Your guests are given time to talk about things that are important to them. You’re able to go into things in greater detail. Why is this important to you?
In a post 9/11 world, the challenges to navigating this thing called life seemed to get greater, more significant. I’ve sensed that we’ve not gotten back to normalcy. I don’t think on that day, or even shortly after that day, we realized how dramatically and drastically different our lives were going to be. There are any litany of things that happened since then, most recently Hurricane Katrina.
We certainly want to make room for the entertainment, but because these are serious times, people want to be empowered with the information.
The opportunity to have that balance every night is what keeps me going. I am amazed, even still, how few opportunities TV really provides for rich dialogue and in-depth discussion. Not one that’s preachy, but one that’s provocative.
The programming and the pacing are what makes our show work. When we started the program, we knew that we were going to go back-to-back with Charlie Rose, so we designed our show to be a complement. For one, we took a different approach, because it’s a half hour show compared with an hour. We also had the opportunity to experiment with creating a surprising mix of guests on any given night.
You give the audience credit for having intelligence, especially young people. You don’t shy away from taking up serious issues. How do you make this work?
It’s an interesting balancing act. On one hand, you have to be mindful of the fact that the traditional PBS viewer is more educated than the average American TV viewer. On the other hand, because of this growing and more diverse audience, you don’t want to make assumptions that people are up to speed in this busy, crazy world. Every night, you want to make that pitch right down the middle so you’re not “dumbing down” the program, or speaking over the heads of the audience.
I’ll tell you my secret. What I do with every conversation is that I use my mother as my benchmark. She’s one of the wisest people I know. She’s very smart even though she doesn’t have a college degree. She doesn’t read The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal every day. But she’s smart. When I look into that camera every night, I’m looking at my mother. Here’s why: I know that if I can make my mother understand, relate to and get every part of this conversation, then everybody else will get it. My mother is Middle America. If somebody says something I know my mother wouldn’t understand, I follow up on it to make him or her explain it more.
You spend a lot of time on the road and in front of people, most importantly young people. How does this opportunity translate into a benefit for the show?
I take great pride in the fact that there is probably not a single talk show host on television today that is more accessible than I am. I am constantly on the road. I travel every weekend, giving speeches, participating in forums, and doing work with my foundation for young people, among other things. So, being in touch with people, first of all, keeps you humble. You never take this TV stuff too seriously. We have a tendency to make people celebrities just because they’re on television. But more importantly, it keeps you in touch. I get all kinds of ideas, suggestions and critiques.
I was standing with a man yesterday in the security line at the airport who told me how disappointed he was in a particular conversation. We had a nice exchange about it while putting my stuff through the scanning machine. He was so appreciative that I actually engaged him in a conversation about what he thought. I get that all the time.
My point is, just being out amongst the people, I hear the good, the bad, what they like, what they don’t like, what they want more of. I hear people they think I ought to have on the show. You’d be amazed at the number of people who have been on this show because of those suggestions.
Often viewers tell me they like my show because they feel it’s the best chance they have to hear the questions that they would want asked.
People are not shy about walking up to me and conversing. I’ve figured out that when they get a chance to communicate with you and you engage them in a conversation, they’re going to tell a hundred people about that. It’s great grass-roots promotion for the show! But joking aside, I don’t do it for that reason. I’m genuinely interested in what people have to say. I love this face-to-face. It’s a great focus group.
I had a lady stop me one time, and she said to me, “You use the word ‘obviously’ too much.” She was very nice. “I watch you every night. I love your program, but I think you overuse the word ‘obviously’.” So, I said to her, “Is it that obvious?” So, every time I use the word, I think of her.
What things did you learn from the old guard of news anchors who have recently departed that you embody and are bringing to new audiences?
From their examples I’ve learned that if you’re going to be the best at what you do, there is no substitute for doing the work. You can’t cheat. There are no shortcuts. You have to do the work. I am dedicated even more than ever to reading, researching and being on top of my facts. There’s nothing worse than having somebody walk up to you or send you an e-mail to correct something you said that was wrong.
And credibility is key. If people trust you and believe you, the upside is never ending.
Lastly, I’ve learned the simple truth that there’s good talk television and bad talk television. Quality work speaks for itself.
Why is giving the opportunity for younger voices to express their culture on your show so important to you?
There are a significant number of guests, particularly young people, who have never appeared before on PBS until they were on our show. I had Kanye West on my program before Time magazine had him on the cover. I feel particularly good about showcasing the best and brightest that exist in this younger generation. Every generation, I believe, ought to be judged by the best they’ve been able to produce. They deserve no less respect and no less of an opportunity. There’s a lot of talent, genius, commitment and hard work out there. Most young people care about their community and their country. They have a lot to say.
If I can somehow introduce and connect the younger generation with the typical long-standing older PBS viewer, then that’s all the better. I get equally excited having them on the show as the young artists themselves have told me they are to be on mine.