In an interview with South Carolina Public Radio’s Thelisha Eaddy, Meghna Chakrabarti, host and editor of On Point, discusses how words from her father helped guided her to a professional career in public radio and what she hopes the national program can accomplish next. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Thelisha Eaddy: How did you navigate your way into the world of public media?
Meghna Chakrabarti: By luck, hard work, and the great fortune of having amazing mentors. All my undergraduate and graduate degrees were in science and engineering and I never was one of those kids who was like, ‘I'm going to be a journalist when I grow up’. I was supposed to be an astronaut, or an engineer. But then as I got partially into my graduate degree, I've realized that I loved to learn what I was learning in the classroom as an engineer; but I wasn't passionate to do it as a career.
The reason why that's important is because when I was growing up, my dad always used to say, if you're going to be an amazing scientist, you have to be so excited by the experiments that you're doing that it keeps you up at night cause you can't stop thinking about it cause it otherwise. He was like, it's a pretty thankless job, otherwise. And I realized that it wasn't keeping me up at night. So, I decided that it was a message and I needed to find what would keep me up at night.
[I] had been a public radio listener for a long time, and there was someone's work, in Boston, who I really admired. And I just wrote her a letter, on a piece of paper, put it in the mail and thought, I'll never hear from this woman. And miraculously she wrote back to me. I met with her and began interning with her. And then once I got in the door, they couldn't, boot me out.
How has this journey prepared you for having these really good, in-depth, and hopefully life changing, conversations with people across the country?
It's been excellent; an excellent education. I never went to journalism school, so those first five years that I worked, as a producer on point, were like my journalism school; boot camp almost, to describe it. It was in 2002, so we were still heavily in the post 9-11 period of this country's history. Everything was intense. There was a lot of news all the time; the beginning of two wars. I just learned how to never give up, how to do deep research, how to try to search as hard as you can for that question, that's gonna illuminate an answer that helps folks understand more. It was really thrilling.
That was the foundation that was laid for me when I was a producer on this very program. On top of that, when I moved to reporting, you build a whole different set of skills about how to chase down a story really, or to find that the narrative of a particular story or how to unearth stuff that people just don't want you to know. It's a form of inquiry, which is so very important. So those two things together now, coming back to on point, have helped a lot in terms of shaping my perspective on what I hope to bring to the show. It's a show, it's not a host, it's a show and I just want to give a shout out to my amazing producers because they really are the beating heart of this program.
Earlier this month, On Point Live! traveled to South Carolina to hear what’s on the minds of voters. SCETV reporter and host Gavin Jackson, Rep. Gilda Cobb Hunter, Rev. Tiffany Knowlin Boykin and former South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Matt Moore joined host Meghna Chakrabarti for a panel discussion. Missed that show? Get caught up here!
You recently spoke to an audience here in South Carolina about their role in what has become this long road to the 2020 presidential election. At times, it can be a noisy space. How do you use your program to help clear the airways?
I feel like the purpose and the service that a show like OnPoint can do is to take sort of the daily things that candidates, if we're talking about the presidential election, are saying (cause it's a stump speech that they're giving pretty much everywhere) and then ask "what are they really saying?" When Elizabeth Warren presents her plan, let's dig into the plan. What is it really about? Is it feasible; not politically, but even just financially? For politicians who have already got a record; let's dig back into their record to give context to this person's career and the promises that they're making.
And I think this is the most important; on the campaign, you know how the saying is that you, you campaign in poetry but you govern in prose?" So there's poetry being spoken on the stump now, but how is it really that this could have an impact on a person's life? I think it's a kind of analysis that's based on record and realism that we try to do.
It’s been a little over a year, since you and David Folkenflick have hosted this program. If you had to reassess, what do you think about the work you've done so far and then what do you see on the horizon?
Well, I think so far we've gotten off to a very strong start. I mean, I'm relentlessly self-critical, Thelisha. If you want my super honest opinion, every single day I could definitely point to something where I was like "hmm, that did not quite go as planned and we can probably aim a little higher. Our aim is high, but we could probably clear a higher bar." But we have gotten off to as strong a start as I could have hoped for. The show itself has been through a lot of change and guaranteeing to our staff and, just as importantly, to listeners that this show is strong; that it's here to stay; it's here to serve you was a really big priority of mine and David's as well.
So we've achieved that and I think we've had some really bright moments on the air. Like one of my favorite moments came pretty early where again, since we're a call-in show, we still have these opportunities to get people to talk with each other. And so we had this program, a particular hour, about the president and we get back-to-back callers of people with every possible opinion about president Trump. And sometimes I keep the callers on the air together so they can try to talk to each other. And that's really interesting and I think it doesn't actually happen all that many places anymore in the media environment.
Now, what do we want to do next? There are so many topics that we talk about that even though we give it an hour, I feel like we've only just gotten started. There are second stories, other people, sort of corollary issues that if we could cover those two somehow, we'd really be breaking new ground or really helping folks understand, the issue in a more meaningful way. And let me just give you one example, if I could, just recently we did this hour about the, the rise in suicide amongst active duty service members. And, it was a really heart-wrenching hour actually, but we had folks in the military call in, we had a reporter who's the Pentagon Bureau chief for the military times. And as we were doing the show, literally there were like six or seven things that people said that I thought, “I want to know more about that … we need to do some more reporting around that… this is something I hadn't heard before.” So there are these really big issues that somehow we can continue to follow up in the context of a live program, like on point. I'd like to figure out a way to do that.