Story by Julia Cramer

Photos by Art Pekum

There was a time in the late ’80s when Paul Newman wasn’t doing interviews. He wasn’t talking to anyone. He was taking a break from acting and focusing on his second career in auto racing. Reporters hit the racetracks at Lime Rock Park in Lakeville, Conn., anyway, hoping the recent Academy Award winner for his performance in “The Color of Money” would answer a few questions.

On that summer day, he did invite one reporter to speak with him. Newman stepped out of his trailer and waved over Martha Woodroof, an NPR freelance reporter who had just started a career in radio. The USA TODAY reporter talking to her was stunned.

“Oh my God, she’s getting an interview,” he said with disbelief.

True Martha Fashion

Today, Martha hosts a weekly hour-long radio program, WMRA-FM’s “The Spark,” where she has the opportunity to interview creative characters in the region. Her guests aren’t as famous as Paul Newman, but she still finds them the same way.

To get the coveted interview with Newman, Martha fearlessly set her sights on him, oblivious to anything obstructing her path, and began chatting. She started with the woman who answered the phone at the office of Newman’s racing partnership. After Martha had developed a relationship with her, she talked to his racing partner. And when she arrived at the tracks, Martha set her sights on Newman’s pit crew. They were the ones who convinced Newman to talk to Martha, and her story was broadcast nationally on NPR’s “Morning Edition.”

“I didn’t have it nailed,” Martha remembers years later in her office at the WMRA studio in Harrisonburg, Va. “But I had a good solid connection with people in his racing organization. I mean, chatty phone stuff. I believe in having fun on the phone.” In 1999, Martha set her sights on a radio job at WMRA. She was working as the director of co-curricular programs at Sweet Briar College, a position created for her. “Your guess as to what that means is a good as mine,” she says with a laugh.

So while other applicants handed in resumes and cover letters, Martha called Matt Bingay, the assistant general manager at WMRA, to chat. While other applicants waited for Bingay to call them for a job interview, Martha showed up at his office door and told him the story of the nearly impossible interview with Newman. “People stand out for different reasons,” Bingay says. “Martha stood out because she was tenacious; she was personable — she left an impression immediately. There aren’t many people you will meet that you can’t forget,” he says with a chuckle. “But Martha is one of them.”

He saw Martha’s persistence, her infectious personality and her natural ability to cultivate lasting connections with people, assets that are invaluable to both the station and its widespread listening community. “It’s a cliché, but she thinks outside the box. I don’t think she knows there is a box,” says Bingay. Martha was hired. Then she formally turned in an application. “You can’t do that anymore,” she says. “I was just ahead of the curve of getting away with stuff you, sadly, can no longer get away with.

Martha’s Many Hats

Martha had many careers before she started in radio: newspaper columnist, actress, restaurant owner, local morning talk show host, college administrator and novelist. Still, she gets restless.

Even at WMRA, Martha’s job description has changed often. She has handled many different types of shows, interviews, series, specials on authors and the Festival of the Book. Some stories were three-and-a-half minutes long, like the once-a-month series, “One Person’s Voice.” Others were hour-long specials. As she tried different things, she learned the technical side of radio. Martha had her written pieces published in the Washington Post and the New York Times Magazine, and her broadcast stories aired nationally on NPR. “My life’s ambition has been to work big market and live small market. I enjoy going to New York, working and coming home again,” says Martha. She enjoys the challenge of working with the best in New York, but you can find her at home putzing around the house and gardening on weekends.

In addition to her on-air productions, she has spent a lot of time developing relationships with the community. She has organized promotional events for the station, developed the station’s online presence in social media, kept a daily blog and started a civic soapbox series so listeners can share their comments on anything with the community. Her work culminated in an hour-long weekly program, “The Spark.”

“The Spark”

The show was Martha’s idea. That restless feeling was back, and Martha is a fearless pitcher. So one afternoon, she ambitiously approached Bingay with an idea. “Well, why don’t you let me start a weekly show where I just talk to people who are interesting to talk to?” asked Martha. The time slot on Fridays at noon was occupied with repeats of “Fresh Air,” so they decided to try the show there. It took six weeks for Martha to develop a pilot and then the first show aired on Sept. 2, 2011.

At the time, it was called “The Not Yet Named New Show.” It stayed that way for a month while listeners suggested and voted on potential names online. Lydia Wilson of Scottsville, Va., suggested “The Spark.” But the show’s premise was a little harder to nail down. The over-arching theme is creativity. But this creativity goes beyond traditional artistic expression. Her guests’ resumes are more varied than her own. She has interviewed a cobbler, restaurant-owners, cavers, musicians, business owners, comedians, authors, composers, instrument makers, historians, beekeepers, mechanics, motorcyclists, sound engineers and mathematicians. All are different, but their spark is what ties them together.

