Ari Shapiro on Finding Clarity and Connection Through Listening
Ari Shapiro’s life revolves around listening. Since becoming co-host of NPR’s flagship news program All Things Considered in 2015, Shapiro has become a go-to source for tens of millions of Americans for essential deep-dives into some of the most critical stories unfolding across the globe, largely through intimate interviews with the people most affected. Over the past decade, he has reported on events ranging from the opening of the M.L.K. memorial in Washington D.C., to the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War (he was on the ground in Kyiv, Donetsk, and Luhansk back in 2014), to the shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida (where he had previously spent time as a young reporter). Throughout, his mission has been crystal clear: to serve as an informational and emotional conduit—or even a translator of sorts—between the subject and the listener.
Creating a sense of interpersonal resonance, Shapiro believes, is one way news reporting can have its greatest impact. As he says on this episode of Time Sensitive, “We’re making a big story understandable by presenting it through the lens of individual human experience.” Indeed, Shapiro’s new memoir, The Best Strangers in the World: Stories From a Life Spent Listening, is a sort of manifesto for the power of listening—in finding connections with, and more importantly, understanding, others who might ostensibly appear wholly different.
It’s a bit uncanny that one of Shapiro’s own first memories of listening was to All Things Considered, the very program he would go on to host, as a young boy growing up in Fargo, North Dakota. Despite the seemingly linear path from his childhood to his tenure at NPR, however, Shapiro’s journey has been anything but one-note or pre-ordained. Whether working as a high school H.I.V. educator for the Cascade AIDS Project, singing a capella at Yale University, collaborating with the actor Alan Cumming on their cabaret show Och and Oy, or performing in the band Pink Martini, Shapiro has shaped his life around a wide array of concerns and interests.
On the episode, Shapiro talks about why he considers hosting All Things Considered like inheriting an heirloom, embracing one’s identity as a journalistic asset, and the parallels between reading fiction, cooking, and reporting.
Shapiro philosophizes on his place within the legacy of National Public Radio’s 52-year-old show All Things Considered, which he once listened to as a young boy growing up in Fargo, North Dakota, and is now the co-host of.
Shapiro talks about what he’s learned from a life spent listening. Spencer also makes a humorous, if tenuous, Ames, Iowa, connection in Shapiro’s life story—between a segment about a barbershop from the very first episode of All Things Considered, in 1971, and the city being the location where Shapiro got drunk for the first time.
Shapiro recalls a few of his most memorable NPR stories, including a controversial segment from his time on the Romney presidential campaign, reporting from Orlando after the Pulse nightclub shooting, and a profoundly moving dialogue between two Sarajevo women.
Shapiro looks back at his time spent in nature—particularly looking at tidepools—as a young boy in Portland, Oregon, to which his family moved from Fargo when he was 8. He also speaks about his time volunteering as an H.I.V. educator for the Cascade AIDS Project and his Yale University thesis about gothic novels.
Shapiro gets into his 20-plus-year journey at NPR, which began with an internship for NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. He also discusses two of his passions, food and reading fiction, and how those have found their way into his NPR reporting.
Shapiro shares his journey as a performer and singer with the band Pink Martini, as well as his cabaret show Och and Oy with the actor Alan Cumming. The conversation ends with Shapiro singing, in Spanish, Ernesto Lecuona’s song “Yo Te Quiero Siempre.”
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SPENCER BAILEY: Hi, Ari. Welcome to Time Sensitive.
ARI SHAPIRO: I’m so happy to be here. Thank you for having me.
SB: Let’s start with today. Right here, right now. Your new memoir, The Best Strangers in the World: Stories from a Life Spent Listening, came out yesterday, and tonight you’re appearing in conversation with Benj Pasek at the Temple Emanu-El Streicker Cultural Center. Tell me about how you’re thinking about this exact moment in time.
AS: I’m remembering an interview that my colleague Mary Louise Kelly, who hosts All Things Considered with me, did with the author of a book, where in that conversation he said, “Every day has the same number of minutes, but some days are quickly forgotten and others contain a lifetime.” And I’m aware that this twenty-four-hour period is one of those moments that contains a lifetime. The conversations and experiences and memories of the last twenty-four hours are things that I have been anticipating for years, and will be thinking back on for years. So I’m trying to savor it, and also just enjoying the ride.
SB: Amazing quote.
AS: Isn’t that good? I’m paraphrasing, but yeah. I mean, that’s a great thing about talking to strangers for a living, is that they say things that actually shape the way you view the world. Which is kind of what my book is about. The way the people I’ve met have shaped my view of the world, and the way the person that I am shapes the stories I tell.
SB: In preparing for this interview, it got me thinking about All Things Considered across time. The show began about fifty-two years ago, before you and I were born.
SB: May 3, 1971.
AS: Ooh, very good. I couldn’t have named the day.
SB: Well, I have notes. [Laughs] With a twenty-eight-minute, thirty-eight-second episode.
AS: There was a segment about protests against the Vietnam War. Is that right?
SB: Correct. Yeah, it was the May Day protest against the war. And another segment on drug abuse, another on World War I poetry, and—my favorite—a piece on an Ames, Iowa barbershop specializing in shaving women’s legs.
SB: You’ve previously said you have memories of being a young boy in your parents’ living room in Fargo, North Dakota, hearing All Things Considered and the theme music as your mother made dinner. And you write in the book that you’ve been listening to it practically since birth.
SB: So how do you think about this five-plus-decade history of the show? But also your own trajectory within it? I mean, what’s it like to be the host of a news program that you’ve listened to your entire life?
AS: There are two ideas that come to mind, and they’re slightly in tension with each other. The first is, just don’t break it. You’re inheriting an heirloom, and you don’t want to be the person who drops it and watches it shatter into a million pieces on the floor.
SB: You could kintsugi it, though.
AS: Kint—? Oh, right. That’s—
SB: Japanese gold, yeah.
