I Run This is a weekly interview series that highlights Black women and femmes who do dope shit in entertainment and culture while creating visibility, access and empowerment for those who look like them. Read my Gabrielle Union interview here.
Audie Cornish is a radio icon in her own right, but let her tell it, she’s “a regular person listening to Beyoncé.”
Her exit from NPR after more than 15 years (hosting “Weekend Edition” in 2011 and “All Things Considered” since 2012) was big news. A big part of it was her tenacity as a journalist, from her humanizing coverage of the opioid crisis in Baltimore to eye-opening conversations with Barack and Michelle Obama, respectively. (Other women of color exiting NPR around the same time added fuel to the fire as conversations around diverse talent retention sparked, though Cornish explains it was just time for her to spread her wings.) Another part was the huge jump into streaming she was taking à la the now-defunct CNN+.
When the platform made its grand opening and grand closing within weeks of each other, Cornish had to reroute her plans a bit.
The result was a new podcast called “The Assignment,” in which Cornish, who’s also an on-air CNN correspondent, gets to the heart of the trending debates on our timelines and takes listeners out of their digital echo chambers by speaking directly to the people at the center of the news.
“For me, I always feel like the audience, and I are in it together,” the veteran journalist said. “My goal is just to start to build a community of people who can get together and dialogue about the things they hear. And I’m not trying to be Joe Rogan. I think I’m just trying to make a space.”
The podcast, which premiered on Nov. 17, is true to Cornish’s journalism roots – early in her career, she talked to folks impacted by 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and happenings in the South. The first two episodes cover parents taking a more hands-on approach to their children’s education by becoming school board officials and the collective trauma we all seem to be enduring right now.
With her new podcast on CNN, Cornish is tapping into what she knows and loves best: The art of the interview.
For “I Run This,” Cornish discusses her approach to her new podcast, the delusion of making plans and her keys to making a good interview feel like a good date.
Congrats on this new podcast! One thing that I noticed was that it feels kind of full circle. I was reading about your first journalism job at the AP covering 9/11 and talking to folks impacted by it and the surrounding events in a way that a lot of people weren’t talking to them about. And this is, in a way, a similar approach to talking to folks who are deeply impacted by these bigger events that are happening in our world. Talk to me about why this approach was important and how “The Assignment” differs from work that you’ve done in the past.
Audie Cornish: First of all, you’re the first person to point that out, and I really appreciate you and the research you did coming into it. You probably even pointed out something that I didn’t totally connect for myself. I would say that I have learned over the years that people who are not media-trained can still surprise you. And one thing that happens when you interview a lot and you interview professionally is you can get a little bit complacent. You research so much, and especially if you interview politicians, you can almost to a word know what they’re going to say. Whereas that does not really happen with regular people.
I’ve always delighted in that, the ability to meet someone and for them to tell you their story from their point of view and to be delighted and surprised by the things that they say. To be curious by the things that they say. To be shocked by the things that they say; I think that is really important.
No. 2, I have traveled a lot of the U.S. and a little bit abroad, and I have always sought to make connections to draw through lines for people. To say that a teenager in the suburbs of Paris does actually have quite a lot in common with some teenagers in Chicago and that there are ways that we are more alike than we realize. It’s almost like a Bizarro version of the same ideas. Someone who goes down the rabbit hole of election denial, to them, they think they’re fighting for something. And to the outside world and to the facts of election counts, that’s misguided. The instinct, the protectiveness around the country or whatever they believe it to be, that’s real for them. And I think trying to get people to hear that, not to agree with it, not to change their minds about it, but just to hear it, I think it affects how we think about things.
And this isn’t a project that you came into CNN knowing that you’d be doing.
You came in under CNN+.
We make a plan, and God laughs, basically.
So talk to me about that risk-reward factor here and how that played out for you to leave “All Things Considered” to go to this very new platform.
I mean, I’m a regular person listening to Beyoncé. I have this aim, like, “I’ve got to believe in myself. I’m going to choose myself.” I think I had spent just a little over 15 years at a company where I had interned. And it’s very hard not to be seen in a way as the youngest precocious person in the room. But by the time I had reached the age I am now and had two kids, that felt less and less appealing. There was more I could do, but I was in too small a room, and I needed to stretch my arms or something. I saw the path that I took to CNN in particular, I was leaning all the way into doing something new.
I think as that strategy shifted around me, not just at the company but the industry as a whole, the way Wall Street kind of turned on, it’s just sort of streamers and studios and the looking at subscriber numbers, I mean, all of that is falling apart right now. I did find myself in a place I didn’t expect, and it did take me some time to pick myself up and figure out what to do next.
