One Last Interview With VPR's John Dillon
After 20 years at Vermont Public Radio and 40-some years of working in news, VPR senior reporter John Dillon is retiring. When he started, he was VPR’s first full-time reporter. Over the years, he’s served as news director and worked for the New England News Collaborative, and covered agriculture, energy and the environment – as well as the Legislature.
John Dillon spoke with VPR’s Henry Epp and Anna Van Dine, co-hosts of The Frequency ahead of his last day working at Vermont Public Radio. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Henry Epp: You joined VPR two decades ago. How did you come to VPR and what's kept you here so long?
John Dillon: I came here out of the print journalism world. I was working as a Sunday writer for The Rutland Herald and Times Argus. The managing editor of that paper, The Rutland Herald, had gone to Vermont Public Radio as news director – John Van Hoesen – and I was kind of getting a little restless at the paper. And there was a little tiny ad that was in Seven Days, and … VPR was looking for a reporter. And I remember asking my wife, Kimberly, “Do you think I should apply for this?” And she said, “Well, you're not happy now, go for it.” And I applied for it and ended up being hired, I think as the first full time reporter at Vermont Public Radio. There were freelancers Steve Zind and Bob Kinzel and others were reporting for the station, but I was the first full-time staff reporter.
And what's kept me? It's a great job! Talking to people, talking about their issues, exploring issues of public importance, and then getting the sounds of that on the radio. I remember thinking, “This is terrifying! I'll never be able to do radio.” And the first few times, my children told me I sounded, you know, totally nervous and stupid on the radio. But I think I got the hang of it.
And then I started to really love actually being able to get listeners in a place, that you can really do with audio, and people can hear a tone of voice, a nuance that they won’t see in something between quotation marks. It just it … it blew me away to be actually able to work with that.
Anna Van Dine: So you said you were VPR's first full-time reporter. I mean, you must have seen so much change from that point until now, when there are upwards of a dozen people in the newsroom. Can you talk about what you've seen change here at VPR and in journalism in Vermont?
John Dillon: Boy, a lot of changes at VPR. I mean, we’ve had a couple of different news directors. I was even news director for three and a half, four years. Staff has grown. Our ambition has grown, our impact is grown.
I think the statewide impact, you know, VPR's role in the media landscape, has grown along with the staff. Print has declined – mainstream print has declined – but the role of weeklies in Vermont has remained really strong. Community newspapering in Vermont has remained really strong. Then, of course, the rise of online journalism, VTDigger being the most notable example.
Henry Epp: I want to ask about your how you identify with the state of Vermont, because, speaking personally, I think the first time I met you, I was like, “This guy is a Vermonter.” Like… your look, your demeanor, I was like, “This makes absolute sense that this is the news director of Vermont Public Radio.” But then I found out later that you did not grow up in Vermont – you grew up in the D.C. area, right? How did you adapt to living here over the years? And do you feel like you're a Vermonter now?
John Dillon: I guess it's just like, you know, my I've adopted the adaptive camouflage? I don't know. Yeah. I think I'm sort of a New Englander by temperament, if not birth. You know, when I grew up, we actually lived in many different places. My father was in the government, and we moved around a lot when I was a kid and then settled in D.C. So I never really felt a total sense of place until I moved here. And I think it just… it just became a part of me.
Anna Van Dine: What do you wish more people understood about Vermont?
John Dillon: I'll change the question around on you a little bit. I think Vermonters, in terms of what I think they should understand about themselves, is that we're not the exceptional paradise that people sometimes think we are. You know, we're not this green paradise … in terms of energy or environmental impact. We've got Lake Champlain, that's really hurting. We've got an energy mix that may be you know, carbon-free, but it's reliant on nuclear and major hydro projects. We've got an affordability crisis, in some ways, in terms of housing, and wages, probably.
So … we believe in the exceptionalism of the state – and that's good, you got to think highly of yourself. But we also can fool ourselves into thinking that we're, you know, more equitable, in terms of each other and our diversity, than we are. And, you know, there are real social problems as a result. And we have to confront those and not just believe that we're an exceptional state.
Anna Van Dine: Outside of work, you're also a hunter and a fisherman. And these are activities that seem to cultivate patience and ask something of your presence of mind. And I wonder if the way you've learned to interact with the natural world shapes how you talk to and think about people?
John Dillon: I think it probably has – I hadn't drawn that direct connection. But you do a lot of thinking when you're hiking, or, you know, sitting or fishing or casting and, and it's a lot of alone time. And I guess that suits my introverted nature. But it also lets you think back to what you did with someone or how you interacted with them or think in the future about how you will.
I think one of the best things about interviewing is the pauses. And I often make this mistake – and we all do – where you know, you just keep going with your Q&A. And you're not letting the person fill in that gap of silence. And maybe that's what the silence in the woods can teach you, is to be a little more attentive to what people are saying. And I hope that's what I've learned. I've tried to.
Henry Epp: Before we let you go, do you have advice for us? Or for VPR as it goes forward?
John Dillon: Oh, gosh, I don't want to be one of those reporters and former retired journalists are always like, “We used to do it better in the old days.” Because no, I think VPR is a learning organization. And I think just continue to learn. I think that's the joy of reporting, right, is every time or often when you're out on a story, you're learning something. Even if it's a story you've covered before, somebody new is telling you and they've got a new experience with it. And if you're not doing that, you're not probably doing the job right. So, my only advice is just to keep learning.
Anna Van Dine: Um, we also had a special request, to ask if you would grace us with your Bernie Sanders impression…
John Dillon: “Anna, I don't know if I've ever met you, but you really shouldn't be asking those questions. That's not what this interview was about.”
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