It’s possible that there’s no one in journalism with more questions to ask than Audie Cornish. For ten years on NPR’s All Things Considered, and now with her new CNN podcast The Assignment, she does what the best hosts do: bring interesting people together and get them talking. She’s not in it for the fame — unlike so many power players in media, she doesn’t like putting her face out there and doesn’t consider herself a “brand.” She’s in it for “love of inquiry, a love of ideas.” Goodness knows the celebrity-interview format is more than covered, so she’s looking to uncover stories of everyday people in the thick of it and shine a light on the sort of stories you’d share in your friends’ group chat. Speaking of which, she’s in a group chat of her own with other TV, radio, and podcast hosts, comparing notes and (we assume) gassing each other up. Since we can’t see what they’re saying in there, we’re doing the next best thing and putting the consummate host in the guest chair.
This week on the In Her Shoes podcast, Cornish spoke with Cut editor-in-chief Lindsay Peoples about leaving public radio behind, finding success in an industry dominated by an old boys’ network, and the stories she’s most excited to share on The Assignment.
Listen and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. You can also read the full transcript below.
Lindsay Peoples: Welcome to In Her Shoes. I’m Lindsay Peoples, and I’m editor-in-chief of the Cut. On this show I get to talk to people that we love and admire, and some that we just find interesting. We explore how they found their path, what maybe have gotten in their way, and how they’ve brought others along now that they’ve arrived.
Audie Cornish is a journalism vet whose voice was our north star on NPRs All Things Considered for ten years. After being a public-radio girl for most of her career, she’s embarking on a new journey hosting a weekly podcast on CNN called The Assignment with Audie Cornish. We got to talk to her about leaving NPR, her career in public radio, and of course what it’s like starting something new.
Every show, I do have to start out by asking our guest: What kind of shoes do you have on? If you don’t, what’s your favorite pair?
Audie Cornish: This is the first pair of Jimmy Choo shoes that I ever bought. I didn’t think I was a shoe person and I was like, what’s the fuss about? But what I like about these is they’re brown suede and it’s kind of like a skin-tone matching, which is not that easy. And then in the back you can see there’s some wood here. It’s solid, so you can walk. I’ve walked in these and stood in these in all kinds of places. I have a lot of shoes at home and only a handful in my office at work. And since I came to TV, one of the things I learned is, guess what? They can’t always see your shoes. There’s no point. But I still like them, so I have them here with me. If you had seen me on the street and said, “Do you have a favorite pair of shoes?” I’d be like, “No.” But they’re obviously here. They’re always with me. And it’s been a bunch of years.
Lindsay: I love that. You’ve been in the industry for almost twenty years now. When you were younger, did you always know that you wanted to do this? Was there something that made you want to even pursue this career track?
Audie: I started when I was 19 which isn’t that unusual. I think lots of people who are in the media might have worked on their high school paper. I wasn’t that kind of kid. But when I was in college, I got interested in journalism thanks to a professor. His name was Nicholas McBride. This was at the University of Massachusetts. And then I did my first story for radio, for audio specifically. I found a flier on the ground in the student center that said “Come out for the radio department, WMUA.” And I pick up the flier and basically have a meet-cute with the guy who was putting them up. We were friends. There was never anything that cute about the meet-cute, but he was like, “Come on in.” He had been in the army and done journalism in the army. And here he was, a student now with undergrads, and he introduced me to radio and to journalism. And we went out and did a story on a speech by Ward Connerly. He was an anti-affirmative action activist and he was visiting our campus and it caused a big stir. And this person just took me under their wing and was like, “We’re going to cover this. Let’s interview some students and then we’re going to walk all the way to the front of the room and talk to this guy, and we’re going to bring this tape back.” It was just such a lovely way to be introduced to something, the sort of thrill and joy and chase of it. And I think I’ve been chasing that high ever since.
Lindsay: That’s beautiful. When you get into journalism it takes so much time to find your voice and to find your beat and where you really feel like you fit in. And you’ve talked a lot about experiencing imposter syndrome and how that’s affected your career. You said when you turned 40 that things kind of shifted in your mind and that some of that melted away. But along the way, was there a moment where you felt like you started to belong or understood?
Audie: It’s very easy to feel like you don’t belong in these industries where the social network — and I don’t mean the modern day internet version of that — is so deeply embedded, and in journalism that is very true. Going to certain schools, going to grad school, going to journalism school, going to certain journalism schools, all those things. They can kind of ease your path. I’m not saying those people didn’t work hard, but they make the path a lot easier. And so I didn’t have any of the secret handshakes.
I went to a school, UMass Amherst, that wasn’t a big name in journalism. And then I didn’t go to journalism school afterwards and I didn’t have money to intern somewhere for free for years and years. I couldn’t go to New York, couldn’t live in New York. To this day, I feel like New York is the one that got away. I feel that way the way some people feel about a lover. I couldn’t make it there because I was paying for school, and then I was paying my debt when I got out of school. And then I wanted to work. I loved journalism and I wanted to do the work and I didn’t want to be anywhere else learning about the work.
So I think if you don’t know the secret handshakes, you’re always going to feel like an imposter. It’s not that there’s something intrinsic to being a woman of color or someone working-class in a newsroom. There’s nothing wrong with us, but not getting into those clubs is meaningful and it has ripple effects, because then later on when you’re in the lunchroom and people are talking about where they summer or the house that they stayed in because they feel more comfortable with each other, because they have a shared language, you can just find yourself feeling boxed out. Real or imagined, that can take a toll. And there’s been more acknowledgement in recent years about what kind of toll that can take. Can I ask you a question, Lindsay?
Lindsay: Of course.
