To regular NPR listeners, Rachel Martin isn’t exactly a new voice. The journalist, who began her job as the station’s cohost of “Morning Edition” on Monday, has spent four years quarterbacking “Weekend Edition Sunday.” Before that, she served as the company’s national security correspondent where she traveled regularly to Iraq and Afghanistan with the Secretary of Defense, reporting on various subjects such as U.S. wars, the changing demographic of the U.S. military and the effectiveness of the Pentagon’s counterinsurgency strategy. Martin has also covered Islam in America, women’s issues and politics in Afghanistan, the Virginia Tech massacre and the recent presidential election.
Fresh off her first “Morning Edition” broadcast, Martin talked about the hurdles involved in covering President-elect Donald Trump, how she views the disruption taking place in radio and the proper dosage of caffeine needed to do her new job.
WWD: Walk me through a typical day at Morning Edition.
Rachel Martin: Most of the heavy lifting is right when you show up to work. You get in around 3:45 a.m. I push it to the last possible minute, and then you have basically an hour and change to do all the prep and the writing. If you have any interviews that are being prerecorded, you do those and you prep for any live two-ways that are happening. We write some of the little interstitials in the show and the openings in the show, and then you just go into the studio and you do it, you go and you do it live. As the show is on, you’re looking ahead for any taped piece that is airing, you’re looking forward and you’re tweaking that intro. You’re always doing a few things at the same time. Then after the first feed of the show — it’s just news-dependent — like today, Donald Trump named Ben Carson to be Secretary of HUD [Department of Housing and Urban Development]. For the second feed of the show we did an interview with Carson’s close allies. If there’s a ton of news, you can be updating till noon, if not, you can pivot and start thinking about the next day.
WWD: How are you going to cover Trump in light of how the media covered him during the election?
R.M.: There has been this kind of internal autopsy that journalism has done after the election to figure out what, if any, missteps we made or stories we didn’t cover or perspectives we didn’t consider. NPR as a whole — and I’m not punting on your question — did a good job. We talked to a lot of different people who were really enthusiastic about Donald Trump and we brought a lot of those perspectives to the air. We did what we’re supposed to do. It’s definitely tough because we are living in a moment where a portion of the American public has serious pause with mainstream journalism. There’s a trust gap. That’s for a whole lot of reasons. There are a lot of media outlets out there. It’s such a fractured environment. People are sometimes having trouble deciphering what is true, and what is journalism with integrity, and what is not. It is incumbent upon us to, if anything, explain our process, and make sure that people understand the lengths that we go to bring objective truth-telling to the air, and to bring a wide variety of perspectives and the choices we make in how we cover the news. I think we could do a little bit of a better job doing that. But largely, we’re going to keep doing what we do. I think that it is more important than ever right now. We’re a network of member stations so we have reporters and editors and producers who are embedded in communities, who are part of communities across the country. We’re not actually siphoned off in offices in New York or D.C. We are in America and we are already telling those stories.
WWD: Everyone talks about a post-truth era and this feeling that no matter what Trump says and what the media does to correct the record, it doesn’t matter. How does the media make it matter?
R.M.: All we can do is shine a light on it when it happens. You can’t make people walk through a door that you open. We are definitely going to have to be more aggressive about real-time fact-checking interviews, especially with administration officials. That’s just part of our jobs. We have to be prepared to do that. NPR Morning Edition has been doing more of our program live over the last couple of years and we will continue to do that because it is to our advantage to do that real-time fact checking if someone is being a little bit vague or if they are outright misstating the truth of something. As to how you make someone care about that? I don’t know if that’s our job. We try to tell the truth and report the facts in a compelling way. It’s up to listeners whether or not they care about that.
WWD: Why don’t people care about facts this cycle? Is it because there’s so much noise with social media, punditry and all viral and fake news stories?
R.M.: I think because you had a candidate who upended all the traditional norms of a campaign, who used Twitter and social media like nobody had before and that means no one can check him. When Donald Trump sends out a tweet, it’s not like a press conference where he’s in a room full of journalists who can challenge him on something. Because there are so many different choices that consumers have in where they’re going to get their news, it makes it really hard for some people to differentiate what’s a reliable news source from something that’s bogus. We do live in a time where there are fake web sites peddling mistruths out or sites that use hyperbole and don’t put things in context. There’s a range of ways that real journalism has been mashed up with things that aren’t journalism…[like] opinion or that’s sensationalistic in some ways. It is really noisy out there. You have to think of ways to cut though the noise. NPR has trust with its audience; where we could do better is expanding our audience.
