Steve Inskeep was covering the war in Iraq when he got the call: National Public Radio wanted him and Renee Montagne to take over as co-hosts of Morning Edition.
The task might have been daunting. For one thing, they’d be succeeding Bob Edwards, who’d become a broadcasting legend in the 24-plus years since he started NPR’s morning news program. Plus, Edwards wasn’t ready to relinquish his duties, which created something of a public relations nightmare for public radio’s management.
Then there were the marching orders: Make an already fine show, one that reaches 12.4 million listeners each week, even better.
“It was a great show,” says Inskeep, a Carmel native who joined NPR in 1996. “But the show needed to be sharper, the show needed to be more on top of breaking news events, more up to the minute, and be deeper and more thoughtful and have a broader range of opinion.”
And if he and Montagne haven’t made listeners forget Edwards, they’ve certainly made the transition seamless since assuming the co-hosting duties on May 3.
In a telephone interview from his home in Washington, D.C., Inskeep talked about his new role.
Inskeep: It’s been a great experience. I’ve gotten to do a lot of creative things. We feel like we’re making the show better very gradually. You’re starting with a show that a lot of people like — and for good reason; it’s a great show. But then the idea is how can we make it a little better and a little better next week and a little better the week after that.
NUVO: How can you make it better?
Inskeep: You can always look at ways to make the program deeper, to broaden the scope of opinion on the show and the kinds of stories that you cover and the way you cover them. I think there’s always a chance to be tougher or more insightful in the questioning of people you interview.
I can point you to some larger things. We talked to John Kerry and John Edwards. We didn’t just get them on the phone, which is something Morning Edition would have done in the past. I got on a plane and went to Missouri and talked to them face to face. And I think we had a lot stronger and more valuable discussion. And that discussion made news. It was in a lot of newspapers, a couple of things Kerry said. The Washington Post quoted this interview three days in a row.
That’s something the average person doesn’t notice unless they’re thinking about it because, sure, we’ve heard from people like John Kerry before. But we’re doing something a little more intense. We’re on the campaign trail with the guy, we’re in the guy’s face and we’re asking him hard questions and he’s making news.
Just before the Democratic convention, I took a few days off the show and went to Ohio. I spent those three days talking to voters all around the state. Some of these were interviews I arranged in advance, but in a lot of cases I was just picking interesting neighborhoods and knocking on doors. I did 30 long interviews with voters of all different persuasions across the state. And then during the Democratic convention, we had these stories about what was happening in one of the most important swing states. So during this totally prepackaged convention, we had the stories of real Americans talking about what’s happening in their communities and how they relate to the election.
For the Republican convention, Renee went out and did the same thing from Wisconsin, another swing state.
That’s part of the advantage of the two-host format — one of us can take a few days off and go do a story. That’s all stuff we just wouldn’t have done before. What we would have done would have been fine, but there’s another layer there that wasn’t getting done before and now it is.
NUVO: Why wasn’t that getting done before?
Inskeep: Because you had one host who felt, quite legitimately, that he needed to be there at 2 in the morning every day.
NUVO: Are you ever sitting there, going from one report about 300 dead kids in Moscow to a hurricane hitting Florida to Iraq, and just want to scream, “Enough!”
Inskeep: (Laughs) That’s always a temptation. But you learn to deal with it. And part of the show is to counteract that. We had a long “Performance Chat” with Sarah McLachlan where she came into our studio, sat down at the piano and talked about the way she writes music. As she played, she illustrated on the piano what she does. It’s almost like you got to hear the creative process.
That was one where we got a lot of e-mails from people saying, “What a hideous day of news, and thank you very much for this relief from it.”
NUVO: What other reactions have you gotten? I’m sure you heard from your share of Bob Edwards fans.
Inskeep: I haven’t actually heard from that many Bob Edwards fans. I know people were really upset, but hardly anybody has written to me and said they’re upset with me. I think people understand that I’m doing my job. Most people, if they’ve mentioned Bob at all, they’ve said thanks for making this transition so easy.
NUVO: Has the Joan Kroc money affected NPR in a way that’s visible to you?
Inskeep: It hasn’t affected my life directly, but NPR is beginning to figure out how to spend that money and post hirings for new reporter positions. We’re going to strengthen and deepen our reporting. We brought in a new co-managing editor, Bill Marimow [the former Baltimore Sun editor], and his whole mission in life goes nicely with what we’re trying to do with Morning Edition. His idea is, “OK, it’s NPR. Everyone respects our reporting. We do a good job, but frankly, we could do better. We could cover stories more deeply and we could break more stories and we could be more original.”
Everybody in the media has a tendency to follow other media and report what was in The New York Times and stuff like that. We would like to be even more original and independent than we have in the past. His mission is to push in that direction. He’s being helped by the Kroc money, because that’s allowing him to add to the reporting staff over time.
NUVO: Growing up in Carmel, was there anything that prepared you for all you’ve done and seen?
Inskeep: I suppose a lot of things did. I learned from my parents [Roland and Judy, who still live in Carmel] to work hard and do my best and don’t give up until your job is done, which I think is the hardest thing about reporting overseas. And it can be the hardest thing about hosting a program, too. You take responsibility for what you do, and you take responsibility for making it the best you can possibly make it and you don’t stop until it’s done. I think that sense of responsibility has helped me all the way along.