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A new voice began greeting listeners starting the day with WBUR’s “Morning Edition” this past October.
Rupa Shenoy took over the host chair from veteran journalist Bob Oakes, who stepped away from presenting the morning news program for a new chapter as he eyes retirement.
Born and raised in Iowa, Shenoy told Boston.com there were many factors that sparked her interest in journalism, but she recognized at a young age the impact she could have in communicating information clearly.
The University of Iowa graduate recalled how when she was a kid, she was waiting for her mother to take her to a piano lesson when her mom’s co-worker arrived and told her that her mother had been in a car accident.
“I had 30 seconds to leave a note for my dad,” Shenoy said. “And I just left one sentence, like, ‘Mom was in a not-serious car accident, this is where we are.’ And later he commented, he said, ‘You told me exactly what I needed to know in the order I needed to know it.’ And I was like, ‘Huh, OK.’ And that was always ingrained in me, that this is what I do best, and it’s really useful. And when you can be useful, that’s good. I also just like really helping people, who maybe can’t articulate their story, get their story out there.”
Out of college, Shenoy worked for the Chicago Reporter, a race- and poverty-focused magazine, before landing at a daily newspaper and then the Associated Press.
Shenoy said she realized while working with the Associated Press that she wanted to have more of an emotional impact with her stories.
“I wanted something that people felt and basically that’s always been my thing, impact,” she said. “And radio really struck me as something that gets close to people. I mean, you really have a one-on-one relationship with people, so that’s why I made that move.”
She headed to Minnesota Public Radio, then to Boston to do investigative reporting at GBH. While at the station, she started a podcast, “Otherhood,” which focused on the children of immigrants and race and identity. The podcast was picked up by Public Radio International, and Shenoy began putting together 20-minute reported pieces for the “The World.” After the election of former President Donald Trump, she transitioned to reporting full-time on human rights.
Now, she’s shepherding Bostonians through the biggest news of the day each morning at WBUR.
Boston.com spoke with Shenoy recently about helming “Morning Edition,” the transition from reporting to hosting, and what she hopes she’ll bring to the show as her tenure continues to unfold.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Rupa Shenoy: It’s a relief to not have anxiety about it any more — because I’m not going to pretend like I had done this before. I had hosted a podcast, but live radio for hours on end — I’d not done that. And I did not sound great in the beginning, I’ve got to say. I made a lot of mistakes. And people were super supportive, just emailing me and tweeting me encouragement. I really have to say thank you to people for tolerating me while I was getting past the nerves and just making a fool of myself on the radio. And hopefully now I sound better because I really feel like I’m getting to know them, and I really feel like I’m being more comfortable with live radio.
As a reporter … to a certain extent you can make everything happen yourself and you have time to catch your own mistakes. You’re not part of a team. I’m definitely part of a team now. I’m very lucky. We just hired a field producer for me, so I get to have someone who’s completely devoted to helping me report. So it’s not just hosting, it’s also getting out there and doing what I love to do, which is reporting. But yeah, I depend on a group of people who are very good at their jobs, but I’m just not used to that. So that’s the transition. Also just to having power — not power, but that people kind of care more what I say, and that was not the case before.
The biggest problem was making mistakes on the radio. And people say that people actually like when people make mistakes on the radio because it makes them feel closer to them. But when you’re the person making the mistake on the radio, you feel humiliated. Just like layers of shame every day. So that was definitely the most difficult thing. And that’s what Bob [Oakes] told me in the beginning. He’s like, “Don’t get hung up on your mistakes.” And of course, I totally did. But — I did not think this would happen at the time — but I’ve gotten used to it, and I don’t feel as awful every time I make a mistake now. Because you would think it would be very easy just presenting the news, but it’s not. It’s not easy to sound perfect all the time.
That relationship with the audience. They really are interactive. People are listening closely and they want to interact with me. I’ll get emails like the difference between “thee” and “thuh,” when to use the difference between them. But I really like it. I feel I want to be more connected with people … I feel really connected, like this is a very interactive community and they really feel — not ownership — but they feel that I’m with them and they want to be there with me … They’ve been very kind to me. People have been very kind.
Reporting will definitely be the favorite part of my job. But while I’ve been getting my feet and just understanding how things work, it’s been weather, because weather is the only place where I can really express myself individually.
And I love just having the opportunity — like I interviewed Mayor [Michelle] Wu the morning after she won, and someone tweeted, “I got to wake up today and listen to my Asian American mayor be interviewed by an Asian American NPR host,” and I was like, yeah, that’s awesome. That’s great.
The thing that I love the most so far, and I think will probably just stay as the standard thing, is the smile. That’s what I wanted, going in. I want people to hear me smile; I want them to hear me smiling. Because that’s what I wanted to hear on the radio. And I just didn’t … When I put on the radio, especially in the morning, I want to hear somebody smiling and just being in a good mood and creating a good environment for me. So that’s been the most important thing for me to do. I really hope people can hear me smiling and know I’m into them having a good morning, and anything I can do to help them have a good morning, that’s good for me.
I was not … Get a dog, because it took me time to get used to the schedule. My puppy was on it before I was, and now she is basically my alarm clock. She will come and stick her nose right under my nose because I feed her before I leave. I leave at like four in the morning. So she’s definitely up and wants to be fed and wakes me up. So I have two alarm clocks and then I have this wet dog nose. And all together it really gets me up in the morning. I love my puppy. She makes me happy every morning, so that makes it a lot easier.
I mean, Bob and I talked about it a lot. I think he meant that he was an older white man, and I’m a younger, not too young, but I’m a younger journalist of color. And just bringing that different perspective. I mean, for a lot of time that he was in journalism it was hard and almost unthinkable for someone like me to get into a position like he had. And now, we want that to be — WBUR is behind making that a common thing. So yeah, I think he means, let’s hear from more perspectives.
Oh, it was, “Don’t get hung up on it.” That was the biggest. He kept saying it to me. He’s like, “Remember this.” And of course, I did not remember it. I still went through the humiliation and still do it sometimes. But he was like, “That’s what I wish I had heard and I had remembered in the beginning. Don’t hold onto it. Let it go because you’re going on the radio the day after that and the day after that. So you always have a chance to make another impression on people.”
I’m a huge dog person … [Samara’s] a rescue, she’s a year and a half old. And we love to go on really long walks and she walks really fast and I really like that. And I listen to sci-fi books, I’m a sci-fi nerd. I love sci-fi. Particularly time travel.
Can I tell you about this event that’s coming up? … I get to do stuff that I really like to do, like coming up, I’m going to be at City Space with Cristela Guerra. She did this whole series about confederate monuments in the South and we are going to sit down and talk to some of her sources and go through it all. That is on March 3. So that’s a big thing for me. I feel very strongly about journalists of color supporting other journalists of color.
And I’m not naturally drawn to being a host, I’m very shy. But there’re very few ways to stay on air and have more editorial power, so that was kind of one of my driving interests in doing this. We need more journalists of color in leadership positions who are helping other journalists of color. Because I didn’t apply for this job, I just talked to WBUR several times and they convinced me that they really wanted me to be who I am, and do that at WBUR.
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