In honor of 1A's first anniversary, NPR Extra caught up with Joshua Johnson about his experience hosting the show, navigating complex conversations, and where he and the team hope to take the program in 2018 and beyond.
You started your public radio career by helping launch a unique regional news partnership between Miami's NPR station WLRN, and The Miami Herald. Then you were a morning news hosts for KQED in San Francisco. Did you always want to host your own program? What drew you to public radio?
I absolutely always wanted to host my own show. Since I was a small child, I used to play pretend that I was a game, talk or late-night show host, news anchor or sportscaster. Eventually, I started coming up with ideas for programs and realized that I'd be happiest working on something original. 1A is a manifestation of something I've dreamed about my whole life, but at the same time never would've envisioned quite this way.
As for public radio, I got into it because local TV news was making me crazy. I always liked NPR, but network television was my first love. Public radio was a perfect escape hatch for me – challenging in all the ways journalism should be, with an audience that really appreciates great work.
1A is a show about a "changing America." The program and its conversations are touted as celebrating free speech and the power of the spoken word. A year in, can you elaborate on how 1A has remained committed to this mission? Any particular conversations or guests that come to mind?
The first thing we try to do with every program is listen more than we talk. It's a waste of time to create a space for free speech if I do all the talking. So we put out prompts and call-outs, we check our voicemail inbox regularly, we even build shows around audience-suggested topics, all to make sure that we default to listening. So much of our civic life would improve dramatically if more of us defaulted to listening. If there's a not-so-secret secret to our success, that's a big part of it.
Beyond that, we try to be very adventurous and enterprising in the topics we take on. We can be whatever we want; we can talk about whatever the nation is talking about, as long as we do it in a compelling and smart way.
And honestly, it's those moments of serendipity that make the show really sing for me, not the big names that we book. It's the Jehovah's Witness who called in to our show looking back one year after the election, and admitted live on the air that she broke the tenets of her faith to vote in 2016. It's the listeners who wrote in after we interviewed rap star Gucci Mane to tell us how amazing it was that NPR was willing to go there... and how validated they felt at hearing something important to them on our air. So much of what we've done has felt worth it because of how our efforts were reflected back to us in the responses of our audience. That's how we know we're onto something.
The show has sought to uncover what connects us across the fissures that divide the country. What's the key to navigating complex conversations?
A lot of journalists talk about being impartial or objective. While I don't quarrel with that, lately I've come to think of my approach as more clinical. Reason being, I used to be in a summer program at Temple University's medical school, for minority youth interested in research careers. While I was there, I encountered a number of doctors fighting all kinds of dread diseases like AIDS and various cancers, some of whom had lost loved ones to these illnesses. But they didn't go into the lab every day like avenging angels!
They just went in and focused.
My journalism is usually the same way, especially with tough issues. I'm not objective about racism, but I can be clinical in interviewing a racist, as a way of thoroughly understanding his views. I'm not objective about sexism, but I can clinically discuss why a particular man is struggling to change the way he engages with women. A clinician has to accept the malady for what it is, study it thoroughly, and, most importantly, not let anything she brings with her contaminate the sample. I wash my hands of my biases and preconceptions, as best I can, before I enter the studio each day, knowing they'll be waiting for me when I leave, but keeping them away from the mic lest they contaminate my "sample." This doesn't mean being cold or heartless; it just means accepting my guests just as they are and focusing on learning, not convincing.
We can't improve this nation until we fully understand it, and sometimes being a clinical conversationalist helps a great deal.
Birthdays and anniversaries often allow us to reflect on what's ahead. What are you most looking forward to in 2018 both for yourself and for the show?
More sleep! (Not at all kidding.)
And more travel across the country. The response we've gotten so far at station visits has been amazing, and I'm grateful that people are packing our events and receptions.
But really, I have no idea what to expect. I just try to be ready for what comes and greet it with courage, professionalism, patience and hope. My challenge is to keep improving myself so I can hopefully be prepared for the next big adventure.
What's inspiring you at the moment? What gets you up in the mornings?
The prospect of building a truly national conversation. I mean, like, Oprah-sized. THAT'S what I think 1A ought to be. We should be the place the entire nation turns to first for the definitive, comprehensive, major interviews with the heavy hitters of our time, no matter who they are.
There's a sticky note on my computer monitor that simply says, "GROW THE SHOW." That's what drives me. Everyone should be listening to NPR, at least a little. Everyone should listen to 1A, especially for the big issues and big interviews. And every NPR program — ALL OF THEM — should be working like hell to grow their audiences. Lots of people out there are discontented with their current media diet: let's find them and give them a taste of something better. Convince them to sample, then get them to bring a friend. Let's get all of 'em. There's no reason we shouldn't be number one, so let's go be number one.
We've never had this many options for news and entertainment. Tell us about your current media diet. What are you reading or watching?
I hate to disappoint, but my media diet is pretty standard: Times, Post, Journal, NPR, cable news, etc. I use Twitter a lot and try to follow sources from many backgrounds. And I use Facebook (sadly) to see what conspiracies and rumors my otherwise intelligent friends are hyperventilating about. (Sigh.) But my diet isn't fancy. I try to be adventurous in what interests me without getting esoteric, because I want my perspective to reflect what Americans are broadly attuned to. That way I have a sense of what the current national conversation is, and that helps me think of ways for us to improve on it.
As for entertainment, I don't watch much series TV these days, I'm ashamed to say! The last series I finished was "The Crown" on Netflix, which my partner turned me on to. Usually for entertainment I go lift heavy stuff at the gym, or I get lost in my PlayStation. Thankfully 1A has a Movie Club, so I usually see at least one new release each month.
How did you find your voice for radio?
I started talking.
Seriously! I've always been imitating people on TV and radio, so it just kind of came naturally. I have no idea why I started — I just did.
Who were your inspirations in journalism and broadcasting?
Bernard Shaw, Ed Bradley, Peter Jennings, a number of local anchors in South Florida (especially black men like WPLG's Dwight Lauderdale, WPTV's Ted White, WTVJ's Ed O'Dell and others), Arsenio Hall (I wanted his job soooooo bad!), Oprah (naturally), Bill Cosby (I know, I KNOW — times have changed, but he did teach me a lot about storytelling and working an audience), Robert Siegel (the first NPR voice I remember that captivated me).