AS: Right, with gold, oh. I don’t know that I have the skills to do that. I’d rather not be faced with that responsibility. It would be beautiful, but I’d rather not have to face that scenario.
So, the first thing I think is just, don’t fuck it up. By the way, on public radio, I don’t say words like fuck.
SB: Yeah. It would get bleeped.
AS: Here, I feel free with you.
SB: Yes. Do it.
AS: So I’m going to just let myself do it. So, don’t fuck it up is rule number one. But then rule number two is, when it started in 1971, All Things Considered was doing something kind of revolutionary. It was the first show to have a woman host a nationally broadcast nightly news program, Susan Stamberg. That description of the rundown you just gave was not what you would’ve heard on any other news program in those days. So, while I’m trying not to break it, I’m also trying to keep it vibrant and alive, and reflective of the time, and engaging and evolving. And that involves not just me, but all of the producers and editors and directors and engineers, many of whom are now a generation younger than I am. And just sort of trying to keep the thing breathing. Not breathing like conscious and alive. But breathing like expanding and contracting and inhaling and exhaling and aware of its—
AS: Yeah, exactly. Like, permeable.
SB: Are there any particular episodes of All Things Considered, prior to your becoming the host in 2015, that particularly stand out in your memory? An episode you listened to that transformed how you thought about an issue? Or that was just some funny—
AS: Oh, there’s so many. I mean, this is so random, and I don’t know why it sticks in my mind, apart from the fact that it was a very memorable moment. And it’s not an interview that I’ve talked about in conversation before, because it is so, in some ways, just like another news-of-the-day interview. But it was when foot-and-mouth disease was running through the U.K., and herds of cattle were being put down. Hoof-and-mouth disease, maybe it was called. Anyway, Noah Adams, who was then a host of All Things Considered, did an interview with a cattle farmer [Jo Jones of Ditches Farm in Wales] who had to put down his herd. The cattle farmer was talking about how well he knew these individual cows, and what it meant to have to put them down.
It was an arresting conversation about something that every news organization was covering, because it was a huge story. It was probably twenty years ago or so. I just remember the care and thought and patience and space that Noah gave the farmer, who was talking about his experience.
Thinking back on that interview—which, again, I haven’t listened to since it aired, so I’m really reaching back into the recesses of my mind—I think it speaks to the power of listening as an act of care. This is a conversation that I used to often have with Audie Cornish, who was my co-host for many years, and left NPR for CNN not too long ago. But I would talk about the feeling of guilt of imposing on people during their worst moments. And she was the first person to say, “Yeah, but sometimes listening can really be an act of care. And allowing people the space to tell their story and be heard can really be healing. And that’s a service that we can give. That’s a gift that we can provide to people that is not insignificant.”
So I think about that conversation Noah Adams had with that farmer. And I think, when the show is at its best, when I’m at my best, that’s the kind of thing that we’re doing: We’re making a big story understandable by presenting it through the lens of individual human experience. And we’re also just listening and allowing the story to unfold at its own pace.
SB: Yeah. Well, I did want to ask you about this. Because listening, the time you’ve spent listening, I mean, I can only imagine the thousands of hours you’ve spent literally listening to the people you’ve interviewed. Not to mention just listening to the radio.
SB: And you’ve sort of, more or less—and I’m paraphrasing here—but you sort of described listening as an antidote as well. As something like a way of drawing collective lines and bringing people together. Could you talk about that connective element that happens in the listening process?
AS: Yeah. We live in a world where there are really powerful forces trying to convince us that people who disagree with us or have different experiences from us are our enemies. Whether it’s social media algorithms, or political parties, or corporations that want us to see ourselves as members of a team fighting the other team. Those are really, really strong gravitational forces. And I think listening can be a cure for that. I think if we listen to one another…. And that doesn’t just mean subscribe to a newspaper where the editorial page writes things that you politically disagree with. It means actually, with your ears, hearing a person talk and listen.
It doesn’t reveal something that we didn’t know. It reminds us of what has always been true, which is that even people who seem profoundly different and distant from ourselves, share so much more in common with us than we might initially realize. I feel like when I talk about this, people often gravitate towards political differences within the United States. For me, the most powerful learning experience I had along these lines came when I was covering wars. Because, as I write in the book, I think growing up in the United States, we have this incredible privilege of two huge oceans on either side of us. There has not been a war fought on American soil in more than a century. And although members of the armed forces make tremendous sacrifices when they serve overseas, it’s overseas.
So it’s easy for us, I think, to perceive people experiencing war, conflict, revolution, upheaval, as somehow fundamentally different from us. And when I started going out and covering those stories, I realized that I had those blinders, that I had those preconceived notions in my head. And so the first mission was like, “How do I dismantle that for myself?” And then the second mission was, “How do I do that for NPR listeners and the stories that I’m telling? How do I help them see the people who I’m reporting on as not just—the phrase I use in the book is, in air quotes, ‘war people’ in ‘war places’—but actually humans who we have a lot in common with?”
SB: I think it must be said here that your first war reporting experience was in Eastern Ukraine. Which, given the time and the moment we’re in, seems kind of extraordinary. And I think you were revealing things that now, over the past year, became even more clear, back then.
AS: I didn’t go there intending to cover a war. I went there to report feature stories and think pieces about the aftermath of a revolution that had taken place six months earlier. Russia had taken over the Crimean peninsula at that point, but I was in Kyiv reporting stories about corruption, and the economy. Then separatists started taking over in Donetsk and Luhansk, and these other cities in the east. So I was the NPR guy who was in Ukraine, I just flew there, and suddenly I was covering what evolved into a war.
But even then, it was nothing compared to the full-scale invasion that happened in 2022. When I then went back, not into Ukraine, but to the border of Poland and Ukraine, reporting on the refugee crisis, I did, as you say, feel like there had been this uncanny foreshadowing of everything that we’re seeing now in the stories that I had been telling seven years earlier.
