John Hockenberry has logged his time navigating the unpredictable media landscape. During 15 years at National Public Radio, he covered the Gulf War as Middle East correspondent, and he reported on the war in the Balkans for NBC’s Dateline. He also had reporting stints at ABC News and MSNBC. And well-regarded autobiography Moving Violations and one-man off-Broadway play Spokeman are, among other things, ruminations on a busy life in the wheelchair he’s been confined to since a car accident at age 19.
On April 28, Hockenberry, a three-time Peabody Award winner, returns to public radio as co-host of a new morning drive-time news program called The Takeaway With John Hockenberry and Adaora Udoji, which he hopes will offer a new take on our 21st-century global dialogue. Hockenberry spoke with B&C’s Marisa Guthrie about the state of the media, his transition back to radio and what he learned from current events at CBS News.
Q: Why this return from TV to radio?
A: There have been so many changes in television, a lot of them not for the best. And I think the identity and audience of public radio have strengthened in that time.
Q: Why do you think that is?
A: Commercial television has to serve many masters. That tends to work against the identities of the networks. I think NPR has done very well in maintaining its identity and out of that has grown all kinds of success stories, everything from Garrison Keillor to This American Life. The erosion of the commercial-television audiences has been going on for a quite a while now. People can get [media] anywhere at any point. If your programs and your editorial process don’t take that into consideration, you’re in trouble.
Q: Are traditional media companies not nimble enough?
A: Part of the problem is that television takes an enormous infrastructure to pull off. What is required to produce a show is kind of ridiculous. That makes it very difficult to be nimble. Also, you’ve watched your audience slide from 30 million to 11 [million], so you’re loath to do anything to alienate big chunks of people.
Q: What were your expectations when the opportunity to do The Takeaway arose?
A: It became an interesting opportunity to see what is possible in this exciting, insane new era of multiplatform media, to do something fundamentally different with the live drive-time audience in what is conceivably the last moment we’ll be together. By the end of the decade, every car sold in America will have fully time-shifted media as standard. You won’t even need an antenna -- you’ll just download whatever media you’ve got, whether it’s Brian Williams or Jon Stewart or Ira Glass.
Q: What will you explore?
A: We are creating a staff that is capable of full-scale video production, Web production, print production and radio production and can do any story on all platforms. Once we have those tools in place, the question is: Where are we going to take that vehicle? As time goes on, I think we’ll invite the audience to participate in a fundamentally different way.
Q: And your first week’s guests?
A: I think what we’re not going to do is try to book Abraham Lincoln and George W. Bush and Gwen Stefani on the first week.
Q: Lincoln might be a tough get.
A: Lincoln or Gwen Stefani, who’s tougher? I think we’ll show the listeners there’s a unique chemistry here. We want to go at this exactly not the way CBS did. We don’t want to demonstrate to the audience that we can lure Katie Couric to work, which is kind of what they did. God love Katie, she’s great, but that doesn’t say to the audience that you’re interested in news. We want a show that delivers in a different format to an audience that’s used to a certain way of doing things.