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In his new memoir, “World’s Best Strangers” (Harper One, to be published March 21), Ari Shapiro, host of NPR’s “All Things Considered,” writes about life in journalism and music and what they have in common.
Read the excerpt below, and Don’t miss Rita Brewer’s interview with Ari Shapiro. “CBS Sunday Morning” March 19!
“World’s Best Strangers: A Life Lived Listening to Stories” by Ari Shapiro
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My first journalism gig, in 2001, was as an intern for NPR’s legendary legal affairs correspondent Nina Tottenberg, who remains a friend and mentor. She is the Dean of the Supreme Court Press Corps and is a force to be reckoned with. One of the most valuable lessons she taught me during my internship: “Grow a pair!”
Years after that internship, I became NPR’s justice correspondent, working with Nina to cover major investigations and federal trials. People often ask, “Do you want to be the next Nina Totenberg?” I always cheekily replied, “No, I want to be the first Ari Shapiro.” I laughed at him, aware of how arrogant that was. And I never admitted it at the time, but… I wasn’t really kidding. I didn’t know what being “the first Ari Shapiro” could mean. But I knew I wanted to do something that felt new.
Since 2015 I have been one of the hosts. All things considered, a role in which I interviewed world leaders and narrowly escaped deadly explosions. And for over a decade, I’ve also toured the world with the band Pink Martini, performing at venues from Carnegie Hall to the Hollywood Bowl. At first I didn’t see a common thread. In fact, the band felt a bit like I was having an affair. (Though really, how secret can a thing be when it literally plays out on stage in front of thousands of people?) My various projects felt meaningful, but I couldn’t put my finger on what they shared. There was always an audience. There was always a story, whether it was told through journalism or through music. And in the best moments, there was also connection.
I can see now that, as the self-reinforcing bubbles we live in become more impenetrable, I continue to look for ways to help people listen to each other. As algorithms draw us into feedback loops and congratulate us for dunking perceived opponents, Pink Martini goes to Texas and performs songs in Persian and Arabic to an audience that might view Persian or Arab with suspicion. are The crowd in Istanbul claps with us to songs in Greek, and in Seoul they dance to our songs to Japanese tunes.
In my work at NPR, I’ve traveled to rural Louisiana, where guards at a federal prison are struggling during a government shutdown — working without pay, sleeping on prison cots because their Pass didn’t have gas money to get to and from home. . And when one of those men told me in tears that he couldn’t afford to buy his son a birthday present, people across the country who heard his story emailed and tweeted us, asking what he could do. How can toys be shipped? They didn’t ask who they supported for president or how they felt about immigration or guns. They saw him as a father who cared about his son.
Later that year, I went to rural Mississippi to tell a different story of struggle, about undocumented chicken plant workers caught up in the largest worksite immigration raid in American history. And the audience responded in kind. They asked what they could do to help.
Of course, my mission is not entirely selfless. When my grandmother Sylvia turned ninety, the whole family went to Chicago to celebrate. She presided over the party in her blonde wig and false eyelashes, a look from her days as a carnival fortune teller. Each of her children described their own nuclear families to the assembled relatives. When it was my mother’s turn, she got up to talk about her three sons. There was Dan, the oldest, an inventor and startup tech CEO. He introduced me to my younger brother Joseph, a university professor studying environmental economics. “And then there’s Ari,” she said, “who was so neglected as a middle child that he had to find a job where millions of people would pay attention to him every day.”
My mother had a big laugh. I was stunned. Is that why I pursued a career as a journalist? Is that why I host a nightly news program? Is my professional life just a long bid for overall attention?
“Really, I was ignored?” I asked him later. “I don’t think you and dad have ignored me.”
“You don’t remember those spots on your face?”
I flashed my third grade school portrait in Fargo. A kid with a bowl haircut, in an Ernie-style striped shirt, grins wryly through a facial disfigurement caused by eczema.
“We ignored it for weeks,” my mom said, “and when we finally got you to the pediatrician, it was infected.” Maybe she was onto something.
Years later, the Spanish writer Javier Circas told me, “Maybe you’re on the radio because you have to love.” We were in the middle of an interview, and I had never met him before.
