That Voice Sounds Familiar : Joshua Johnson On Civility, Public Discourse And Growing Into His Ears

Jan 10, 2017

Long before Joshua Johnson was on the air as a reporter here at WLRN during the early days of our partnership with the Miami Herald, he'd spend his Friday afternoons on the Jack Cole Show on WJNO in West Palm Beach, where Johnson grew up. He was 14 then, and he knew right away that radio was what he wanted to do.

This month, Johnson took over the microphone where Diane Rehm left off, with his new national show 1A from NPR and WAMU in Washington, DC. On WLRN, it airs every weekday at 10 a.m.

WLRN's Alicia Zuckerman took advantage of this occasion to catch up with Joshua and talk about what he has been up to since his South Florida days. Listen to or read the discussion below. 

AZ:  The name of your show is 1A. That conjures the first page of a newspaper, but also the First Amendment. What does it mean to you to be taking on this show now in this political climate?

JJ: 1A is what the Miami Herald called its front page when I worked there. So for me it's very much a full circle moment. I learned a lot about the journalism I do today by working with the outstanding journalists of the Miami Herald.

In terms of the First Amendment piece of it, I've come to think of the First Amendment as sort of the basic rules of engagement for how we connect with one another. Freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of assembly, freedom to demand change from the government, and of course freedom of religion. And if anything, this election cycle has exposed that the way that we engage with one another bears examination --whether it's the relationship between the people and the press or the people in government or on social media, we feel like there's something deeply broken in the way that we connect. I don't believe it's broken. I believe it just needs to be refreshed.

One of the things that 1A will focus on is really understanding who we are to one another -- intelligently and humanely. Doesn't mean it's always going to be nice. We're not going to water down the tough stuff. We're not going to euphemize things when things just need to be said directly. I'm not that way. But I think we can have a forthright intelligent intense conversation without being mean. And I think if anything we need to remind ourselves who we are as a nation and think deeply about who we want to be.

AZ: That does seem to be in the tradition of The Diane Rehm Show. As I listened to her sign off, she said that this show for her has really been sort of a pillar of civil conversation, and she credited the audience for that. Of course she deserves a lot of the credit for that as well. While it sounds like this is going to be a very different show, there's that level of continuity.

JJ: Exactly. You got to remember I grew up listening to Diane Rehm. So I learned how to do what I'm doing now partly from her. Civility is a basic foundation. But because so many people have retreated to their silos, and you know social media makes it really easy to do that, we have to reach out and stretch even harder.

AZ: After you left WLRN for KQED in San Francisco, you eventually started a project called Truth be Told, which was about different aspects of race in America. What are you taking with you from that experience to this new show?

JJ: Truth Be Told taught me a lot about talking about difficult subjects. I've always liked dealing with taboo topics. I think that's where the rubber really meets the road. That's what people really, really need us for. We found ways to talk about race with compassion, with empathy, with quite a bit of humor -- because you know, these tough topics are painful but they're also awkward, and that can make for some funny moments.

AZ: You're from West Palm Beach. You went to the University of Miami. One of your early jobs, as we said, was here at WLRN. How do you think you've changed since you left South Florida?

"I would stay at the station till at least 8:00 or 9:00 watching how radio works. And it just fired my imagination." - Joshua Johnson on being on the radio at age 14

JJ: I'm not as skinny. I have grown into my ears. They don't quite stick out quite as far as they used to. I dress better, I think.

Nah, I'm kidding. Well, I'm not kidding -- all those things are true, but that's not really how I've changed.

You know, the time I spent WLRN kind of taught me to be a boots-on-the-ground reporter and put me through a whole lot of ringers really. Trial by fire over and over and over and over and over. I was tried by lots and lots of fires. But it basically allowed me to leave Miami fearless.

I've gotten a better sense of who I actually am. I mean I listen to some of the very early newscasts that I did back in late 2004-2005 when we had those crazy crazy hurricane seasons. And I listen to them now, and I'll be like, "Who is that guy?  He needs to calm down. Stop trying to be Lester Holt all the time." 

AZ: Who's your dream guest?

JJ: I really don't have a lot of dream guests. The only person who has given me a really, really great idea for a dream guest that was way off my radar was my mother. And her idea -- and I love this -- she wanted me to do an hour with Michelle Obama's mother, Marian Robinson, the grandma in the White House. And I thought, "That's why you're mom, because you know everything." We're gonna go for that one.

AZ: Yeah, you might have to hire her as a producer.

JJ: Well, the station has rules on nepotism, Alicia. Don't try to get me in trouble.

AZ: Are there any other shows or talk show hosts that you look to as mentors or just examples of doing it in a way that you really want to take some pages from?

"...We need to remind ourselves who we are as a nation and think deeply about who we want to be." - Joshua Johnson

JJ: The first one who ever made an impression on me was a name that you wouldn't know unless you grew up in the Palm Beaches -- Jack Cole from WJNO, who used to do a Friday teen talk segment. Jack Cole died years and years ago, but I was on when I was a sophomore in high school -- so little over 20 years ago. And it was one of the first places where I got to really speak extemporaneously about the issues. It was a live call-in show with him and a panel of like four teenagers. I think that made a gigantic influence on me because he let me speak and argue with him, and I even beat him in some arguments, which was really awesome as a 14-year-old. I was on every Friday for two hours. The segment, I think, was from 4:00 to 6:00, and everyone else would leave, and I would stay at the station till at least 8:00 or 9:00 watching how radio works. And it just fired my imagination.

AZ: There was this radio station, local, one town over, and it was in this old sort of building that looked like an armory. And every time I went past that building I would just like stare at that building, and I'd be like, "That's where they make the radio."

JJ: Exactly. It's like that scene in Willy Wonka where they pass the factory, and they're like, "No one ever goes in and only radio ever comes out." It's magical. Yeah exactly. It is the same thing.

I think other than that,  Tony Brown, who used to host a show on PBS called Tony Brown's Journal. It was the longest-running public affairs program for African Americans in the country. I grew up watching every episode. Tavis Smiley. Dwight Lauderdale, who used to be the news anchor at Channel 10. I mean, [I was] just looking for people who looked like me, for people who I thought, "Oh, you're a black man too. ... Oh yeah, I could do that."