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There’s a new dynamic radio duo in town, ushering in a different sound and approach to morning news at GBH.
Paris Alston and Jeremy Siegel took over as the new hosts of GBH’s “Morning Edition” on Feb. 14. The public radio broadcaster announced the new co-hosts in November, heralding that the pair would reinvent the morning news experience for GHB listeners.
And now, they’re doing just that.
Alston joined GBH from WBUR, where she had been the host of the NPR podcast “Consider This,” while Siegel came to Boston from Washington, D.C., where he was hosting and producing the POLITICO podcast “POLITICO Dispatch.”
Boston.com recently sat down with them to learn more about their approach to the show, surprises so far, and what they hope listeners will experience tuning in.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Jeremy Siegel: Great. It’s been so fun. It’s been a blast. I mean, it’s been a lot. We did a lot of prep leading up to it, and being on air five hours a day every day is a lot, especially when you’re starting at 5 a.m. So it’s been a little exhausting, but exhausting in the best way. And it’s just been very fun having somebody sitting across from you doing the same thing.
Paris Alston: Absolutely, I would agree with all of that. I remember after the first day, I was like, ‘Oh my God, that was so exhilarating.’ And we get to come back and do it again and again and again and again. So it hasn’t worn off yet, I’m sure it will eventually, right? Like this is just what we do. But it is really exciting … We go in between the national broadcast, so every time the national broadcast is on — I’m so used to hearing that — but then when it’s time to come back, I’m like, ‘Oh, Jeremy and I are the ones who are coming back on the mic.’ So that’s really exciting.
JS: We met each other during the interview process. It was sort of an experiment because there aren’t, I think, any other stations or any other major NPR stations that have something like this, where there’s two co-hosts for ‘Morning Edition.’ So we didn’t know what it would be like. I don’t think GBH knew exactly what it would be like. And then the first time we talked to each other … It was just sort of immediate, where, you know how there’s some people where, like even more than just feeling like you’re natural friends, it’s just easy talking to each other? And off the bat, it was very easy. I mean, we’ve worked on the sound of the show a lot and worked on having an on-air rapport. But at the same time, it sort of felt like it was there from the start.
PA: Yeah, I think we’re both pretty easy going people I would say. We just mesh together really well and have a lot of complementary talents and have a lot of different interests individually, but also interests that bring us together and things that we’re able to talk about. And I think we can share things with each other. Like Jeremy will tell me something, and I’m like, ‘I had no idea.’ Or I’ll tell him something, and he’s like, ‘Oh, really?’ So it’s nice. It’s just very easy to get in that conversational mode, which I think translates really well on air.
PA: Getting up.
JS: You stole my answer.
PA: Every night I go to bed, and I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m going to bed early … I’m going to be well rested.’ It never fails, when my alarm goes off, I am just like, ‘What is happening? What is going on?’ Press the snooze button two or three times and finally I’m getting up and I’m like, ‘OK, I’m getting up to go host this morning show.’ So every day it’s just another rude awakening, but then by the time you get here, you’re awake and you can roll with the punches.
JS: I honestly agree with everything that Paris just said. Waking up in the 2 a.m. hour is not something that I would have ever expected to do. And I don’t want to say it’s something that I dislike doing because I love where I’m coming after I wake up in the 2 a.m. hour, but it’s tough. It’s definitely the hardest part.
PA: I was expecting to feel very nervous being one of the people once it cuts out from the national broadcast coming to the local. You can kind of psych yourself out a little bit thinking about that, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how natural it has felt to settle into that role. Even within the first 30 minutes to an hour of our very first newscast … I have been pleasantly surprised with — I don’t want to say easy because I think there are a lot of complexities to the job — but just how comfortable it’s been.
JS: I also think it’s been surprising how immediately, not necessarily successful, but how workable the changes we’ve tried to make have ended up. Like two hosts is different. The way we’re trying to make news more of a conversation in the morning is different. The way that we’re trying to invite audiences to be a part of the conversation is different. And I mean, we’re constantly experimenting, constantly trying to figure out new ways to bring people listening into that conversation, which can be tough at an early hour. It can be tough in the format of a news magazine like ‘Morning Edition,’ you know, we’re not a call-in show. But I think it’s felt really natural having a conversation with Paris about the news, and we’ve also already been able to bring listeners into conversations in one way or another. So that has been surprisingly smooth I think for us.
