Audie Cornish has spent the last two decades becoming a trusted voice in journalism. Her interview subjects have ranged from pop stars such as actor Richard Gere, to political figures such as former First Lady Michele Obama, to literary icons like Ta-Nehisi Coates. Her career in journalism began at the Associated Press in Boston in 2001. The following year, her love of radio brought her to Boston's WBUR. After joining NPR's National Desk in 2005, she reported from Nashville. The 2008 presidential race brought her to NPR politics where she covered the historic election of Barack Obama. In 2011, she earned a George Peabody Award for her work with David Isay's StoryCorps 9/11 Project. Her feature reporting on the opioid crisis in Baltimore earned her a Salute to Excellence Award from the National Association of Black Journalists. And in 2020, the National Press Foundation recognized her work with the Sol Taishoff Award for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism. Today she is the co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered. In the following interview, she discusses why when doors open for us we should leave them open for others.
What drew you to radio as opposed to any other journalistic medium, and how did you get your big break?
Instead of one “big break” it feels like lots of little breaks. I started out at the Associated Press in Boston when I was fresh out of college. But I had worked at radio stations while I was a student, and I had been bitten by the radio bug. So when I got the chance to work at a station again, I took it. That station was WBUR in Boston. And really, I've never looked back.
You have covered some of the most crucial moments in US History over the past two decades, including political races and legislative battles and so much more. Are there some particular times or stories that stand out for you as a journalist and why?
Presidential races are always compelling, dynamic and high stakes. And I was able to cover the campaigns of both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama – both of whom were making history with their runs.
I also covered the legislative developments that lead to the legalization of same sex marriage in Massachusetts. At the time it was an international story, but Boston was my hometown. And in a way I knew the kinds of people who were on “both sides” so to speak, and it's always something that has stuck with me.
Finally, I think the story that stands out for me, on the whole, would be covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I wasn't there for the storm, but I spent a good year coming and going to the city afterwards. And it was such a long and sustained effort by the people of the city to hold on to what they loved. And I've never forgotten it.
Through your work, you have met and interviewed some of the most influential people in the world? Who inspired or surprised you the most?
Recently, I interviewed President Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen, and I have to say, they surprised me as a pair. I wasn’t surprised that they had things in common. But it was fascinating hearing them think out loud.
You might sit down and talk with Bruce Springsteen about his music career, but you might not get to ask him about how he's come to his politics. And similarly, with Barack Obama, you might ask him a million questions about politics, but you might not really dig into how he thinks of himself as a builder of stories and narrative. That interview really surprised me. And I think it surprised a lot of people.
Instead of one “big break” it feels like lots of little breaks.
How does an All Things Considered story come together? Can you share a little of the process of research and preparation?
An All Things Considered story comes together when we sit around a table and think about what the biggest news stories of the day are turning out to be. We each bring ideas that we've come across in our individual readings, and say, Hey, have you seen this? And you know, the goal is not to have a Venn diagram where everything fits. The goal is actually to engage with a diversity of ideas.
The process of research and preparation for me, usually begins with a question. ‘What are the motivations driving key people in this story?’ ‘Why are they doing what they are doing?’ ‘Are there aspects of their reasoning that people may not know about? contexts that the public doesn't understand?
Then I go into interviews with questions that try to seek some answers
Can you also talk more about story structure and how to make a news item compelling?
I think we're all familiar with the who, what, when and why structure of news reporting. What makes something compelling to my mind is digging deep in the ‘how’? Specifically, ‘how did we get here?’ That's the thing that I think is more and more drawing people in today in today's news environment, more than just something has happened.
How do you feel about racial and gender representation in radio? How do we drive more diversity?
Racial and gender representation in audio, TV and print all are lacking in one way or another. And the drive to create more diversity in newsrooms is an ongoing one that happens in fits and starts, sometimes in waves. But it is definitely a long-term conversation. And if you are the only person driving that conversation – or feel like you are – that can be a lonely place. I would say don’t give up. It’s a relay and you gotta do your part to carry the baton.
Other forms of audio have exploded in the past few years - podcasts, clubhouse etc. What’s your take on what’s happening? How are you considering these other types of platforms in your work?
The explosion of podcasts and social media apps like clubhouse is fascinating and exciting. You want the biggest widest ecosystem for your medium, right? That's how you know it's thriving. And it also reflects the fact that people are still very compelled by conversation, people are still very compelled by how stories are told. And while video is irresistible, there's still something very rich, intimate about a human voice. And the approach is spreading – the idea of intimacy is being seen in other parts of media.
People are still very compelled by conversation, people are still very compelled by how stories are told. And while video is irresistible, there's still something very rich, intimate about a human voice.
To what do you attribute your success?
Am I successful yet? I still think of myself as striving and trying to find my place. I still think of myself as being in a position to learn and grow and stretch new muscles.
When is it an advantage to be a woman in your business?
I don't know if there's any particular advantage to being a woman in this business or any other. I do know that it's made me sensitive to issues that were traditionally considered a woman's sphere or domain. But in kind of more enlightened times, it’s better understood that they affect everyone.
For example, the economic infrastructure of caring for children, as we saw in the pandemic, is an issue for everyone. In many ways it’s propping up our economy, whether it's emotional labor or physical labor that women and femme presenting people bring to this economy.
I think it's also made me sensitive to the ways that people can be undermined in their careers due to their intrinsic characteristics. The idea that some people feel they don't belong, or some people feel you may not belong is something I still encountered as I came up in the business.
I have really tried to keep the door open as I move up and through this world, so that the people who come in behind me don't have those same experiences. Or at the very least can reach out to talk with someone who understands when they do.