Peter Jon Shuler getting set for a press conference during federal court battle over the future of Proposition 8, California's 2008 ban on gay marriage. (Courtesy of Peter Jon Shuler )
eter Jon Shuler, who’s retiring from KQED News on Tuesday after more than three decades of reporting, wasn’t completely clear on Bay Area geography when he arrived here in 1988.
He had spent five years in New York City honing his craft as a radio engineer and beginning to report his own audio pieces on avant garde music when he and his wife, Jamie Beckett, moved west so she could take a job as a business reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Peter Jon Shuler at KQED
Peter had worked for WBAI, the New York outlet for the Pacifica network of community radio stations, and done some engineering and tape syncs for NPR. Hoping to continue in public media, he carried “a fistful of recommendations and suggestions” about where he might catch on in the Bay Area.
“I contacted everybody — KQED, KALW, KPFA, KCSM,” he says. One of those he wound up talking to was Anne Marshall, KQED’s news director. This is where geography and Peter's native enthusiasm enter the picture.
“She said, ‘Oh, yeah, we got some new funding to do some freelance coverage in the South Bay. Would you be interested in that?’” Peter recalls. “I was green — I had just arrived. I had never heard of the South Bay. I didn’t know what it was or what its significance was, but I just said, ‘Yeah, sure! I’m interested in that!’”
That blind leap into Silicon Valley led in July 1990 to a full-time position at KQED, one for which he was required to move south from San Francisco. It was a job that gave Peter a front-row seat to the ascendancy of the internet and World Wide Web and development of many of the technologies that shape our daily lives today.
What he saw then wasn’t pretty. A five-part series he reported in 1993 was prescient in understanding how technology that was superficially friendly was in fact creating a web that would bind us ever more tightly to work.
“The danger is that we will allow the anytime, anyplace office to become the every time, everyplace office," Stanford futurist Paul Saffo said in one of the 1993 stories.
The rise of that always-on culture was just one of many changes in our world that Peter Jon Shuler covered as a KQED reporter. In addition to all the policy and trend pieces, the business coverage, keeping tabs on elected officials, the daily litany of fire, flood, strikes, threatened strikes, housing, homelessness, trial, tragedy and triumph, he's covered one major earthquake, two or maybe three big economic bubbles and four recessions. He's tracked the South Bay's emergence as the region's center of gravity and its importance as one of the world's most important innovation centers.
Peter did all that while maintaining a self-effacing humor, showing a rare penchant for connecting with other people and displaying a constant willingness to go wherever his editors pointed.
“We will miss him so much at KQED," says Holly Kernan, the company's chief content officer, who has known Peter for decades. "He is a great writer, funny as hell and has a depth of knowledge of the South Bay that is unparalleled. He is a wonderful reporter, a compassionate colleague and KQED is fortunate that he lent his considerable talents to our audience. I can’t wait to see what he does next.”
Rachael Myrow, KQED's Silicon Valley bureau chief, describes Peter as "gracious, thoughtful, a delight to work with, a rock solid journalist with a gentle sense of humor that twinkles in his stories for the ray-dee-oh, especially his features."
And Ted Goldberg, senior editor for KQED's broadcast news desk, says Peter is "patient, empathetic and considerate: all the qualities I look for in a friend. He's also smart and tenacious with a strong sense of justice: all the qualities I look for in a reporter. I will miss working with him."
eter Jon Shuler began life in September 1958 the town of Berrien Springs, in southwestern Michigan. He was the third child of Carrell V. "Bud" Shuler, a Berrien Springs native, and the former Isabel Jenny, who grew up in the Bronx in New York City.
His parents' courtship began when Bud Shuler was in New York as part of his World War II military service. Like many Seventh-day Adventists, he was a conscientious objector who served as a medic, his assignment being the hospital ship Wisteria, which starting in 1944 brought wounded U.S. servicemen back to the United States from Europe.
"They met at a social for the servicemen, and they fell in love," Peter says. "On their first date, they walked all the way up to the Cloisters (at the northern tip of Manhattan) and then back to Grand Central Terminal." That's an 8- or 9-mile walk. Each way.
Peter was brought up in the Seventh-day Adventist Church and attended religious schools from first grade all the way through college.
He says growing up as an Adventist "gave me a certain set of values that I held as ideals, even when I didn't live up to them fully. And those have had a significant influence on my life and work, among them a strong work ethic and sense of integrity; also compassion and desire for justice for the weak and voiceless and the value of other people and putting other people first."
Peter says there was something else that came out of that upbringing, too: "a value that is not strictly part of the religion but is a part of the culture — a love for learning and the life of the mind."
He credits a couple of the teachers he had in his early years with allowing him to experiment with his creative side and broaden his knowledge of world literature and culture.
