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NPR National Correspondent John Burnett retires after 36 years at the network

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Gosh darn it. John Burnett's fixing to hang up his hat - retire, that is - leaving NPR after 36 years of stellar, eloquent, imperishable reporting with this network - 43 years as a journalist. He's been one of NPR's signature voices, covering wars, hurricanes, border troubles, and news of his retirement around these parts is about as welcome as a porcupine in a nudist colony. John Burnett, who is an authentic Texan, would never talk that way. He joins us now from his home studio in Austin. John, thanks so much.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Hey, Scott.

SIMON: How do you feel?

BURNETT: It's been a hell of a run. And I don't want to be, as we say, a bone in your enchilada, but...

SIMON: (Laughter).

BURNETT: ...It's time. Nothing lasts forever. And, man, what a privilege to have - as my father once told me, enviously, Johnny, you've got a skeleton key to the world. And the people that I've interviewed over these 36 years have stayed with me - their wisdom, their agony, their humor, their grit. And, you know, you have to drop everything and go cover a school shooting in Uvalde. That's when you don't love being a journalist. That's just soul-crushing. But, you know, most of the time, I've loved this job more than I can say. I remember once when I was in the middle of a feature about a scrappy small town newspaper in northern New Mexico, and I was just having a ball with this story. And my daughter Helen, asked me with utter sincerity, do they pay you to do these stories or do you pay them?

SIMON: And let's remember a few of those stories. What's one that comes immediately to mind?

BURNETT: Well, that's an easy one, Scott. It's the story of Carlos Garcia, the leaf player of the Zocalo in Mexico City's historic center. I was walking to an interview, and I heard this curious sound that was a cross between a kazoo and a violin and a whistle. And I followed it, which is what we do in radio with these big ears. And it was a street busker who had one arm who was playing a leaf of ivy, playing it with soul, with intonation, with vibrato. And I ended up doing a story on Carlos Garcia. And what happened after that story, Scott, is that the Kronos Quartet heard the story. They'd been looking for Carlos, who was a legend on the streets of Mexico City. They found him. Now let's hear what Carlos Garcia, the leaf player, sounds like with this lush string ensemble.

(SOUNDBITE OF KRONOS QUARTET AND CARLOS GARCIA'S "PERFIDIA")

SIMON: Let me ask you about hurricanes. You filed from Naples, Fla., after Hurricane Ian this year. Apparently, that was your 20th hurricane, beginning with Hugo in 1989. Is there a hurricane that stands out?

BURNETT: Oh, no question. It was Hurricane Katrina in 2005. That was like covering a biblical calamity. I mean, to witness a great American city dissolving in the flood waters - the rule of law melted away. There was no 911, no electricity, no internet, no transportation, no water, no services, and barely any communications. And then to be the first responder that some folks met after they were trudging out of the sunken Lower Ninth Ward. And, of course, NPR chronicled the slow rebirth of New Orleans over the years. And I really - I think that was my biggest story all in all, Scott.

SIMON: Yeah. Let me ask you about a very telling, historic exchange, really, you had with Robert Siegel of All Things Considered about thousands of people who were stranded at the convention center.

BURNETT: Right. They'd been gathering there from all over the city, and the heat and the squalor and the chaos. Here's what they sounded like when we opened our microphone on the sidewalk.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We don't have no cold water. We don't have water to wash our kids.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: ...And everything dying - ain't nobody said nothing.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: We don't have - the bathrooms there - it's filthy.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Everything is filthy. My baby got to use the bathroom right now.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We have four people dying in here.

BURNETT: And that same afternoon, I told Robert Siegel about the appalling conditions live on All Things Considered. And miraculously, I was able to get a signal on a mobile phone because, you know, all the cell towers had been blown down.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BURNETT: Three blocks from here in the Ernest Morial Convention Center, there are, I estimate, 2,000 people living like animals inside the city convention center and around it. They've been there since the hurricane. There's no food. There's absolutely no water. There's no medical treatment. There's no police and no security.

Robert Siegel had just interviewed the Homeland Security secretary, Michael Chertoff, who was, you know, the boss of this rescue operation. And Chertoff had said, well, we're not aware of any trouble at the convention center. And your reporter must be reporting rumors. Chertoff later told Newsweek that that NPR interview was the first time that he'd been alerted to that humanitarian disaster at the convention center. After the interview, DHS sent in a team. They confirmed what was going on that we had reported, and then they airdropped supplies.

SIMON: John, you've covered so much around the world, from Central America, Iraq and Afghanistan - I wonder if you take any particular lessons from a lot of those difficult experiences.

BURNETT: You know, it has been a long career, Scott, and I've thought a lot about this. If I could wave my wand and make one simple change in the world - elect more women leaders. There's too much testosterone in positions of power. They get us in these foolish, macho, prideful and unnecessary conflicts over and over and over. At the grassroots level, and I know anybody who's worked overseas knows this, on disasters, for every malefactor who commits a mass shooting or blows up a bomb, there are countless souls who rush in to the breach to help their fellow humans who are suffering. And I think that's why I'm not cynical after all these years. You just, you know, you look to the helpers.

SIMON: Got to ask you a question you're going to hear a lot - favorite interview?

BURNETT: There are so many. There was Dr. John, Mac Rebennack, the legendary piano professor of New Orleans, the Czech barbecue queen of Lexington, Texas. I just keep having great characters that I get to interview, Scott. The latest is Pastor Chris Battle. In fact, I had him in a piece in early December. And I described him as a big man with a pipe clenched in his generous smile. He walked away from 30 years as a Baptist minister to start a community garden in Knoxville, Tennessee, and people that come there to hear his sermons and then dig in the dirt and deliver vegetables to poor people.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CHRIS BATTLE: We were trying to create this community that people who learn to love each other and ultimately love the world and transform it, through collard greens - and okra.

BURNETT: I have to tell you, Scott, I don't hear enough of these kind of people on public radio anymore - real people, authentic voices. So many of our stories now quote academics and advocates and experts and, you know, just click out of Zoom and get out of the office and get your shoes muddy. I mean, that's how you meet characters and tell stories.

SIMON: You're so right. I got to ask you to play the harmonica. You are a genuinely great, professional, quality, recorded harmonica player.

BURNETT: It's my other life, Scott. I got to tell you, I love it. I've always had a harp with me on all my stories. It's always in the equipment bag right there with extra batteries and a spare mike, so. OK, here you go. You twisted my arm - "Blue Monk" by Thelonious Monk.

(SOUNDBITE OF HARMONICA MUSIC)

SIMON: Oh, my gosh. John Burnett, 36 years with NPR. Thanks so much.

BURNETT: It's been an honor, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.