When NPR affiliate WAMU last year named Joshua Johnson — a University of Miami grad and WLRN news anchor in the 2000s — and his new show “1A” to replace beloved talk show host Diane Rehm and her long-standing “Diane Rehm Show,” the reaction was something like a collective “um, who?”
Fast forward a year and Johnson, a 37-year-old transplant originally from West Palm Beach, gets a different response. “Oh look, it’s Joooosh,” says a partygoer at the first anniversary of the show’s debut (we’re betting that fan has more than one NPR tote bag in her closet). Johnson, his crew, radio brass and donors (that’s “members” in NPR-speak) mingled at the swanky District Winery recently and toasted one year down — hey, only 36 more to go to match Rehm’s run.
We caught up with Johnson before the hors d’oeuvres started flowing to talk about weird celebrity interviews, how Washington is like a horror movie and his dream guest (hint: she’s only Michelle Obama-adjacent).
Q: Sum up the year in one word.
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Regardless of your politics and regardless of what you thought about the election, 2017 was just one long scream. You had a lot of Trump supporters who were screaming because they finally felt that the United States government was going to notice them, and for a lot of Trump opponents, you had people feeling like the nation was beginning to burn itself to the ground.
Everyone was just at 190 decibels all the time. And a lot of our job in Year One was not to tell people to quiet down — that would have been the worst thing we could have done.
Q: So you’re not the voice saying, “Hey, settle down everyone, let’s be reasonable.”
A: No. We want to be reasonable, but you can be angry for a reasonable reason. You can be upset for legitimate reasons. So our function in Year One was to just meet people where they were and to let them know that it’s OK. We accept you. Wherever you come from, we accept you. We like to talk about the things that have you screaming in a way that’s thoughtful, but you don’t have to calm down before you are acceptable on NPR.
Q:What has surprised you so far?
A: Doing any topic on politics — with someone on the left and someone on the right — and realizing that they were not what I saw on cable news. When the show was over, these two people who had just been respectfully but pointedly arguing for the last hour would get up and go, “Hey, that was a great show; it’s really good to see you. Are you going to that party tonight? I heard your mom was in the hospital, I hope she’s OK. Listen, I’m going back downtown down to Farragut North, do you want to jump in a Lyft together?”
And I’m like, “Girl, don’t get in the car with him, he’s not your friend — he just argued with you for a whole hour! This is the scene in the horror movie where you don’t come back!” And I think what shocked me for a minute was that Washington is not what you see on television. That is real, but it’s incomplete.
Q: You started this job with some lofty ambitions. How well do you think you’re doing living up to them?
A: I think it’s going pretty well. A lot of what’s lofty about “1A” is exactly what was lofty about “The Diane Rehm Show.” Diane and I have a lot in common in terms of the way we view this space and civil discourse — and being deathly allergic to double talk. We’re very much alike. But what we wanted to do with this program was build a new conversation for 2017, for the era of social media and podcasting.
I think we’ve had a number of impacts, including getting out into the country and talking to people who are our core fans, and helping them figure out how to take what we do further.
Q: Is there a goal for Year Two?
A: My goal is not to let us reach cruising altitude. I think this is the point where a lot of programs go, “Well, we did it. Lean back, everybody.” That will be the death of us. Especially in a midterm election year.
Q: Who’s your dream guest?
A: Michelle Obama’s mother. Don’t get me wrong, if M.O. is like, “You can’t have her but you can have me,” I would genuflect and say “Yes, ma’am.” I am fascinated to know what it takes to raise a young woman to become Michelle Obama. And how she managed Sasha and Malia in that fishbowl of a White House. Grandmothers are really interesting people, and I would love to hear from the first granny.
Q: Any big fails this year?
A: We interviewed Wesley Snipes — he released a book called “Talon of God” about kind of a holy warrior who battles demons on the South Side of Chicago. It was very strange. Wesley is a very ... special character. We’ve taped a few (celebrity) interviews that were just weird and they were so incoherent we couldn’t air it. One of the celebrities has since passed on. I wouldn’t want to mention it.
Q: Ooh, a blind item.
A: There are plenty of celebrity gets I want us to get because I want the big names to come to us first. I want us to do foreign PR — what Oprah did for syndicated television where you go to us for the big authoritative interview that everyone’s going to be talking about.
Q: What’s up with your personal life? I think I heard a “we” earlier ...
A: Oh, my partner, Joe. He’s upstairs. He moved here in August.
Q: What’s on your personal playlist these days, or what are you reading?
A: I can’t wait for “Black Panther,” of course. I am reading a history of “In Living Color” called “Homey Don’t Play That!” — it’s the story of how “In Living Color” happened, which will be on the show next week, which I’m totally looking forward to because “ILC” was like it for me growing up and I don’t think we could have a show like that now. I have a Marvel Unlimited subscription, so whenever I just need a good graphic novel, I’ve got that and I have no shame. I will disappear with a “Wonder Woman” novel in a split second and I dare you to say something about it.
Q: OK, about your name. Joshua Johnson is kind of ... plain. I took the liberty of running it through one of those NPR name generators, and I got Ahmed Van Dam-Doherty. Can we just call you that?
A: OK, but you’re going to have to run that by my mother, and she will probably tell you to get the hell out of her Van Dam-Doherty house.