LOCATIONS>
ADVERTISE>
CONTACT US>
SUBSCRIBE>
DIGITAL EDITION>
BEST OF SACRAMENTO     GOODIE BAG      MASTERS CLUB MEMBERS     NEWSLETTERS     WEDDINGS     RESTAURANTS     WINE
Jeffrey Callison


Posted on October 12

PHOTO BY JAYSON CARPENTER

Sacramento radio listeners know Jeffrey Callison as the worldly, inquisitive host of “Insight,” local NPR affiliate Capital Public Radio’s daily hour-long look at issues facing the region. But while Callison’s smooth style and distinctive Scottish brogue are a natural fit for radio, his route into the medium was circuitous at best. In fact, without the timeless lure of a beautiful woman, a violent push from Mother Nature and a kinder, gentler helping hand from the first President Bush, this former professional stage actor and musician likely never would have made his way into the radio business—or to America—at all.

On “Insight,” the 44-year-old Callison draws heavily on his broad background to connect with a bevy of politicians, artists, musicians, social advocates and other unique newsmakers. The show is intelligent, occasionally artsy and cool, and always more than just a simple diversion. It relies on Callison’s seemingly innate ability to be respectful of his guests without pandering, to be persistent without badgering or lapsing into the role of “obnoxious radio host.” It is a welcome accomplishment in an age when most talk radio seems hellbent on attracting listeners via screaming sound bites and “red state-blue state” hysteria.

“For a long time in public radio, we gave ourselves permission to be boring because being boring was somehow a virtue unto itself,” he says of the NPR stereotype. “It somehow showed how serious you were about what you did,” Callison says. “If you were snappy, that was commercial.”

Commercial still is a dirty word around most public radio stations, but Callison says competition from other sources has convinced CPR to come out of its comfort zone in an effort to keep listeners listening.
“The media landscape [in Sacramento] has changed,” he says. “We have competition now from another NPR station (San Francisco station KQED), from satellite radio and from other public stations that stream on the Internet. We can’t afford to just say, ‘We’re public radio, aren’t we great?’ We have to actually earn people’s attention.”

Callison goes about that by featuring  a diverse range of guests on his show, from the likes of Ward Connerly, the former UC regent who campaigned to end all racial preferences in California public education; to then-congressional candidate Doris Matsui in her first interview after the death of her husband, longtime Sacramento Congressman Robert Matsui; and local blues musician Jackie Greene, whom Callison calls a particular favorite. That variety requires a lot of preparation, although a listener might be surprised to learn most of it comes on the fly every day.

“Because we have only a limited amount of time to prepare for every show, Jeff spends every morning becoming a mini-expert on that day’s topics,” says “Insight” senior producer, Benjamin Jonas-Keeling. “He is an amazingly quick study and has an interest in a wide variety of topics, which makes him a natural host.”
Born in the Berwick region of southern Scotland, Callison was raised in Aberdeen, a longtime fishing hub turned European petroleum center. The oldest of four sons, then-Jeffrey (Jeff) Howitt—he and his wife, Gabrielle, took the name Callison when they got married in 2003—spent much of his youth listening to the BBC and “debating the universe” with his father, Jim. His mother, Charlotte, a nurse manager, often worked long hours, so his father would come home every day to make the boys lunch. Afterward, while the younger kids played outside, Jim Howitt and his eldest son would sit around the table and talk about whatever topics came to mind.

“I didn’t realize it at the time, but we were talking philosophy and politics and the issues of the world, which has had a great influence on me,” he notes. “He always drew things out of me by challenging me to think about issues. To this day, I still like to be challenged by new ideas that I may not have considered before.”
That willingness to try out new ideas also was the impetus for the Callison name-change. Although he does not classify himself as a feminist, he always has been adamant that a woman should not be forced to take her husband’s name when marrying. That, however, didn’t exactly jibe with his new wife’s wishes. After considering a mishmash of hyphenated and mixed versions, they decided to go with a neutral adaptation that connoted something important to both of them. Thus was born Callison—the name of the street where they were introduced by mutual friends and, eventually, where they were married.

