Derek Willis

Nov 28

A Voice of Thanksgiving

Just to hear what it sounded like, I recorded this post and uploaded it to SoundCloud. It seemed appropriate.

This year I am thankful for my voice, although maybe not in the way you might expect.

When I was young, I had a career plan, and it was in radio. As a child, I fell asleep listening to KYW News Radio out of Philadelphia, with its gentle faux wire-traffic noises and the crisp sounds of its announcers. My mom thought it was a little weird.

My grandmother cut out a Parade magazine article on famous broadcasters, which to this day hangs on a bulletin board in the spare room at her house in Allentown.

In high school, I did the morning announcements, which were actually filmed and broadcast to homerooms that had TVs (the rest had to settle for our sonorous tones, alas). I did the sports, mostly, but occasionally filled in on the news side and once reviewed Public Enemy’s “Nation of Millions” to a school that had, at most, half a dozen non-white kids (I was a fan).

The first thing - the very first thing - that I did upon arriving at the University of Pittsburgh was to find the campus radio station, WPTS, and join its newsroom. Ron Asbury, a golden-voiced man, was its news director. I got my FCC board certification and became a reporter, sometimes host and live event announcer. My grandmother still has a few cassette tapes of my Pitt football game calls.

Radio was my favorite medium until the Web came around, and even now it’s a very close second. But my thankfulness has nothing to do with my radio voice.

I did one other thing early in my college career; I walked down to the music building and into an audition for the Heinz Chapel Choir. I had sung in high school, but I wasn’t confident I would pass an actual test at the college level. The director at the time was Bill Burkhart, who looked every bit the part of the struggling graduate student. I don’t think I sang very well, but he needed men for the choir, and I at least fit that bill. I made it.

Burkhart moved on after my freshman year, and was replaced by John Goldsmith, who previously had sung with The Chanticleers. This was a serious upgrade, and I was seriously worried about my place. Luckily - for talent alone would not have guaranteed me a spot - the HCC was still short of men, and I could sight-read pretty well, so I stayed on.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette this week published a story about the choir’s 75 years, particularly about the closeness members have always felt to each other and their directors. Although most of the people mentioned in the story are much older, their stories are our stories. I loved being in that choir so much that after my senior year I convinced myself (stupidly) that no choral experience could measure up, and didn’t sing again until this year. Prior to meeting my wife, being a member of the Heinz Chapel Choir was the very best thing I ever did in my life.

Near the end of my junior year, I went into Ron Asbury’s office at WPTS, where I was making good progress as a reporter. I asked him what I needed to do in order to really make it in radio. His sharp reply: “Start smoking. At least two packs a day.”

My voice was way too high for the radio, he explained, and played me a tape of a basketball game that I called. He was right - my voice was so far away from my KYW favorites. I was crushed. I thought about the prospect of smoking cigarettes, which I had never done, not even tried.

Then I went to choir rehearsal, and I told Mr. Goldsmith about my problem. “Derek, I’ll kill you if you do that,” he said with a smile. He knew there wasn’t a way in the world that I would disappoint my choir family. I held onto a Sunday morning radio show for my last year at Pitt, but I switched my focus to the campus newspaper.

I still miss the radio, but I don’t regret my choice for a minute. I chose to make music, and that opened for me a world of beauty, joy and friendship that I would have missed. Mr. Goldsmith is stepping down after 25 years as the director of the Heinz Chapel Choir. His last choir is immeasurably better than his first, I think it’s safe to say. But those of us who were there then might be more grateful than anybody for the experience. To the man who kept me on when it would have been easy not to and who brought out a love of singing that I did not know I had, and to my eternal friends who will always be my family, thank you for showing me my real voice.

Sep 11

That Morning

I originally wrote this in 2009 on a now-defunct site. Reposting here.

As I parked the car near the Woodley Park metro that morning eight years ago, I remember NPR reporting that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I thought about how odd it was that a plane (I imagined it was a Cessna or something) could have managed to hit such a large building on such a perfect day, and I was hurrying to work at the Capitol building anyway. I boarded the metro a few minutes before 9 a.m., and was underground for the next 25 minutes, without news.

When I came out of the escalator at Capitol South, there was a larger crowd than usual standing around. They were looking across the river at a plume of smoke in Virginia, but nobody was saying much of anything. There was no shouting or crying. Nobody seemed to know what was going on. I walked to the Cannon House Office Building and the cops inside didn’t say anything unusual when I went through security. I walked downstairs to the basement to cross over the Capitol – this was about 9:35 now – and didn’t see anybody until I arrived at the last security checkpoint before the tunnel to the House side. The Capitol Police officer waved me through, and as I was picking up my stuff I heard a garbled voice from his radio. It said something about a plane being possibly headed to the Capitol.

