Hello, Brian Lehrer? This Is All of New York On the Line.
The longtime host of NPR flagship WNYC’s morning call-in show talks about being a radio mensch, Rush Limbaugh, and city politics
On a recent morning in June, at the offices of National Public Radio’s New York flagship WNYC, in a small room with six radio producers, facing a window, I could see Brian Lehrer at work. It was hectic that day, as it always is. People popped in and out with messages—“Christie is announcing at 1:30,” about New Jersey’s governor—and others communicated in half sentences, the first halves of which were on shared computer screens. The energy in the room was of news being made—but in Lehrer’s clear box, all was calm. His voice came through the glass that separated him from us like a voiceover. His interviewee, Harvard political-science professor Joseph Nye, sat across from him, discussing his new book, Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era, and Lehrer nodded at him and occasionally smiled.
Lehrer, who is tall and thin with kind, inquisitive brown eyes and a goatee, has been host of the Peabody Award-winning Brian Lehrer Show since 1989. Called “On the Line” until 2001, the popular show is based on interviews with experts and politicians about the day’s events, and it features listener call-ins. “It’s your neighborhood, your city, your country, your world,” the website states. “Brian Lehrer delves into the issues and links them to real life.” Topics range from the mayoral election to the cost of mammograms, and guests range from President Barack Obama and Werner Herzog to middle-school students. And for a certain subset of New York, it is the place where their opinions and reactions to the news are treated with the same respect as the news itself.
Born in Queens to parents from the South Bronx who met in high school, Lehrer, 60, now lives in Inwood with his wife and two kids. All four of his grandparents were Jewish immigrants from Poland. With early designs on being a DJ, he began broadcasting from his college radio station at SUNY Albany—“I majored in campus radio station and minored in my courses,” he told me—and has since worked for WOSU, a commercial FM rock station in Norfolk, Va., as well as the AP and NBC News. He cites heroes as diverse as Walter Cronkite, Hunter S. Thompson, and Ghandi.
Lehrer’s show matters in a climate of drive-by snark and anonymous, irascible comments. The sincerity of his approach coupled with the rigor of his line of inquiry make the show a unique take on daily news. But it is the way Lehrer treats his callers that makes his show ground-breaking and indispensable. By treating his callers with respect, he demands that they take responsibility for their views, raising the stakes of what it means to engage politically. According to the Brian Lehrer Show, it means to listen, as well as to speak, even if you are Brian Lehrer; especially if you are Brian Lehrer. As in a Jewish prayer service, the magic only happens when a community is assembled.
The morning I visited, Lehrer’s second guest was the well-known NYU food advocate Marion Nestle. After asking Nestle to talk about Connecticut’s GMO food-labeling bill, Lehrer asked if there were any health risks associated with genetically modified foods, and if not, why we should care about them. Nestle responded, but Lehrer asked the question again, this time of his audience. “I’m sure a lot of you have opinions,” he said. This is Lehrer in action: rigorous inquiry of his guests, compassion and encouragement for his listeners—who are also his guests. When pressed on the source of this unique mix of compassion and rigor Lehrer said simply, “I have good parents.”
As soon as Lehrer addressed the audience, the room around me erupted. “Hello, can I please have your name and where you’re calling from?” the producers began to ask in a cacophony of voices and clicking keyboards. “It sounds like you are driving, sir,” said one. “We do have a policy of not distracting drivers. Can you pull over?” Another asked: “And what would you like to say?” Megan Ryan, executive producer, showed me the screen where all calls are logged with a summary of the caller’s comment. The same screen appears before Lehrer, she explained. Producers give stars based on whether the caller matches with the needs of the show, but Lehrer ultimately makes his own picks. The producers try to answer every caller. “Thank you so much for your call,” Lehrer says to each before moving on with the show.
The call-in culture of the show is one of its trademarks. “It’s an act of trust to call a talk show,” Lehrer told me, “and not feel like you’ll be mistreated, used as a vehicle, to enhance the entertainment value of the show, or the host’s ego. It’s the difference between public radio and commercial radio. They don’t get the quality and diversity of the callers that we get. Callers know I’m not going to shut them down, call them stupid, or use the show as a platform to denounce anybody who disagrees with me.”
The call-in culture led to international recognition for the show when the Brian Lehrer Show was awarded a Peabody “for radio that builds community, rather than divides it,” as Lehrer told me. Many of the programs target specific groups in the city. That week, for example, Lehrer ran a segment aimed at people from Turkey. “We’ve done that with other nationalities,” he said. “China, Haiti, all over the world, when things are going on. So, instead of having an expert, though we also had a guest, I framed it as, if you’re a member of this community, call in and tell everyone else why this matters.”
People did call in, “and it was great,” Lehrer said, “and they were really pissed off at Erdogan and were like, he’s trying to impose his fundamentalist religion on the country, and we want to have more personal freedom than that. And hearing that out of people’s mouths and with passion, it mattered to everyone else because they got quality information and emotional content, and I think also mattered to the Turks in the audience who hopefully had the thought, ‘Oh wow, he’s actually giving us a chance to speak for ourselves and not just relying on some expert.’ ”
Lehrer attributes his ability to cultivate the call-in culture of the show to the nature of public radio, which is not dependent on advertisers who demand of commercial radio shows that they “super-serve a narrowly defined target audience.” But Lehrer is really personally responsible for the show’s commitment to community and its persistence in perceiving the reactions of everyday people to the news as itself newsworthy. “Rush Limbaugh makes a joke sometimes,” Lehrer said, “where he says on the air, ‘This show is not about what you think, it’s about what I think.’ And it’s a joke on him having a grandiose ego. But he’s playing with that, he’s being ironic about having a grandiose ego, even though he has a grandiose ego. That’s part of the shtick. For me the show is not about what I think. It’s about what I think and about what everybody thinks.”
It’s a delicate dance. Lehrer’s politics and emotions naturally play into the dynamics as he steers the conversation from a highly opinionated cabbie (who has presumably pulled over), to a city council member defending a public proposal, to an irate Upper West Side grandmother. “I’m going to be somewhat transparent about what I think,” he told me, “but I’m not going to make the show about what I think, so that when I express an opinion, which I don’t on every issue, sometimes it serves no purpose, and it’s better to be the facilitator, but when I do express my opinion, I try to do it as an act of transparency more than an act of imposition.”
When we spoke in a conference room a few minutes after the show ended, Lehrer was hard-pressed to think of what he would be doing if he weren’t doing the Brian Lehrer Show. “I’d be doing some other kind of journalism and media and community building, probably,” he said. “I’d be writing and teaching and performing.” He would not, however, be a politician—“I really love the freedom to be in the world of ideas and open conversation. I think one of the worst things of the life of a politician is that you actually get constrained as to what you can say.”
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