It was last Halloween weekend when Joshua Johnson got the call that he’d been named Diane Rehm’s successor.
Rehm, who began her eponymous National Public Radio call-in show in 1979, retired in December and as of Jan. 2, WAMU broadcasts a new show, “1A” in what had been “The Diane Rehm Show’s” timeslot.
Johnson had subbed for Rehm two days last September and shadowed her another day. Based in San Francisco for the last six-and-a-half years where he was morning news host for KQED while also teaching podcasting at the University of California (Berkeley), Johnson was in Palm Springs visiting friends with Joe Gallagher, his boyfriend of a year and a half, when he got the call. He says it’s a moment he’d been working toward since age 6.
“This wave of peace washed over me and I just got very calm,” says the 36-year-old South Florida native. “It was like my fists finally unclenched after weeks of waiting. I didn’t have that moment of, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to do the show.’ It was just kind of like, ‘Finally — I’ve been waiting on this for my entire life and now it’s going to happen.”
“1A” is a live, two-hour daily WAMU radio program distributed nationally by NPR each weekday at 10 a.m. that seeks to “provide deep conversation about the thorniest issues of our time delivered with insight, intimacy and personality.” It’s both a new, freestanding show but also a successor to the Rehm show, whose “legacy of civil dialogue and analysis” its team hopes to continue.
Producers were initially almost certain they’d hire a woman to succeed Rehm.
“We weren’t 100 percent sure, but you know, sort of in the high 80s or 90s,” says Rupert Allman, “1A’s” executive producer. Johnson won the search team over, Allman says, with his “huge relatability.”
“There was something about his own curiosity and his manner that was really appealing,” he says. “Especially the idea that he was very much interested in civil dialogue, taking time to develop arguments and not always chasing the next shiny ball. Those pieces came together and the stars began to align and that was it.”
Nobody’s universally loved in this era of Internet trolling, but early signs are strong for Johnson. “1A” is being carried on 204 stations with more expected in April (“The Diane Rehm Show” was carried on 198) and WAMU says the show was the No. 1 regional performer in its time slot throughout January, the latest month for which figures were available. WAMU says it expects the show will have a weekly audience of about 2.5 million soon based on early numbers.
Johnson, as loquacious as you’d expect, sat with the Blade in a WAMU conference room on Feb. 16. His comments have been edited for length.
WASHINGTON BLADE: How do you feel it’s going so far?
JOSHUA JOHNSON: It’s going well. Very, very busy. There’s no lack of things to talk about for sure, but it’s good. Launching a national show, any new show, is a heavy lift to say the least, but we have an amazingly good team and we’ve had lots of support from listeners and stations. We’ve found interesting ways to talk about what’s going on in the world and to divert from the headlines that have everyone’s attention to talk about other topics that may be getting lost in the shuffle around the new administration. And we’ve also found ways to take a breath and just do topics that are fun or different as a little relief from the top of the news cycle, so I think it’s been good.
BLADE: What’s your strategy to turn this into more of a Johnny Carson-to-Jay Leno kind of succession as opposed to, say, a Pat Sajak kind-of thing?
JOHNSON: The only thing we can do is control each day’s program and that’s what I try to focus on. I never worry about the 37 years that came before me. That’s Diane’s legacy and that’s solid and done. …. If you worry too much about the distant future, you miss the opportunity to really knock out today.
BLADE: Has the learning curve been about what you thought it would be?
JOHNSON: I tried to come in with very few expectations other than it would be really, really hard and it has been. …. But we’ve gone down from me working like 16-17-hour days to more like 12-13, so that’s a big step forward. … It’s just a mountain of work even under the best of circumstances.
BLADE: What’s been your favorite episode so far?
JOHNSON: I don’t have one. We did a Sunday show a few weeks ago on the immigration ban and we just let stations air it if they wanted to. … But we probably haven’t done my favorite show yet or even conceived of it. I think for me to start grabbing onto favorites at this point would set the bar too low for what we want to be. I don’t think what we’ve done in our first month will compare to what we’ll be doing a year from now or five years from now.
BLADE: When things are crazy, do you get energized or stressed by that?
JOHNSON: Probably a little bit of both. I tend to be the kind of person that the crazier things are around me, the calmer I get, which is how I survived breaking news. … But you have to be on the outer edge of your comfort zone in order to grow, so I just accepted that that was going to be the way it was going to be some days or maybe even most days.
BLADE: Was it hard to leave San Francisco?
JOHNSON: It was really, really hard … but this opportunity was worth it.
BLADE: Have you had any time to explore Washington much yet?
JOHNSON: No. I live a few blocks from the station here in Van Ness, so I walk to work because I cannot take a snow day. And everything I need is right here, the grocery store, the gym and so on. Once I get a better handle on the workload, I’ll be able to get out more and see the city.
BLADE: Were you intimidated to accept?
JOHNSON: Not really. …. I think I was more grateful and humble. … I felt very ready. Like, “Yeah — I’ve been preparing for this for 30-plus years.”
