A new voice began to greet listeners as they kicked off the day with WBUR’s “Morning Edition” last October.
Bob Oakes hosted the morning edition of WBUR for decades. Now he’s returning to reporting as he prepares for retirement.
Rupa Shenoy took over as chair from veteran journalist Bob Oakes, who stepped away from presenting the morning news program for a new chapter as he considered retirement.
Born and raised in Iowa, Shenoy told Boston.com that many factors sparked her interest in journalism, but she recognized at a young age the impact she could have by communicating information clearly.
The University of Iowa graduate recalled that as a child she was waiting for her mother to take her to a piano lesson when her mother’s colleague arrived and told her that her mother had had a car accident.
“I had 30 seconds to leave a note for my dad,” Shenoy said. “And I only left one sentence, like, ‘Mom had a minor car accident, this is where we are.’ And later he commented, he said, ‘You told me exactly what I needed to know in the order that I needed to know it.’ And I was like, ‘Huh, okay.’ And it’s always been ingrained in me, that that’s what I do best, and that’s really helpful. And when you can be helpful, that’s good. I also really like helping people, who don’t may not be able to articulate their story, to get their story known.
Out of college, Shenoy worked for the Chicago Journalista magazine focusing on race and poverty, before landing in a daily newspaper and then the Associated Press.
Shenoy said she realized while working with The Associated Press that she wanted to have more emotional impact with her stories.
“I wanted something that people felt and basically that’s always been my thing, impact,” she said. “And radio really struck me as something that comes closer to people. I mean, you really have a one-to-one relationship with people, which is why I made that choice.
She traveled to Minnesota Public Radio, then to Boston to do investigative reporting at GBH. While at the station, she started a podcast, “Otherhood,” which focused on immigrant children, race and identity. The podcast was picked up by Public Radio International, and Shenoy began putting together 20-minute reports for “The World”. After former President Donald Trump was elected, she moved into full-time human rights reporting.
Now, she guides Bostonians through the biggest news of the day every morning at WBUR.
Boston.com recently spoke with Shenoy about the direction of “Morning Edition,” the transition from reporting to hosting, and what she hopes to bring to the show as her tenure continues to unfold.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Boston.com: How have your first four months been in the host chair?
Rupa Chenoy: It’s a relief to not have any more anxiety about it – because I’m not going to act like I’ve done this before. I had hosted a podcast, but live radio for hours – I hadn’t done that. And I didn’t sound very good at first, I must say. I made a lot of mistakes. And people were super supportive, just emailing me and tweeting me encouragement. I really have to say thank you to people for putting up with me when I lost my temper and made a fool of myself on the radio. And I hope now I sound better because I really feel like I’m getting to know them, and I really feel like I’m more comfortable with live radio.
How did it go from being a journalist to being a host?
As a journalist… to some extent you can do everything yourself and you have time to catch your own mistakes. You are not part of a team. I’m definitely part of a team now. I am very lucky. We just hired a field producer for me, so I have someone completely dedicated to helping me report. So it’s not just about hosting, but also about getting out there and doing what I love to do, which is reporting. But yes, I depend on a group of people who do their jobs very well, but I’m just not used to it. So that’s the transition. Also just to have power – not power, but people care more about what I say, and they didn’t before.
What was the most different or difficult change you didn’t expect with this transition?
The biggest problem was making mistakes on the radio. And people say people like it when people make mistakes on the radio because it brings them closer to them. But when you make the mistake on the radio, you feel humiliated. Just like layers of shame every day. So that was definitely the hardest thing. And that’s what Bob [Oakes] told me at the beginning. He’s like, “Don’t dwell on your mistakes.” And of course, I totally did. But – I didn’t think it would happen back then – but I got used to it and I don’t feel so bad every time I make a mistake now. Because you would think it would be very easy to just present the news, but it’s not. It’s not easy to have perfect sound all the time.
What surprised you about the job?
