Alison Stewart is returning to NPR as the host of another innovative project, TED Radio Hour. The program is a joint endeavor from NPR and TED with each show based on a talk delivered from the renowned TED stage, addressing urbanization, sustainability, happiness and much more.
As the founder of NPR's popular newsmagazine The Bryant Park Project (2007-2008); creator of MTV's "Choose or Lose" Rock the Vote campaign; and national TV news anchor through one of the country's most trying decades, Stewart is well suited to dig into TED's catalog of 18-minute talks with the people who bring these revolutionary ideas to life.
Stewart sat down with us while in DC this week to talk about the new show, her career and looking at the big picture.
What can listeners expect from TED Radio Hour that may be different than TED Talks?
Having gone to a TED talk, it's really great to sit and listen to someone talk for 18 minutes straight, but your brain goes: "But, what about that?" "What about that?" "I wish I could ask that." "I don't agree with that." And so that's my job. I'm that voice for the NPR listener who hears this incredibly interesting person, but wants to know more. [TED's] mantra is, "Ideas worth spreading," and we also want to find a way to examine ideas in action.
What is your vision for how audiences experience and connect with conversations on the show?
I hope they have the experience of hearing really nice, long, fat pieces of interview and of TED Talks. I'm hoping they experience the joy of listening. I hope – this happened to me at TED – and I hope that people have the experience of hearing something that really applies to them personally in their lives, and they think about something differently as a result of hearing the show.
If you were asked to give a TED Talk, what topic would you speak on?
Well it's about somebody's area of expertise, so I could give one of two talks. I would give a TED Talk about the power of listening and the kind of things you can hear. I would also give a TED Talk about the power of community in shaping education.
What is a TED Talk that has impacted you?
The Darpa one about not being afraid to fail. It is the one that has sort of had a direct impact in my life, because this woman showed a video of little kids [saying]: "I am superman!" "I am the fastest runner!" "I can do anything!"
I have a four year old, and he likes to say stuff like that. My husband and I are like, "Well, you know, everybody's a good runner," trying to socialize him, and I thought, "You know, let him think he's the fastest runner for a while."
That one actually had an impact on my parenting. That was really cool.
Much of your career has been in television. How did you prepare for a return to radio?
When I left radio, to go to TV, I was far too expressive, because you get used to trying to get someone to talk to you in a radio studio. Usually you nod a lot and you smile, or you are talking to somebody who is not in the studio – via ISDN – and you sort of imagine they are. You wave your hands, and you have to sort of create an energy. My first piece back on TV after that, the producer was saying, "You can't smile so much, you can't nod so much." She said, "I know what you're doing. You're getting great answers, but you look like a crazy person!"
I just love to have conversation. A show like this is particularly good for my skills, because I'm a really conversational interviewer. That's what we hope TED is as well.
You were one of the founders of an NPR show in 2007, The Bryant Park Project, so TED Radio Hour is a bit of a homecoming for you. What's it like to be back?
It's a different thing coming back to a job as a woman, as a mom. A working mama. So I'm in a different place, and I think it's a really good place. I don't want to say this is a more mature project, but it's a thought project. It's not a daily. A daily, you're in it, it's zeitgeist, it's interesting, what people are talking about, it's awesome, it's pop culture, it's hard news. This is about taking time to think about something. And that's a really nice thing, that's a really rare thing. People don't stop and think anymore, stop and listen.
Could you share with us a few of the most pivotal moments you've had as a journalist?
The foundation for everything I've done, the architecture for my career, really did start when I was a MTV News.
Bryant Park was definitely a pivotal moment for me, it was one of those moments when you can come into something as established as NPR and open it up to a whole bunch of new people who hadn't even though about liking NPR before, didn't really know about it, or kind of knew about it. We were able to stay true to the values of NPR, but be fresh.
I was a news anchor during a really crazy decade. From 9/11 I was down there every night for a week when I worked for ABC. All night in the middle of the night, which was a really sort of moving experience, because it was quite. The people who were watching it were insomniacs. A lot of times you would get letters from family members , because they couldn't sleep. It was a whole different tone from 11:00 PM to 6:00 AM. It was very communal in a way.
Having a period of time away from the newsroom during the 2008 election, does that change how you do your interviewing and reporting now?
I've stepped back a lot about big picture stuff.
No matter how esoteric the subject matter is, I want to know how it comes back to people's lives. That is a really important nugget to have, especially with a project like this in every show.
TED Radio Hour is available to NPR Member stations beginning today. Among the first stations to air TED this weekend and into the early part of May are: WNPR, WUKY, WLPR, WHYY, KUOW, WRVO and WVTF Radio IQ.
Contact your local station for varied carriage and broadcast plans.