Cool Jobs: On air with WEMU's Lisa Barry

The concept of a radio personality has changed drastically over time, as many broadcasting companies have jettisoned local talent for preprogrammed shows with hosts who may not even live in the town where their shows are broadcast. Lisa Barry has been in the radio business long enough to remember those better days, but as an afternoon anchor at Ypsilanti's WEMU 89.1 FM, she's one of those who are still keeping it local in a changing media landscape.
 
Barry is the local host of NPR's "All Things Considered" on WEMU, taking the mic every weekday from 4:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. She joined WEMU in 2015 after a lengthy career in Detroit radio, and she describes the connection between WEMU staffers and listeners as "what I love about this station."
 
"I call Washtenaw County the land of creative overachievers," she says. "I want to tell their stories. I want to ask them the question that no one ever asks them so that we can connect on a human level. That is what I love about the radio — I can press one button, lean into the microphone, and get into your home, your car, your head, your heart."
 
The ability to connect is something that has remained constant throughout Barry's career. She got her start as a morning newscast sidekick on Lansing's WVIC 94.1 FM. Following a dream of being on air in Detroit, she joined the morning show at WCLS 99.5 FM (formerly WABX and now WYCD). Barry has since worked for numerous Detroit stations including WXYT 1270 AM (where she served as news director), WNIC 100.3 FM, and WJR 760 AM, sharing airtime with personalities ranging from legendary Detroit TV anchor Bill Bonds to Oakland County executive L. Brooks Patterson.
 
One of the most profound changes Barry's seen since she began broadcasting is the immediacy of the news. She recalls that she and her fellow staffers "didn't know what to do" with cell phones when they first came out, but now anyone can use them to grab news from a plethora of sources.
 
"Knowing that people can get information anytime, anywhere, we have to make it so that people want to get their information from us," Barry says. "This goes back to the personal connection … I want people to know that I genuinely care about them and that I am being fair and accurate when broadcasting what they need to know."
 
When asked about how she deals with a world that has recently been frequently described as "post-fact," Barry says she and her colleagues are "diehard news people who live and breathe the facts."
 
"Telling the truth is the utmost importance," she says. "You can count on [outlets like NPR] having objective news and using fact-checkers. One of the highlights for some people was that NPR used live fact-checking during the election."
 
Besides reporting on hard news, Barry can do some things in public radio that she might not get to do elsewhere. In addition to connecting more closely with her listeners, Barry regularly does features that spotlight locals. Her "Art and Soul" series pairs her with Ann Arbor Art Center community engagement director Omari Rush to talk about visual arts, freelance writer (and Concentrate contributor) Jenn McKee for performing arts, and weekend WEMU host Jessica Webster for culinary arts.
 
"I want to make life better for people," Barry says. "It's easy to find what's wrong, but it takes effort to find what is right."
 
While the national financial picture for public radio is unknown, especially in light of the Presidential election, Barry says WEMU's federal funding is secure for the coming year. However, the majority of the station's budget comes from other sources, especially individuals and businesses. When asked how a donation to WEMU differs from buying a product that a commercial station advertises, Barry says, "you can't really compare the two. With [commercial radio] there are CEOs and investors, so the profit goes to the people at the top. We are a nonprofit, so a donation goes directly to our product."
 
Barry says she's been lucky to "eke out a living" as long as she has in the radio industry. She says she still tries to improve her work every time she gets behind the mic, never taking her gig for granted.
 
"There is an old saying that [in radio] you are fired the day you are hired — they just don't put a date on it," she says. "So I sometimes tell people don't love me because I'm in radio – because tomorrow I might not be." 

Patti Smith lives in Ann Arbor, the best city on earth. By day, she is a special education teacher. By night, she writes novels (that she hopes to sell one day) and articles for Mittenbrew, the Ann, Pulp, the Ann Arbor Observer, and Concentrate.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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