SB: I wanted to go back to several stories, and actually the Ames, Iowa, barbershop story—and we’ll touch on some of your NPR stories—but this is a personal life story first. Because, when thinking about your life and work through the lens of time, it’s particularly interesting how interconnected everything is. And you have your own Ames, Iowa, story: the first time you got drunk, at a Korean karaoke bar.
AS: This is true. I don’t know where you found this, but it is absolutely true. You’ve done your research.
SB: While you were there with your high school’s Odyssey of the Mind delegation.
AS: Wow. Whoever your research assistant is, give them a raise. This is true. So I did Odyssey of the Mind in high school, which was a creative problem-solving competition. Which, sidebar, for all of the time that students spend in extracurriculars learning how to, I don’t know, play soccer or play chess, creative problem-solving is possibly the most useful skill that I gained from any extracurricular activity I ever did. And Odyssey of the Mind was where I learned it. So, despite the somewhat silly name, I’m a big fan, recommend, endorse.
But yeah, the “World Finals,” they called it, because I think there was a team from Canada. The World Finals took place in Ames, Iowa, on a college campus, and there was a bar that would let in people who didn’t have IDs. I went there with my team, and we were sort of drinking beer around the pool table. And a girl on our team…. When I say team, it’s like six to eight people. We’re not talking about the size of a soccer team. She was flirting with some guy who, I don’t know if he was Korean or Korean American, whatever. He was like, “There’s this Korean karaoke bar.”
We all piled into his car, and we drove out to this bar. I remember sitting around this table and the server saying, “We don’t really do mixed drinks here.” Look, I had never ordered a mixed drink in my life. I didn’t know what mixed drinks were. He was like, “We just sort of drink things neat or on the rocks.” I didn’t know what those words meant. And I said, “Like, what?” And he said, “Like cognac.” And I was like, “Okay, cognac.”
So high school Ari Shapiro, in Ames, Iowa, in this Korean karaoke bar, is drinking cognac and getting shit-faced. Yes, you’ve done your research. Good job. That’s my Ames, Iowa, story.
SB: Well, I just found that pretty profound that the very first—
AS: That actually is totally uncanny. I should go back to Ames, Iowa, the third leg of the stool.
SB: We should see if that barbershop’s still there and if it’s—
AS: Shaving women’s legs. That’s amazing, yeah.
SB: Now to the NPR stories. You’ve had so many incredible excursions that I think really do span time in these fascinating, compelling ways. And I wanted to start with the Bobbie Lussier controversy that came up during your time on the Romney campaign. Because from a time perspective, this is fascinating, thinking about the fact of what it means to be a beat reporter. And when you’re on the beat, how certain things might return.
AS: Mm-hmm. Yeah, so correct me if I’m wrong. This is not a story that’s in the book, and it’s been a long time since I’ve thought about her. But I believe this was the woman who said, “Michelle Obama is not a first lady. She doesn’t look like a first lady; she doesn’t act like a first lady. She wears sleeveless shirts; she does push-ups.” [Editor’s note: Lussier said, “She doesn’t look or act—I mean, can you imagine Kennedys or the Bushes or anybody doing push-ups on the floor? That’s just not a first lady.”]
But she didn’t say all of that the first time I met her. I met her at a Romney rally where…. I thought of covering these rallies as almost like taking a pointillistic approach to painting a picture of the country, where I would go to a city where Romney was having a rally, and in the ten minutes before the rally started I would talk to three people. I would only have enough time to ask each of them a couple questions, and I would get a little pinprick of color: of what makes them tick, what makes them feel the way they feel, and think the way they think. My hope was that, collectively, over the course of the year covering the campaign, all of those different dots of color could paint a picture of the country we were living in at that time.
And Bobbie Lussier was this woman who…. Was it a V.A. rally? Or some veteran…. Something like that. The details are hazy. But she basically said like, “Oh, Michelle Obama, she’s no first lady.” I put it on the air, and people were outraged. They were furious. I think there was an Ombudsman column about it or something like that. And I’m sprinting on the treadmill of covering the campaign. So I’ve moved on to the next thing, and the next thing, and the next thing. But some months later, crazy coincidence, I ran into her at another event.
SB: Through her husband.
AS: Through her husband. Okay, so you’re going to have to remind me of some of the details here. Because like I said, it was a decade ago. But I had the opportunity to follow up with her and say, “What did you mean?” And she said, “Oh, I just meant that she does push-ups and wears sleeveless dresses, and—”
SB: Right. Because the accusations were that she had been—
AS: That she was racist. So then I said, “Well, a lot of people interpreted it as a racist remark.” And she said, “Absolutely not.” I think that’s what she said. Is that what she said?
AS: Absolutely not. And I’m not sure that there was ever any capital R resolution to it. But it was this opportunity to go back and say, “Well, here’s how people heard what you said. You want to respond to that? How do you react to hearing the way they interpreted your words?” I think, since then, the country has had a much more robust and nuanced debate over race, and implicit bias, and ingrained prejudice, and systems of oppression, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. But in 2012, there was still sort of this sense of, “Hmmm. That sounds pretty racist. Is that racist?” And being able to go up to that woman and say to her, “A lot of people thought that sounded pretty racist. Is that racist?” was just a rare opportunity that I’ve not often had. Did I get the details of that right?
SB: You did.
SB: Another time-spanning story you’ve covered that stands out to me is the Pulse nightclub. I mean, earlier in your life, and prior to reporting on the shooting, you’d spent time in Orlando as a regional reporter and had even spent time in that very nightclub.
AS: Yeah. Which I didn’t realize when I first volunteered to go cover the Pulse shooting. So in 2004, I was spending nine months in Florida filling in for the reporter who was on leave there. He was doing an academic-year fellowship. So I was all over the state covering different stories. And I was doing some reporting in Orlando, and I finished my reporting on a Monday night, and I thought, “I’ll just go find a bar and have a drink.” So I found this gay bar, it was empty because it was a Monday, and I was chatting with the bartenders, because there was nobody else there. We just had this great rapport, so the next night they were off and they took me out with them, and we had a great time. I forgot my jacket at the club that they took me to, and they mailed the jacket back to me in Miami. That was all 2004.
