Jobs They Love: Radio Talk Show Host
Updated: Apr 4, 2021
Lucky are they who look forward to Mondays with joy in their hearts! Meet the folks whose talents and passions are happily matched to the jobs they have.
Anyone who lives in New York City and listens to the radio knows the sound of Brian Lehrer’s voice. He is family here. His calm, inquisitive tone is at once comforting and persistent as he engages with guests and callers on his popular radio show to get to the bottom of issues and events happening in our world every day. He helps us sort it all out.
Lehrer has helmed The Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC for over 30 years, interviewing a virtual “Who’s Who” of politicos, luminaries -- and a few scalawags -- along the way. His guests have included Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Mitch McConnell, Kellyanne Conway, Michael Moore, Judd Apatow, Margaret Atwood, Wynton Marsalis, Yogi Berra, Boris Johnson, and Joe Biden, to name just a handful. His show won the prestigious Peabody Award in 2007 for "Radio That Builds Community Rather Than Divides."
Lehrer is also a commentator on local and national issues on television and in print.
You are such a natural at what you do. Did you always want to be on the radio from the time you were a young kid?
When I was a teenager, my parents didn’t let me have a TV in my room because they considered it a bad influence. That was before the internet. These days they’d probably think oh it’s just television. At least he’s not on Parler all day. But back then, it was TV that was believed to destroy kids’ minds, so it got rationed pretty carefully by my mom and dad. But it never occurred to them to say no radios. So the radio became my window on the world outside my little existence in Queens. I got into the wisecracking humor of top 40 deejays, the earnest and sometimes political musicology of FM album rock hosts, Black soul music jocks who opened my ears to a world I had no idea about in my all-white neighborhood, the rhythmic stylings of sports play-by-play, and late night talk show hosts who would rant and tell stories and take phone calls from eccentric and opinionated people. And I started to fantasize about doing all those things. My first radio show was on a summer camp PA system, where one of the counselors who had worked in radio hooked up a couple of turntables and invited people to spin records and talk. So yeah, from around age 13 I wanted to do this.
Your show definitely has a positive influence on the public conversation. The fact that it encourages conversation at all is exceptional today. This is a reflection of your cooperative style and values. Have you ever considered running for public office?
Ha! Funny that hearing my style as cooperative leads you to ask about running for office rather than running away from it! I’ve actually gotten a handful of write-in votes in the last few mayoral elections. Since it was more than two votes, it couldn’t have just been my parents. That’s flattering, but honestly, elected office has never been an aspiration. Too much dressing up, and the thought of schmoozing with political donors all the time makes me want to hide in my room.
Who was a hero to you growing up and who inspires you now?
Growing up it was mostly musicians and baseball players. As I looked outside of myself more, Gandhi and Martin Luther King and others who combined spiritual and political journeys. When I went to grad school in public health, I learned that there were MDs who could have been making good money in private practice but went into health policy and community work instead, and I really came to admire them. Now everybody knows people like Dr. Fauci and other public health leaders who fit that description.
Do any of the guests you’ve had on the show stand out in your mind particularly?
I can interview senators and CEOs all day and it doesn’t faze me. But when Wynton Marsalis and Yogi Berra were on the show, my knees were shaking and I was thinking, “Please God don’t let me sound like an idiot.”
What music do you listen to when you want to totally clear your mind after a long week?
My weirdo musical tastes tend toward electric jazz guitarists and all kinds of wind ensembles. I run a few miles most days to clear my mind, as you say, and I do like to listen to music when I do. Some people don’t believe in listening to music while running because it’s better to be completely present with the ground and your body in a Zen kind of way. I respect that take, but for me, music with my run helps me get more outside of myself and out of the news. Some of my faves these days are the young guitarist Gilad Heckselman, contemporary big band music composer Miho Hazama, and the U.S. Army Saxophone Quartet playing Beethoven. I said I was a weirdo. The most fun I’ve had during the pandemic was getting to contribute to this New York Times article on flute music.
Photo: The Brian Lehrer Show/WNYC