So, yes, I loved being the kid with the menorah and dreidel in front of the classroom. I loved being the only guy in school with a gay pride symbol on my backpack. I get a rush when I hear the roar of thousands of people walking on stage at a music festival in Casablanca, and I get a thrill when someone leans over to my table in a restaurant and says to listen to my voice on the radio. recognize
But more than that — I love handing over the microphone to someone else, whose voice would otherwise go unheard. For those fleeing political violence in Zimbabwe, or Venezuelan migrants walking hundreds of miles through the mountains of Colombia. I love introducing you to them, and bringing their experiences into your life.
I’m Ari Shapiro, and I like people to listen to me. I love holding the megaphone, and sharing it, and cheering you on when I do it. Especially in our busy lives, the fact that millions of people have given me their attention over the years—that you’re now giving me your attention in these pages—is not something I take for granted. I mean it when I say, Thank you for listening.
that sentence, Thank you for listening, can serve many purposes. I consider it Shalom of journalism. It can mean hello, goodbye, peace, and it’s also my response to hate mail from listeners. In that sense it is a bit. Bless your heart.. Allow me to explain:
I’ve always considered hate mail a badge of honor. My first paid job at NPR, after that internship for Nina, was as a temporary editorial assistant. Morning edition. One of my duties was to go through the show’s email inbox and relay audience messages to reporters. I became well aware of the hate mail classification. It had bigoted messages, snarky, rude. (NPR was one of the first news organizations to put women on the front lines to cover wars, and hired a woman to anchor a nationally broadcast nightly news program. The first organization to do so was Susan Stamberg All things considered.)
I dutifully forwarded all these messages. And if a listener wasn’t writing about a particular correspondent but, rather, talking about our programming in general, I’d respond anonymously on behalf of the show, and make my general response “Listen.” I’ll end with “thanks for”.
When I started reporting my stories for NPR and getting my hate mail, it felt like a sign that I had finally arrived. I tasted it. I started keeping a folder of files that came in on the original paper. And after the advent of Twitter, I created a photo album on my phone to screen grab hateful tweets. (I have another photo album for genuinely kind fan mail, for those days when I need a pick-me-up.)
By this time I became a host. All things considered And having graduated from a cubicle to an office, I decided it was time for the world to see these great messages. My office bookcase faces an interior window at NPR headquarters. So I taped some of my favorite letters to the front of the bookcase window. It was inspired by something that Susan Stamberg used to do. His office door was plastered with letters from people who had misspelled his name. Susan Strombig, Stormbridge, Stumbidge…
People waiting to see me in my office may waste time reading these messages. One of the men (they’re usually men) called me a “snobbish, pushy, annoying smart-ass.” Another comes from a listener who told me that I had “hurt her hair” by referring to the “Queen of England”. (“The person of interest is, officially, ‘Elizabeth II, by the grace of God, Queen of the seas beyond Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions,’ explained this listener.) A letter writer wanted To tell me that a man can be “hanged” and “hanged” but the two words have very different meanings. Did you object? Data That he felt compelled to write and tell me that “every time you say DATTA (which was several times) it sounds like you want to slap your listeners.”
My favorite listening letter of all time is not on this wall. Here’s a postcard from the first time I hosted guests. Morning edition, more than a decade ago. One that really made me feel like I was on my way to finding out what it means to be the first Ari Shapiro, not the next Nina Totenberg. The postcard features tulips, and the stamps are doves of peace. It reads (punctuation and capitalization as written):
Dear Ari, please back up.
I get a daily dose of your personality, annoying.
I am also a person.
D. Emerson, Miami, Phil
I prepared it when it arrived, and it has sat in pride of place on my desk ever since, as I steadfastly refused to crush it year after year. I don’t know who D. Emerson is. I don’t know their gender, though one can assume. I’m sure he had no idea his postcard would hold so much power. He didn’t include a return address, so I was never able to contact him. If I could, I would just say to Mr. Emerson, “Thank you for listening.”
From “The World’s Best Strangers: A Life Spent Listening to Stories” by Ari Shapiro. Copyright © 2021 by Ari Shapiro. Excerpted with permission from HarperCollins.
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