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Faces of NPR: Noel King

Noel King, Morning Edition & Up First host, 2017. Sandy Honig/NPR
Noel King, Morning Edition & Up First host, 2017. Sandy Honig/NPR

Faces Of NPR showcases the people behind NPR--from the voices you hear every day on the radio to the ones who work outside of the recording studio. You'll find out about what they do and what they're inspired by on the daily. This week, we feature Noel King, the Host of Morning Edition and Up First at NPR.

The Basics:

Name: Noel King

Twitter Handle: @NoelKing

Job Title: Host, Morning Edition & Up First

Where you're From: Kerhonkson, NY

How long have you been here? What is your favorite part about NPR?

I started NPR in January of 2016 so 5.5 years. I like that it's a work environment where people are always talking about some book that they're reading or some show that they're into or some record they can't stop playing. It's a place where people admire and respect other smart people who make things. When the free books come in and everyone dives on the pile... I just don't think there are that many more places where you would see that kind of reaction to free books.

What book are you reading right now?

Reaganland by Rick Perlstein. The other book I just read is Intimacies by Katie Kitamura. I read that for an interview, which is another reason I love my job. I have to read a ton of books that I'd want to read anyway and then talk to the authors about their process and about their style.

Do you feel obligated/pressured to report on race?

It's important to me to report on those things. It always has been. Obligation is one of those words that come with so much freight. An obligation is something you don't necessarily want to do but you feel like you have to. I don't feel that way about reporting on race. I have always wanted to since I started working as a reporter in the US in 2013. My first staff reporting job was covering inequalities for Marketplace. There's no way in America you can discuss economic inequality without talking about race. And for that reason, I loved that job. It's important to me to talk about race. It's something I want to do but not something I feel like I have to do.

Tell me about your time in Sudan?

I moved to Sudan when I was 23. I'm a very restless person. I did not know what to do with myself after college. I lived in NYC. I was tutoring, I was working at a bar and I read this book called The Zanzibar Chest which is a memoir by a man named Aidan Hartley. He had been a freelance reporter in East Africa in the 80s and 90s.There was this very meaningful moment: he's a young reporter and he walks into a big office of an editor in Nairobi. The editor tells him "If you can make it as a stringer in East Africa you will never have to prove anything to anyone for the rest of your life." I was 23 and I felt like I had so much to prove so I said "I know what I'm going to do, I'm going to move to East Africa and be a stringer."

This was 2004, the height of the Darfur conflict, and I knew Americans were interested in news from Sudan because we were reading it everyday in the NYT and it was on the radio. I also knew there weren't many reporters there because it was a very hard country to get into. So I got a teaching visa. I taught 5th grade because there was no way I was going to get a journalism visa and for 2 years I taught 5th grade. I would be up in front of the class like "Okay class, turn to page 39" while trying to listen to a press conference. The poor children knew what was up in such a way. They were like "Miss Noel, why aren't you paying attention?" *I can't believe I admitted that* Two years of teaching and reporting on the side. Then after two years, I got my journalism visa. I was able to do journalism full time. I think I made 7 thousand dollars in that third year. But that was okay because I could live on very little. I loved Sudan. I loved the country.

How was Cairo?

Cairo was harder in some ways. I worked at WNYC in New York for about 3 years and I just got bored. It wasn't anyone's fault, I'm very restless. Because I had spent many years in Sudan and speaking and studying arabic, when the Arab Spring erupted, I thought, "ok, I have some knowledge of the language, everyone seems interested in stories from Cairo so I'll go there, I'll post up, I'll see what happens." There were hundreds, if not thousands, of reporters in Cairo. It was a very competitive atmosphere journalistically. I stopped doing breaking news which was out of necessity because everyone was covering breaking news. I didn't even have an employer. I couldn't even get NPR to take my calls. I tried emailing. I would get like "Thank you but no thank you, we have people there." It's all true, I'm not bitter. So, I started doing stuff that didn't have to do with breaking news. A lot of that was stuff that had to do with economics and business. Even as the Arab Spring was turning into the Arab Winter, there were a ton of economic stories that accompanied that very difficult political time.. So I carved out a little niche covering business and economy and I discovered that I really liked it, actually.

So how did you end up at NPR?

I was working at Marketplace and Alex Goldmark the Senior Supervising Producer for Planet Money recruited me. I didn't want to at first because I had just moved back to New York for Marketplace. I had been doing some fill-in hosting and I wanted to see where it went. But Alex brought me in for a few interviews. I was like "You know what, this is a really smart shop, this seems interesting". So I asked a friend who has always given me good advice, he said "you would be crazy to not go to NPR given the opportunity."

How has the environment and culture at NPR been for you?

Over the past year or so, NPR has become aware of a lot of its blind spots. These are blind spots that people of color knew existed that were not always broadly recognized. We are doing a lot better in the past year at covering stories that we used to overlook. 5 years ago, I really wanted to cover the stories that were being overlooked and at times, ran into a great deal of resistance, which is necessary in every reporter's life. But, I'm happy with a lot of the changes NPR has made in terms of who gets coverage and how they get covered plus some of the things openly acknowledged on air now. I think the network is doing better.

