My Afternoon with Bertis Downs

Sometimes, I feel really blessed to attend a school like Ohio Wesleyan University.

Case in point: Yesterday, I got the opportunity that an aspiring music journalist at a small liberal arts school could only dream about. I got to interview Bertis Downs, former manager of R.E.M., educational reform activist and retired entertainment law professor from the University of Georgia.

Downs was invited to OWU by our politics and government department to give a lecture titled “New Adventures in Storytelling: Music, Business, Schools, Life.” As a journalism minor, I got to interview Downs and cover the lecture for our school paper, The Transcript (the article will be online soon; I’ll try to post a link).

My conversation with Downs ranged from discussing the value of small schools, the changing shape of music creation, studying history, my own high school experience and his favourite moments with R.E.M.

“They were good at what they did. I had something to do with the business planning and strategy,” Downs said. “I had a pretty light touch as a manager. They didn’t want a lot of control.”

Whether or not you agree with the band’s politics, you have to admit R.E.M. had a pretty successful career not just as musicians, but as social activists as well.

Downs said some of his favourite moments with the band happened while they were playing benefits for Neil Young’s Bridge School, Bruce Springsteen’s Vote for Change in swing states or Live 8 to help fight global poverty.

The band also helped get Athens, Georgia’s first female mayor elected. They even helped get the Motor Voter bill signed during Bill Clinton’s presidency, an act that made all licensed drivers eligible to register to vote.

“They just had some really great political lyrics,” Downs said. “Like the song ‘Stand’…’Stand in the place where you live.’ That’s a great message. Do what you can, make a difference with what’s in front of you.”

Downs said an especially impactful moment was watching R.E.M. play a show in Hyde Park a week after the London bombings of 2007. “Someone in the crowd was holding up a sign that said ‘Thank you for staying,'” he said.

Then again, R.E.M. seems to have an impact wherever they go.

“College rock became the counterculture in Athens,” Downs said about R.E.M.’s early days. In a town focused mostly on college football, bands like R.E.M. and the B-52’s offered a different scene for those more interested in music.

“Lots of fraternity brothers still came to their (R.E.M.’s) shows. They didn’t care. Anyone could come to their shows,” Downs said. “They were just happy people were coming.”

Downs said college radio was what really helped R.E.M. gain traction before the radio success of “Losing My Religion.”

“It’s easier to make music now. Anybody can make music and get it out there on the Internet,” Downs said. “Now when you make music it’s going to be available for free. You didn’t have to do that 30 years ago. We used to judge success based on how many records were sold. Now, it’s how many clicks you get on Spotify.”

Downs spends a lot of time now focused on what he calls “the disconnect between policymakers and students on the ground” in public schools.

In his ideal world, Downs would want a school system with adequate funding, well-paid teachers, teacher who were passionate about changing lives and not stressed about standardized testing, a multicultural student body and a curriculum of many different topics.

He wants public schools to get the respect they deserve. “Public schools are being criticized and attacked for lousy teachers and low test scores. This seems counterproductive,” Downs said.

He said he is against the “obsession” American policymakers have with using standardized tests as a way to measure student/teacher progress. Instead, he wants public schools that everyone will be content with sending their children to to learn and grow. He believes that current circumstances should never limit a student’s chance to rise up in the world, attend college and get a well-paying job.

Like myself, Downs (a graduate of Davidson College, a liberal arts school in North Carolina) is a huge fan of a liberal arts college education.

He especially likes that students get to learn about a variety of topics and take classes in everything they’re interested in. He said this makes students who are quick to adapt, eager to learn and able to think critically.

“Lots of things I learned in college have a lot to do with what I do now. College helped me get my feet wet,” Downs said about his own education.

Really, Downs thinks it’s important to learn something new every day. For him, classroom learning is definitely important, but so is learning from everyday interactions with the people around you.

“I just learned today that Branch Rickey went to Ohio Wesleyan,” he said, laughing.

“The lesson I’m proudest that my kids are learning is how to have a lot of empathy,” he said. “You might not know what things look like from someone’s perspective, but you can at least try to put yourself in their shoes.”

As always, thank you for reading, and God bless.

Until next post,



One thought on “My Afternoon with Bertis Downs

  1. Pingback: Bertis Downs Article Is Published | Turntable talk

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