Air Pressure: NPR’s unheard-of new voice succeeds Diane Rehm

Joshua Johnson, host of WAMU's "1A," which replaced Diane Rehm's popular show in January. : Photo for The Washington Post by Hector Emanuel

WASHINGTON – At a recent reception at WAMU, a couple dozen of the Washington, D.C., public radio station’s most active community supporters gathered to meet the man succeeding a legend.

Many were fans of Diane Rehm yet open to change – theoretically. Rehm had built a loyal following over 37 years with her singular blend of charm and steel. “The Diane Rehm Show” aired on 198 stations and reached 2.8 million listeners a week by the time she signed off in December. Those gathered here were also still shell-shocked from the presidential election – not simply because of Donald Trump’s win, but by the disorienting coarseness of public conversation these days, the seeming disregard for fact and truth, the mad hyper-partisanship on both the left and the right.

Joshua Johnson, freshly anointed to inherit Rehm’s microphone, sensed they needed a pep talk.

He stood before the room without notes and took everyone back to first principles. Remember where the term “broadcasting” comes from? he asked. It goes back to the farmer casting his seeds broadly so that something might grow, he said. He pantomimed a farmer sewing handfuls of seeds.

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In just a few minutes his voice reached a crescendo, a bravura re-consecration of journalism in these times as “advanced citizenship.”

“There is still something to grow,” he said. “There are still seeds to cast. There is still something to build. There are still people to feed with useful, honest, fair, thoughtful information, and a conversation that’s for everyone.”

After the applause, the energy in the room rose. The talk over wine and hors d’oeuvres was less “woe is us” and more “on we go.” These people weren’t just donors and volunteers; Johnson had renewed their membership in a larger mission.

On the margin of the crowd, WAMU brass murmured to one another about just how perfect the new talk show host was turning out to be.

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When the one who would fill Rehm’s time slot was announced late last year, the reaction across much of pledge-drive land was … Joshua who?

The 36-year-old former drive-time host in San Francisco did not have a show of his own at the time. In fact, he was not on the air at all.

“There were much safer bets out there than Joshua,” says Rupert Allman, executive producer of “1A,” the new talk show hosted by Johnson.

When Johnson came on the air from 10 a.m. to noon weekdays starting Jan. 2, it was the first time his voice had been heard daily across the nation.

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The safer bets included well-known public radio voices (whom producers decline to identify now), among 30 candidates for the job. But WAMU wasn’t interested in playing it safe. Executives had been fighting a perception that the station, despite its perch in the nation’s capital, lacked the creative ferment of outlets in New York, Boston and elsewhere. They were stirred by the ambition to use this moment of transition to go big and bold. New show – new voice.

Listeners didn’t realize it, but substitute hosts periodically filling in for Rehm last year were actually auditioning. Johnson’s turn came at the end of September. First he shadowed Rehm for a day. He was tall and engaging, with gym-built arms stretching his suit. He endeared himself to the show’s staff by pitching in with technical facility on such chores as drafting and recording promos measured to the second.

Back in his hotel, he studied maniacally for his two-day stint as host. As he prepared for segments on child-care policy, 9/11 lawsuits and the week in politics, for inspiration he listened to music from “Hamilton,” where Lin-Manuel Miranda sings the hip-hop anthem of determined young dreamers: “I’m not throwin’ away my shot!”

The next day he took a seat in the studio, put on headphones and, if you were listening carefully, you might have heard the story of public radio in Washington beginning to change.

Rehm, who was among those who had known nothing of Johnson before, tuned in. “When he came on, I was listening from home,” Rehm says. “I went: Wow! Who is this fellow?”

There had been a subtle anticipation that the person to succeed Rehm would probably be a woman.

After Johnson aced the audition and the interviews, station managers found themselves elevating an African-American man to one of the more high-profile platforms in public radio.

Johnson came up with the name of the show, after WAMU had compiled a list of clunkier possibilities, reportedly including “Talk Republic” and “The Follow.” To Johnson, the expression “1A” conjured the front page of a newspaper, a dive into the most urgent topics of the day. Station managers liked it for an additional connotation: “1A” could be shorthand for the First Amendment.

Now “1A,” like “The Diane Rehm Show,” takes its place among four programs produced around midday that NPR distributes to independent member stations nationwide, along with “On Point” and “Here & Now” from WBUR in Boston and “Fresh Air” from WHYY in Philadelphia.

“1A” started on 169 stations and is now up to 194, which is less shrinkage from the Rehm show than executives feared, and already more than the target they had set for a year from now.

“I’m ultimately less concerned with the number of stations carrying the show than with the audience, and what’s the audience composition,” said Jarl Mohn, president of NPR.

He wants a larger share of 25- to 54-year-olds to tune in and more diverse listeners. Audience estimates won’t be out for months, but an early data point was that the “1A” podcast hit No. 4 overall on iTunes and No. 1 for news and politics.

“The expectations,” said Mohn, “are incredibly high.”

Johnson first dreamed of creating and hosting a radio show when he was about 5 or 6. He recalls prowling his grandmother’s house after Sunday dinner with a stick in his hand as a microphone. He asked each guest what a carburetor was, and if someone didn’t know, he explained.

“To this day I do not remember how a carburetor works, but I remember how I felt when I told them,” Johnson said one afternoon at the station. “I think from before I was old enough to know what I was onto, I was onto the idea that information was a currency, that it was a way to create influence, it was a form of power, it could confer attention, that it could confer prestige, and that it could change the way people interacted with you. It could foster trust.”

