Interview: Renée Montagne of NPR's Morning Edition

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Not only is Morning Edition the most-listened-to news radio program in the country, but it's also NPR's only 24-hour show — and the only one with hosts on both coasts. Steve Inskeep and David Greene anchor the desk in Washington, DC, and Renée Montagne is at NPR West in Culver City, CA. Renée graciously took time near the end of her workday (8:30am) to talk to On Q about the show, her role and her idea of a perfect day in San Francisco.

On Q: Were you the first person to co-host Morning Edition from the West Coast?
Yes. In March 2004, the Sunday before Bob Edwards announced he was leaving the show — that's just 48 hours in advance — I got a call asking if I wanted to host for the summer. I was floored, but I was already on the staff of Morning Edition at that point as a substitute anchor, so I knew the role and challenges.

Morning Edition is a bit like what they say about Ginger Rogers: "She did it all backwards and in high heels." This show does what other shows do, but 24-7. I work the mid­night-to-whenever-we're-done shift, but even for hosts on the East Coast, you're still getting in at, like, 3am. Just working these hours is a unique challenge.

On Q: At least you don't have much traffic on your commute.
For Los Angeles, the hours are wonderful. I get to the studios in 12 minutes, when it takes more like 40 minutes during regular commute hours. I go to bed around 3-3:30pm, so my first order of business when I was officially hired was to get custom-made blackout curtains.

On Q: You hosted All Things Considered in the late 1980s before returning to reporting. Why did you make the switch?
I missed being out in the field. I'm glad I made the switch; I ended up getting to spend a lot of time in South Africa during two great moments in 20th-century history — the release of Nelson Mandela and his becoming president of the country.


On Q: Why did you switch back to anchoring?
Hosting and reporting are very different worlds. They seem to tap different parts of your brain. When I was offered the Morning Edition anchor position, I was ready for it again. And I loved the idea of two hosts, two coasts — of looking at the country from two very different vantage points.

On Q: When you interview people, are they usually in studio or remote?
Except for people who work in Hollywood, they are usually physically somewhere else. I find it's often a better interview if you are not in the same room. You're more likely to create an experience that makes the listener feel like part of the conversation as opposed to looking in on it. The only improvement an in-person interview brings is when someone like actor Idris Elba gives you a kiss on the cheek before he leaves!

The Morning Edition staff (and some colleagues), at NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C.
The Morning Edition staff (and some colleagues), at NPR headquarters in Washington, D.C.

On Q: You and the other hosts do have the opportunity to do reporting, though?
Yes. Steve is actually preparing now to go to Iran and after that to Israel, for its elections. David Greene spent more than two years in Moscow before joining Morning Edition in 2012, so it was natural for him to go back and report from Ukraine. I have been able to return again and again to Afghanistan, over the entire course of the official U.S. combat operation there.

On Q: How do you make the show work, being on two coasts?
Much of it is technology. There's really no sound delay that's detectible, which is something that wasn't possible 20 years ago. Also it's about how our systems work. We communicate by sharing scripts on our computer screens as well as using an instant messaging system. I also take hand cues from the director in DC, who I can see on a TV screen. We even have red phones that the engineers rigged up years ago; when I pick mine up, a light goes on for my co-hosts, and vice versa.

On Q: Love the juxtaposition of the high-tech computer system and the red phone.
Honestly, we use it quite a bit, when we need to say something faster than we can type. And for gossiping!

On Q: Is there a recent story that has stuck with you?
Morning Edition is so rich in conversations. I feel like it's one long movable feast of interesting people and voices. Our focus is so wide-ranging — from the Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes to the attacks in Paris. To pick just one story is really hard. The closest I have to a favorite interview is chef Roy Choi, who can be credited with starting the national trend of gourmet food trucks with his Kogi tacos, which he calls "Los Angeles on a plate." He's a true California character. He tells wildly funny stories of growing up the child of Korean immigrants, like riding along with his mother as she delivered her homemade, and scarily fragrant, kimchi. He's all about edgy fare and mash-ups and having fun, but then waxes deep and poetic about, say, why washing rice is like purifying your soul.

On Q: What's one of your favorite ways to spend a day in San Francisco?
The Bay Area is so beautiful and life affirming. From Tomales Bay, where I've spent a lot of time, to Berkeley, where I went to college, to Cupertino, where I went to high school, it's a wonderful place. But one of my favorite ways to spend an afternoon is eating my way through the farmer's market at the Ferry Building. It's truly fabulous!