BLADE: You say you had this dream since age 5 or 6. How was this type of thing even on your radar at that age?
JOHNSON: Well, Kermit the Frog played a reporter on “Sesame Street.” …. I grew up seeing Ed Bradley on “60 Minutes” or Bernard Shaw on CNN or Dwight Lauderdale on my local Miami ABC station. Seeing those black men doing what I wanted to do just instantly clicked for me. I always had an affinity for broadcasting. I just didn’t know what form it would take.
BLADE: So was it something you chose or did it choose you?
JOHNSON: Well, it has to be both. Just because destiny knocks doesn’t mean you have to answer. It went through a lot of permutations of whether I would answer or how I would answer and then eventually it became that one thing that I knew if I didn’t go after, I’d regret the rest of my life.
BLADE: Had you been a big listener of “The Diane Rehm Show”?
JOHNSON: Yeah, I listened to her in South Florida on the station where I grew up, WLRN. I never thought I’d be her successor, but yeah, I listened to her for years.
BLADE: How do you decide on the balance between meat-and-potatoes news topics and lighter stuff?
JOHNSON: I don’t think it’s a matter of balancing lightness against substance. The show we did on country music was very substantive. What we’re always trying to figure out is what is it about today’s show that a fan would tell their friends, “You gotta listen to today’s ‘1A.’” Why? How do you answer that? if you start there and work backwards, you can build a great show. So even if it’s a lighter topic like country music today or the Grammy Awards or the Super Bowl, we never want it to feel like, “OK everybody, we know life is really hard so we’re just gonna give you some sugar and candy for an hour.” That’s not good enough. Even if it’s not politics or not some trouble-in-the-world topic, it still has to be time well spent. Plus, I get bored easily, so I get tired of talking about the troubles of the world all day. …. It can’t be all sugar but it can’t be all steak.
BLADE: Some people are saying there’s been more sugar though lately. The Super Bowl show got some flak.
JOHNSON: It depends whose table you’re dining at. I think there are different ways to talk about different things. I did have a listener who got very snooty about the Super Bowl show …. but there are many aspects to a cultural event like that that are worthy of discussion. … Just because people listen to NPR doesn’t mean they don’t watch football and just because they listen to NPR doesn’t mean they don’t like pop music.
BLADE: True, but hasn’t NPR always sort of been that hub where you could get something you couldn’t just get anywhere else? If ESPN is doing round-the-clock sports coverage, do we really need to hear about sports on NPR too?
JOHNSON: But we don’t talk about the Super Bowl like ESPN would talk about it. We didn’t get caught up in stats and who’s up and who’s down. We talked about it more broadly, about what was going on in Houston and sort of the politics around the event, the cost of buying an ad there and so on. We tried to make it really fun. One thing public media serves is to give people a diverse view on the world. Anybody who thinks public media is designed to be all meat and potatoes all the time has clearly never heard “Car Talk” or “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me.” … These are just wonderful shows that are about interesting things that make life worthwhile and we can’t pretend that doesn’t matter.
BLADE: Does the “1A” format give you more opportunity to weigh in than other journalism posts you’ve had?
JOHNSON: No. My job is still to be an analyst of the day’s events. This is not the Joshua Johnson show. It’s not my platform to tell you what I think about the news. I’m still a reporter. But that doesn’t mean I can’t call out inconsistencies. The other day we had a guest who kind of fudged an answer on climate change and I (called him out). But I can do it in a way that hews to evidence and fact and not just my belief.
BLADE: There’s so much obfuscation in partisan discussions, though. How do you press people for clarity without sounding partisan, at least at times?
JOHNSON: The way we’ve been doing it —what we do works. You do your homework, you do smart shows, you ask smart questions and you don’t worry about whether people like you or are comfortable with it. I’m here to perform a service as a journalist. … For me to start worrying about it now is to doubt the very reasons I came here. Facts still matter, the truth is still the truth and there are still such things as facts. People know and understand what the NPR standard is and outlets that don’t follow that standard — I don’t need to worry about people who deal in that kind of foolishness.
BLADE: How do you decide if you’re going to pick up a thread after a break or not?
JOHNSON: It depends what’s coming up after the break. If we have a guest we need to get to or we have other questions that segue into that thought. Being in the studio is basically air traffic control because we have guests in the studio, remote guests, my script, my questions, I’m watching the clock, I have a timer that counts down to certain elements, then I have another screen that shows me e-mails and Tweets and Facebook posts and if we receive a voicemail during the show, we can play that. I have my laptop, which has more communication, I’m in touch with the control room and the newsroom upstairs and it’s all happening at once. There are all these different elements that I have to make balance so it’s a lot of plate spinning. It will be different every single day and I have to figure out in the moment what we’re going to next and if it’s duplicative of what we just said, how much time we have left and so on.
BLADE: How many people work on the show and are any of them veterans of Diane’s show?
JOHNSON: I think we have 11. Two of them were former producers on her team. The rest are new hires.