This relationship with the public. They are really interactive. People listen carefully and want to interact with me. I get emails like the difference between “you” and “tuh”, when to use the difference between them. But I really like it. I feel like I want to be more connected with people…I feel really connected, like it’s a very interactive community and they really feel — not owned — but they feel like I’m with them and they want to be there with me… They were very nice to me. People have been very nice.
Do you have a favorite part of hosting “Morning Edition”?
Reporting will definitely be my favorite part of the job. But while I’ve settled in and figured out how things work, it’s the weather, because the weather is the only place where I can really express myself individually.
And I just like having the opportunity – like I interviewed the mayor [Michelle] Wu the day after he won, and someone tweeted, “I gotta wake up today and listen to my Asian American mayor being interviewed by an Asian American NPR host,” and I was like, yeah, that’s awesome. It’s awesome.
What excites you the most about being a host? What do you expect to continue doing with this position?
The thing I like the most so far, and I think it will probably remain the norm, is smiling. That’s what I wanted, to come in. I want people to hear me smile; I want them to hear me smile. Because that’s what I wanted to hear on the radio. And I just didn’t… When I turn on the radio, especially in the morning, I want to hear someone smile and just be in a good mood and create a good environment for me. So that was the most important thing for me to do. I really hope people can hear me smile and know that I want them to have a good morning, and anything I can do to help them have a good morning is good for me.
Were you in the morning before this work? I know it starts early. How did that go, and do you have any advice for other people who might not be morning people?
I wasn’t… Get a dog, because it took me a while to get used to the schedule. My pup was on it before me, and now she’s basically my alarm clock. She will come and put her nose right under my nose because I feed her before leaving. I leave around four in the morning. So she’s definitely up and wants to be fed and wakes me up. So I have two alarm clocks and then I have this wet dog nose. And all together, it really gets me up in the morning. I love my puppy. She makes me happy every morning, which makes things so much easier.
When I spoke to Bob Oakes last year, he referenced the fact that Boston was going through or going through changes and that made it “the perfect time to replace Bob Oakes with Rupa Shenoy.” What do you think he meant by that?
I mean, Bob and I talked about it a lot. I think he meant he was an older white guy, and I’m young, not too young, but I’m a young journalist of color. And just bring that different perspective. I mean, for a long time that he was in journalism, it was difficult and almost unthinkable for someone like me to get into a position like the one he had. And now we want it to be – WBUR is behind making it a common thing. So yeah, I think he means, let’s hear other perspectives.
What’s the best advice Bob has given you, if you don’t mind sharing it?
Oh, it was, “Don’t dwell on it.” It was the biggest. He kept telling me. He’s like, “Remember that.” And of course, I didn’t remember. I still went through the humiliation and I still do sometimes. But he said to me, “That’s what I would have liked to hear and remember at the beginning. Don’t cling to it. Drop it because you’re on the radio the day after and the day after. So you always have a chance to make a different impression on people.
Is there anything about you that you think listeners might not know, but would be willing to share?
I am a big dog… [Samara’s] a rescue, she is a year and a half old. And we like to take really long walks and she walks really fast and I really like that. And I listen to science fiction books, I’m a science fiction nerd. I like science fiction. Especially time travel.
Is there anything else you would like to say that we haven’t covered or anything else you would like people to know?
Can I tell you about this upcoming event? … I can do things that I really like to do, like coming, I’m going to be at City Space with Cristela Guerra. She did this whole series on Confederate monuments in the South and we’re going to sit down and talk to some of her sources and go through it all. It’s March 3. So it’s important to me. I am very committed to the fact that journalists of color support other journalists of color.
And I’m not naturally drawn to being a host, I’m very shy. But there are very few ways to stay on the air and have more editorial power, so that was kind of one of my main interests in doing that. We need more journalists of color in leadership positions that help other journalists of color. Because I didn’t apply for this position, I just talked to WBUR several times and they convinced me that they really wanted me to be who I am, and make it to WBUR.
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