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NPR's Melissa Block bids farewell after 38 years

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Today is the last day here at NPR for one of our most familiar voices.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: What's left of the World Trade Center is a smoking, smoldering pile of twisted beams and girders with small sections of the building's skin still standing, poking at crazy angles into the sky.

KELLY: You know the voice. It's Melissa Block, and she is leaving NPR after 38 years. She was an NPR booker and producer and editor and correspondent, and for more than 12 years, she hosted this program. Over those decades, she has brought our listeners stories of joy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BLOCK: Watch and listen to how the home plate umpire calls strikes.

BRIAN O'NORA: Strike.

BLOCK: That's Brian O'Nora.

O'NORA: Strike.

BLOCK: And there's no mistaking Jim Joyce's call. It could wake the dead.

JIM JOYCE: Strike.

BLOCK: Oh, let's hear that again.

JOYCE: Strike.

KELLY: Along the way, you may have also noticed Melissa is especially fond of what you might call critter stories.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BLOCK: So we are surrounded by these tiny golden lion tamarins. One, two, three, four, five, six - I think there are a couple more.

KELLY: And Melissa has also carved out space for stories of struggle and human tragedy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BLOCK: At 4:40 in the afternoon, nine hours after this day of waiting began, a worker comes out with news.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Crying).

BLOCK: A worker just came out and said they had found the bodies of a child and two old people. And Mrs. Fu (ph) asked - was he a boy of about 2? And the worker nodded yes.

KELLY: One of the stories Melissa Block is perhaps most known for here at NPR, and Melissa is here in the studio with me now. Hi, my friend.

BLOCK: Good to see you.

KELLY: That tape we just heard - that was you reporting in China right after the earthquake in 2008.

BLOCK: That's right. In Sichuan Province - ALL THINGS CONSIDERED had sent a team there. Obviously, nobody anticipates they're going to be in an earthquake, but that was one of the stories that we did when we were there. And, you know, the scope of something like that is really hard to fathom. Tens of thousands of people killed, and I would say that, of all the stories that I've done over the years, that is certainly one that changed me in really profound ways.

KELLY: Yeah. I can see it on your face as you listened to the tape all these years later. I do want to note you have carved out in these last years here at NPR a beat that didn't even exist for most of your career, focusing on gender and especially on the lives of transgender youth. What have you learned from those people as you've talked to them along the way?

BLOCK: Yeah, talking to trans kids and their families - you know, trans rights issues have become such a political football over the past few years, and when you talk to trans kids and their families, they just want to be left alone. You know, a lot of the bills that are being sponsored in Republican legislatures are framed as protecting kids or saving kids, and parents will say, look, we want the exact same thing. We are protecting our kids, and we just want to let them be kids.

KELLY: Yeah. So why are you leaving?

BLOCK: Oh, so hard to think about that - 38 years is a really long time. It's been wonderful. I mean, I've gotten to travel all over the world and all over the country and have people let me into their lives in really profound ways, and that's a huge gift. I do think, you know, like with many people, the years of COVID isolation took a toll. The death of my mom last year - those things make you...

KELLY: I'm sorry. Yeah.

BLOCK: Oh, thanks. They just focus your mind and make you wonder - am I really doing what I need to be doing? Am I where I need to be right now? And it's bittersweet, but I think it's the right time.

KELLY: I mean, look back over those 38 years. You have seen so much change in our industry and here at NPR. What stands out?

BLOCK: Oh, everything, right? I mean, the size of this network, which has hugely expanded since I started, the scope of what we do and what we cover, technology in every aspect of what we do - I mean, when I think back, it seems like a miracle that we ever got a radio program on the air every day (laughter).

KELLY: There were days (laughter) when it was when it was not clear it was going to land.

BLOCK: Exactly, and I guess the one thing I would say is that when - the thing that I hope doesn't change here is the focus that this network has always had on forging human connections, on the primacy of sound as we tell our stories, on the power of the human voice. And I just really hope we don't lose sight of that. It's hard for me not to say we, but I hope y'all, as you would say, don't lose sight of that.

KELLY: You will always be part of the we that is NPR...

BLOCK: Thank you.

KELLY: ...And hear hear to that message. Will you share what's next?

BLOCK: Oh, gosh. You know, I imagine you have noticed that I'm a pretty big gardener and birder, so I imagine there will be quite a bit more time for that and travel. There will be work, I'm assuming, of some form. I don't know quite what yet. You know, I'm thinking of a wonderful comment I heard recently from someone who is about to move across the country, and he was really apprehensive about it. And somebody told him sometimes it's a great thing to be repotted. So I think that's how I'm thinking about this, Mary Louise - not as retirement but as repotting.

KELLY: Repotting (laughter). Well, may your roots be deep and the soil rich.

BLOCK: (Laughter) Aw, thank you.

KELLY: This is our colleague - my former co-host here on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, Melissa Block speaking with us on her last day here at NPR.

BLOCK: Thanks, Mary Louise.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Melissa Block
As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.
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