WWD: How are you working to broaden the listenership?
R.M.: It sounds like a pat answer but it really isn’t; it’s our public mission. It has to be everybody, everyone up and down the economic ladder, so people who haven’t even encountered NPR before, people who didn’t grow up with it. That means getting into their communities and getting on the ground, getting into public schools more and introducing NPR to younger people…I’m from a rural part of the country, and we’re planning to expand on what has already been a robust effort. We want everybody.
WWD: How will your background as a foreign correspondent influence your new gig? Are there emerging stories you see coming to light?
R.M.: There definitely is a through-line with what we’re seeing globally. I think that mass migration patterns, the refugee crisis, people fleeing wars, globalization trends and how that’s reshaping the global economy — all of this is catching up to us on a very micro-level. It has cultivated a lot of anxiety for a lot of people and that’s manifested in different ways, whether that’s economic insecurity or all of a sudden, the community that you’ve grown up in that’s pretty homogenous, is now a diverse place culturally or ethnically and maybe that’s not so comfortable. I think we saw that come to bear in this election and I’m really interested in getting out to understand how that plays out in people’s everyday lives.
WWD: What are the top stories for you?
R.M.: Immigration is going to be huge, from a policy perspective and what that looks like in communities. I think we want to get down to the border with Mexico and pick a town and spend some time there to mark how any potential policy changes ripple down and affect those people. I’m personally really interested in religion, having covered it for NPR for a year or so. I thought that the evangelical vote going for Trump was complicated and interesting. I am fascinated by America’s religious makeup and the inherent tension with the secular nature of our government and our culture. That’s something I want to explore as well.
WWD: How has your job changed at NPR?
R.M.: It used to be you reported your radio story and it went out on the radio…it was just one treatment of a story. It’s not that way anymore. Now, every time you sit down, you think of different ways to tell the story. ..maybe it’s a short video, maybe it’s a tweet or a Tumblr? It requires more nimble thinking about the best audience and the best treatment of a story.
R.M.: NPR’s podcasts are historically the top-rated podcasts on iTunes. This is our game. We do audio. That’s a brag but we kind of do it better than anyone. Mimicry is the highest form of flattery, right? We were doing podcasts before anyone was doing podcasts. We just called them radio. Now, everyone has caught on to the idea that audio storytelling is really intimate, compelling and you can reach a lot of people with it. It’s really portable and people can incorporate it into their lives in ways other people can’t with other media. Was it better when the only audio option was NPR? Yeah. At the same time, having a more competitive space opens us up to experiment more and to break down some of our own assumptions about how audio storytelling should go. I think it’s opened up more creativity at NPR and given us more freedom. It’s a really exciting time to work in audio.
WWD: What do you do in your free time?
R.M.: This is where I tell you about my two small children who take up all of my free time. My diet for Morning Edition is news-driven. I rely on Twitter heavily for my news, which is curated by journalists I know and respect. I always try to dive into corners of the country and look at their local news…and keep tabs on Idaho and the Mountain West, which is where I’m from.
WWD: How do you balance your schedule?
R.M.: I haven’t quite figured it out yet. Basically, it means my husband is a single dad in the morning. He manages to get the children dressed and the lunch made, and the children to school in the mornings. We’ve got an awesome caretaker who helps with the kids as well to fill in the gaps. The awesome thing about this job is it does give me flexibility in the afternoon. We’re hoping in this new life that we can have family dinner together around 5:30 p.m. or 6 and then basically, we put the kids to bed, and we go to bed right after that.
WWD: I’m stuck on your 3:45 a.m. start time. How much caffeine do you drink for this new job?
R.M.: Today, I brought my little travel mug full of espresso and then I brought a thermos and I’ve consumed all of it a couple of hours ago. I’m just floating in this caffeinated high right now, which I know I’m going to crash from. I think I need to recalibrate my caffeine intake after I get into this job a little more.