What does the public radio host of the future look and sound like?

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By JacoTen - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24338929

(Photo: JacoTen, via Wikimedia/Creative Commons)

Like all successful businesses, public radio relies on talent; we all know how important it is to find and surface our new stars. Talent acquisition continues to be one of the most urgent issues for public media, and the pressure to hire the right people (and keep them) has never been greater.

The question has been a particularly pressing one for WAMU. Late last year, Diane Rehm announced her retirement; as a result, we have some very big shoes to fill. But when Diane first took the air as host 37 years ago she was, in her words, a housewife. It’s a qualification that, on its own, very few hiring managers would find sufficient today.

So how do you find someone to follow Diane Rehm? How do you find a host who is both authentic and authoritative and has the range to speak as fluently in politics and policy as s/he does in pop culture, tech and, dare I say, sports? And does this person sound and act differently from how a host would have been expected to sound and act 37 years ago?



At WAMU HQ, we’ve been living these questions day in and day out for more than six months as we narrow in on the person who will host our new show beginning January 2017, we thought it would be appropriate to share the “scoring matrix” we’ve developed for identifying and vetting potential talent. After all, we won’t be the last team tasked with judging the impossible.

Truth is, there is only one Diane Rehm, and gut instinct must play a part in finding her replacement. The role of hosting a talk show requires a special type of personality, and public media has a particular responsibility not to rely too much on subjective impressions of personality at the expense of objective qualifications for the job. This tailored matrix attempts to bring some discipline and rigor to the process. We’ve done our best to quantify what has made Diane so effective and beloved and to identify qualities and characteristics we think are critical for someone navigating this unusual job in 2017 and beyond.

In the first section, we consider On-Air Performance. Is the host likable? Relatable? In listening to him/her, do you want to know and hear more? Does he/she stay cool when navigating a difficult guest or breaking news?

Next up is Editorial Sensibility. The host of a show is a key member of a creative team. Does s/he have great ideas? A fresh perspective on the news of the day? An established presence and following on social media? What are his/her digital smarts?

Personality. Here’s where we try to get at what has made Diane so effective and close to her audience. We want someone who’s curious, smart and accessible and brings a distinct perspective. As we have seen with the very best podcasts, authenticity becomes key where authority once was queen.

Diversity. It’s no secret that America’s demographics and ethnographics are changing — so should public radio. Regardless of who we choose as our host, we are seeking a voice and face that represent America in 2017. What do we look and sound like?

Collegiality. Bottom line, can you envisage you and your team working with this person? This section underscores the fact that hiring the right talent impacts everyone in your organization. You should feel confident they will embody public radio’s core values. Diane, like all high-profile hosts, does as much off air as she does on air. What are his or her ambassadorial qualities?

Last but not least is the Gut Check. Is your candidate giving you all the feels? Something needs to bond with you if you are going to bond with him/her. Are you hearing someone who sounds like modern America and fits with the future of public radio?

This matrix is being applied to those on our final short list and has been developed by the program development team at WAMU. It is a tool we are using only after we have heard the candidates on-air, either as stand-ins or after an audition and after the hiring team has met the individuals face to face.

What follows can and should be modified as others see fit. It will help guide what is often a challenging and contentious process.

Host-Matrix (Text)

Rupert Allman joined WAMU Sept. 1 as executive producer of the program that will succeed The Diane Rehm Show. Prior to starting at WAMU, he was executive producer of The Takeaway at WNYC in New York City.

4 thoughts on “What does the public radio host of the future look and sound like?

  1. WAMU also needs to find someone who:

    (1) Can host a national show, since Diane Rehm’s show has been national for quite a few years, and just as important,

    (2) Someone who can attract pledge dollars from listeners.

  2. So interesting to see the process behind finding a new host! DR often asks just what I’m wondering as the listener: “you haven’t answered the question” and “but what about …” . I feel like she really listens to her guests and asks honest questions. She doesn’t put on airs of superiority or use a condescending tone. That ability to engage as an ‘informed, average American’ is key to her successful style.

  3. There’s a tremendous amount of research on how to avoid implicit bias in the hiring process and this article would seem to indicate that WAMU cares about avoiding it but is not following best practices to avoid it.

    For example, one of the chief considerations should be how the person sounds on the air. But you need a process that strips away the telltale vocal qualities that tend to identify a voice as male or female, and ideally you’d strip away regional dialects/accents as well. Sound impossible? Not at all! You can drastically reduce the amount of audio information (via EQ and filtering) until there’s nothing left but a cadence of sound (almost like the WAH MUWAH WAH sounds of the adults in the old “Peanuts” cartoons), and yet that still carries emotional resonance to listeners. Survey that resonance and assign sounds to each voice so you can pick the one that resonates the best….but you’ve done so in a way that avoids any implicit bias for/against gender, race or origin.

    Similarly, people can make judgment calls about how “personable” another person is from mere seconds (even just two!) of watching them in a particular setting. It’s possible to create video of applicants in relevant situations, but digitally obscure the gender/race of the applicant in the video, and STILL get meaningful feedback about how effective the “scorekeepers” felt they were at being “personable” in a given setting.

    This is a not-uncommon topic in the realm of behavioral economics. Malcolm Gladwell, for example, writes extensively about it in his book “Blink” when he talks about the story of Abbie Conant and the Munich Philharmonic.

    BTW, part of the key to this screening process is that if you’re going to remove race & gender from the applicants, you have to INCLUDE it in the “scorekeepers”. That is, you’ve got to have a racial and gender diverse group of people making the judgment calls about the candidates. Otherwise there will still be an implicit bias. However, your scorekeepers are acting as a surrogate for your audience (both on air and elsewhere) so if you want a candidate who “scores well” with the audience, your scorekeepers should have a comparable gender/racial makeup to how your audience *is* or what you desire your audience *to become*.

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