Then in 2012, I volunteered to go cover the Pulse nightclub massacre, because I knew that I brought something unique to that story. I had had enough experience with gay bars and clubs, and specifically in Orlando, to be able to assess the importance of what this kind of place meant. And it wasn’t until the end of that week, when I was interviewing the editor of the free gay weekly paper. He has since passed away, but his name was Billy Manes. And before we started the interview, I was making small talk and I said, “You know, I actually went bar-hopping in Orlando twelve years ago, and met these bartenders, and they were these great guys, and I had such a good time.” Billy said, “Well, what was the bar?” And I said, “I’ve forgot the name, but I’m sure it’s closed. It was more than a decade ago.” And he said, “Well, what did it look like?” So I described the layout, where you walk on the front door, and there’s sort of a dance floor to your left, and there’s a bar to your right. And Billy said, “That was Pulse.”
Then I looked in my phone for the contact information for one of those bartenders, and I saw that the email address I had for him in my phone ended with @pulseorlando.com. One of them had since moved on and moved to Chicago. The other was still working at Pulse, but was not there the night of the massacre. But it was a real moment of, not only do I know the significance of a gay bar, but this particular memory that I had of this night, of finding community and making friends, and being a stranger in a city where I don’t know anyone. And going to a gay bar where I know I will be welcomed. That story that was in my mind was about Pulse nightclub, where the shooting happened.
SB: Yeah, I mean, the profound connection of your life intersecting with this national—international—news story.
AS: Mm-hmm. And then I called up that bartender who had relocated to Chicago, and he remembered me. He remembered that night. And we just had this moment of bonding and reconnecting after all of those years.
And it speaks to the role of identity in the stories that we tell as journalists, and the tension between the view from nowhere, that an earlier generation of journalists idealized, and the experience and history and identity that we all carry with us. Whatever our religion, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, we all have identity. That identity shapes all of us, and pretending otherwise doesn’t necessarily make us better journalists. And sometimes that identity can actually be an asset and a strength. So that’s the tension that I try to explore in the book, is where do we draw the line between wanting to be a surrogate for the listener, so that they can imagine themselves in our shoes, and also wanting to bring our unique perspective and insights into the stories that we tell?
SB: You’ve also found subjects that have these crazy, wild, across-time stories and connections. Especially when it comes to intergenerational links. And I’m thinking here of a story you reported about the former White House ethics advisor, Norm Eisen.
AS: Oh my God, this was an amazing story. Maybe I should have put this one in the book. [Laughs] No, you know what? I considered putting it in the book, but he wrote his own book about it. And I was like, “Let people read Norm Eisen’s book. I’m not going to try to paraphrase what he did.”
SB: I watched a talk where you spoke about this though, and I was like, “It’d be a disservice to not bring this up with Ari.”
AS: So I first heard about his story late in my career as a White House correspondent. Late in my career. [Laughs] I did it for four years, and this is towards the end of the four-year stint.
I heard that the ethics czar, Norm Eisen, was moving on to become the U.S. ambassador based in Prague, and that his family had a connection there. That his mother was a Holocaust survivor, and that the house that the U.S. ambassador in Prague lives in had previously been the Nazi headquarters in Czechoslovakia.
So I interviewed him in D.C. about it, as a White House correspondent, not knowing that, a couple years later, I would relocate to London as a foreign correspondent. And once I got there, Norm said, Ambassador Eisen said, “Why don’t you come visit?” So I did a follow-up story, where I actually was in this house. And he was Jewish and observant, so when his family moved into the house, they made the kitchen kosher. They, every Friday night, would light Shabbat candles. And they would invite a large group of people from the community—Jewish, non-Jewish—to sit around the table with them and make Shabbat in this house that had originally belonged to a wealthy Czech family that was Jewish, who had been massacred. And then belonged to the Nazis. “Belonged,” in air quotes. And then belonged to the U.S. State Department.
He showed me this one coffee table that on the underside had the three stamps. The one from that original family, another from the Nazi party, and then the third, “This is property of the U.S. State Department, item number 87…” Whatever.
SB: It’s like a novel.
AS: It’s like a novel. Yeah, it’s unbelievable. And Norm’s mother at that point was still alive, couldn’t bring herself to visit. But he did sort of do a FaceTime walkthrough with her. And it was so important and moving to him—and to me, as the person reporting the story—that he was representing the country that had taken his mother in, in the country that she had had to flee. I mean, it’s just incredible.
SB: You came across another story like this in Sarajevo, while reporting on the centenary of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination, which helped trigger World War I. Can you speak to that one?
AS: Yeah. God, you’re digging up all these great stories that are going to have to go in the next book. This was not a story I had planned on telling. I was reporting all of these stories about the hundredth anniversary of the start of the First World War. And because it was a huge international news event, and I was late in being assigned to go to Sarajevo, there were no hotel rooms available. I had found an Airbnb that was at the top of this walk-up in downtown Sarajevo.
My fixer, who’s sort of a local journalist that you hire to work with you when you’re in a new country, her name was Nidzara. She and I were walking up the steps of this old building, and I heard somebody speaking Hebrew. I was like, “What the hell, is somebody speaking Hebrew in Sarajevo?” And it was a guy who looked like he was in his fifties or sixties, and then a much, much older woman. And I speak a little bit of Hebrew, so I tried in my rusty Hebrew to say, “What are you doing here?” [speaks in Hebrew] I’ve probably got that grammar wrong. The guy spoke English, and he explained that his mother and father grew up in Sarajevo, fled before World War II, and his mother was coming back for the first time to the building that she’d lived in, that she had grown up in. They were slowly walking up the stairs, and I invited them into the Airbnb apartment that we were renting. They sat around, and I think I offered them tea or something like that.