His sixth-grade teacher, Alex Miskiewicz (the pronouncer is MISS-kuh-wits), "encouraged a lot of my foolishness and a lot of my crazy projects," Peter says.
"It was my hare-brained idea to do a comedy sketch show" — something like TV's "Laugh-In".
"One of my best friends and I sort of pitched it to him and talked him into letting us do it, and we put it on for the rest of the school," he says. "Not for the parents — strictly for the other kids."
Mr. Miskiewicz supported other projects, too — for instance, a production of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol and an avant-garde art installation created with a refrigerator box painted and decorated with student paintings and sculptures. "He invented an award that year, 'the principal's award,' to encourage our creative efforts," Peter says.
In the Andrews Academy high school, the history and civics teacher, Farrell Gilliland, sponsored a class on world literature "way outside anything else in the curriculum."
"We met at lunchtime. We'd bring our trays into his class," Peter recalls. "One quarter he taught us the Ring Cycle. He brought in Wagner records and played stuff like 'The Ride of the Valkyries' and went through the text — the text was the excuse for teaching it as a literature course."
Other works Gilliland taught included "The Prophet," by Khalil Gibran, and "The Pillow Book," a classic of Japanese literature. "It was a glimpse of worlds that were far outside our little town," he says.
t Andrews University, Peter majored in communications, minored in English and worked for WAUS, the college radio station, which was an early NPR affiliate. After graduating, he spent time at Radio 74, a station in France broadcasting to the English-speaking community in Geneva, Switzerland. Returning to the States in 1983, he took up residence in New York.
Part of the reason for landing there was to pursue a dream growing out of his theatrical experience in high school and college to see if he could make it in theater or stand-up comedy. He describes that experience as "frustrating."
"I'm a pretty good actor, but I'm not a good auditioner," Peter says. "At the time, I didn't have the resilience to do that. It's a hard road. I got a few parts — not paying parts, but student productions, like at Columbia theater school, stuff like that. And if I kept at it, maybe something would have happened. But I got to the point where I wanted to have an income. So I chose radio."
Peter did go back to acting, in community theater in the South Bay and with a paying job for murder mystery dinner theater productions that he continued for more than a decade.
But starting in New York, he paid the bills with his broadcast skills. He was one of just a handful of paid employees at Pacifica's WBAI, working as one of the station's mix engineers. He also picked up work for NPR and other outlets. Among those he worked with was Amy Goodman, of "Democracy Now" fame, mixing a documentary piece she produced for WBAI on the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.
The craft and art of radio production is one of the big changes he's seen and digital tools have taken the place of analog ones that required the physical cutting and splicing of tape.
"I sort of miss it, 'cause there's a real kinesthetic feel to it," Peter says. "It's very satisfying — what I imagine potters feel when they put clay on the wheel, because you're playing the tape along, you find the place you want to be, you stop it, and you kind of rock the reels with you hands back and forth, and it goes bwip bwoop, bwip bwoop till you find just that sweet spot, right after the breath and before the word, and you mark it right on the tape head with a grease pencil, and then you bring the tape up onto the editing block and you slice it with a razor blade, then you pull it through to the place you want to edit to and you mark that with a grease pencil, then you stick them together with editing tape."
n 1988, Peter relocated to California. Amid a series of day jobs — one involved trying to sell firms displaying their wares at conventions on buying pictures of their booths — he soon began freelancing for KQED. One of his early assignments was keeping an overnight vigil at the site of a historic Bay Area tragedy: the collapse of the Nimitz Freeway's Cypress Structure in West Oakland during the October 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
"That was a rude awakening for me, because I'd never experienced an earthquake," Peter says. "I got a quick education in all things seismic."
The night after the quake, he was sent out to Oakland to monitor the search and rescue operation at the wrecked double-deck freeway structure.
"There were cars and people trapped between the two layers, and I was out there all night, just really doing a death watch, waiting as rescue crews worked through the rubble trying to find if anyone was left," he says. "It was a very grim time."
After joining KQED full time to cover the South Bay in 1990, Peter spent much of his time covering the growing influence of Silicon Valley and its frequent ups and downs.
"The technology business is cyclical," he says. "We've seen boom and bust and boom and bust. Every time there's a boom, people come here and act like it's going to last forever, and it never does. But then the bust never lasts forever, either. It's taught me a little bit about perspective."
Peter brings some of that perspective to bear in reflecting on retiring at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has plunged the entire nation into yet another bust.
"I guess I feel a little bit grateful that I have the privilege to shelter in place," he says. "So many other people have been forced to work in the face of this, and I think it's a rare bit of privilege to not have to worry about, 'Do I want to get paid, or do I want to protect my health?' It just makes me think of the inequality in this world."
In retirement, Peter plans to write. And when life gets back to something approximating "normal," he hopes to travel, get back to acting and do volunteer work.