Lunch with Audie Cornish: Women of Color in Public Radio

On our way to a luncheon two weeks ago to hear Audie Cornish speak, my parents and I walked past her on our third flight of stairs. We were going up, and she was going down. I only caught a glimpse of her.

“Oh, that’s her,” I whispered to my unsuspecting parents. We were in The Phoenix, a historic events venue, going up to the ballroom. The event promised to feed us and enlighten us with a questions and answers session from Ms. Cornish, who co-hosts the 4 p.m. news program All Things Considered, along with Robert Siegel and Melissa Block. 

“Really? That’s not how I imagined her,” my dad responded, walking up a few more stairs. He listens to All Things Considered almost every day, on his commute back from work. “I don’t know why. I guess she’s younger than I thought she would be.” 

Many others at the event, which was a luncheon for supporters of WVXU — the NPR member station in Cincinnati where I work — had similar remarks. They had no idea what to expect. People were excited to finally see the face that matched the voice they hear every day on the radio.

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Photo from Twitter @nprAudie

But I instantly recognized Audie because, as a fan, I had come across her photo a few times on NPR’s website or from reading about her online. I low-key check out all of my favorite radio people, because I like associating an image with the voice. While I knew what to expect appearance-wise, I was almost caught off guard by her personality.

It’s not that I didn’t expect her to be funny and candid. I most certainly did. But it’s just as an NPR host and reporter, I could never really get a good feel for her personality. Sure, All Things Considered, like the title suggests, presents a slew of thoughtful, sound-rich commentary beyond just the basic news of the day. But it’s still a professional, scripted program.

More than anything, I could tell her Q&A session that day wasn’t very scripted. Her voice really came through in a way that it doesn’t when she hosts. And the answers felt much more like a conversation, with her even engaging an anonymous question-asker (we submitted questions via note cards) by having him “out” himself so she could better respond.

When addressing how she landed such a ‘cool gig,’ Audie talked about her early days working at the campus radio station at University of Massachusetts Amherst. She joked about how she wanted to work for the paper, but they were all jerks; she found her niche with the radio kids. And then she mentioned something that I’m sure resonates with a lot of young journalists: that she has a mean case of Imposter Syndrome — which is when successful people have a difficult time internalizing that success — and that she’s waiting for someone to tell her, “That’s enough, dear,” at any given moment.

Of course, we know this will never happen, but it’s comforting to think that someone as well-respected as Audie can feel this way. Regardless, Audie has an enormous sense of pride about what she does. She said that one of her first stories at the student station was covering a small protest with a few hundred people. She muscled her way to the front of that protest, got the sound she needed and spent the night putting the piece together. She was proud of the finished product, and it’s a high she’s been chasing since.

“There is something incredibly intoxicating about walking into the center of history each and every time and having the door open, and actually getting to talk to people and having them talk to you,” she says. “What’s it like for this to happen? What’s it like for that to happen? You can ask the dumbest question in the world to the smartest person in the world; to the most famous person in the world; to the most serious person in the world. You get to do that! People pay you to do that.”

She talked about about some more relatively light-hearted topics: her love for almost all of the sources she gets to interview, how intimate radio is as a medium because there are no lights and cameras — just her and her source, how she can’t pick a favorite story, how she has recently enjoyed working on the stories with the Massachusetts Public Health Commissioner, how nowadays training to moderate a presidential debate or work on the campaign trail is almost like training for combat and she doesn’t think it’s her cup of tea even though she’s reported on Congress for NPR and so on.

And then the questions got slightly more real, but Audie kept her composure and gave equally real responses. Someone asked, as the country becomes more absurd and politically divided, how do you maintain your impartiality? This is when Audie called out the audience member.

“Do you feel like you were impartial in writing that question?” she asked.

“It was difficult,” he responded, to some laughs. Audie said the word ‘absurd’ gave it away.

“The way I look at it is, I was hired basically because of my capacity for curiosity and to ask one extra… or five extra… questions where there should be one or two. And so, I don’t see it so much as the monkhood of objectivity… I come to it from a place of inquiry,” she responded.

Like any good journalist, she wants to know how she can conduct a conversation in which actual meaningful information is elicited. That’s the point of journalism, after all: to disseminate information. She spends a lot of her time trying to do that instead of working to insert her own opinions.

“I’m not a commentator. I’m not an analyst. I think there are amazing, smart people who do those jobs but I don’t think I want to do that work. I don’t go to bed at night thinking, ‘I’m really going to stick it to so-and-so.’ I’m just glad I made it home and I actually changed out of my work clothes,” she said. “But I understand why this question is coming up.”

