NPR’s Ari Shapiro on the intimacy of storytelling
As a co-host of National Public Radio’s flagship evening broadcast, “All Things Considered,” 44-year-old Ari Shapiro is one of the network’s highest-profile correspondents.
When asked what he thinks makes a great story, he replied, “When I’m looking for a great story, I want a point of connection, I want high stakes, and I want a reason somebody should care.”
He helps shape coverage, interviews newsmakers, and he continues to report from the field. Yet, back when he was a Yale undergraduate, he was rejected for an NPR internship. “And I will remind any NPR bosses, anytime, that I was rejected for an NPR internship!” he laughed.
But Nina Totenberg, NPR’s legendary legal affairs correspondent, chooses her own interns, and she gave Shapiro a shot. She told Braver, “He was always willing. Did I have somebody who could go out to the courthouse with a tape recorder and stand there in the pouring rain? Ari Shapiro was there.”
After interning, Shapiro was able to get some behind-the-scenes gigs at NPR. But on his off-time, he started reporting his own stories. “I decided to treat NPR as a free graduate school,” he said. “And so, I borrowed some equipment, and I asked people if they would teach me how to use it.”
Braver asked, “What did you find you liked about the reporting part of it?”
“I’m nosy, you know?”
Nosy, and as he relates in his new memoir, “The Best Strangers in the World,” used to feeling like a bit of an outsider, starting with growing up as one of the few Jews in Fargo, North Dakota, where his parents were professors.
“My older brother and I, we would go from classroom to classroom carrying a menorah and a dreidel, and we would talk to these children descended from Scandinavian immigrants about what Hanukkah is and what Judaism is,” Shapiro said.
When he was eight, his family moved to Portland, Oregon, where he gradually came to another realization: coming into the knowledge that he was gay, and feeling pretty comfortable about that from the get-go. “I remember really vividly thinking, the sooner I get this over with, the sooner it’ll be a non-issue,” Shapiro said. “So, I told my parents, and they took it very well. They said they still loved me. It was a process, but it was a process that we went through together.”
And he says that feeling a little like an outsider sharpened his reporting, whether covering the Justice Department or the White House, or spending two years as a London-based foreign correspondent.
Shapiro is married to Mike Gottlieb, his college sweetheart. But he said that when they first decided to wed, he thought he needed to ask permission from NPR. “Yeah, 2004 was not that long ago,” he said, “but in politics, in same-sex marriage, in gay rights, it feels like a lifetime.”
Braver asked, “What do you think changed in terms of being married to another man, and being able to go out there and say, ‘This is my husband’?”
“I think the country kind of caught up to where we were,” he replied. “But I also just became more comfortable in my own skin. And that’s part of what this book is about, is my figuring out that the things that differentiate us from one another make us more interesting, more valuable, more rich, and that those are things we should celebrate, not paper over.”
Which is why Shapiro now spends his vacations singing with the Portland-based band Pink Martini. Though he’d performed all through high school and college, Shapiro had put music behind him. Then, he did a story on the band. A few years later, in 2008, Pink Martini’s leader heard Shapiro sing at a party, and invited him to record a song, “But Now I’m Back,” for the band’s album, “Splendor in the Grass”:
And, Shapiro notes, though he’s sung to huge audiences all over the world, “When you say, ‘Oh, you’re a serious journalist who sings with a band,’ there is a part of me that still cringes a little bit. And I want to say to myself, ‘Ari, snap out of it! Don’t cringe, be proud! You’re singing at the Hollywood Bowl! You’ve sung at Carnegie Hall!'”
But Pink Martini is not Shapiro’s only side hustle. He also performs a cabaret act with Tony Award-winner Alan Cumming, known for his work in theater, film and television. The two had known each other for some time, when Cumming pitched the idea to Shapiro. “And I stopped and I turned to him and I said, ‘Alan, don’t joke about that, because I will absolutely take you up on it!'”
Cumming recalled, “The next morning, I sort of call him and say, ‘I still mean it. I still want to do the show with you!'”
They call the act Och & Oy! [“Och” being a Scottish version of “Oy.”]
Braver asked Cumming, “What appeals to you about Ari as a person?”
“He’s so full of zest for life,” he replied. “He’s just so interested and fascinated about things. And he’s a geek. You know, he’s a big geek.”
“He’s kind of a cool geek, right?”
“Oh yeah, he’s a cool geek! So, I think whatever he does will be truly what he wants to do. And I think he’s kind of just finding that out right now.”
But right now, Ari Shapiro says he has just one goal for all the different aspects of his work: “Whether I am singing to a live audience of thousands, or broadcasting on the radio to somebody sitting alone in their driveway, I want to give somebody a reason to keep listening.”
READ AN EXCERPT: “The Best Strangers in the World” by Ari Shapiro
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Story produced by Jay Kernis. Editor: George Pozderec.