A Matter of Words

How many Harvard graduates have a job description that includes "quiz-show panelist"? If you guessed "At least one," go on to the next round and meet Tony Kahn '66, who appears regularly on Says You!, a weekly program carried on some 100 National Public Radio stations across the country.

Kahn at studio
Tony Kahn in working quarters at the WGBH studio in Boston.

Photograph by Justin Allardyce Knight

The show features competing teams, offbeat questions about language and literature, and a "guess-the-right-definition" round in which Kahn once gave the meaning of "interpolate" as "to arrest in several countries at once." Much of the show's appeal lies in the panelists' rapid wordplay, creative bluffing, and good-humored banter, which sounds so natural because most of them have been friends for years. "We used to hang out together in our twenties and play games," says Kahn. "We played one form of poker where the loser had to make a personal confession. There was no point in choosing a topic like 'major sexual dysfunction,' because everyone would just fold. But 'something you did with a cousin' or 'a time you embarrassed your mother' elicited fascinating responses. We really got to know each other, and now the show reflects our genuine enjoyment of the others' company."

Kahn savored such close friendships after finding the atmosphere at college mostly distant and intimidating. "Harvard was a tough pill to swallow. College was where I learned what I was not going to be, and it took years for me to appreciate what I got out of it. At the time, WHRB saved me. It gave me a community of people with a common interest, and a sense of accomplishment. The process of producing a show was very rewarding; you made real mistakes that were followed by real learning."

As a senior, Kahn served as director of announcing and anchor for an evening show. "And now"--he drops into an artificially sonorous voice at the recollection--"it's time for All the News." His formal training, he remembers, consisted of having his predecessor point at his throat and say, "When you announce, you have to resonate." "I had no idea what he was talking about, but I said, 'OK.'"

Kahn still reports news in his other role as a host of The World, the international news program coproduced by the BBC. Assembling the daily program from interviews and breaking news in far-flung places requires intense concentration, but Kahn says the deadline pressure doesn't unsettle him. "My most nerve-racking moment," he recalls, "was during an interview with the authors of a book on insects used as food around the world. We had agreed that they would bring in samples and I would eat one on the air, with an audible crunch for the microphone. I was dreading it. But the dried moth larva I picked--I decided to go with the head portion--tasted like a salty wheat cracker, and suddenly I was on the other side of my fear. That moment illustrates for me the point of The World: to show that similarities between people far outnumber the differences, but the differences can give you a wonderful mirror into yourself. My fear had separated me from people who eat bugs, until I realized--hey, it's totally natural when you need the protein."

~Deborah Schneider


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