WHRV’s Cathy Lewis is listening

The producer has Sen. Tim Kaine on hold and it’s making him very nervous. Kaine’s staff is texting a countdown, because the senator has a floor vote scheduled and the 20 minutes allotted for an interview on HearSay with Cathy Lewis is ticking away.

He jiggles his knee as he watches the incoming texts. Kaine is down to 16 minutes as the introductory music for the show runs. It reaches 14 minutes before Lewis is ready for him, pivoting to the topic without her usual “Here’s what we’re going to talk about today.”

“Sen. Tim Kaine needs to dash and do the work of the people, so we’ll start there and get him on his way,” she says. “Welcome back, Sen. Kaine.”

Photograph by Mark Edward Atkinson

It’s that “welcome back” that says so much. People who talk to Cathy Lewis want to talk with her again. In her 22 years on WHRV, 89.5 FM, she has interviewed 10 Virginia governors, dozens of members of the state’s congressional delegation, and candidates for everything from local commissions to the presidency, when she interviewed Sen. Barack Obama.

They take her calls and make time for her interviews because of the respect, civility and sincere curiosity she brings to each conversation, Kaine wrote in an email.

“I always know if I go on Cathy’s show I’ll have the opportunity to have a productive conversation of real substance and usually come away having learned something myself, either from Cathy or one of her listeners.”

Back when she founded the show in 1996 there was only the guest in front of her, the phone, and the producer chirping in her ear. Now she juggles listener phone calls and the producers’ input and the guest in front of her, plus the person bringing up yet another interesting point on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, all while making the show sound like a breezy chat.

Lewis holds up one finger and is connected to caller No. 1 as she glances at social media posts.

“That’s a great point,” she says to George from Chesapeake, then makes a scissor movement with her fingers, a cue to sound engineer Victor Bowen to fade out the call as she holds up two fingers to switch to caller No. 2.

For her this show is an honor and a responsibility. “For one hour I suspend whatever else is going on,” she says. “Whatever work, whatever family things, this is my hour and I have to bring my most focused self to it.”

Each Monday through Thursday finds her there at the mic. Today’s show is on what it means to be an American. Tomorrow’s will be on the sacrifice of military families. Her knowledge, she likes to say, is an inch deep and a mile wide. But any listener can tell you she is being modest. She has put down deep roots here and she cares about this community.

Photograph by Mark Edward Atkinson
Cathy Lewis did, once, want to be a bartender – and as a thoughtful host on Tidewater public radio, she gets to be the ear, the juggler, the voice of civility, and more.

Lewis is the daughter of an Army medical officer, so when she was growing up the family moved constantly. She stayed semi-still in Huntington, W.Va., after graduating with a degree in journalism from Marshall University. At 19 she began producing the newscast for the local ABC television affiliate. She came to Tidewater in 1981, when WAVY hired her as a reporter. In 1989 she married Win Lewis, now the rector of Christ & St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Norfolk.

“Once I decided to stay here it was like, wow, this is my place, so you have to learn how to solve things, because you’re not going to pick up stakes and say you’re out,” she says. “No, you have to sit and work it out, and you get better at it in time. It was interesting to realize that, huh, I’m not going to be leaving here. I’m going to see these people at Farm Fresh.”

Each time she takes the mic, she’s thinking of those people. Not her 35,000 estimated daily audience, but the individuals.

“To me this is a very intimate medium,” she says. “I’m not talking to a whole bunch of people, I’m talking to the person who’s sitting in the drive-through at Wendy’s, or taking a break at their desk, or the person going through chemotherapy. I feel like people give us a great gift when they give us their time, so I want to make the best use of it.”

On show mornings, Lewis’ work day starts at about 10. She receives a cheat sheet from co-producers Paul Bibeau and Jonah Grinkewitz that contains a rundown of research on the day’s topics. She’ll click around on Google, find a little more background, and sketch out her questions, knowing that the conversation may veer, as it often does.

Her big fear is that she’ll fail to focus and not hear what someone is trying to say. There have been a few times when the producers and the social media and keeping track of the incoming calls have distracted her, and she’s not heard what a caller had to say, which to her feels disrespectful.

“It takes a lot of courage to call a show like this,” she says. “If you thought about the number of people listening – which is probably more than 10 – and then thought about the courage it takes to pick up the phone and call, especially if you don’t agree, that’s a courageous thing to do, so it’s my job to make sure that they have such a good experience that they’ll call back tomorrow, and that they feel honored and not diminished, because God knows there’s enough of that out there.”

Civility is a big issue for Lewis. She is president and CEO of the CIVIC Leadership Institute, which coordinates 1,000 executive-level volunteers in positions of leadership within the region. Its CIVIC Scholars program trains 35 high-performing students from Old Dominion University and Tidewater Community College for a life of service. She also speaks on civility to corporations and civic groups.

But her focus is on her listeners. She gets tears in her eyes as she tells the story of a man who called in during a show on memory loss. His mother had Alzheimer’s and he was her primary caregiver, but she also had cats that she couldn’t care for properly, and the caller himself was in the midst of chemotherapy.

“My heart just broke,” Lewis says. She pulled what resources she could out of that mile-wide well, trying to help. “Then his voice cracked and he said, ‘I wait for this every day. This show is a sanctuary for me,’ ” she says. “That’s when you know the pressure is big.”

Lewis is consistently named to the Inside Business Power List, which applauds 75 of the most powerful people in the region. She helps shape discourse throughout Tidewater, and that includes giving all the political candidates who make it onto the ballot an opportunity to present themselves to their potential constituents. Recently a candidate got particularly vitriolic. It wasn’t comfortable for Lewis, but it was important.

“When people have a chance to express themselves,” she wrote later on HearSay’s Facebook page, “they will reveal who they are.”

Lewis reveals herself four days a week. She has ad-libbed an entire show when the phones were down, drawing from the wealth of knowledge she’s picked up over the years. She’s soothed anxious guests, cut off callers who insult, adapted to cancellations and delays and technical difficulties, and listened with as open a mind as possible.

“If it were scripted it would be different,” she says, “but it’s so dynamic, so alive, and warts and all, here we are.”

After the show she spends a moment with Bibeau and Grinkewitz, discussing what went well and how they all can do better next time. There was a movie review clip they barely squeezed in, a piece of music they’d had to shorten. She asks for a favor that will help her manage the show’s timing.

“If you can write in big bold letters, HARD OUT,” she tells them, “the train will be out of the station at that time. You can take that to the bank.”

Janine Latus, an author and activist on domestic violence issues, is an occasional guest on HearSay.

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