He credits his parents for shaping his worldview, noting that it was still fairly unique at the time for his mother to work so much while his father often took care of the children. Both parents also were active in Liberal Party politics, and all the boys grew up participating in election campaigns.

“It was all just regular life to us,” he recalls, “But in hindsight, I can see that I have always been immersed in politics and public affairs.”

Perhaps, but his true love as he approached adulthood wasn’t politics. His interests at the time were English literature (“because I was good at it”) and philosophy (“it just sounded like a cool idea”), both of which he chose to study at the University of Edinburgh. He was just about finished with his studies when he decided he wanted to have a go at radio journalism. He applied for various graduate programs in journalism, but a lack of previous experience stalled that idea before it went anywhere.

“They all wanted to see some previous work in the field, but until then I had not shown the slightest inclination for it,” he says of those efforts. “I figured that was it, and I began to cast about for what I would do with my life.”

It didn’t take him long to discover another love: acting. Almost on a lark, he auditioned for and got a lead role in a production at an Edinburgh theater company. Thrilled to be performing before live audiences, he spent the next few years “eking out an existence” on Edinburgh stages before moving to Paris to study at the improvisational acting school L’Ecole Jacques Lecoq. He stayed there for almost three years, augmenting his stage work with guitar and piano gigs. Although he says he was good at acting, particularly light comedy, the profession was far from lucrative.

“It was a very difficult life because, not surprisingly, as a bohemian in Paris, I was competing with thousands of other bohemians who were also trying to fashion a living the same way,” he says.

The Parisian experience did produce one major benefit: He met a young American student on break from UC Santa Cruz who had come to Paris to connect with her French heritage. Before long, the two were married. He admits that the thought of starting a new life in America had not occurred to him, but when it came time for his new wife to return to the States to finish her degree, he embraced the idea of joining her.
The move, however, went better than the marriage, which ended soon after the couple arrived in Santa Cruz in 1989. Undaunted, he got a job selling ad space for a local newspaper, optimistic his life’s calling was still out there. Little did he know that his big break was just around the corner—and that it would literally rock his world.

It came in the form of the Loma Prieta earthquake, the 6.9 temblor that shook Northern California to the core just as most of the country was sitting down to watch the Oakland A’s and San Francisco Giants take the field for Game 3 of the “Bay Bridge” World Series. The quake devastated parts of the Bay Area, collapsing freeways and bringing things to a screaming halt. Farther south in Santa Cruz, near the quake’s epicenter, things were even worse. The devastation there was very concentrated, wiping out a far bigger percentage of businesses than in San Francisco.

With virtually all of the newspaper’s advertising revenue gone, Callison was suddenly without a job and without much hope of getting one. But then came some good news from then-President George Bush, who declared the quake to be a national disaster. That decree authorized six months of unemployment insurance, even for workers who were not American citizens. It was a welcome cushion, and with no other job to be had, Callison used some of his time to volunteer at the local NPR station, KUSP in Santa Cruz, answering phones and getting involved in the radio game. The rest, as they say, is history. He eventually migrated to Sacramento and CPR, where he served as news director for several years before “Insight” debuted in July 2004.

With the success of the show has come a certain amount of celebrity notice, often the result of the distinct vocal lilt that distinguishes Callison from his radio peers. Although the voice is perfect for radio’s theater of the mind, it is impossible to turn off when he simply wants to get through the line at the grocery store. He admits to at times “just pointing instead of speaking” to hide his voice.

“It isn’t being recognized that is the issue,” says Gabrielle Callison. “It is just important to be recognized for the right reasons, not just as a unique voice but as a great journalist and interviewer.”

Callison agrees, although he says no amount of recognition could ever change him. “I just don’t take myself that seriously,” he says.