And I’m saying that because I don’t like when I read interviews, and someone says, “So I dusted myself off and gave myself a speech.” That is not how it happened. I was frustrated. I was confused. I thought I had laid out this very specific vision for what my next chapter would be, and really huffy that it wasn’t laying out the way I had designed it, which of course, is delusional. None of us can design [our future]. To me, I was like, “I’ll do this, and then this, and it’ll be great.” It was like, “What? You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
I’m working that out in therapy right now.
It really was a moment where I had to be like, “OK, I understand what people say when things are in God’s hands.” The thing that people may not understand is there are really great people at CNN and really great journalists and awesome coworkers, and it was so amazing for me to leave the place I had been for so long. I really felt like I had family there, and how was I ever going to find another family? To just come into a place and be like, “Oh, wait, no, it’s also called work.” And you’re going to meet coworkers you love, and you’re going to be creative with a new mix of people and find chemistry with a new mix of people. And I have enjoyed and appreciated figuring it out with other people here who are also figuring it out. The path is not clear.
Speaking of, there’s something to be said about the positive side of the delusion of planning the future that takes us out of our comfort zones, out of old cycles, or things that we might have outgrown. Of course, earlier this year, it was such big news that you left “All Things Considered.” I want to talk about that delusion and what was on your vision board at the time that made you bet on yourself in a different way, especially with having such a long and, quite frankly, well-branded career at this one institution to go to do greater things.
I think I learned that I couldn’t see myself from the outside. And by that, I mean I had no idea people thought I had a long career and a well-regarded career. I had no idea anybody would care that I left the air. To me, there were a number of hosts on these shows. The shows were bigger than the people on them. It’s a big legacy brand. So it never occurred to me to think anybody would care that I left. There are a variety of reasons why the media attention to that came to a head the way that it did. I think it had to do with things that were going on in public media, things that were going on in the world of streaming and CNN.
And so I just happened to be in the eye of a little storm, which is funny because now that’s how I think about the new show. Like I think, “Who is the person who is in the eye of it that we’re not talking to?” Because it’s hard to get at them, and it takes too long, and we’re just going to get the president of something or a think tank, but who’s the person who actually is doing a thing that headlines are talking about? That people are arguing about online? In a way, I sort of had that tiny mini viral moment where the story becomes bigger than you, the narrative becomes bigger than you, and frankly, you just have to find your way safely out of it. But to your point, in terms of that moment, I think it was good for me because all of a sudden, I understood my value in a way that I didn’t before. I needed that. At least my therapist says I needed that.
Wow, that’s really deep.
You don’t want to outsource your worth. I’m not saying I want to outsource my value, but I legit was like, “Oh, people want me to do things? People want to hire me?” I had no idea. No one ever calls anyone at NPR because no one thinks we’ll leave, which, you know, is not wrong. Those are great jobs. But I truly had zero idea of the kind of impact people are saying that I had. And really, I think I’m at a point in my career where I could really just appreciate that.
“When you’re just grinding, you don’t know. You’re just trying to jump from one brass ring to another and try. I want my work to have value. I want my work to have impact, not for my own ego, but because I want to add to cultural dialogue in a positive way in an era where plenty of people are happy to add to it in a really shitty way to make money.”
I’m not going to lie. That’s very surprising to hear.
I know. Everyone says that. It’s like a running joke at the office, but you don’t understand. You do radio in a dark room. Do you know what I mean? You’re in a studio under lights. You sit with one cohost. You do this every single day. I was like Maeve from “Westworld.” I went to the same place every day and did the same actions. There were new players who came in and out of the park, but it was fundamentally the same thing. And so I had no clue.
I had no idea how connected people were, and I get it now because I was that connected to the people I grew up with. My heart still hurts thinking about Gwen Ifill. There are people who I was very connected to growing up who were news personalities, and now I understand. But when you’re just grinding, you don’t know. You’re just trying to jump from one brass ring to another and try. I want my work to have value. I want my work to have an impact, not for my own ego, but because I want to add to cultural dialogue in a positive way in an era where plenty of people are happy to add to it in a shitty way to make money.
I want to take you back a little bit. What did you want to be when you grew up? When you were a child?
Out of my hometown.
I don’t know. If you look at my yearbook, it probably says senator, but that’s a good example of representation. I graduated in the late ’90s. There was a big wave of female senators who came in post-the-Clinton debacle, and I think it was Carol Moseley Braun at the time whose exit was not as glorious as her entrance. But I think at the time, I was like, “Whoa, you can be a senator? OK. I’m putting that down.”
