Iowa Alumni Magazine | February 2007 | People

Smooth Talker: Ben Kieffer

By Ian Smith
Ben Kieffer's career as a radio journalist has taken him around the world and back to Iowa City again.

Ben Kieffer

As the first graffiti-covered piece of the Berlin Wall tumbled to the ground and a roar of joy erupted from the crowd of thousands of onlookers, Ben Kieffer knew he'd witnessed history. What he didn't realize was that the end of an era in Germany would lead him to a fulfilling career.

A few months before that historic moment in 1989, Kieffer, 86BA, had arrived in Germany, eager for a reporting opportunity in a land far from home. On that cold day in Berlin, he saw one East German couple approach the opening in the wall.

"The woman's face was a picture of anxiety and wonder, while the man was struggling not to show any emotion," he says. "When they stepped through, hundreds of us erupted in applause and cheers. The man instantly broke into tears and buried his face in his hands."

Years later, Kieffer still vividly recalls the powerful images of that night, which inspired him to continue his career in journalism. The Cedar Falls native stayed another ten years in Germany, quickly learning the language and operating his own business as a translator, voice artist, and media consultant.

By the time he returned to Iowa and a job with UI Broadcasting Services, he'd acquired not just media experience, but also a wife and three children. He admits that it took a while before the initial reverse culture shock wore off and he felt at home in the U.S. again.

Now, listeners enjoy his smooth, inviting voice as he presents Java Blend, a weekly live music show, and hosts The Exchange, Iowa Public Radio's new live daily talk show.

Although he was originally a theater major, Kieffer's intense curiosity has made him a natural in a field where he can explore the lives of others. His favorite interview subjects range from former UI President David Skorton to a woman who swam through ice chunks to Antarctica.

The curiosity that led him to the freezing field in Berlin recently gained him a new gig—teaching a UI course on interviewing skills. "Curiosity is top of the list of traits a journalist should have, and it's something you can't learn," Kieffer says. "I think it was NPR's Neal Conan who compared it to being a shark, ever on the move, ever hungry to consume new information and aspects of human experience."