Callison rarely gets back home to visit his family, all of whom live in Scotland, although Gabrielle notes that he does call regularly. He and Gabrielle, who is 10 years his senior, do not have children, so these days he spends his limited free time playing piano and devouring the news.

The guitar, however, has gone to the wayside, a victim of a busy schedule that also has claimed any thoughts of venturing onto local theater stages. He acknowledges the trade-off, but says the success of “Insight” has made it very worthwhile. He also notes a significant fringe benefit of the job.

“I always consider myself to be a journalist,” he says. “But for one hour every day, I get to be a performer again. That’s great.”Spandering, to be persistent without badgering or lapsing into the role of “obnoxious radio host.” It is a welcome accomplishment in an age when most talk radio seems hellbent on attracting listeners via screaming sound bites and “red state-blue state” hysteria.

“For a long time in public radio, we gave ourselves permission to be boring because being boring was somehow a virtue unto itself,” he says of the NPR stereotype. “It somehow showed how serious you were about what you did,” Callison says. “If you were snappy, that was commercial.”

Commercial still is a dirty word around most public radio stations, but Callison says competition from other sources has convinced CPR to come out of its comfort zone in an effort to keep listeners listening.

“The media landscape [in Sacramento] has changed,” he says. “We have competition now from another NPR station (San Francisco station KQED), from satellite radio and from other public stations that stream on the Internet. We can’t afford to just say, ‘We’re public radio, aren’t we great?’ We have to actually earn people’s attention.”

Callison goes about that by featuring  a diverse range of guests on his show, from the likes of Ward Connerly, the former UC regent who campaigned to end all racial preferences in California public education; to then-congressional candidate Doris Matsui in her first interview after the death of her husband, longtime Sacramento Congressman Robert Matsui; and local blues musician Jackie Greene, whom Callison calls a particular favorite. That variety requires a lot of preparation, although a listener might be surprised to learn most of it comes on the fly every day.

“Because we have only a limited amount of time to prepare for every show, Jeff spends every morning becoming a mini-expert on that day’s topics,” says “Insight” senior producer, Benjamin Jonas-Keeling. “He is an amazingly quick study and has an interest in a wide variety of topics, which makes him a natural host.”
Born in the Berwick region of southern Scotland, Callison was raised in Aberdeen, a longtime fishing hub turned European petroleum center. The oldest of four sons, then-Jeffrey (Jeff) Howitt—he and his wife, Gabrielle, took the name Callison when they got married in 2003—spent much of his youth listening to the BBC and “debating the universe” with his father, Jim. His mother, Charlotte, a nurse manager, often worked long hours, so his father would come home every day to make the boys lunch. Afterward, while the younger kids played outside, Jim Howitt and his eldest son would sit around the table and talk about whatever topics came to mind.

“I didn’t realize it at the time, but we were talking philosophy and politics and the issues of the world, which has had a great influence on me,” he notes. “He always drew things out of me by challenging me to think about issues. To this day, I still like to be challenged by new ideas that I may not have considered before.”
That willingness to try out new ideas also was the impetus for the Callison name-change. Although he does not classify himself as a feminist, he always has been adamant that a woman should not be forced to take her husband’s name when marrying. That, however, didn’t exactly jibe with his new wife’s wishes. After considering a mishmash of hyphenated and mixed versions, they decided to go with a neutral adaptation that connoted something important to both of them. Thus was born Callison—the name of the street where they were introduced by mutual friends and, eventually, where they were married.

He credits his parents for shaping his worldview, noting that it was still fairly unique at the time for his mother to work so much while his father often took care of the children. Both parents also were active in Liberal Party politics, and all the boys grew up participating in election campaigns. “It was all just regular life to us,” he recalls, “But in hindsight, I can see that I have always been immersed in politics and public affairs.”

