The Heir Apparent: Diane Rehm Names Joshua Johnson Her Successor

The world of public radio call-in shows was set abuzz last week when Diane Rehm finally announced her successor: Joshua Johnson (with his show to be called 1A). Much like the Diane Rehm Show, 1A, a reference to the First Amendment, aims to provide conversations about the most controversial issues of today.

Rehm announced her retirement last December. She is a veteran of public media and tributes have been flowing in since her announcement. As stories from NPR, The Washington Post, and The New York Times suggest, Rehm and her long-running show were beloved staples of public media. The Times succinctly summarizes her storied rise:

Ms. Rehm began as a volunteer at WAMU, which broadcasts from American University, in 1973 and took over its morning talk show, “Kaleidoscope,” six years later. It was renamed “The Diane Rehm Show” in 1984.

In 2000, she became the first radio talk show host to interview a president in the Oval Office, and in 2010 she won a Peabody Award.

President Obama presented her with a National Humanities Medal in 2014.

Rehm is a capable host and reporter deserving of the tributes she has received (though she is not without flaws, as her mishandled 2015 interview with Bernie Sanders makes clear), but the story of this week is Joshua Johnson, and the show he is creating/hosting. Although Johnson has a long-track record in public media, he is not well known. In fact, he is not yet verified on Twitter and has fewer than 3,000 followers. Compare this to Gene Demby, host of NPR’s Code Switch podcast, who is verified and has 45,000-plus followers.

Josh Johnson Twitter

Joshua Johnson on Twitter

Yet, despite his relatively inconspicuous social media presence, he is well-known and respected in public media circles. Johnson began his career with brief stint in TV at a local news station in Florida, before quickly moving into radio. At WRLN, a public radio station in southern Florida, Johnson hosted the local “All Things Considered” broadcast. Here he got a taste of interacting with listeners on-air when guest hosting “The Florida Roundup”, a week-in-review call-in show.

Johnson became a more prominent figure in 2010 when he moved to KQED Public Radio. As one of the hosts of the morning newscast, Johnson became one of the most popular figures in local public radio. For a reporter with nation-wide radio ambitions, KQED is a wise career move – it is one of the most-listened-to public radio stations in the country.

From his newscasting position, he moved on to his own podcast. Johnson created and hosted Truth Be Told, a radio show and podcast from KQED and distributed by NPR. With the benefit of hindsight, Johnson’s work on Truth Be Told foreshadowed the decision to name him Diane Rehm’s successor. The show, focused on “candid conversations about race and identity”, proved popular. Several public radio stations syndicated the show, including Johnson’s new home station, WAMU.

Truth Be Told was structurally reminiscent of the The Diane Rehm Show. In each episode of the 14-episode series, Johnson hosted guests who would discuss a topic and respond to a variety of callers. However, Johnson’s show was definitely more podcast-friendly. The podcast version of the show does not feel like listening to a radio show, but more like something intended for on-demand listening. Johnson knows how to trim shows to kill the uninteresting banter and boring questions. Listeners do not have to wait for callers to gush about how much they enjoy the show or suffer through nonsensical questions. He regularly demonstrates his ability to podcast-ize a show like Truth Be Told in his UC Berkeley podcasting course.

Based on his résumé, it is not hard to see why Johnson is a strong choice for Rehm’s replacement. Aside from his experience in public-radio style call-in shows, Johnson’s proven track record in turning a talk show into a palatable podcast will certainly be useful to WAMU. While The Diane Rehm Show was a cornerstone of public radio, it was certainly not bringing in younger listeners. NPR listening has declined in the under 55 age group. Meanwhile, about 82 percent of podcast listeners are under 55 years old. If Johnson can turn 1A into a success on-air and as a podcast, he could help WAMU and NPR attract younger listeners.

Johnson could also help bring in younger listeners by engaging with them across different platforms. He recognizes that social media is now central to how people consume news and information. In an interview with Diane Rehm about 1A, Johnson said that he believes there is no use in fighting the influence of social media. Rather he intends to use social media to increase access to his show. “We’re going to be wherever you are. You don’t need to climb some mountain to come access our program,” says Johnson. “You can access us easily and we will come to you as proactively as we can.”

So, what does that look like? Johnson has experience with in-depth social media engagement. He doesn’t intend to simply share 1A on a variety of platforms but to use social media to help build his show. Johnson shared on The Diane Rehm Show:

[Using multiple platforms] is an opportunity for us to expand the reach of each show after, an maybe even before, the show…It’s possible, for example, that before an hour long show we might post something on Facebook three days beforehand and say ‘Hey, we are thinking about doing this topic, we’re still building it in the newsroom, and we’d really love to hear what you think’. And that allows people to chime in and help build the show before the show. That’s one of the things we did with Truth Be Told.

Additionally, Johnson helps bring diversity to public radio. He is fully aware of this. Public radio is overwhelming white. Nearly 80 percent of NPR’s workforce is white. This has led to listeners assuming that anyone on-air with the “public radio voice” is white. Johnson reflected on this saying:

I’ve had more than a few people say ‘Oh, you’re Joshua Johnson! I never would have guessed you were black – *gasps*’ and then they grab their mouths like ‘I can’t believe I said that’. In those situations, as uncomfortable as they can be, my response has always been: Why not? And in that moment it gives them a chance to challenge that belief.

Johnson hopes to use his new position to be an example for other aspiring black journalists, and to bring a different perspective to listeners. When Johnson began to think about radio as a profession, he “hunted for people who reminded [him] of [himself] and there weren’t a whole lot. There have been a few black men in prominent positions in public radio – Tavis Smiley and Juan WIlliams and Tony Cox and Ed Gordon and a few others…but there haven’t been many.” Johnson believes that “having people like that who are an example paves the way.”

Additionally, though 1A will not be explicitly about race like Truth Be Told, Johnson’s racial background will echo through all parts of the show. Johnson reflected:

I hope that my perspective as an African American will inform the program, but it won’t be the lens through which we do the show. I think the perspective that all people of any kind of a diverse strand bring is the ability to see things from the outside, with a different kind of empathy, which hopefully will be useful to everyone.

Johnson clearly has the background and vision to carry the Diane Rehm model into the future. 1A promises to be close-enough to The Diane Rehm Show to retain its faithful following, and Johnson’s background in social media engagement and podcasting may help pull the show into the new media landscape. He will help change the white image of NPR and become an example for young journalists of color. He has worked his way through the public radio pipeline to the national stage. I’m sure he will get verified on Twitter soon.

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