We have this one segment that we started out called ‘Spill the T,’ which is dishing about the [MBTA]. And for the first episode we brought a ton of listener voices on, a ton of people who probably aren’t listeners, too. We want to reflect not just the people listening to GBH but reflect communities across Boston … And then for ‘What’s on Tap,’ which is our end of day, opening up the mic situation, we are also bringing in comments from people who reach out to us over email, through our newsletter. We’ve had a good number of emails coming in in response to that and also through Twitter and other social media. So we’re trying to bring people in, in every way we can … But it has been surprising to see the response that we’ve already gotten.
PA: I’ll add to that. I think any adjustment for an audience base, there’s an adjustment for some people. I’ve been surprised by the amount of people who are like, ‘They’re too happy!’ It is a delightfully funny thing to hear. And I get it. So I’ve been surprised by — like why are they wanting to get down in the doldrums with the news? It’s already depressing enough. But I’m excited to help those people who are willing to experiment with us a little and lean into this. I’m excited for them to hopefully be delightfully pleased as things go on.
PA: Those are aimed at making [the show] very accessible. It’s kind of dressing down the news a little bit, which is not typical for the NPR standard all the time … What we do in those segments is loosen up quite a bit. We laugh, we make jokes, we talk about the news, but in a way that you would be talking about the news with your friends or your colleagues at work, maybe if you’re just hanging out at the water cooler. And that is something that I think I’ve noticed on stations that aren’t NPR, even in the mornings, that’s what they do. And it’s not necessarily that we’re trying to imitate that, but that we’re trying to open it up to an audience base that maybe hasn’t been coming to a station like GBH because they might not feel — it’s not necessarily about them feeling turned off, but they might just feel like, ‘Oh, someone’s talking at me and I can’t relate to this.’ … So I think we want to try to switch that up a little bit so that more different kinds of people can be listening and feel part of what we’re doing.
JS: Yeah, I think there are high expectations for NPR stations, for a public radio station, and we want to maintain those expectations of journalistic excellence, while also giving people something that is totally unexpected from a public radio station. We want to keep that integrity and that lack of bias that NPR is known for, while also making it a conversation that people can be part of. On our first day, we interviewed Mayor [Michelle] Wu, we talked to her about the superintendent, we talked to her about transportation, and then later that hour we had people on who we talked to about the T, later that hour we opened up our mics and had a fun conversation among ourselves. So I think it’s creating this big collage that includes that journalistic excellence that is expected of NPR and fun at times, but hopefully always engaging and inclusive and reflective of the community at another time.
PA: Most definitely, and I think, just to your point, I think Jeremy and I are both relatively young when you look at the demographics of NPR hosts. We’re on the younger end of the spectrum. And of course we do hope that attracts young listeners. We hope that the types of things that we talk about, be it music and pop culture or just the way that we’re talking about the news and the news that we’re delivering, is attracting those younger audiences. That’s not to say that we want to alienate anyone — this is not like ‘cancel all the boomers’ or anything like that. Because we think that there is still room to welcome those people in and to play — Jeremy’s mom had said something about playing music, what did she say Jeremy?
JS: My mom texted me after [Feb. 22’s] show saying maybe every once in a while you should play some boomer music, which we will of course, too. We want to be totally reflective of all of our listeners and of the entire community. But Boston is a young town; Paris and I are young hosts. So as part of being reflective of the community that we cover we definitely want to try and bring in younger audiences.
PA: I would say that it takes listening. Our job first and foremost is to listen. And that can be difficult because I think we’re in a time where people don’t always feel like everyone needs to be listened to or heard. And that wades into some big questions about silencing and censorship and there’s a fine line … But I think there is a way to bring in people and to focus on, or at least integrate them, perspectives that may be controversial, while also reiterating that, ‘OK, this is what has been said, but this is the truth, these are the facts’ and emphasizing what facts are. Which is, again, controversial because people are debating what facts are in this day and age. But I think that it’s not necessarily following what a trend is, it’s not following what everyone else is saying, but it is reiterating and doubling down on, ‘OK, but this is what actually is happening and this is what actually is going on.’ And showing that you are making an effort to balance out the stories that you’re doing. Where you’re not just going to the same person over and over and you’re not just going to the same types of people over and over, but widening out to try to get different perspectives on a given issue.
