Joshua Johnson: Getting to know the host of NPR's 1A ("1on1 with Jon Evans" podcast)

Joshua Johnson: Getting to know the host of NPR's 1A ("1on1 with Jon Evans" podcast)
Joshua Johnson, the host of 1A heard on NPR stations across the country, is the guest on this week's "1on1 with Jon Evans" podcast.
Joshua Johnson speaks to a crowd during a recent trip to Wilmington for WHQR-FM. (Source: WECT)
Joshua Johnson speaks to a crowd during a recent trip to Wilmington for WHQR-FM. (Source: WECT)
You can listen to previous episodes of the "1on1 with Jon Evans" podcasts with guests including Vivian Howard, Mike Ashcraft, Charlie Daniels and MacKenzie Gore, by clicking the links inside this story.
You can listen to previous episodes of the "1on1 with Jon Evans" podcasts with guests including Vivian Howard, Mike Ashcraft, Charlie Daniels and MacKenzie Gore, by clicking the links inside this story.

WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - "How does a carburetor work?" is one of the first questions Joshua Johnson asked as an interviewer. The inquiry came decades before he would ever sit in the host's seat in the studios of WAMU in Washington, DC. Johnson believes it happened around the time he was five-years-old. His "microphone" then was actually a wooden stick. The captive audience made up of family members, entertained by the inquisitive nature of the child's mind.

"I was not a know-it-all, I was an ask-it-all," the now 38-year-old host of the national radio show 1A remembers. "I wanted to know everything in the world. When I was little, I remember one Sunday after dinner I walked around with a little stick like a microphone, and I would interview people and ask them if they knew how a carburetor worked. If they didn't know, I took great delight in regaling them with how a carburetor worked."

I haven't heard Joshua Johnson do a show about the inner-workings of a carburetor since he started on 1A in January 2017. The inner-workings of the nation's capital contains enough material on its own. Johnson shared stories of his new experiences with a Wilmington audience last month, when he spoke at the annual fundraising luncheon for WHQR, where his syndicated show on NPR airs weekdays from 10:00 a.m. to Noon.  He took over the timeslot following the retirement of Diane Rehm, who had broadcast her show for 37 years.

"She brought me on her show, in mid-November after the election, introduced me to her fan base, announced the name of the show, and then literally handed it over," Johnson told the crowd in the Grand Ballroom of the Hotel Ballast downtown. "She raised a glass to us at WAMU (where the shows are produced), and then exited stage right and then let us build whatever show we wanted to build."

Johnson was hired for the national show following five years as host on KQED, the NPR affiliate in San Francisco. His work at the bay-area station, including the highly-regarded series of reports about race in America called Truth Be Told, landed him on the list of potential candidates. He was the last to fill-in for Rehm as part of the audition process. He speaks about it at the beginning of the interview.

"I always tried to do this with every audition, I wanted to make sure they knew what they were giving up by not choosing me," Johnson says. "You can pick someone else if you want to, but you need to see what you're leaving on the table. If you're cool with that, that's fine."

Johnson impressed, and was offered the job in late 2016. (He talks about getting the phone call while on vacation with his partner at 3:45 of the podcast). But he could not tell anyone until the official announcement would be made following that year's presidential election. The country's reaction to the outcome of the Donald Trump-Hillary Clinton race began to shape his preparation for 1A.

"For me it was more a matter of watching the election and the election cycle, and the way the national conversation around that was going to end, and realizing we were going to pick up thereafter and help the country move forward," he says. "I knew either we were going to be looking at the first term of Donald Trump, who was a complete disruptor, or America's first female head of state. So, either way the national conversation was going to be dramatically different."

Now 17 months in with 1A, Johnson says one of the things he finds easier than expected is getting people on opposite ends of Washington's political spectrum to be civil to each other before and after a discussion on his program. He talks about that issue at 7:30 of the podcast.

"The political debate you see on cable news is real, but its incomplete," he revealed. "There's a lot more to it. We've had plenty of shows where people would just go at it for the entire hour, respectfully but still intensely, and the show ends, they stand up and it's like they're friends, they know each other, it's like 'good to see you at that party', 'I'm sorry, I heard about your Mom', 'listen, I'm going to catch a cab downtown, want to ride together?', and life goes on."

At a time where listeners can find affirmation by choosing programs that favor their political or social leanings, Johnson strives to be a source of 'information'. For his two hours on the air every weekday, he takes more of a clinical approach to discussing the issues.

"For me as a journalist, I have to wash my hands of my biases, my prejudices, my preconceptions, my stereotypes, and go into my lab," he explains. "I can't go in sterile, but I can go in clean with a mind to treat people like 'I don't want to contaminate this sample of your life, of your story that you've given me to learn from. It doesn't matter what I think of you, it matters that I understand you, even if you represent a social ill'. Because if I don't understand it, how can I cure it? So, my responsibility is to be a good clinician. When I step out of my lab, all those biases, prejudices, stereotypes, they're going to jump right back on me because I'm human."

A self-confessed 'pain in the neck' as a child growing up in south Florida, Johnson says he knew at a young age he wanted to share what he learned with others, although at the time he wasn't quite sure of the method. "I remember how it felt to be validated for having knowledge, for having useful information, and for understanding things," he says. "People would just let me do it. They entertained me, they entertained my precocious curiosity."

Johnson's introduction to National Public Radio came while in middle school. He attended a summer program at Temple University's school of medicine, for minority students interested in careers in medical research. Johnson's mother taught research skills as part of the same program. She turned on the campus radio station WRTI-FM and listened to jazz music. When the programming segued into Robert Siegel and the NPR staple All Things Considered, Johnson's mother had what he calls her "NPR epiphany". Johnson acts out her reaction, and his subsequent desire to become part of the broadcasting industry, starting at 21:45 of the podcast.

"It was the beginning of that little nagging voice that said 'you could be a doctor, but you should be a broadcaster; you could be a researcher, but you should be an interviewer; you could do what's doable, you should do what's never been done'," Johnson says. "I couldn't escape it. I couldn't get away from the fear of regretting not doing what I most wanted."

After graduating from the University of Miami, Johnson took a job with WPEC-TV in West palm Beach. He soon realized television news was not the way he wanted to go, and landed a job at WPRN, Miami's NPR affiliate, as part of a partnership with the Miami Herald. The desire to broaden his horizons led to the opportunity in San Francisco, and ultimately to Washington, DC with 1A. Johnson talks about the concept of the title starting at 28:25 of the podcast.

"It's partly page 1A of the paper," he explains. "It's what the Miami Herald calls its front page. So, it refers to the kinds of stories we like to tell. The stories that are above the fold that are the really big ones that everyone is talking about, but maybe needs space to talk about them in more depth, or the stories below the fold that aren't the huge stories of the day but they say something about who we are, or how we live, or what we're interested in that are worth unpacking. The other main meaning, 1A, the First Amendment. It's the basic rules of the road for how we relate to one another in a democracy, these core freedoms."

When it's time to get away from the workflow, you may find Joshua Johnson with a Play Station controller. In fact, he may be playing the new game Detroit: Become Human right now. Joshua said at the end of our interview it would be his next gift to himself. Likely after he gives listeners another two hours of quality discussion on 1A.

You can hear the entire conversation with Joshua Johnson by clicking on one of the links listed below.

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