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NPR's Ari Shapiro reflects on his far-flung radio, performing careers

Ari Shapiro's "The Best Strangers in the World"
Ari Shapiro's "The Best Strangers in the World"

If you’ve ever heard a probing interview or feature report from a far-flung nation by Ari Shapiro on this station, you may have wondered about the person behind the “All Things Considered” voice. Things like: just how do you get a story filed from Air Force One? Why does this guy know so much about flora and fauna? And how did he go from reporting on Pink Martini to joining the band? Those are just some of Ari Shapiro’s experiences detailed in his new memoir, “The Best Strangers in the World: Stories from a Life Spent Listening.”

Well, one thing I really identified with in your book is the way you look at radio segments as being ephemeral. I always tell our interns, 'Hey, we're making the best sandcastle we've ever made today. And then the tide's going to come in. We'll do it again tomorrow.'

I love that.

Feel free to use it. Why did you want to do something that's 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 continually trying things that are scary. But more specifically, because I feel like after more than 20 years as a journalist, I sometimes put myself in 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 kind of these two sides of the coin, where I look at both the stories that have shaped who I am and the way that the person I am has shaped the stories that I've told over the years. But yeah, as you say, I've always gravitated towards making things that are here and gone, whether that's radio or singing with a band or cooking. And so to do something that will kind of sit on a shelf and look at me for years as the book that I wrote, is a little bit terrifying.

You didn't go to journalism school like so many of us but you've been at NPR since you were basically an intern right at the end of college. Why do you think public radio wound up being such a good fit?

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

There have been a lot of times, as you've mentioned, where you've picked up and moved to a new place under the NPR aegis. You write about your relationship with your husband in this memoir. How have you made that aspect of your life work, despite all of the times that you've been pretty far apart?

Yeah, he and I've been together since college we met when we were about 19 years old. And particularly when I was based in London for a couple of years, and Mike was in D.C., that was challenging. But it was also helpful, because his being in Washington meant that we could schedule time that we would 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 warzone 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 abandoning Mike in London because he was doing what he was doing in D.C., I was doing what I was doing overseas, and we knew that it wouldn't be forever.

Does he listen to you?

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

Answer it either way you want. But I did mean on the radio.

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

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

Being a broadcast journalist gives me a bravery to go there that like, first of all, when I'm conducting an interview, I'm in control. I hold the reins and I'm steering it in one direction or another. And especially if it's a pre-taped interview I know that I can try things and if they don't work, they don't have to get on the air. And I don't take it personally. So if I'm asking somebody a tough, challenging question and they don't like me for it? Well, it's not my job to make them like me. All of which is to say, I haven't thought about this question before. But yeah, I do think for me having tough conversations on the air is probably a little bit easier than having them with people who are close to me, because when I'm doing it on the air, you know, it's just business.

Ari, I gathered from the book that you're a relatively observant Jew. What role does religion and faith play in your life and maybe the way you see things?

You know, I grew up in a relatively religious family, I'm not at this point. But to me, the two things that Judaism gave me that I really carry with me daily are, first of all, there's this idea, the Hebrew phrase Tikkun Olam, which means leaving the world better than you found it. In Judaism, the answer to the question, 'Why are we here on earth?' is to make things better. And so rather than trying to think about an afterlife as the goal, I try to think about, what am I doing here while I'm on this earth to make life better for the people around me? So that's one way that Judaism strongly influences my life.

And the other is that, you know, one of the fundamental seminal stories that Jews tell every year is the Exodus story. And the Passover holiday that we celebrate in the spring is all about the exodus from slavery to freedom. And we're commanded to tell the story as though we ourselves had been enslaved in Egypt. And as that we ourselves, were wandering in the desert. And fundamentally, that is an act of storytelling as empathy. It's an exercise in seeing the world through the eyes of somebody else. And I think that's the same thing that I'm trying to do in the stories that I tell on the radio through NPR, it's the same thing that I'm trying to do when I sing with the band Pink Martini. It's the same thing that I even do when I'm creating this cabaret show with Alan Cumming that he and I have been performing all over the country for the last few years. That act of narrative as empathy, I think is like one of the fundamental building blocks of Judaism. And it's also something that I practice every day in my job.

You've stayed at NPR at a time when a lot of your fellow hosts have gone on to do startups and podcasts and just different things. As you look back at your career to date, what do you think it is that keeps you there?

I've never gotten bored. I'm always curious about what the next thing will be. I've always found ways to keep challenging myself and keep growing and keep telling new stories and keep 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.

How's the mood there these days? We're speaking shortly after a bunch of layoffs were announced and NPR is sort of dealing with a lot of the financial constraints that other news outlets are nowadays.

It's tough. I mean, I think everybody is ready for some really good people to have to lose their jobs and that's a difficult situation to be in. And everybody's trying to support each other as best we can.

As you looked back at your career for this project, your reporting career specifically, what's a story that you haven't gotten to do yet that is top on your list?

Hmm. Well, you know, in my bio, it says that I've reported stories from five continents The two that are missing are Australia and Antarctica. So I wouldn't mind checking those off.

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

Totally. I was just in Miami, which is a place where I worked for nine months in 2004, covering the state of Florida for NPR. And I passed by the WLRN building where I had an office and the neighborhood has changed so profoundly. And even you know, since 2004, the way that climate change is reshaping Miami is profound. So it's interesting to go back to these places all these years later and see them through different eyes.

What's one thing you wish you knew when you were that overnight Morning Edition temp about you know how to do this job that you know now?

Don't stress out about it. You know, we're not emergency room doctors, nobody's on an operating room table. It's only radio.

Do you find it's easy to repeat that mantra in the middle of the deadline pressure?

For me, with years of practice, it has gotten easier. And so I'm part of such a skilled and hardworking team, which includes a lot of people who are still early in their careers. And so I try to convey to people the importance of taking our work seriously, but not too seriously. And hopefully, even during the most crushing deadlines and the most stressful scenarios, we're still able to do our work 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's been a pleasure for me to get inside your head a little bit and just have the chance to speak with you.

Thank you so much. I've really enjoyed the conversation.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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