Then I heard the older woman speaking in Bosnian with Nidzara, and it was clearly a very intense conversation. It was not small talk. I interviewed them, because I was like, This is incredible. Whatever this is, I want to capture it. Later, I asked Nidzara over lunch or something, what they had been talking about. And Nidzara said that this older woman had asked whether she, Nidzara, had lived through the siege of Sarajevo. Nidzara was in her twenties or thirties at that point. And she said, yes, she did, and she had lost a lot of friends.
The old woman—Ella Pinto was her name; it just came back to me. Ella Pinto put her hands on Nidzara’s hands, and she said, “We who have lived through war have to tell the stories. Because without knowing….” She said, “Without understanding war, there can be no peace. We have to tell what we lived through so that others understand.” I’m being so ineloquent in the way that I phrase this, but something like, “how to keep this from happening in the future.”
And like this woman who lived through World War II, bonding with this woman who had lived through the siege of Sarajevo. These women of different generations, of different religions, meeting by coincidence in the stairwell of this building in downtown Sarajevo.
SB: Where your Airbnb is.
AS: Where my Airbnb is. Crazy. And that’s kind of what I mean when I say that the stories that I remember most, the stories that stand out most in my mind, that I think change the way people view the world, are not necessarily the interview with the presidential candidate. Which I’m totally comfortable doing, and it’s the bread and butter of news, and I don’t have any problem with that. But the people who might want to sniff at the interview with the two generations of women who survived war, I think they get it wrong.
SB: There’s another interview you did that I absolutely love. Where it’s like, sure, you’re there to cover the opening of the M.L.K. memorial in Washington D.C., but actually you meet this other guy who’s there, who has this intergenerational story that’s incredible.
AS: I am reaching for this one. This is the thing that…. Because I tell so many stories every day, there are profoundly moving ones that have disappeared from my brain. And I’m afraid I need to have my memory jogged on the one that you’re referring to.
SB: Well, this man talked about how his father had been on the Mall when M.L.K. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. And that his father’s father had either seen, or come out of—
AS: Yeah. You know, it’s funny, because what comes to mind is not about that interview per se, but rather about the evanescence of radio, and that we do these stories and they’re here and they’re gone. And maybe they have an impact on somebody that I’ll never know about, and maybe they change somebody’s course in an imperceptible, or very perceptible way. And the next day, I’m telling the next story, and the one after that, and the one after that, and the one after that.
That’s one reason that I was always so hesitant to write a book. Is because with a book, there are things that are in it, and there are things that are out of it, and it sits on a shelf forever, and that’s the book you wrote. I’m sitting in this room right now with you, surrounded by hardcover books that have been written over many, many years, and will never change, and will always have the same stories in their pages. And part of what I love about All Things Considered is that every day there are different stories in those on-air, metaphorical pages. But clearly, I’m of two minds about that. Because I did write a book. So, ultimately [laughs] there’s something to be said for permanence, too.
SB: Yeah, it’s almost like freezing some of the audio in time.
AS: Yeah. But also the thing that writing a book lets you do is take a step back and reflect more deeply on some of the stories that in the moment you might not have been able to make meaning out of.
I think that’s one reason that I, as you point out, gravitate so often to stories that you can tell over time, that sort of stretch out over years. Because there’s more opportunity for meaning-making than there might be in that moment you’re sprinting on a treadmill of the news cycle, and there’s always something else demanding your attention.
SB: So I did want to get into your upbringing. Your family left Fargo for Portland, Oregon, when you were 8 years old, in 1987. And in Oregon, you had nature at your fingertips in this magical way. In your memoir, you write about foraging for mushrooms, and how the tide pools you came across taught you patience. You write, “Tidepools taught me patience…. These little ecosystems showed me that nothing entirely reveals itself to the casual observer and that to fully see something requires more than a perfunctory glance.” Tell me about these experiences in nature.
AS: Even today—my husband [Michael Gottlieb] hates this—if we’re on a bridge over a creek, I always, and I mean always, stop halfway across the bridge and I stare into the creek. There’s something meditative about that. There’s something about just sort of, be in the moment you’re in. But also, you never see the crayfish while you’re walking. You might not even see the great blue heron while you’re walking, or the little trout. And it’s only when you pause, and you look, that things start to reveal themselves. There’s something almost magical about that, right? A tide pool is a perfect example. Because there are the big things, and there are the small things, and there are the teeny things. And there are the very noticeable things, and there are the shy, hidden things.
If you look at a tide pool for five full minutes, I swear, every single time, in minute number five, you will see something that you did not see in minute number one. And it’s not because you were bad at seeing, it’s because there are things that you only perceive with patience. And I think that’s a pretty good metaphor beyond tide pooling. But also, I just love tide pools. They’re amazing. They’re like teeny little ecosystems full of these alien creatures that share the world with us, but look nothing like us and behave nothing like us. They’re amazing.
SB: And you became interested in identifying birds. Is that something you’ve kept up?
AS: Not actively. When I was in high school, I had a life list of birds, and I still have a lot of that knowledge. So I can tell whether something is a vulture or a hawk, to give a very easy example. And I still get excited about seeing a cardinal on the East Coast, because we didn’t have them on the West Coast. But I don’t actively go out birdwatching with binoculars and a scope, the way that I did when I was a kid. But the more important principle, I think, is just that the more you learn about life, the more interesting the world becomes. And whether that’s about nature or politics or something else, there’s just richness and depth all around you if you scratch the surface.
SB: There’s so much we could cover during this time. Talking about your youth, I mean, you came out to your parents at 16—which was unusual then—and you spent time in this really caring queer community in Portland. But I feel like you’ve told those stories plenty, and you write about them really well in the book.
AS: Thank you.
SB: I instead wanted to bring up your time as an H.I.V. educator for the Cascade AIDS Project. What was it like for you to be involved in that program? And what did you see, hear, and learn?
AS: This was in the nineties, so it was before there were really good treatments for H.I.V. and AIDS. I was a high school H.I.V. educator, who would go from school to school demonstrating how you put the condom on the banana. And this was in a time of not great sex education in public schools. I’m not sure there ever has been a time of great sex education in public schools.
