On Feb. 6, Meghna Chakrabarti, host of On Point, will interview Steve Inskeep, co-host of NPR's Morning Edition as well as its popular podcast Up First, about his new book “Imperfect Union: How Jessie and John Fremont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War", his D.C. insights on the state of affairs in the nation today and more at WBUR CitySpace.
Ahead of his special live recording for On Point LIVE!, Inskeep talks behind-the-scenes with INSIDE WBUR, giving us a little peek into the life of an NPR reporter and host — from the most memorable interviews he's done to his peak NPR moment:
You've been at NPR for almost 25 years. How has the landscape of radio changed according to you? And how has the job changed for you in the last few years?
Inskeep: We, maybe to some people's surprise, have continued to be relevant. Radio seems like such an old fashioned medium, but it turns out to be really good for multitasking.. they’re driving or doing the dishes while also absorbing the news. It’s also continuing to remain an amazing form for storytelling!
Podcasts have exploded, and I don't think that they have replaced broadcasting so much as supplemented it. It's kind of great to be a co-host of one of the most popular radio news programs in the country and at the same time to be co-hosting this podcast. I sometimes run into people who know me primarily as podcast first.
Tell us your experience co-hosting a radio show and a podcast. What do you enjoy the most?
Inskeep: We’ve tried to incorporate the podcast into the show. Effectively, we have programmed the show so that the first 11 minutes of content becomes the heart of Up First. It's the only podcast that I know of, where the podcast is produced while we’re live on the radio.
It's going out to an audience at 5 a.m. in the morning and then being recorded for other audiences to catch it whenever they want. I think that gives it a certain aliveness, a certain energy and a certain immediacy that other podcasts might lack.
The radio is still a place where we can put really long pieces and the podcast is a place where we can put tight news updates. Increasingly, we’re doing a blend of those two functions during the entire drama of impeachment. We've done long profiles of key players and we've begun dropping them, publishing them in the podcast feed. There's just an enormous desire for information about what's going on in the country right now, and we're able to feed it through both those channels.
You've been a co-host of NPR's Morning Edition since 2004. Can you describe what it's like to be part of an operation like that? What's your morning routine like?
Inskeep: I get up a little bit before 3 a.m. in the morning most days. I'm at work around 4 a.m. and the show is live at 5 a.m. EST. After that, every single day is different, which is the challenge and also the joy of the job. You might have a relatively quiet day where the show is live for about two and a half hours and then we begin repeating things, which we think are valuable for audiences who tune in a little bit later. There are other days where the news is moving so rapidly that everything is live all the way until 12 p.m. EST.
Sometimes we even go past that when it's an extraordinary day. Today's show is so consuming that it would be easy to forget that there's another one tomorrow. But it’s vital to plan ahead.. in fact, it’s the whole point I think of getting to the truth. I don’t think you ever get the whole truth in a single today’s show. The point is to keep having an ongoing enterprise where you keep trying to get more facts.
Having conducted so many interviews throughout your career, do you have a list of any interviews that have stood out?
Inskeep: Oh, wow. I mean, it's hard to narrow it down. I often give the example of the Bordelons, a couple in New Orleans affected by Hurricane Katrina, who remained in their house that they tried to rebuild; the interview I did with President Obama when he was in office, which was an opportunity to get a repeated and up close look of a very powerful person; interviews with two presidents of Iran and the former minister of Iran, which have also given me an opportunity over time to really get a close look at a person.
I think that in a way, those are the ones that I've found most valuable — when I’ve been able to go back to someone again and again and really think about what they're telling me. That's where the truth emerges, by a long study of things. It is in some ways the opposite of what the news demands, which is... what is the latest? I do want to give you the very latest but I also want to put it in context of what's happened over time.
Your books are based in history. Being a newsperson, you would imagine living in the now — but you keep going back. Why is that?
Inskeep: I’ve published three books — there was a book called "Instant City" about the city of Karachi, a mega city in Pakistan. I read a lot about present day material and did interviews with people but also highlighted the history of the city before the partition of India. The second book was pure history about Andrew Jackson and Cherokee chief and then there's the third one, which we'll be talking about more on Thursday.
I think that the history is connected to the now, particularly when we're doing American history. I am telling and exploring an earlier version of the very same story I’m covering now. Often there's some of the same rhetoric and it's in the same locations and occasionally even in the same buildings like the United States capitol.
So, if you could go back in history, who would you want to interview and why?
Inskeep: WOW. I’d love to interview Abraham Lincoln. I think that would be a good interview to have! I appreciate him so much when I read his letters — the man’s logic, his strategic foresight, the way that he's thought about things and his restraint, his understanding of his strengths as president and what he needs to say and when he didn’t need to say anything. It is amazing; the pressures that he faced and the way in which he managed them.
Do you have a peak NPR moment you’d like to share with us?
Inskeep: So, I want to name something that happens here repeatedly here at NPR. The few minutes when we're kind of clearing our throats and opening the microphones and getting ready to do the show every day is often a moment of joy, even though it shouldn't be because it's for 4:30 or 4:40 or 4:45 a.m. in the morning. And, you know, you maybe didn't even sleep very well last night. I mean, people have lives, people have kids, there may have been an event last night, you might just be totally sleepless. It just depends.
But you sit down with your co-hosts and with the director and with other people there and there is this kind of camaraderie of being out there overnight, the excitement about the show that's coming up. And people get kind of giddy and they just do and say silly things. You can go back to Friday's podcast, you can actually hear this! You’ll hear me talking about Bob Seger music and even sing a few lines. And it's the middle of the night! Everybody's ought to be grumpy but nobody is and I think that suggests the spirit of this place.
This interview is edited for brevity and clarity.
Catch Steve Inskeep and Meghna Chakrabarti record a LIVE show at WBUR CitySpace this Thursday, Feb 6: