NPR’s Ari Shapiro reflects on his far-flung radio, acting career

If you’ve ever heard Ari Shapiro’s in-depth interview or report from a faraway nation on this station, you may have wondered about the man behind the voice of “All Things Considered.” For that matter: How do you get a story out of Air Force One? Why does this guy know so much about flora and fauna? And how did you go from reporting on Pink Martini to joining the band? These are some of the experiences of Ari Shapiro, “The Best Strangers in the World: Stories from a Life Spent Listening”.

Well, one thing I really identified with your book is the way you look at radio segments as transitory. I always tell the interns, ‘Hey, we’re making the best sandcastle we’ve ever made today. And then the tide will come in. We’ll do it again tomorrow.”

I like it.

Feel free to use it. Why did you want to do something a little more permanent like this book?

Well, partly because it was a challenge and something I had never done before. And I believe in constantly trying scary things. But more specifically, because I feel after more than 20 years as a journalist, sometimes I get into a box when I go out to report stories. And I was curious to open the box and see what was inside. And so what I ended up creating, I think, is these two sides of the coin, where I look at the stories that have shaped who I am and the way that the people that I am have shaped the stories that I’ve told. over the years But yes, as you say, I’ve always been here and there doing things that have disappeared, like the radio or singing with a band or cooking. And so making something that will sit on a shelf and look like a book I’ve been writing for years is scary.

You didn’t go to journalism school like many of us, but you’ve been at NPR since you were basically an intern at the end of college. Why do you think public radio adapted so well?

It really checks the boxes of things that are important in my life. It involves listening and it involves telling stories. Every day brings different things, where I know I’ll end up with knowledge that I didn’t have when I woke up in the morning, I can follow my curiosity. And the other thing is that in the 20-plus years I’ve been at NPR, I keep getting new opportunities. So, as you mentioned, like I was a White House correspondent, I was an international correspondent in London, now I’m a host of ‘All Things Considered.’ And also as hosts, because there are four of us on the show. None of us are handcuffed to the studio. And we’re able to go out and do projects and spend time in the world talking to people and thinking deeply about things that interest us. And so it never got boring for me.

There have been many, as you mentioned, where you took it to a new place and went to a new place under the auspices of NPR. In this memoir, you write about your relationship with your husband. How have you implemented that aspect of your life, even though you’ve been quite far apart?

Yes, he and I have been together since we met in college when we were about 19 years old. And especially when I was in London for a couple of years, and Mike was in DC, that was a challenge. But it was also helpful because being in Washington meant we could schedule time to be together. And during that time, we would really be with each other. And the rest of the time, I could drop everything and fly to a war zone for a couple of weeks. I could get on a plane with zero advance notice and fly to where the news was happening. And I didn’t have to worry about Mike being abandoned in London because he was doing what he was doing in DC, I was doing what I was doing overseas, and we knew it wasn’t going to be forever.

can he hear you

Do you mean on the radio or when I say empty the dishwasher please?

Answer as you wish. But I wanted to say it on the radio.

Sometimes I get home from work and he says ‘What’s on the news today?’ And I say: ‘Turn on the radio. I’ve spent all day talking about what’s happening in today’s news. I’m not going to come home and continue talking about what’s happening on the news today.’ It’s a well-worn routine by now.

Do you find it easier to broadcast a difficult interview than for real life?

Being a broadcast reporter gives me the courage to go out there, first of all, when I’m doing an interview, I’m in control. I hold my head and steer it in one direction or another. And especially if it’s a pre-recorded interview, I know I can try things out and if they don’t work, they don’t have to put it on the air. And I don’t take it personally. So what if I ask someone a tough, challenging question and they don’t like me for it? Well, it’s not my job to make people like me. I mean, I haven’t thought about this question. But yeah, I think it’s probably a little bit easier for me to have tough conversations on air than it is with people close to me because when I do it on air, you know, it’s just business.

Ari, I gather from the book that you are a relative Jew. What role do religion and faith play in your life and perhaps in the way you see things?

You know, I grew up in a pretty religious family, I’m not at this point. But for me, the two things that Judaism has given me are, first of all, there is this idea, the Hebrew phrase Tikkun Olam, which means to leave the world better than you found it. In Judaism, “Why are we here on earth?” the answer to the question it’s about making things better. And so instead of trying to think of an afterlife as a goal, I try to think of what am I doing here on this earth to make life better for the people around me? So that’s one way Judaism has had a big impact on my life.

And the other thing is, you know, one of the basic stories that Jews tell every year is the Exodus story. And the Easter festival that we celebrate in the spring is the coming out of slavery to freedom. And he orders us to tell as if we ourselves were slaves in Egypt. And like us, wandering in the desert. And basically that’s an act of telling as empathy. It’s an exercise in seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. And I think that’s the same thing I try to do in the stories I tell on the radio through NPR, it’s the same thing I try to do when I sing with Pink Martini. It’s the same thing I’m doing when I’m creating this cabaret show with Alan Cumming that he and I have been performing around the country for the past few years. This act of narrative as empathy, I think, is like one of the fundamental elements of Judaism. And it’s also something I work on every day in my work.

You’ve been at NPR at a time when a lot of your hosts have gone on to start-ups and podcasts and different things. When you look back on your career so far, what do you think has kept you there?

I’m never bored. I’m always curious to see what’s next. I’ve always found it to keep challenging myself and keep growing and telling new stories and expressing myself in new ways, like in this book. So even though I’ve been here for a very long time, I’ve still kept moving.

What’s the atmosphere like today? We’re talking not long after a slew of layoffs were announced and NPR is facing many of the financial constraints other news outlets face today.

It’s tough. I mean, I think everybody’s ready for some really good people to lose their jobs and that’s a difficult situation.

When you look back on your career for this project, specifically your reporting career, what’s one story on your list that you haven’t done yet?

Hmm. Well, you know, in my biography it says that I’ve reported stories on five continents. The two missing are Australia and Antarctica. So I wouldn’t mind marking them.

When you go back to a place where you were in the office, do you see the city differently than when you were there?

Totally I was in Miami, which is where I worked for nine months in 2004, the state of Florida for NPR. And I went past the WLRN building where I had an office and the neighborhood has changed a lot. And you know, since 2004, the way climate change is reshaping Miami is profound. So it’s interesting to go back to those places all these years and see them through different eyes.

What is that Morning Edition timer you wish you knew one night if you knew how to do this job you know now?

Don’t stress about it. You know, we’re not emergency doctors, nobody’s on an operating table. It’s just the radio.

Do you find it easy to repeat that mantra in the midst of deadline pressure?

For me, with years of practice, it has become easier. And so I’m part of such a talented and hard-working team that includes a lot of people who are still at the beginning of their careers. And so I try to convey to people the importance of taking our work seriously, but not too seriously. And luckily, even in the most grueling deadlines and stressful scenarios, we are able to do our job with a smile.

Well, Ari, don’t stop. Ari Shapiro is the author of a new memoir called ‘The Best Strangers in the World: Stories from a Life Spent Listening’. It was a pleasure for me to have the opportunity to get into your head and talk with you.

Thank you. I really enjoyed the interview.

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