are now friends. Pepin and his wife and Middleton and Berman are, in fact, regular boule (lawn bowling) partners.
It is as a co-chair, with Pepin and Meryl Streep, of Celebration of Connecticut Farms that Middleton is able to act on another of her passions—helping to save family farms and farmland in Connecticut. Their annual fund-raising event, coordinated with the Connecticut Farmland Trust and the Working Land Alliance, celebrates state- grown produce and wine. This year’s event, held in September at Graywall Farms in Lebanon, was the third Middleton had worked with Pepin and Streep.
“Faith makes you feel comfortable,” says Pepin while waiting to go on the air. “She is like Diane Rehm in Washington, who I’ve talked with many times. They both know when to ask a question and when to listen. Some interviewers have an agenda going in and they will ask only the questions they have prepared, even it the next one is not related in any way to the previous one. With Faith, it is truly a discussion. She exposes the character of the guests.”
During the show, Middleton sports a set of earphones that nearly cover her head—a helmetlike contraption that’s her connection to the outside world. Yet she somehow manages not to lose her composure or ability to connect with whoever is on the phone or in the room.
Even Paco feels comfortable in Faith’s living room of a studio, sitting quietly on Pepin’s lap throughout the hourlong chat, during which the chef gives off-the-cuff recipes for pesto (“blanch the leaves to keep it green"), mustard (the key is honey, which he pronounces “hun-NAY”), as well as advice on the proper wine to serve with every meal (essentially, it’s whatever you happen to be drinking while you’re standing over the stove cooking).
“Paco likes beer and cheese,” Pepin insists at one point. However, we soon learn that Paco also likes the gourmet cookies that Middleton is discussing on the air, and he nearly snags one before his master has sampled it.
Just another day at the office.
As senior producer of “The Faith Middleton Show,” Mack has been with Middleton longer than anyone on the WNPR staff (besides Henning, the only other staffer at the New Haven station is reporter Diane Orson; all the rest of Connecticut Public Radio’s programming is done at the Hartford studio).
“I often say that on her worst day, she does better than most interviewers on their best," says Mack, who is responsible for relaying— by hand signal, sticky notes and TV-screen hookup—messages to Middleton while she’s on the air. “When we talk to guests after the show, almost every one says, ‘Oh, my ... she really read the book.’ We recently had an author on the show by phone hookup. It was obvious when I contacted him ahead of time that he was not particularly excited, that this was one more stop on an endless author tour and he was prepared to rotely answer the same questions he’d been answering for days. But on the air you could hear his voice lift as Faith went on, and by the end of it he said he’d been excited to have been on.”
Jerry Franklin, president and CEO of Connecticut Public Broadcasting Inc.—Middleton’s “boss," so to speak—is equally effusive in his praise of someone he calls a “statewide treasure."
“This organization is blessed to have had her talents for a quarter-century,” says Franklin. “She and Fern can realign the stars when they focus their energies on a subject. I would not want to come to work every day if Faith weren’t here.”
Since their meeting at ECSU, Middleton and Bruce Clements have become close friends. Once a month for the past 15 years or so, they have been broadcast partners for a show that raises a single provocative question or topic that allows listeners to connect or empathize. On a recent show, for example, they opened the floodgates over the topic "open secrets," which covered everything from romantic affairs to town-level politics.
"There is always one phone call for every show we’ve done that causes us to look at each other and say, 'I never thought about it that way," says Clements, who continues to marvel at the breadth of knowledge and spirit his partner brings to the microphone. “My definition of intellectual is not just a smart person but a person who has a wide range of interests and is open to getting at what is true, not just to confirm preconceived notions. By that definition, Faith is an intellectual.”
Middleton, who characterizes her childhood as a “very gypsy existence,” grew up mostly in Hartford. At age 15, she lost both of her parents within a month, her mother to breast cancer and her father to a heart attack. The health of both her parents had been impaired by years of drinking. “Living with my parents while they suffered from this disease [alcoholism] was horrible,” she has written. “They were isolated and so was I.”
Fear and shame—the hallmarks of the inner lives of children of alcoholics—might have accompanied her as she trudged through the rest of her adolescence. But with help from an older sister, Middleton was determined to make something of her life.
Partly in homage to her lost parents, she aired a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous on her show. She did it in a nonexploitative way, saying she wanted to find “a way to expose both AA’s simplicity and complexity to a wider audience." Several AA members gathered at the studio to share their stones, anonymously, with listeners. The response was overwhelming, and the AA meeting on the air became a regular monthly feature for eight years.
“I look at my show as a sort of cafe on the air," Middleton says. "I am trying to have an atmosphere that is generous, that is open to all walks of life, from CEOs to VFW halls, truckers and teachers, men, women, straight and gay."
Pondering Middleton's fortitude and success, Clements is put in mind of a story about Julius Caesar when he was caught in a hellacious storm at sea. At the peak of the gale, Caesar turned to the ship captain and said, ‘Don't worry. You have me... and my luck.”
"Some people are blessed with a sense of luck," he says. "Faith always had a feel for finding her own luck, but always with a sense of gratitude and not arrogance. One has relatively few friends in life that just don’t quit."
Faith Middleton, it goes without Clements having to say it, has been one of his.