Perhaps, but his true love as he approached adulthood wasn’t politics. His interests at the time were English literature (“because I was good at it”) and philosophy (“it just sounded like a cool idea”), both of which he chose to study at the University of Edinburgh. He was just about finished with his studies when he decided he wanted to have a go at radio journalism. He applied for various graduate programs in journalism, but a lack of previous experience stalled that idea. “They all wanted to see some previous work in the field, but until then I had not shown the slightest inclination for it,” he says of those efforts. “I figured that was it, and I began to cast about for what I would do with my life.”

It didn’t take him long to discover another love: acting. Almost on a lark, he auditioned for and got a lead role in a production at an Edinburgh theater company. Thrilled to be performing before live audiences, he spent the next few years “eking out an existence” on Edinburgh stages before moving to Paris to study at the improvisational acting school L’Ecole Jacques Lecoq. He stayed there for almost three years, augmenting his stage work with guitar and piano gigs. Although he says he was good at acting, particularly light comedy, the profession was far from lucrative.

“It was a very difficult life because, not surprisingly, as a bohemian in Paris, I was competing with thousands of other bohemians who were also trying to fashion a living the same way,” he says.
The Parisian experience did produce one major benefit: He met a young American student on break from UC Santa Cruz who had come to Paris to connect with her French heritage. Before long, the two were married. He admits that the thought of starting a new life in America had not occurred to him, but when it came time for his new wife to return to the States to finish her degree, he embraced the idea of joining her.
The move, however, went better than the marriage, which ended soon after the couple arrived in Santa Cruz in 1989. Undaunted, he got a job selling ad space for a local newspaper, optimistic his life’s calling was still out there. Little did he know that his big break was just around the corner—and that it would literally rock his world.

It came in the form of the Loma Prieta earthquake, the 6.9 temblor that shook Northern California to the core just as most of the country was sitting down to watch the Oakland A’s and San Francisco Giants take the field for Game 3 of the “Bay Bridge” World Series.

The quake devastated parts of the Bay Area, collapsing freeways and bringing things to a screaming halt. Farther south in Santa Cruz, near the quake’s epicenter, things were even worse. The devastation there was very concentrated, wiping out a far bigger percentage of businesses than in San Francisco.

With virtually all of the newspaper’s advertising revenue gone, Callison was suddenly without a job and without much hope of getting one. But then came some good news from then-President George Bush, who declared the quake to be a national disaster. That decree authorized six months of unemployment insurance, even for workers who were not American citizens. It was a welcome cushion, and with no other job to be had, Callison used some of his time to volunteer at the local NPR station, KUSP in Santa Cruz, answering phones and getting involved in the radio game. The rest, as they say, is history. He eventually migrated to Sacramento and CPR, where he served as news director for several years before “Insight” debuted in July 2004.

With the success of the show has come a certain amount of celebrity notice, often the result of the distinct vocal lilt that distinguishes Callison from his radio peers. Although the voice is perfect for radio’s theater of the mind, it is impossible to turn off when he simply wants to get through the line at the grocery store. He admits to at times “just pointing instead of speaking” to hide his voice.

“It isn’t being recognized that is the issue,” says Gabrielle Callison. “It is just important to be recognized for the right reasons, not just as a unique voice but as a great journalist and interviewer.”

Callison agrees, although he says no amount of recognition could ever change him. “I just don’t take myself that seriously,” he says.

Callison rarely gets back home to visit his family, all of whom live in Scotland, although Gabrielle notes that he does call regularly. He and Gabrielle, who is 10 years his senior, do not have children, so these days he spends his limited free time playing piano and devouring the news.

The guitar, however, has gone to the wayside, a victim of a busy schedule that also has claimed any thoughts of venturing onto local theater stages. He acknowledges the trade-off, but says the success of “Insight” has made it very worthwhile. He also notes a significant fringe benefit of the job.

“I always consider myself to be a journalist,” he says. “But for one hour every day, I get to be a performer again. That’s great.”                                      

SNAPSHOTS

St. Francis Revelry 2014

St. Francis Revelry 2014

Published: Saturday, October 18, 2014 carlcostas.com