JS: Yeah, I think a big part of creating that trust is by making sure that your coverage is reflective of the communities that you are covering and also making sure that in radio, where the voice you’re hearing is such a central part of the experience, that you’re giving a genuine voice, that you’re not pretending to be someone else. That you’re not pretending to be more knowledgeable than you are, that you’re not pretending to be a newscaster. I think people want to hear genuine people on the other side of the microphone, people who aren’t afraid of asking dumb questions, of not knowing about something. And I think, Paris was saying that listening is an important part of the job, I think that’s so incredibly true. I also think that just showing your genuine curiosity is an important part of the job. I also think in the stories we cover and the people we talk to that that’s another area where building that trust can happen.
Paris and I both want to go out into the field and talk to people as much as possible, which isn’t something that you always get from NPR hosts. We also just want to cover stories that are happening and make people excited about the news, too. It’s hard news a lot of the time, but other times, it’s fun or sweet news. Recently we had a story about a woman who posted signs of missing mittens in Allston, and she ended up finding those mittens. And I would not call that story hard news, but it is the type of news that at times excites people and gets people excited about listening. There are tons of different ways to build that trust. And you’ve got to put it all together and hopefully we can do that on the show.
PA: I’m excited about bringing new voices on the show, voices that you may not always hear on public radio. And that starts with covering stories that you may not always hear on public radio. Things like the mittens, of course, but also pertaining to community issues, pertaining to issues related to different sorts of demographics in our city and those sorts of things. I’m excited to take the show outside of the studio, and I mean that literally and figuratively. Hopefully down the road especially as COVID sort of wanes, whenever it may be, I think we may have aspirations to take the show on the road, broadcast from a neighborhood or a different city nearby. But also to be places and to show up and be around Boston in ways that makes us visible, not only as hosts, but as the presence of GBH’s ‘Morning Edition.’
JS: I’m excited to find ways to make public media more public. To find ways to bring listeners into the conversation, to find ways to make it more of a conversation. And I think that’s exciting because at this point we don’t exactly know what that is yet. In a lot of ways, I think that this new morning experience is an experiment that hopefully will help inform GBH’s coverage more broadly and hopefully can help inform public media’s coverage more broadly across the nation. We want to find new ways to put listeners, readers, viewers at the center of our experience. And whether that’s finding new ways to bring them on air or finding ways to bring our air to other platforms, on social media, or out in the real world, we want to play with all of that and see what works.
PA: Sitting across from Jeremy has been really fun. That’s a favorite part. Our team is great. Andrew Massaua, Karen Marshall, Rachel Armany, and everyone else in the GBH newsroom. And I’m not just saying that. They literally have made it all possible. From the pictures you see to the way we sound, that has been a huge help and it’s been really fun. Karen will pop into the studio in between breaks and laugh at something we did or talk about something that’s been really enjoyable. And I think getting to know our listeners, you can’t see them so you don’t always know they’re there, but now with what we’re trying to do on social media and with our newsletter we are getting to know them a little bit. So that’s been really exciting.
JS: Working with other people is amazing. I worked on a podcast previously, which was a super individual project. And having other people around me at work is just amazing. And on another level, I think that’s a difference here. too. Our sound hopefully is younger and a bit more dynamic than what you might expect, which I think a lot of people associate with podcasts. At the same time though, podcasts are on the creative end, very individual, and I think on the receiving end, very individual. It’s fun being part of a team here, and it’s also fun making coverage that I think is broader. It’s not about one person, it’s about the entire community. So just feeling people all around, in one way or another, whether it’s in the newsroom or in the coverage we’re doing out in the field or the people we know are listening, that part’s just awesome.
JS: I have talked about this on one or maybe two of our shows, but this is just a funny story of me growing up. When I was about 2 or 3 years old, I spent basically a year of my life not just pretending to be, but literally thinking that I was, Elvis Pressley. I knew, apparently, words to all of his songs at the time, would go around with a plunger as a microphone performing them. I wore Elvis costumes to school every day, literally every day, my teachers let me do that. And I don’t remember it super well, but I think in a way spending all that time behind a microphone might have led me a bit more to where I am today.
PA: We’re millennials … But I have a very unpopular millennial opinion — I am not a huge fan of avocados.
JS: I can’t believe it.
PA: Yeah, people are like, ‘What? What are you talking about?’ And I did not realize how controversial this would be until I was telling this person and they were like, ‘But have you tried it with anything on it? Maybe you should try it again.’ And I’ll eat them, but yeah, I just — it’s too slimy.
JS: You should also know that Paris isn’t really a coffee drinker, and I on the other hand live off of coffee, which somehow we sound like we’re in tune on the air but that can show you how different we are as people in some way, too.
PA: Yeah, totally.
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