It was a way for me to…. The theme in the book is kind of building bridges and connections across difference, and this was another iteration of that. On a slightly darker level though, I think it’s [that] a lot of gay men of my generation came of age with the idea that sex equals death. And that sex equals sickness and danger. Which is something that is a self-preservation tool from the days when H.I.V. was a fatal diagnosis that would lead to AIDS.
And I even remember one of the staffers at Cascade AIDS Project—I was a volunteer, and the volunteers all worked with professionals who were paid—one of the staffers seroconverted while I was doing my volunteer work. And it was a good opportunity to have a discussion about stigma, about all of the things that surround conversations about H.I.V. That even somebody whose entire job revolves around prevention and treatment was not immune from seroconversion, getting H.I.V.
So it was a real growing-up process. It’s really adult themes, that as a high schooler, it’s like, “Well, if you’re going to be gay, you better learn this stuff pretty quick because your life could depend on it.”
SB: I’m glad I asked that question. Wow.
AS: Yeah. Yeah, I don’t know that I’ve ever told that story before, actually.
SB: You go on to Yale [laughter], where you major in English and spend a lot of your time reading novels, plays, and poems. And of course, act, sing, do a capella. I’m curious—
AS: Of course, a capella. [Laughs]
SB: Yeah. What was your thesis? I couldn’t find that anywhere. What did you write your thesis on?
AS: Oh! I wrote my thesis, as an English major, about the evolution of the gothic monster as a reflection of society’s attitudes towards deviance.
So, in early gothic novels—I’m totally going to geek out here—in early gothic novels, you have the gothic monster as a part of society, a byproduct—not a byproduct; integrated into society. Just as in the early days of, I don’t know, sexual theory, there was aberrant behavior, but not aberrant people. So there was homosexual action, but there were not homosexual individuals. Then, as the gothic novel evolves, you have something like Frankenstein, where Frankenstein’s monster is a creation of society who is outcast from society, and the body politic expels the monster as an other. And the monster becomes the vehicle for all of these categories of deviance.
Then, moving forward in time, you get to something like Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Where Dracula is coming from outside of society, carrying with him the archetypes of the foreigner, the Jew, the homosexual, et cetera, et cetera. All of these categories of deviance, that at the same time, society was deeply invested in saying, “This is the kind of person who is not like us. This is the label of the person who is fundamentally deviant and flawed.” And I was proud that in the title of my thesis, I used the phrase “From deviance to deviants” with A-N-C-E to A-N-T-S. Because the evolution was from deviance as a behavior (A-N-C-E) to deviants as individuals (A-N-T-S).
I’m glad you asked that question. Is anyone still listening? Have they all tuned out? Have they all just skipped to the next episode?
SB: Your path to NPR was thanks to Nina Totenberg, and I was hoping you might share with listeners who she is.
AS: An icon.
SB: And looking back, what her impact on your life has been.
AS: Yeah, so Nina was one of the members of the vanguard of women in journalism who were kind of the—maybe not the first generation, but very, very early on. When women were not doing hard news, she was doing hard news. And she has, for more than thirty years, been the legal affairs correspondent who covers the Supreme Court, and is just a force to be reckoned with.
After NPR rejected me for an internship, Nina gave me an opportunity. I learned so much about her early on, because I had just never taken a journalism course. I had never written for the school paper. And she taught me how to do journalism. I would transcribe her interviews, and think about when she jumped in and asked a question. When she let the person keep going, when she pushed back, when she didn’t, all of those things.
But what I really think about when you ask that question is, when I became a justice reporter, many years later, I was covering the Justice Department for NPR. And as I started the beat, I thought, “One way to build the skills and the knowledge that I need to do this beat well is to talk to a lot of people who used to have senior positions in the Justice Department in earlier administrations, and can tell me what I need to know.” So I just had lots and lots of lunch and coffee dates with people from the Reagan, the Clinton, the Bush, whatever, era. And all of them had Nina Totenberg stories. Like, going as far back as Nixon. And what I realized was that Nina did not become a force of nature by being famous and successful. She became famous and successful by being a force of nature.
She was always a person who would not take no for an answer. She was always a person who insisted on getting to the bottom of things. She was always a person who worked harder than everybody else, even when nobody knew her name. Now we all know her name, and she could easily rest on her laurels. But she is still working as hard as anybody else at the age of, well, I’m not going to say her age right now. But let me just say, it’s long after many other people would retire.
SB: What’s your own reporting philosophy, if you could sort of sum it up? And how do you see that connected to what you were learning from Nina? I mean, you’ve said, “I’d rather talk to people than about people,” which I love. Could you speak to that approach?
AS: Yeah. I hate the phrase “ordinary humans,” or “ordinary people,” because none of us are any more or less ordinary than anyone else. However, if the news event is supplemental SNAP benefits ending next month for food assistance, you could address that by talking to the chair of the Senate committee that is considering reinstating those benefits. Or you could cover that by talking to the woman who runs a food pantry in Nevada. Or you could cover it by talking to a person who has been visiting, or was able to stop visiting and previously had to go to that food pantry. I’m totally happy to talk to the head of the committee, but I would always rather talk to the person who’s lived experience…. I mean, the line that I’ve lived by, that I think—I’m certainly not the only journalist to say this—is, “You tell a big story by telling a small story.” And so the way to cover huge events, whether it’s a war, or a change in legislation, or a pandemic, is by talking to one person.
So I’ll give you an example—another example, rather. Early in the pandemic, we were reaching the unfathomable death toll of fifty thousand people dead from Covid. Which we think back—now, it’s like more than a million people in this country. But at that point, fifty thousand seemed unfathomable. And so I started thinking, “Well, okay. How can we cover this landmark on All Things Considered?” And I thought, Whether you are surrounded by death or feel untouched by it depends on a lot of specific things. Your race, your age, where in the country you live, what your occupation is…. And I thought, Let’s take each of those categories and have one conversation that drills down into that category. And over the course of the show on that day that we hit fifty thousand, we will sprinkle in these four conversations.
