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Joshua Johnson Wants His Show to Be Relentlessly Civil, Especially in These Uncivil Times

Diane Rehm's replacement wants a welcome space for all. And, if possible, an interview with Donald Trump.
Johnson. Photograph by Stephen Voss.

When Joshua Johnson found out he’d been chosen to host the public radio show that will replace Diane Rehm‘s, he suggested a name for it that had long meant a lot to him: 1A. That’s how the Miami Herald, where Johnson worked in a news partnership with public radio station WRLN from 2004 to 2010, refers to its front page. Staffers at WAMU, which produces The Diane Rehm Show, thought it evoked the First Amendment. (It probably didn’t hurt that some of the other names under consideration were underwhelming.)

On Wednesday Rehm had Johnson, 36, on her show to announce he’d take over her timeslot in January. More than 200 stations nationwide broadcast The Diane Rehm Show, so Johnson’s appointment is freighted with expectation–he needs to not only maintain the audience she has built over three decades and change in the host chair but expand it to include people who may not be in habit of consuming public radio, at least in its terrestrial broadcast form. “We’re seamless with The Diane Rehm Show,” Johnson says. “We’re articulating the same kinds of values and ethics that came out of her show in a different way, but they’re still the same values.” 

Johnson’s planning to move to Washington by the middle of next month, but he, executive producer Rupert Allman, and other members of its ten-person staff are already working on what 1A will sound like and getting it ready for its debut on January 2, 2017.

Part of the way may be by making audio that can live beyond the “clock”–the usually regimented manner a public radio show’s hours are planned. 1A’s clock can be broken up, depending on the stories it’s tackling on a particular day, and ideally the segments will be able to stand on their own. That flexibility is important to Johnson, who teaches a course called “Podcasting for the Real World” at the University of California’s graduate school of journalism in Berkeley. 1A will be available as a podcast, as is de rigueur for all big public radio projects these days, but he’s especially intrigued by the audio aggregator 60dB, which pulls in stories from multiple sources, bringing in listeners “sideways” rather than through the front door. “We have to make sure we make each piece of the show for an audience that is carving up content in ways we cannot control,” he says.

The show’s signature will be relentless civility, Johnson says. “I may be skeptical, but I won’t be cynical,” he says. “I may be inquisitive, but I won’t be an interrogator. It’s not my job to make you tell me the truth. It’s my job to try to get at the truth with you. But no matter what our conversation is, I need to walk away knowing that I treated you like a human being.”

Civility may be a tough lift: A few hours before we spoke a Breitbart News editor accused NPR on-air of having “racial and racist programming.” Johnson is sure he can handle differences by laying out the welcome mat and listening hard. “I think we have to, in this day and age, in the backdrop of the current political climate, I think we have to go a step beyond being civil and work even more assiduously at being welcoming,” he says. “We have to make sure people know that this is a welcome space for them, a safe space to be heard.” 

His dream interviews? Marian Robinson, Michelle Obama‘s mother, to find out “what it’s like to be a working mom when your work is in the White House.” Celebrities who’ll talk about their passions–George Clooney talking about journalism, perhaps. And also maybe someone else moving to Washington in the next couple of weeks: “I’d love to spend an hour with Donald Trump, I think that would be fantastic.” 

What he won’t spend much time on is celebs’ current projects. “I want to talk to people and ask them questions they don’t get asked,” he says. “This show is for larger stuff. It’s got to be something that would make a listener come back with a friend.”

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Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute, TBD.com, and Washington City Paper. His book A Bigger Field Awaits Us: The Scottish Soccer Team That Fought the Great War was published in 2018. He lives in Del Ray.