He is from West Palm Beach, Florida, the only child of a retired public school librarian and an Army veteran of the Vietnam War who owned a carpet-cleaning business. His stepfather is a teachers union executive.

Growing up, he noticed there weren’t a lot of journalists who looked like him on television, but he paid close attention to pioneers such as Bernard Shaw and Ed Bradley. Radio was different. His mother introduced him to public radio during a middle school summer studies program in Philadelphia. She liked jazz, and the local jazz station segued into “All Things Considered.” Johnson became hooked on the dulcet sagacity of Robert Siegel. Besides being more contemplative than television, public radio was about sound, not color.

“I was very blessed in that I never grew up with the idea that public radio was just for white folks, that public radio was something that I could not have because I’m black,” he said. “Until I got old enough to know what other people thought of NPR.”

He paused in mock shock at the stereotype that public radio is a home of white liberalism.

“Then it became clear, like: Oh. This is yet another one of those areas in which my friends are going to say I’m acting white. … But fortunately, my parents, my family, the people around me, my mentors were supportive enough that I never let that stop me.

“One of my goals here at ‘1A’ and also just personally is to make sure we broaden that conception, not just about race, although race is part of it, but also about politics.”

He wouldn’t discuss his personal politics and said listeners of “1A” will never hear him editorialize. He wears a bracelet that says: “I Believe” – more a statement of optimism than ideology.

His first job in public radio was working on a collaboration between WLRN in Miami and the Miami Herald. In 2010, he moved to KQED in San Francisco, where he served as the morning newscaster until early last year. As his career advanced he also resolved to be open as a gay man.

“They were connected decisions,” he said. “To go ahead into a white profession that I didn’t see many people like me in, except for, at the time, Tavis Smiley … and the decision to be out as much as I chose to be and just live my life and be happy.”

His partner owns a barbershop in San Francisco. They are in a long-distance relationship for now.

There were moments of professional doubt on the way to Washington. A few years ago, Johnson attended a performance of Cirque du Soleil that opened his eyes – and left him uncharacteristically sad. He felt he wasn’t doing anything equally fun, creative and satisfying. He kept a fabric butterfly from Cirque on his desk at KQED. It spurred him to look for something more “creative and useful and connective” to do in radio.

He eventually left his morning radio duties to work on a project he co-created called “Truth Be Told,” a show exploring race in America, while he also taught podcasting at the University of California at Berkeley. Only four episodes of “Truth Be Told” were distributed nationally, but that was enough to catch the attention of executive producer Allman at WAMU. “When the door opened,” Johnson said, “I was ready to run through it and say, I believe that something great is on the other side.”

At the morning pre-show editorial meeting, Johnson stands, scrolling through a draft of the script on his tablet while eight producers sit around a long table. The discussion focuses on bringing in audience voices and personal stories in ways Rehm never did. She relied on live callers and also, during a show, would invite emails, tweets and Facebook posts. At “1A,” days ahead of a show on a given topic, the call will go out from Johnson via his microphone and from producers via social media channels for listeners to submit their experiences. These telephone voice mails and digital voice memos are curated into montages or sequenced into clips designed to accent or challenge points being made in the live interviews that Johnson conducts in the studio.

This is more than technological embroidery on the old talk show formula, Johnson and the producers say. Live callers slow things down with tangents about long-time listening, first-time calling and so forth (though “1A” hasn’t dispensed with live callers). The “1A” pace is faster, and more voices make it on the air. It’s a determined reach for the holy grail of all media today, to engage more intimately with listeners/readers/viewers and attract new ones – especially younger ones, the sort who know how to create a digital voice memo and who may not be able to listen at 10 a.m. but will catch the podcast later and share it.

“We are going to make the world make more sense, and we’re going to do it with you,” Johnson said of the relationship he hopes to establish with listeners. “We’re co-authoring this.”

On the air, Johnson sounds like a spirited, super-prepared graduate student who still has questions for the professor. Between segments on his first day, he tweeted his apologies for talking too fast and promised “to do better.”

He flashes the technological and pop cultural fluency of a younger generation. During a segment on the risks and rewards of smart technologies like’s Alexa, he joked about activating his listeners’ devices by saying the name over the air. He nonchalantly fielded a guest’s reference to Horcruxes (see: “Harry Potter”) and came back with an allusion to “The Dark Knight.”

The tightrope Johnson must walk is to pilot a show that, paradoxically, is conceived as new but seeks to preserve an essence of Rehm’s legacy. (Rehm has just launched a podcast through WAMU called “Diane Rehm: On My Mind.”)

But what if the new voice falters? Is there a Plan B for “1A”?

Allman chuckled at the question and proceeded not to answer it, except to note humorously that the show, after all, is called simply “1A” – not “1A with Joshua Johnson,” nor “The Joshua Johnson Show.”

Johnson said he’s fine with that.

“What I’m glad we’re doing is we’re creating a show that is built around an idea rather than an identity,” he said. “I am much more about preaching and living this gospel about the kinds of conversations we’re supposed to be having as Americans, and then doing it. And then once we do it, say, ‘Now go and do likewise.’

“To me that’s much more fulfilling and fun than just saying, ‘Look at me, I’m a public radio star.’ “

Author Information:

David Montgomery writes general features, profiles and arts stories for the Sunday Magazine and Style, including pieces on the Latino community and Latino arts.