Q&A: Alum and NPR reporter Tamara Keith heads to Winter Olympics

If you listen to National Public Radio’s coverage of the Winter Olympics, which will run Feb. 7-23 in Sochi, Russia, you’ll hear coverage by reporter and UC Berkeley alumna Tamara Keith. The youngest student, at age 19, ever to enroll in UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, Keith got her master’s degree in 2001. She joined NPR in Washington, D.C., in 2009. 

Q: You’ve been an NPR congressional correspondent since 2011. How did the Winter Olympics assignment come along?

Tamara Keith

Tamara Keith (Photo by Kainaz Amaria, NPR)

Covering the Olympics has always been a dream in the back of my mind. I spent the early years of my life in the Los Angeles area, and when I was 4 years old, Los Angeles hosted the 1984 Summer Olympics. I got to go to a few events, and, later that year, I had an Olympics birthday party. So, the Games have always loomed large in my life.

When I got an e-mail on election night 2012 from an NPR editor asking if I’d be interested in Sochi, I didn’t think twice. And I was barely back from maternity leave! I think I was chosen specifically because I’m not a sports reporter. They wanted an outsider’s perspective. The reporters they’ve assembled for Sochi don’t have much experience covering sports. What we have in common is that we like to have fun with our reporting and try to bring a sense of wonder to our stories.

From what I’m told, reporting on the Games is a 3-week-long sprint with 20-hour work days. It’s going to be totally exhausting and totally thrilling at the same time.

Q: Are there any similarities between covering sports and politics?

On the face of it, sports and politics don’t have a lot in common. But some of the key elements of the reporting are the same. There’s a terminology, a language unique to the various sports, terms that only make sense to fans and participants. Covering Congress, there’s a whole special lexicon — terms like “continuing resolution” and “cloture vote.” I’m constantly translating that language into something our audience can understand, and I’ll be doing a lot of that covering the Olympics. My goal is to put our listeners in that world and get them interested in something they wouldn’t normally know much or even care about.

I think there also are some parallels in the narrative arch — the fight for supremacy, the competition.

Q: How have you prepared for the Games, and for winter in Russia?

As with any new reporting topic, I’ve been reading as much as I possibly can. I subscribed to Sports Illustrated and have a stack of Olympics books next to my bed. I’ve also taken a “Learn to Curl” class at a nearby ice rink. Curling is an increasingly popular sport that is sort of incomprehensible at first glance. It’s like bocce ball on ice.

I ordered a bunch of thermals to keep me warm, and bought a case of hand and foot warmers at Costco. That may be overkill, since Sochi has a tropical climate, but it could be really cold up in the mountain cluster where the alpine ski and snowboarding events will take place.

One sport I know I’ll be covering extensively is women’s ski jumping. I went to the Olympic trials in Park City, Utah, in late December and met all the athletes and their parents. It’s incredible to watch these athletes fly through the air. This is the first time women have been allowed to compete in ski jumping at the Olympics. It’s been a huge fight to get it recognized, and it’s just an incredible story.

Speed skating also looks really cool. Oooh, and slopestyle!

Q: There is increasing concern about terrorism at the Olympics. How do you plan for that?

Every month for the last several months, the whole NPR Olympics team has had a conference call with a security consultant. He’s given us lots of advice and all the latest updates on possible threats. Our Moscow correspondent will be in Sochi and outside of the Olympics bubble to cover the security issues as well as politics, like the anti-gay propaganda law, and if those things begin to overshadow the Games, those of us who are there to cover sports will jump into news action. But I’m trying not to think too much about this. It’s one of those things that’s completely out of my control.

Q: You were on campus recently doing some pre-Olympic fact-finding. What did you learn?

NPR correspondent Tamara Keith at press conference held by Majority House Leader Eric Cantor at start of 16-day government shutdown last October. (Photo by Frank Thorp V)

NPR correspondent Tamara Keith at a press conference held by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor at start of last October’s 16-day government shutdown. (Photo by Frank Thorp V)

It was great to be back at Cal. I interviewed Professor Steve Lindow, a plant pathologist, for a story I was doing about artificial snowmaking. Sochi is on the Black Sea and has palm trees — not the kind of climate you’d picture for the Winter Games. So, snowmaking could end up being critical to the success of the Games. Professor Lindow discovered the ice-nucleating properties of a bacteria, and his discovery was commercially developed into an additive used in artificial snowmaking. His main focus is on protecting plants from frost damage, but in the process, he made a discovery that was critical in the evolution of artificial snowmaking.


Q: How did UC Berkeley prepare you for what you do today?

My time at Berkeley was very important to my development as a journalist and, more importantly, just as a person. One funny thing is that I learned not to procrastinate. I think I was so overwhelmed with my course load that I realized that, if I was going to survive, I would just have to get some things done early. And to this day, I often get things done well ahead of deadline.

I still keep in touch with some of my professors from the Graduate School of Journalism. I also met many of my closest friends while on campus, in addition to my husband, who I met on the very first day of classes.

Q: In addition to your 2001 master’s degree in journalism, you have a B.A. from UC Berkeley in philosophy, an increasingly popular major here. Has it helped you as a reporter?

Absolutely. In some ways, philosophy is all about taking apart people’s arguments, looking for flaws in their reasoning and asking a lot of questions. As a philosophy major, I learned to ask good questions — a skill I use every single day as a reporter.

Q: Are you an athlete yourself?

I’m a runner, not a good one, not a fast one, but I do love it. But my real sporting passion is softball. I play second base for the Bad News Babes, a team of female reporters who each year play in a charity softball game against female members of Congress. We raise money for young women fighting breast cancer and just generally have a ton of fun.

Q: What’s next for you, after your return from Sochi?

This month, I started a challenging new job as a White House correspondent for NPR. So, when I return from Sochi, I’ll really get to dive into my new beat, and I’m looking forward to finding a way to bring to it my own brand of storytelling.

 NOTE: Keith and the rest of the NPR Olympics team will be contributing from Sochi to NPR’s “On The Road” tumblr at http://nprontheroad.tumblr.com/.