The topics you report on seem personal, how do you protect your peace from your findings?

Hosts do a slightly different job than reporters. 99% of what I do now is not pieces, it's two ways (an interview between the presenter and reporter about the story). An interview is much less about findings and more about what is this person thinking and what are the ways in which I want to push back on what they're thinking. Or what are the ways in which I want to further examine what they're thinking. I don't think the goal of any interview is to come to a conclusion. That would be a weird way to go into a 2 way interview. I have done that on rare occasions but not super often.

I was just wondering because while I was reporting, I had a hard time detaching myself from my work.

Everybody feels that way. You're certainly not alone in that. People report on things in a lot of cases because they are affected by them and in a lot of cases, in my own case, because they understand that the rest of the world is really affected by them.

Every reporting job comes with some amount of thought, opinion, feeling about what you're covering. I don't think we should pretend otherwise. But I also don't think we should pretend it's just us. It's every single human being I have ever met. If it's a story that's personal to you, or your family or your community, then obviously, it strikes you differently every time. As a piece of advice, I feel you, I really do. try not to let it get you down or make you feel like you're weird.

What has been your favorite story to cover or favorite person to interview?

I love talking to teenagers. Any teenager I've ever interviewed has been my favorite interview at that moment. After George Floyd was murdered in MN, Kenya Young, the EP of Morning Edition at the time sent me there. I sat down with a teenage boy named Shawn and with his mom. Shawn was 17. I really liked talking to Shawn. One of the things we were talking about was that Shawn runs track and he's fast and his mom didn't want him to run outside because he is a Black teenage boy and she didn't want him in the streets. She was worried about what the police would do. The thing about Shawn that was really cool and that's cool about teenagers in general, he had not prepared, his defenses were down. He was answering very honestly at the moment. Once you get a couple years on you and you get into your 20s and 30s, you just learn to be a little more guarded about what you say. In life it benefits you sometimes to be more guarded but teenagers are honest in ways that adults can't always be. They are really really genuine. Even if they're mad or unhappy.

Tell me about growing up in Kerhonkson?

Kerhonkson is very rural. I lived in a small house with my dad. My dad raised us. My mom worked a lot out of necessity. My parents had 3 kids in 3 years. Our dad was older when we were born. He was like "I'm going to stay home with the kids" and mom was like "I'm going to have a career!" They had moved up from New York City to the middle of the woods with tiny children, 3 of us. My dad was this old dude trying to get some peace. Most of my memories of childhood were when my dad would wake us up very early, spray us with bug spray, and send us outside for the next 12-15 hours. Then at the end of the day, he'd call us in. There would be a tick check, he'd put calamine lotion on all of the poison ivy and send us to bed. It was an incredibly rural childhood.

When I went away to college, I did not know how to cross a city street. I would stand on the corner and pretend to tie my shoe until someone else came up and crossed. That was humiliating. That went on for a good three years. Kerhonkson was a very rural place. On the other hand, to its credit, so much freedom! We could vanish for 15 hours at a time and my dad was never really that worried. You could fall out of a tree, there would be a mean dog, someone would think they saw a bear, there was a lot of that kind of stuff but there was so much freedom and I miss that.

How do you like D.C.?

I LOVE DC. I came here from NY which is where my family is. I thought it was going to be a very difficult transition. New Yorkers are very stressed out because it is a big city and I think people are doing the best they can. I never want to insult New Yorkers. In DC, it's more laid back. When I'm walking in the street and I'm smiling people are like "hey, are you having a good day?". And I'm like "I am!" Then we'll talk for 20 minutes because it's just my personality and that used to not happen in NY. Dudes in DC will ask you out on the street which is a whole new experience for me. In New York, everyone is very aloof. I love DC. There's a culture here that seems tight knit, friendly. I know how to cross the street now.

How was your first day hosting with A?

OMG it was SO Good! A Martinez is so much fun! He's really smart, he ad-libs his lines, he just throws in a question. We have scripts up in front of us so it's easy to tell when someone has messed with the lines and done their own thing. A does that because he's a very experienced host and I really liked it. He has a ton of energy which I respect. I would love to meet with him two years from now and be like "how is it now?" because when I first started, I had a ton of energy and now I'm probably going to fall asleep at 2pm today with no regrets. It was a great day.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sommer Hill (she/her) is a social media associate for NPR Extra. She started with NPR in May 2021. Her primary responsibilities include managing the social media accounts for NPR Extra as well as creating blog posts for NPR.org. In her time at NPR, Hill has worked on many projects including the Tiny Desk Contest, the How I Built This Summit, creating a resource page for Juneteenth material, participating in the 'What Juneteenth Means To Me' video and contributing to WOC/POC meetings.