There are moments when representation matters, but I did not know what I wanted to be when I grew up. And right now, I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. I’m literally asking myself that question. Am I trying to make more audio? Am I trying to do more television? Is there a world where I have a multimedia career? What would that even look like? I still have all of those doubts and confusion. I’m still trying to grow up.
What do the moments look like for you in your career where you think, “This feels right. This feels aligned?”
I do like heavy lifts. I like creating things under duress even as I complain about it the entire time because once things are good and settled, I’m like, “maybe I should do something else.” One thing people didn’t talk about my past is that I changed jobs every two years. It looked like I was doing one long job, but I started out as a cover reporter in the South. I covered presidential elections, then I covered Congress. I moved across the country two times. When I started hosting, that was a new thing. So really, to me, I had had lots of little gear shifts and challenges, and it genuinely was hard to know what you do after reaching that point in that particular industry.
I think it’s just the act of creation and bonding with people. I love collaborating, and I love collaboration. So what I found when I became an interviewer is that it combined all my favorite parts of journalism, which for me was the researching and the interviewing. Later on, when I had to write, I’d get writer’s block, and I’d be a big baby about it, and I still am. But I wasn’t a beat builder. I wasn’t an investigative person. We all have a mix of talents in this business. None of us have all of the superpowers. Right? We each have them, some of them more than others. And I realized I could do the interviewing part. I can figure out how to talk to people, and I get very irritated when I hear interviews and people don’t know how to talk to people. I’m like, “That’s not how you approach that person.”
So that is a high that I’m constantly chasing. The experience you and I are having right now is something that cannot be replicated with any other two people. And the intimacy of it can’t be replicated with any other two people. It’s unique, and capturing that and experiencing capture, experiencing capture, I think that’s what I adore about my work.
Yeah, a good interview feels magical.
It’s a good date. When it’s good, it’s a really good date.
I love that analogy. You’re going into a big interview, let’s say, with former President Barack Obama. What are the key things that you have in your reporter tool kit to make sure it’s a really good interview, a really good date?
Wow, I have no clue. Each time I’m nervous. Like I said, I love researching, so I’m constantly reading as much as I can, and I’ve learned from many interview subjects that they don’t like their own quotes parroted back at them. So I try to dig a little deeper. I am also very focused on people’s craft and the insider knowledge they have about doing something, which is probably not so great for this environment where we’re very focused on a kind of infotainment model, like, “Who are you dating?” Do you know what I mean? Just the stuff that’s about their personal life is very intriguing to people. I find it less intriguing, unfortunately, as an interviewer because I genuinely want to know:
“How do you do what you do? What motivates you to do what you do? What drives you? What is your work like when you have a bad day? What is your work like when you have a good day?”
I’m very motivated by those questions, and I think those are things we can all connect to also. In the case of that interview, I remember I even started it by saying, “Oh, it’s great to talk to two podcasters,” because, yeah, you don’t want to be like, “Mr. President, Bruce Springsteen.” That’s setting yourself up to be in a deferential position the entire time of the conversation. So I put them on my plane. I always try and find a way to connect with people and then dig in, and it’s harder than you think. It took me a long time to come to any real skill with it.
I’m obsessed with the art of the interview. I can talk about that all day. I feel like more people should talk about what an interview is, the mechanics of how it works, and what happens when it breaks down. I think it would help us all, media literacy-wise, to even understand sometimes what we’re seeing. I don’t think what we’re seeing is some spontaneous exchange of ideas, especially in the political space. I wish more people were interested in it.
What haven’t you done yet that you would like to accomplish in the near future?
So much. I mean, I would love to interview people before an audience. I want to be in a space with people. Maybe that’s just like a post-pandemic yearning. But I was doing live shows for a while. I love that. I love being in a room with everyone. What I just said about intimacy between two people, when you bring in an audience, then that is even another element that can only exist with that audience. I’m sure people who do theater feel the same way. So I think I would love that.
And I would love to do a town hall-type thing because I think that there are ways that political coverage, in general, can be reductive. It’s like, “OK, you’re the white evangelical voter, you’re the older Black voter, you’re the LGBT voter.” And have people in these little boxes that, I don’t know, do a disservice to the breadth of a conversation. I would love it if there is ever a way ever to have a real conversation with a politician and voters. I would love to crack that code so that it’s not this performance-driven thing.
Mostly, I want to keep trying new things. I really, really, really want to grow and embrace this capacity for risk that I didn’t know that I had and not think there’s just a final destination to greatness or something. I want to be one of those journalists that’s just still kicking all the way, still trying to file a story all the way to the end.