So for geographic location, we identified the hardest-hit borough, in the hardest-hit city in the country, which was the Bronx. And we talked to the head of a co-op that had hundreds of people in the Bronx. For race, we talked to the head of a Black church in a suburb of Chicago. It was that sort of thing. And so, for this unfathomable event that every news organization was covering, I was finding four specific personal conversations we could have that would make it real for people.
SB: I also think about your joy of cooking here. Because there is an interesting connection between the act of making food and the act of bringing the different ingredients together that make a rich story. Do you think about it in those terms at all? And do you see a link between that? Because also, when you’re cooking, let’s just say you’re making a home-cooked meal, obviously, it’s an act of connection. You’re literally breaking bread.
SB: And the act of an interview is kind of the same. You’re like, “All right, I’m going to let you talk, and I’m going to listen. And we’re going to connect, and hopefully something comes out of this.”
AS: Yeah, I don’t think there’s anything I can do that can as profoundly, quickly, and fundamentally change the way a person feels, as cooking for them. You’re hungry when you sit down, and you’re satiated when you get up. That’s amazing, right? That by just giving somebody a bowl of pasta or an omelet or toast, I can improve the way they feel in a very short time with very minimal effort.
SB: Have you used food in reporting?
AS: Oh, all the time. Absolutely. It’s funny, I was putting together my website, which I had been procrastinating doing forever. And I was like, “God, before this book comes out, I’d better make a website.” And I wanted to do a media page, and I realized that I’ve done a really inappropriate number of interviews about food. But food is such a powerful vehicle for storytelling. Because, anywhere you go in the world, at any time in history, no matter the wealth or poverty, no matter the adversity, whatever the circumstances, there was always food. And that food tells you something about the time and place and people that you’re surrounded by. Whether it’s like MRE—meals ready to eat—that service members are eating in a war zone, or a banquet that is served to a visiting President of the United States in a foreign country, the food tells you something.
And yes, I think food and storytelling are similar in the ways that you mentioned. And also, they’re both things that are here and are gone. In the best possible scenario, they leave you better for having experienced them. But also, they drift on downstream, and then you move on to the next one. There’s always a next meal; there’s always a next story. And there’s something about that ephemerality that I like, too.
SB: As the host of All Things Considered, you spend an enormous amount of time reading. How does this reading wend its way into your work?
AS: Well, I read fiction way more than nonfiction for pleasure, but I read both for work. And I don’t have a lot of time to read for pleasure, because I do so much reading for work. But I’ll just tell you honestly, I think there are a lot of nonfiction books that don’t need to be as long as they are. My mother sometimes refers to book reviews that I do on All Things Considered, and I want to gently correct her. Sometimes these really engaging conversations you’re hearing are of books that I don’t necessarily enjoy and wouldn’t recommend reading.
So really, for various reasons, I don’t want you to think of it as a review, but particularly because I don’t necessarily want people to think I’m always endorsing the… Sorry, I shouldn’t be saying this.
SB: Well, there is a fine line, right?
AS: Right. And I think there are fascinating topics that I want to interview somebody about on All Things Considered, that I might not recommend anybody read the book about. But fiction, on the other hand, to me, is an incredible vehicle for empathy and a tool to see the world through the eyes of somebody else. Because, for me, more than television or movies or theater or newspaper articles, reading fiction allows me to see the world through the eyes of a person in a different time, in a different place, who is completely unlike me, or slightly unlike me, and really get inside of their mind and body and inhabit their view of the world from where they sit. I think that’s something that only fiction can do, and I think it’s an incredibly powerful force.
SB: I love that, in part, [because of] reading a novel by Amitav Ghosh, you ended up going and reporting a story.
AS: Yeah, so I had read this novel, The Hungry Tide, having never heard of the Sundarbans, which is this mangrove island, watery landscape, that spans the border of India and Bangladesh. Years after I had read The Hungry Tide, I was planning a reporting trip to India, focused on climate change, and my producer and editor and I were talking about, India’s a big country. There are a lot of places, there are a lot of ways to tell the story about climate change. I had just been to the U.N. Climate Summit in Paris. And so the idea was, again, rather than talk about people, which is what everyone was doing in Paris, I wanted to talk to people in India.
So we’re like, “Where do we go in India?” And I kept in our meetings saying, “Look, I don’t want the fact that I read this novel to be the deciding factor of where we go, but this place does seem really interesting, and if journalistically it makes sense to go there, I think we should consider going there.” And ultimately, that’s where we went, and it was just fascinating.
One of the things I love about my job is that—would I recommend that somebody go to the Sundarbans as a tourist? Sure. But I might not put it at the top of my list. But to go there as a journalist and immerse myself in this world, and talk to people about their lives who are in this place that is so far off the path that I would ever find myself on… One of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had.
And we told so many stories from there. This one about a goddess called Bonbibi, and one about man-eating tigers that were encroaching on human settlements because rising seas were swallowing up their habitat. We also had one of the most delicious meals I’ve ever eaten that came out of the tiny, teeny kitchen on the boat that we were on going from island to island. Amazing. Thank you, Amitav.
SB: And you spoke to Ghosh.
AS: I spoke to Amitav Ghosh, yeah. And then later I interviewed him about another—so I didn’t interview him about The Hungry Tide, because that was before I was a host. But he came out with another novel, called Gun Island, which I interviewed him about later. Which also had themes of climate change, actually.
SB: In an interview with you, the novelist Nathan Englander said, “That’s the beauty of reading. That’s why it’s subversive, because it crosses time and space and culture.” Great quote.
AS: Such a great quote. I mean, look, fiction writers know what they’re doing. When I say it’s an empathy tool unlike anything else I know, I’m not telling them something that is a surprise to them. Good fiction writers, in the same way that I’m telling stories on the radio because I want to subtly alter the trajectory of somebody’s day or the way they think about the world, I think that’s what fiction writers are doing, too. They know that. They can articulate that better than I can.