I looked up at the officer, but I don’t remember his response. My attention was grabbed by a staffer who worked for then Rep. Dick Armey of Texas, the House Republican leader. He was running, flat-out, in his suit, down the gentle slope away from the Capitol. “Hey, what’s going on?” I yelled. “I’m getting out of here!!” was his reply. And he sped past me. It was the first time I had seen any panic that morning, and this particular guy was somebody who didn’t seem to scare easily.

I turned around and walked over to the House Clerk’s office in the basement of Cannon. The television was on, and I saw the WTC burning. I grabbed a phone and called Leslye, who was at work in Columbia Heights. “Where are you?”, she asked. I told her I was in the basement of a House office building. “What are you still doing there? Get out!”. I told her I would. Then the first tower fell, and I ran outside.

I saw my colleague Bill Swindell outside of Cannon, and he told me that he had been on the Blue line at the Pentagon station just before a plane hit that building. He was nervous – we both were now – and after standing around for a few minutes we decided to head to CQ’s offices in Dupont Circle (the one time the location ever made sense, I guess). We walked past the Capitol, heading north, where we saw a police officer standing on the roof of the Supreme Court building. He was looking east – for oncoming planes. The rumors were flying now: there was a plane headed to the Capitol, or the White House.

It took us a long time to walk back to Dupont, as we took in a changed city. There was an anti-aircraft battery set up along Massachusetts Avenue. People were ushering school children out of a building behind Union Station. Nobody had cell phone reception. We were paralyzed. What I really remember, more than anything that morning, is how quiet it was on the streets. Unlike New York, unlike the Pentagon, we were rendered helpless without much of a sound.

Mar 18

Steve Coll

I have a ton of respect for Steve Coll, who was named dean of the Columbia Journalism School on Monday. He was the managing editor of The Washington Post when I started there, and was thoughtful, smart and not given to exercising authority for its own sake.

What I remember most about Steve Coll is the first time that we met. Around 4 p.m. on October 4, 2004, I was ushered into a “north wall” office at The Post - the top editors had their offices along the north wall of the building. Inside were Steve and Len Downie, the paper’s executive editor. A joint interview was somewhat unnerving.

Both Steve and Len were very polite, even if they didn’t know exactly what I was being hired to do - something with data, basically. They asked me about my background and my work, and then asked if I had any questions for them. And I did, based on discussions I had with friends and colleagues and my experience as a Hill reporter. What I had heard, and had been told quite a bit, was that The Post was a “destination” place for journalism, and that I’d be stupid not to jump at an offer. But I also was told in no uncertain terms that The Post could be a difficult place to work. That some people there were extraordinarily competitive and, to put it bluntly, not very nice.

So gently, trying to be very respectful, I asked about this. “I’ve heard from people that I trust that The Post can be … uh, a little mean.”

There was a brief pause. I thought for an instant that I had blown it. And then Steve looked at me and acknowledged that it was an issue, but that “I think that you’ll find that it’s a much friendlier place than it has been in the past.”

And I thought to myself, “He’s the managing editor of The Washington Post. He could have basically told me to stick it - they didn’t need me.” But he didn’t - he was honest and upbeat at the same time. He seemed to care that his paper was a good place to work.

Now, I’m pretty sure that I would have taken The Post’s offer whatever his answer had been. But that one exchange really put me at ease, and made it possible for me to really believe that this not only was a destination, but it was a place for me. Thanks, Steve. And good luck.

Feb 16

The Ink-Stained Wretch's weblog: Your new baby is ugly -


Newspaper companies are in the dark ages when it comes to understanding how to use research to produce better results online. From what I’ve experienced and read about elsewhere, decisions are almost always made by whoever is highest up the chain of authority relying on their gut. You won’t find…

It’s actually a good thing to work at a company where people are free to tell you how ugly the baby is.

(Source: markschaver)

Feb 04

Here’s my only offer. It was the only one I needed. Thank you, Mary Kate and Lynn, for taking a chance on me.

Here’s my only offer. It was the only one I needed. Thank you, Mary Kate and Lynn, for taking a chance on me.

The Sacramento Bee sent a postcard. Good thing I didn’t apply to the Modesto Bee, I guess.

The Sacramento Bee sent a postcard. Good thing I didn’t apply to the Modesto Bee, I guess.

The Fresno Bee had three internship slots in 1995. Three.

The Fresno Bee had three internship slots in 1995. Three.

Another internship that I would have accepted based on local cuisine alone.

Another internship that I would have accepted based on local cuisine alone.

To be fair, the chances of a Florida student getting a gig in Georgia weren’t terribly good to start.

To be fair, the chances of a Florida student getting a gig in Georgia weren’t terribly good to start.

Do not be discouraged.

Do not be discouraged.