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Q&A: 1A's New Host Is Eager To Bring Listeners Together

Jenn White, host of NPR's 1A
NPR's 1A
Jenn White, host of NPR's 1A

The new host of NPR’s 1A, heard weekdays at 9 a.m. on WCBU and WGLT, has been in the host chair for nearly two months now. Jenn White is the show’s second host, succeeding Joshua Johnson. WCBU’s Daniel Musisi chatted with his friend and former colleague, and she told him about being introduced to public radio by way of a quirky funny show called Car Talk. She talked about the many hats she’s worn in her two decades in public radio, and about her approach as a Black woman and host of a national public radio program.NPR's 1A Host Jenn White discusses her approach to 1A and more.

Jenn White: You know, I fell in love with public radio when I was a teenager, when I was 16. My sister introduced me to my first public radio show Car Talk. She's like, there's this show. It's crazy. You have to listen. And my listening just expanded from there. And so I started working in public radio in ‘99. And I just never left.

I mean, I've done almost every job you can imagine in public media. I've worked in the front office, I've worked now behind the mic. And I've learned I've learned so much about how we do things and why we do them. And I think that's why I've stayed for so long. I have a very deep belief in the power of this medium. And I've been fortunate to work with people who are really committed to getting it right. Really committed to presenting fact based journalism to the folks who are listening and you know, that's what's kept me here.

Daniel Musisi: So how does being a Black woman and host of a national radio program shape your overall approach to 1A?

Jenn White: That's a really interesting question. I mean, I think we're in this time when questions about systemic racism are happening nationally in a way, I've never seen them happen before. And what's interesting is that prior to coming to 1A on my previous show in Chicago – Reset - we were having these conversations.

We were talking about the gap in health outcomes for Black and Brown people in Chicago. We were talking about disinvestment and communities of color. We were talking about all of these things before the pandemic hit, because it's always been really important to me. I grew up in Detroit - an industrial city. And, you know, watch a lot of these things play out in my neighborhood, in my community. And so, it's always been front of mind for me as I was leaving my station in Michigan, that was happening as the Flint water crisis was playing out. So, I don't know that my approach has shifted so much as it feels like more people are ready for the conversation.

Daniel Musisi: How is it different sketching out content for a national show versus a city show?

Jenn White: In Chicago, I got to be hyper focused on that city and its surrounding communities. And sometimes I miss that, honestly. You know, when I left Chicago, it was as the pandemic was playing out. It was as we were seeing protests against systemic racism and police brutality and because we've been having these conversations on the show about those issues, it was really hard to step away from having that Chicago specific conversation and to try to move to, you know, more of a national focus because I was personally invested.

And so, at a national level, it's really trying to have a broader conversation that people… no matter where they're living in the country, where they can join into the conversation… because a big part of what we do on 1A, is try to engage with listeners and try to bring the voice of people who are tuning in to the show as it's happening. And so it's trying to find this… this broader conversation that everyone feels they can have a part of… that they can find some connection to.

Daniel Musisi: Public radio specifically is having a reckoning with racism with journalists of color in high profile newsrooms speaking out about how they've been undermined by leadership. How do you think we fix this toxic culture?

Jenn White: Whoo, Daniel, how do we fix it… how do we fix it… I think the first step is acknowledging that it exists. That's the first step. We have to be really honest about. The fact that our newsrooms largely do not reflect the communities they exist in. That we have been less vigilant than we should be in making sure our organizations at every level reflect the people who we are supposed to serve. I think it starts there, just like really, really deep down, gut level uncomfortable honesty.

After that… I think it gets more complex. Because when we talk about diversifying newsrooms and diversifying news organizations, I've seen effort over the last, you know, two decades, I've seen efforts to make that happen. But from my experience, what becomes a larger issue is not recruiting people, it's retaining them. And that requires a cultural shift. It requires a reassessment of what stories are worth telling. It requires a real shifting of the lens about who we think we're talking to. Because one thing I've bumped up against in public radio is this idea of who the public radio listener is. And that listener is often older and white.

And so, the crafting of stories is in that direction. It's like… well, why are we talking so much about equity? I don't think our listeners really want to hear so much about this. It's like well, wait, which listeners don't want to hear this? Who doesn't want to hear this? And how do you make an argument about not doing stories around issues of equity and systemic racism? How do you argue against that? Might make people uncomfortable? Sure.

But we also can't ignore the fact that the systems have brought us to a place where during a pandemic we're seeing Black and Brown people disproportionately impacted by a virus. And it has shown cracks in our healthcare system that are going to have an impact on everybody. So, ignoring those conversations because we think they're uncomfortable or because we think a certain listener isn't going to want to hear it. You know, we have to move beyond that thinking.

And we have to start, really when we talk about our work being a service to the listeners, drill down on what we mean by that. Really get honest about what we mean by it being a service. And if it is a service to expose and try to provide solutions around some of these issues in our society, even if it's uncomfortable to talk about, then that's what we need to do. That's what we need to do and, but I do think it requires a shift in how we even think about who we're talking to, in the public radio audience.

Daniel Musisi: How has joining 1A during this time, influenced your approach to choosing topics.

Jenn White: So, as a production team, you know, we have our editorial meetings. And part of what we try to do on the show is reflect the conversations that are happening in the country right now.

So, people do want to talk about police violence, people do want to talk about systemic racism. People want to talk about the election, and they want to talk about where the Democratic Party is headed and where the Republican Party is headed. And all of the nuances you know, involved in just those conversations, but they also want to talk about what the pandemic means for sports and what it means for arts and culture and they want to hear from, you know, authors because it's… I think it's part of our existence as human beings that we contain multitudes.

And so, what we really try to reflect on the show is this this balance of, you know, the conversations that are happening around these really important issues of race and politics and gender, having those conversations, but also leaving space for us to talk about how, you know, the arts shape us as human beings and, you know, how music shapes us and, and making sure that we leave space for that too, because I think we need that. I think we need all of that. And our listeners, you know, if our engagement is a reflection of that they're interested in in all of those conversations. And so that's what we try to bring.

Daniel Musisi: What do you strive to have 1A do for the listener each day?

Jenn White: Yeah, my hope is that we inform them. My hope is that we engage them and that we help them feel connected to other people in the country. That we really create a show every day, create an hour or two hours where people feel like they're talking to each other.

Because in what I've experienced over these last several years, as we are turning to social media more and more, it feels like so often we're talking across each other. Or we're talking at each other or past one another. And I don't… it makes me really sad. Honestly, it makes me sad.

But I hope what people feel when they come to the show is that they are engaging in a good faith conversation, even if they don't agree, even if they don't shift their position. That it's truly been a conversation and they come away… at least better understanding the other side or the other sides.

And that we can create a space where people feel like they can also share their perspective. And again, feel like it's being heard, even if we don't reach agreement, but that we are, in fact, at least making an effort to talk to one another.

Daniel Musisi: Jenn, thank you so much for your time today.

Jenn White: It's been my pleasure, Daniel.

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Daniel joined WCBU with eight years of experience in public radio, primarily in operations and engineering.