“It’s really her opportunity to talk to people about things they’re passionate about. So you get a chance to, in a way, sit with someone and find out why they’re on this planet,” says Bingay. Martha’s spark is finding yours. “I listen for that sort of quickening of interest in the person I’m interviewing  [that happens] when they get really interested in what they’re saying. I listen for that and that’s where my interview is,” says Martha. She can find that spark in anyone.

“If you’re really passionate about something, you’re going to think about it in creative ways,” explains Tom DuVal, the station’s general manager. Martha says she isn’t interested in interviewing celebrities. She has experience with those interviews, but it’s hard to get past the persona celebrities create to keep journalists at bay.

“I’m interested in having a real conversation,” Martha says.

Making the Microphone Disappear

Martha’s warm personality disarms her guests the minute they meet her. Call her Martha, sit back, relax and ignore the microphone in your face. You’re here to talk to her. She’s loud — the loudest person on staff — and so friendly you open up to her before you realize the interview has started. It’s not really an interview, just a conversation with Martha that she edits later and shares with her friends. “Martha is a terrific interviewer,” says Larry Stopper, a former WMRA disc jockey for “Acoustic Café,” an avid “Spark” listener and recent guest on the show. “She is able to put her interviewee at ease immediately and ask very incisive questions.”

Martha laughs quickly, loudly and often, and her laugh is contagious. “She’s really just pretty fearless about sitting down with someone and opening up enough of herself to be able to encourage them to open up themselves,” says DuVal. Or as Martha says, she’s nosey. “[I ask] what I call warm-up questions. Everybody has to get used to talking into a microphone. Everybody has to do that long enough until the microphone disappears and they’re just talking to me,” says Martha. She’ll ask for your life story and before you know it you’re having a real conversation. Then she’ll get to work editing.

“She is a master editor. She knows how to put a show together. You sound even better, once Martha has edited you, than you did when you were speaking with her in the interview,” says Stopper. She has to edit her show down to the second and it’s not unusual to find her still at the station on Thursday evening, scrambling to make it perfect. “Rather than editing for demographics or for some group, I’m editing for all these people that I’ve met who listen, and for whom this station is a real part of their lives,” says Martha. Martha spends a lot of time bookending her show with carefully constructed introductions to her guests.

“I love words. I love the specificity of language,” says Martha. “You have to think exactly. That’s what good writing requires: you to think very precisely and specifically. The thinking’s the hard part if you have a decent vocabulary and you just pick the words that say what you think.”

Sparking a Community Conversation

Martha’s audience extends as far north as Winchester, south to Lexington, east to Charlottesville, and includes a few scattered listeners in West Virginia and even some listeners in Farmville, Va., southeast of Charlottesville. They are in many places, but they listen to “The Spark” because they’re curious.

“They don’t just want to be told what to think. They want to discover and they want to think for themselves,” says Bingay. Martha’s curious too — that’s what makes her interviews good. “[She’s] not satisfied with the first answer necessarily … and she’s not afraid to ask a stupid question or to go somewhere that may be the wrong track,” says DuVal. Martha’s listeners are her partners. “Reading and radio, words on a page and words coming out of a box, I think, require the listener, your partner in this adventure, … to participate, not just to sit there. And I love that,” she says.

Through her show, Martha is still building a community. She ends each show by asking her listeners to suggest guests. Nothing makes her happier than when she gets to say on air that her guest is a listener’s suggestion. “It’s great to give … the local people exposure on local radio. It’s very difficult for those individuals to find ways of promoting themselves and what they do. And Martha is able to give them an opportunity to speak about their work to a broader audience,” says Stopper. By sharing local stories she creates a feeling of community.

Some listeners approach her in line at the grocery store, recognizing her by her laugh, distinctive voice or even her mannerisms that they can’t see on the radio.  Knowing Martha is being a part of her community. “I think making people aware of the richness of where they live is not a bad thing to do with your life,” says Martha. So she’ll keep sparking stories.

“Everybody who walks this green earth has an interesting story — one that I can learn from and profit from, and expand my own universe by listening to,” says Martha. “We all can’t do everything, but when we bump up against people who seem unusual to us, or their background or stories are different than ours, I think the best thing that we can do for ourselves is listen to those stories.”