SB: I didn’t want to finish this interview without bringing up your work with Pink Martini. And beyond that your cabaret work with Alan Cumming. For the uninitiated, Pink Martini was founded in the culture wars of the 1990s, and has continued touring for nearly thirty years. You once reported on them, and later joined the band. Maybe we’ll talk about that. I know it’s a long story, but—
AS: It was years later. It was not a conflict of interest by the time I joined the band. The statute of limitations that expired.
SB: I was hoping you might share your journey with Pink Martini, and how you think about your time—your vacations, basically—on tour with them.
AS: Yeah, so I use my annual leave to go on tour with Pink Martini, which is the most fun, satisfying, thrilling, exhilarating, wild adventure. As you say. I was a fan of theirs when I was in high school, when they were this little local band in Portland, Oregon, and I’m still a fan of theirs. I sit in the audience during sound check before a show, and I hear these songs that I’ve heard literally probably thousands of times now, and I still love it. And at the end of the show, when we’re all on stage singing “Brazil,” and we’re like shaking those rattlers and the audience is doing a conga line, I just think, I am so damn lucky that I get to be here and be a part of this. That I’m just present for the moment is a gift. Let alone the fact that I get to sing and be a part of this band, and feel like I contribute something. Which initially, I felt like they were doing me a favor. It was kind of a shtick. Like, “Oh, the NPR journalist is singing with Pink Martini.”
SB: “That’s cute.”
AS: “That’s cute,” exactly. And over the years, they’ve asked me to record enough songs on their albums, and I’ve performed in enough countries where people have never heard of NPR, that I have allowed myself to believe that I actually have earned a place among them.
SB: There’s a good Time Sensitive connection here, because Kim Hastreiter also performs—
AS: She does, she plays the cymbals and the triangle. And occasionally on special occasions, the glockenspiel.
I met her in the audience of a Pink Martini show, before the show. I knew who Kim Hastreiter was, and I imagined her to be a kind of imperious Anna Wintour type. And so I’m sitting in the rows of Town Hall in New York, and I sit next to this woman with these cherry-red glasses, and just strike up a conversation with her, and we start talking about The Real Housewives of Atlanta. And we’re cackling, and we’re just having the best time. Finally, I was like, “By the way, I’m Ari.” And she said, “I’m Kim.” And I said, “Wait, you’re not Kim Hastreiter, are you?” And she was like, “Yeah.” And we’ve been friends ever since.
SB: Your Alan Cumming story is not totally dissimilar from that.
AS: That’s true.
SB: He came to a cabaret performance.
AS: I met him backstage after a show of Cabaret, because one of my best friends from college was in it with him. This was the second time he did it on Broadway. But he was running off to campaign for Scottish independence, and so we didn’t spend that much time together. But it was a quick “Hello, how are you?” He knew my work, I knew his work. Then later, he asked if I would moderate a live book talk with him in D.C., and then he did a live performance with me in New York, when I did a solo cabaret show at Joe’s Pub. And then eventually he asked if I wanted to make a show with him. And of course I said yes.
AS: Och and Oy. “Och” is like the Scottish equivalent of “oy,” so he’s the och, the Scotsman; I’m the oy, the Jew. And it’s just the most fun. He’s become this kind of older brother, mentor figure, friend to me, who I’m so grateful to have in my life. He lives life the way I aspire to. And the fact that he wants to hang out with me just is still—I feel very, very lucky.
SB: To finish, I wanted to close our conversation today on the fact that so much of your work, I view as an act of translation. And it’s not lost on me that you speak—or sing—in roughly a dozen languages.
AS: Let me qualify. I do not speak roughly a dozen languages, but I do sing in roughly a dozen languages.
SB: I said, “or sing in.” [Laughs]
AS: I just don’t want to give listeners the wrong idea.
SB: Do you consider what you do an act of translation? At the end of the day, what do you hope comes across?
AS: Yeah, as the only Jewish kid in my elementary school, as the only out, queer kid in my high school, I was performing acts of translation then. I was sort of passing between worlds, trying to help people see each other as a little bit less foreign and strange within those ecosystems that I was walking among.
It’s funny, even now, I’m just thinking about [how] my husband is in the reserves of the Air Force, and also the reserves of the D.C. police. And he’s sort of the only police friend that his gay friends have, and he’s the only gay friend that his police friends have. So he’s doing some of the same thing.
But when I’m telling a story on the radio, whether it’s about somebody who is working at a prison in rural Mississippi, or escaping a war in Syria, I want listeners to feel like they understand something about that person without judgment. And to feel a sense of connection and, hopefully, empathy.
Because ultimately, what I want to do is help us understand the ways in which we are more similar to each other than different from each other. And the way I know how to do that is through journalism, and through singing with Pink Martini, and Alan Cumming, and now also writing a book. So I guess there are a few ways of doing it. [Laughs] And occasionally cooking food, too.
SB: If you’re open to it, would you finish this conversation by singing something in a foreign language, a language that’s not your native tongue?
AS: Yeah, there’s a song that I recorded for Pink Martini many years ago in Spanish that’s by a Cuban composer named Ernesto Lecuona, and it’s called “Yo Te Quiero Siempre,” which means “I will always love you.” It’s not the Dolly Parton version. And it goes like this: [Sings]
Que tristeza tengo
Desde que te fuiste
Dejando en mi ser
Sé que no me quieres
Nunca me quisiste
Y tu falso amor
Fue una burla cruel
A mi corazón
A pesar de todo
Yo te quiero siempre
Y mi anhelo es
Verte junto a mi
Besarte otra vez
Yo te quiero siempre
Aunque sé que no me quieres
Vuélveme a engañar
Sí, mi sino es
Por tu amor llorar
SB: Ari Shapiro, everyone [claps]. Thank you.
AS: Thank you.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on March 22, 2023. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity. The episode was produced by Emily Jiang, Ramon Broza, and Johnny Simon. Illustration by Diego Mallo based on a photograph by Victor Jeffreys.