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Aiming To Break Down Barriers, Joshua Johnson Brings New Show To WAMU


After 37 years in the host chair, Public Radio treasure Diane Rehm has stepped away from the microphone at WAMU here in Washington, D.C. The station has now hired journalist Joshua Johnson to launch a new program 1A beginning tomorrow. Johnson has been hailed as a breakout public media star. No pressure there. He's the former host of Truth Be Told, a show about race, culture and identity in America from KQED in San Francisco where he was also the Morning Edition host for several years. Joshua Johnson joins us from his new East Coast home. Welcome to the neighborhood, Joshua.

JOSHUA JOHNSON, BYLINE: Thank you, Ailsa. It's good to be here.

CHANG: So this is a big change - right? - moving across the country from San Francisco to Washington. I mean, I did a similar thing myself with a stop along the way in New York City. It's quite a contrast.

JOHNSON: It's a huge contrast. San Francisco is very, very hard to give up. I have certainly left my heart there. That's for sure, but it's slowly working its way East. And, honestly, this opportunity is worth moving for, so it's all going to balance out.

CHANG: Your show's name 1A - that's a reference to the First Amendment, right?

JOHNSON: Yes. It's a reference to the First Amendment. This group of five freedoms that are really kind of the rules of the road for democracy. You know, the idea that we lay out the federal government's barriers in terms of affecting free speech, freedom of the press, free expression of religion, the right to assemble and the right to petition the government for change is basically the day to day ground rules for how democracy works in the United States.

And one of the things that we're very concerned with - both Diane and I are very concerned about is that our ability to connect, that our basic day to day interaction to connect on the things that matter is breaking down, that we have more ways to communicate than ever but less of an ability to connect and engage meaningfully and respectfully. So that's a lot of what's underpinning the show.

CHANG: I was curious at what point in your life did you know you wanted to become a radio host?

JOHNSON: Well, my mom got me into public radio. She - I've always wanted to create and host a show since I was like 5 years old. It's been...


JOHNSON: So this is literally the achievement of my one lifelong dream.

CHANG: That's amazing.

JOHNSON: But when I think about it, really, I wouldn't be in public radio necessarily without her. My first public radio station was WRTI, the station that's licensed to Temple University in Philadelphia. I was in a summer program at the university's medical school for minority students who were interested in careers and research, and mom was working in the program. So we both went. We lived on campus, and we went up to the medical school and went back and forth. And one day she was listening to WRTI which played news and jazz. And NPR News and jazz stations tend to have a larger black listenership, so she listened for the jazz and then around 4 p.m., she heard this guy named (imitating Robert Siegel) Robert Siegel on All Things Considered and...

CHANG: (Laughter) That's a great impersonation.

JOHNSON: Don't tell him I did it. And he...

CHANG: I won't.

JOHNSON: And it just kind of fired her imagination, so she brought Robert Siegel to me. And then she brought Terry Gross to me, and she brought Bob Edwards to me, and, like, it just began to open my mind to this idea of journalism being something other than what I saw on TV.

CHANG: Joshua Johnson, his new public radio program 1A launches tomorrow. Joshua, we look forward to hearing you and Happy New Year.

JOHNSON: Happy New Year to you, too, Ailsa. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.