Joshua Johnson is National Public Radio’s (NPR) “breakout public media star” who hosts “1A,” a weekday program “that brings new insight and inquiry to the most pressing issues of our time,” according to a Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) press release.
“I always love radio. I always have been a broadcasting type of person,” Johnson told the MSR in a recent phone interview. The second nationally based Black journalist in this fall’s MPR News Broadcast Journalist series, he will be speaking at the University of St. Thomas’s O’Shaughnessy Center on October 23 at 7 pm.
Johnson’s two-hour program premiered this year on January 2, succeeding the long-running “The Diane Rehm Show.” “1A” is heard nationally on nearly 200 stations. The first hour is produced by WAMU in Washington, D.C. and heard locally on KNOW 91.1 FM (10 am, M-Th and 9 am on Fridays).
“I was the last person to audition for the job,” Johnson recalled. He was among 30 persons trying out for the job, several of whom had done substitute on-air stints for Rehm. After 37 years on the air, Rehm left on her own terms, announcing last December that Johnson would be her successor.
The Palm Beach, Florida native began his broadcasting career in Miami as part of a public radio-newspaper collaboration. Then Johnson moved west to San Francisco’s KQED in 2010, where he was a morning drive-time newscaster, and worked there until last year.
He then co-created and hosted the “Truth Be Told” series, which explored race in America. “Originally it was a local series,” said Johnson. A station executive wanted a program to look at the growing Black Lives Matter movement.
“I had the idea of doing a video series to teach White people how to talk to their Black friends, something lighthearted and funny.” Then he thought twice and put together a more serious examination of the topic.
Johnson produced four episodes, and Public Radio International requested four more. The series soon caught the attention of the WAMU programming executive, which eventually led to Johnson’s selection to audition for the Rehm show.
Johnson said he resisted any calls to self-title his show. “I wouldn’t want to do a version of [what] someone else did. I would much rather build something new.”
The name “1A” came from a similar title at the Miami Herald where he once worked. “It’s a reference to the first page of a newspaper,” Johnson says. “I like that idea because it’s the kind of stories…that are above the fold on the page.
“[These are] the issues everybody is talking about but may not be talking about them as deeply. Or the stories below the fold on the page that are not breaking news but everybody is talking about them.”
Furthermore, with the Trump administration’s self-declared war on press freedom and free speech, “1A” actually refers to the First Amendment, stated Johnson. “I want ‘1A’ to focus on stories that are something unique right now.”
“1A” is one of four daily programs that NPR distributes nationally, but it’s the only one hosted by a Black male. Johnson joins Michele Martin and Michelle Norris among NPR’s regularly heard voices of color. But Johnson quickly warns that he is not a “diversity hire.”
“Yes, it would be great to have a host of color in the anchor chair, but there’s much more…to say we have the best host in public radio, who is proficient and skilled beyond anyone else in the system. And by the way, he’s Black,” said Johnson.
“If you cannot do the journalism first and foremost, this kind of program would be much more difficult,” he said. “I think it’s great that I get to be an African American host on NPR. But I think what ultimately sealed the deal is that you have to have the skills. Skills and professionalism trumps talent all the time. Public radio has served me very, very well.”
He also wants fans of Rehm’s show to accept his program on its own merits. According to a February Washington Post Magazine article, “1A” is being carried on 194 stations, including KNOW. Rehm’s show had reached 198 stations when it went off the air last December.
Johnson’s objective is to keep the listeners on board. He explained, “From the beginning, when you tuned into ‘1A’ you were tuning into something else on a wavelength you never heard before. It gives people no reason to tune out.
“My main focus every day is to play like it’s game seven of the playoffs,” said Johnson. “That’s my goal. If a new listener is in our audience every day, I give them no reason not to come back.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.