She expressed that, nowadays, people are so distrustful of those conveying information. The idea is they can’t just be asking questions and doing an impartial story. It must come from a deep place of advocacy. And readers get frustrated with you if you do something “unbiased” that they believe should come from a deep place of advocacy. But impartiality is what fuels NPR and makes it a fair, well-rounded news source. She admits it’s a tricky line to walk.

She eventually addressed my question about why it’s important to have women of color and other diverse voices in NPR and any newsroom. Lakshmi Singh. Mandalit del Barco. Korva Korman. Shereen Marisol Meraji. Audie Cornish. These names are not unfamiliar to NPR listeners; they’re names I hear regularly despite the media’s continuing domination by white men. 

She responded that, over time, people recognized that there was a certain type of person who was dominant in the news room, who came from a certain kind of schooling, who had a certain financial background — who was essentially privileged enough to do the job. She mentioned how internships were unpaid and that she wouldn’t have been able to work essentially for free in a city like NYC or DC. She was a scholarship kid the entire way, and that carried her through.

“When you have a number of voices who sit around the table, they bring ideas from different parts of the world. So it’s not a bad thing to raise your hand as a veteran and say, “I was reading The Army Times and there was a great story about X” because no one else is going to pitch that story,” she said. “And similarly, there are people who come from Latino backgrounds, or are black or are Asian, and say, “I saw this really interesting protest in this corner of the world…” We had a man who worked with us for a very long time who was of Pakistani origin. Without fail, he kept us on top of news in India and Pakistan.”

She said a newsroom really thrives on the diversity of the cast at hand; different voices and stories and knowledge. She contrasted it with a movie, where everyone is working to tell the same story. A newsroom requires an endless flow of different stories from different perspectives, especially with All Things Considered, which runs two hours of diverse content a day.

“I think that’s one thing that’s always been admirable about NPR,” Audie said. “They are trying to sound like America.”

She was then asked about the role she thinks the media plays in fueling racial tension. Audie responded that the media is like a funhouse mirror for what is going on in America. Right now, it may be “in vogue” to say we are at a point in racial tension that is at the worst it’s ever been. But she comes at it from a different point of view.

“I think that the American people are having a conversion in an explicit way that they did not have with this kind of explicitness before. There is some value to that,” she said. “To give an example, there’s a term that millennials use, which is ‘microaggression.’ The idea behind a microaggression is that this is not your sitting-at-a-lunch-counter bigotry racism. This is not being chased out of a place or being fired for who you are. This is what you have in every day interaction.”

She mentioned that, before, it was about marching and really basic, basic rights. And that’s still something that has to happen. But for this new generation, we are on a whole other level of conversation — one that does not allow people to back away. One that can feel pushy and call out small annoyances.

“Because in the macro level, we can say, “Uh, sexism and racism seem like a problem? Not in my house. I’m awesome.” We can absolve ourselves of things that go on in our culture. I think the media is putting a spotlight on situations when these happen [on a macro or micro scale]. All these stories you hear now are things you wouldn’t hear ten years ago.”

She mentioned that stories about the refugee crisis affect her, but maybe fifty years ago, news of a refugee boat going down in the Mediterranean, for example, wouldn’t have reached us.

“American broadcasters may not have thought it mattered to Americans, and you might not have known it. But now you do. And it’s the same thing with racial incidents,” she said.

There wasn’t time for too many more questions, though a few more frivolous ones were tossed in. It was obvious that Audie had a lot to say and would’ve had a lot more insight to offer had there been more time. I was definitely impressed with the way she presented herself overall. I like her, I thought to myself. She’s as great as I thought she would be. 

But I should have known I’d like her because before she took the stage, I got to briefly speak with her, and she was nothing but friendly. A fellow employee introduced me as the assistant producer for WVXU’s “Cincinnati Edition,” a live, local program. I asked her if it was okay for me to record her so I can write a piece about the luncheon; she said that of course it was okay, as long as it was okay with my station.

I tried to stay away from this, knowing she probably hears it far too much, but I slipped in a, “It’s so exciting to see you in person when I hear you on the radio… I know you must get that a lot.” She laughed, and said, “You must be starting to get some of that too.” And it’s funny, because I do, even though you only hear my name announced at the end of the program.

I asked if she remembered my friend Casey Morell from Missouri’s Global Journalist, who interviewed her a few years back, and she said she did. Later, when I let him know, he said it made his day. Before Audie had to hurry off and get ready, I asked if I could get a picture with her, and she willingly agreed. So now I have a piece of memorabilia that inspires me to keep at it no matter how much Imposter Syndrome I have.

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The author B.C. and Audie Cornish at the event

Read more about Audie here: http://www.npr.org/people/4986687/audie-cornish

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