BLADE: Do you anticipate getting more mileage out of the Trump administration than you otherwise would have?
JOHNSON: There’s more to life in Washington so I don’t look to any one sector of the news as my bread and butter. … Also, public radio is very committed to the idea of localism … so we can’t allow the current political climate to eclipse all of that because then you’re basically saying that localism doesn’t matter anymore … so we keep that all in perspective.
BLADE: Even though “1A” is distributed throughout the country, doesn’t it seem slightly odd considering WAMU’s push for live and local to have brought you in from San Francisco? Some listeners were predicting a Washington person. Do you know how many names were in the hat?
JOHNSON: I don’t. I’ve heard different numbers but I honestly don’t know nor do I know who they were. As for live and local, we are live and we are a program from WAMU. I think it’s important to the DNA of public radio that local stations are a provider of national programming (gives examples). We are Washington’s NPR station and we think the ability of WAMU to produce shows like “1A” and “Big Listen” is something we can be proud of. (Allman says Johnson’s outsider status was a plus. “[We liked that] he wasn’t from D.C., is not wowed by the Beltway. He brings a completely different perspective on the country. He gives the audience something new, someone they didn’t know so it doesn’t just seem like the business of shuffling people around.”)
BLADE: You seem at times a bit more abrupt than Diane. Do you agree?
JOHNSON: I try not to be. If I interrupt, I try to apologize for it unless they’re just going off the deep end. I try to be as respectful as I can but that doesn’t mean we have time to let everybody finish their thought.
BLADE: How serious are you and your boyfriend? Any plans for him to move out here eventually as well?
JOHNSON: He owns a barbershop in San Francisco so there are some moving parts we’d have to figure out. For now, we’re doing the bicoastal thing. We’ll make it work.
BLADE: Is Millennial engagement a big push at NPR? Are NPR stations seeing the drop-off we hear about at the orchestra, the ballet, the mainline churches and so on?
JOHNSON: Millennials have gotten a bad rap. They consume immense amounts of news and information — they just do it differently. There are a lot of NPR member stations that are trying to be where younger audiences are. … We’re also getting better at saying, “Hey, maybe we don’t have a relationship now, but check this out.” Or, “We’ll try to make ourselves available in a bunch of different ways and if you only listen once or twice, that’s cool.” Or, “If you’re a fan of this podcast or station but don’t yet understand why you should give, fine.” … We’re getting better at accepting people where they are in the continuum of use in public radio. …. I think the institutions that do well are going to be the ones that skate harder in the direction the puck is going, not just going in the direction they wish it would go.
BLADE: You told Diane Rehm you hoped race would inform the program but not be the lens of the program. What’s the difference?
JOHNSON: Well, it’s about taking the experiences of your life and using them to add context to a conversation. You know, my lens on life is that I’m an African-American man in the 20th and 21st century. I can’t pretend that’s not who I am. So for me to pretend that it’s not or to pretend that I view life with no conception of race, that would be a lie. I have to acknowledge my life experiences. But at the same time as a journalist, I can step out of those experiences and try to view something from another person’s perspective. I can’t step outside of what I won’t acknowledge. It’s like taking off a shirt you don’t admit you put on. I have to own the truth of my life … but I don’t want people to feel like it’s a black man’s perspective on the news or that I’m a black man doing the news. Because I own the totality of who I am, I can step out of it as a journalist and say, “OK, let me see how people with different life experiences than me view this.”
BLADE: Did either being gay or being black pose any career hindrances?
JOHNSON: I don’t think either one was detrimental. I grew up in South Florida, which is a very gay-friendly news market. … I made a decision early on that I couldn’t make a career out of telling the truth about everyone else’s life while lying about my own. I knew eventually one of those lies would come back to bite me because one of them would be leverage for someone to use over me, so I decided I just needed to own the whole truth of my life and not let that be an impediment to my success. … Once you as a gay man deal with shame and you learn how poisonous it is, it can give you the leverage to never impute that shame on other people because it never helps, it never lifts up, it never clarifies, it never improves anything. … It burns everything it touches, so I just decided not to play with that fire because I knew what that burn feels like.
BLADE: That’s profound — what age were you? I wouldn’t have been able to articulate any of that at 16, 17, 18.
JOHNSON: I wouldn’t have been able to say that to you at that age either but I tend to be a very logical person but growing up in the Baptist church … I just thought to myself, the scriptures say you will know the truth and the truth will set you free. Well, this is the truth of my life. There has to be some freedom in here somewhere and I just held on to that. This is what the book says. This has to make sense somehow. That thought process always served me well as a journalist so how do these two things lock together? I just allowed that process to play out.
BLADE: But you make it sound so tidy. Surely there was some angst at some point, no?
JOHNSON: Oh, of course there was. This was just the ending. But yeah, there were times it was awful, it was terrible. Coming out sucks even under the best of circumstances. But working through that gave me a way to figure out where my inner reservoir of toughness came from in terms of career. I knew I had this dream and I was too greedy to give up on it.