Audie: Have you ever felt that way? That’s women’s magazines in a nutshell. That world of magazine media just seems so dependent on being part of a social class and a social set.
Lindsay: I still feel like a fish out of water. I feel like it’s my purpose and what I’m supposed to be doing, but I think that the way that I come about even wanting to tell certain stories is the way that it is because I didn’t grow up around media people or in this kind of environment. I grew up in the Midwest, in Wisconsin. I always had to work multiple jobs and hustle. I never had enough money to live here. It was always a struggle and was made worse by a lot of the magazines that I worked at having a really huge fashion presence. And so that makes it even worse when you don’t have money, because then you can’t afford to live here and you also can’t afford to look the part. And that’s part of a social currency at a fashion magazine.
Audie: Oh, I thought that was just in The Devil Wears Prada. You’re saying that’s a real thing?
Lindsay: Oh no, that’s definitely a real thing.
Audie: They never showed her buying the clothes there. She just went to the magical closet and stole the clothes. But there’s no magical closet?
Lindsay: No, no, no. I mean fashion closets are wonderful, but they’re not magical in that sense. That becomes part of your currency, to be able to talk with other people and then have them take you seriously in a certain way. I remember I was always really having a hard time with it because I would outwork anyone. I was always like, I can outwork anyone any day. That’s no problem for me. But there are certain things that aren’t dependent upon you actually working hard and knowing what you’re talking about and knowing what you bring to the table. And it does still feel like in fashion specifically, a lot of that can feel out of reach and out of your grasp in terms of how your career can actually play out. It does end up being a little bit of how people perceive you to be.
Audie: There’s a catch-22 there because you are working hard and you’re trying to outwork everyone, and then weirdly people start to see you as that thing about Black women being a mule of the world. You just end up doing work and people just end up being like, “That’s what you do. You’re going to carry this office, you’re going to do this heavy lifting. I guess you’re into it, but you’re not a star. You don’t have it.”
And I think that’s such an interesting dynamic where you try to follow what you’re being told is the system — it’s on merit — and you start trying to outwork everyone. But then at a certain point you just feel like, well wait a second, now I’m working super hard. I’m burnt out and you’re still not looking at me in the way you’re looking at that other person who you see as a star. It’s nice that we can talk about it now. Do you know what I mean? I consider myself the tail end of Gen X despite those who try and push me into elder millennial status. For sure, we were like, “Yes, you just got to keep your head down at work. And that’s all it is.” For the new generation, is it though? Or are there some barriers here that we’re not talking about?
Lindsay: It’s a little bit of both. I think it is “work hard” for sure, but I think the barriers are still there. And I wanted to know if you’ve ever compared yourself to other people, whether it be other hosts or other journalists.
Audie: All the time, every minute.
Lindsay: To this day still, do you still compare?
Audie: I’m in a WhatsApp group with other hosts. So we get in and talk about our shows. We’re like, “How’s this going? How’s this going? How’s that going?” And then as soon as I get out of the group I’m like, Oh my god, they’re doing amazing. What am I doing with my life?
Lindsay: What specifically do you compare? Is it about viewership and numbers or is it about getting a better story?
Audie: How much time do you have? That’s the thing — when you mess around with your self-esteem it’s a feature, not a bug. There’s always going to be something. My best friend in the world has always told me that he only looks forward and up, and in my dark moments, that’s what I try to do. Because as he has pointed out, if you’re looking side to side, it’s a recipe for disaster. If you’re looking down, it’s a recipe for disaster. I should say his name. His name’s Eric Gillin. He’s in the magazine world over at Condé Nast. And it really has helped me in some moments where I’m spinning out about how other people are doing and Am I doing enough? Am I doing well? You’re only as good as your last story. Maybe you’re not good at all then. What does that mean? Your brain can do all of that. So it helps to say, “Let’s stop. Upward and onward.”
Lindsay: You hosted All Things Considered for 10 years. What was in your head about wanting to close that chapter, stepping away, and wanting to start a new journey?
Audie: I started that job when… I don’t know. I feel like I was 28, 29. It’s sort of funny to be getting any attention now because when I got the job, there was not a peep said about it. And I did it for 10 years. No one said a word. So I was thinking I was going to leave and no one was going to say a word. That was pretty much the position.
And when you start out as the youngest person in the room, A) You’re not going to stay that way. But, B) What it means is that for a time you’re always in someone’s shadow, there’s always a more senior person, a more advanced person with more experience. And sometimes it’s hard to get out. You become one of those house plants that’s sort of leaning towards the sun. And I think that like everyone, when the pandemic came and I was home with my kids and I was doing my work, I started to say, Am I accomplishing the things I wanted to? Is there more to accomplish? What would that look like? Are there more skills to learn? That’s a huge thing for me in any job. Is it more money or more benefits or better time schedule, that kind of stuff — the stuff we need to live. And then there’s, Will I learn anything? And that’s so huge. I just feel like if you wake up in the morning and you know how to do the job, it’s probably too late. I wanted to try something that scared me and someone put it in front of me and said, “What would you think of this?” And I thought, I feel like I can do that part, and maybe can do that part. I have no idea how to do that other part. All of it feels like a risk, and maybe it’s time to take that risk.
Lindsay: You also left at a time when a lot of other prominent journalists and hosts of color were switching it up. Were there behind-the-scenes talks or were you privy to any conversations as far as people just wanting something different or wanting more out of the platforms that they had?
Audie: We talk and we’re friends. When I first became a host at NPR, I remember saying to myself, I really want to be friends with people. I really want to have relationships with people. Because number one, these were going to be my mentors. I had no other thing in common with them. And so I needed to find a commonality. The commonality was work and craft. And so that’s something I also advise people sometimes, is if you’re waiting for a mentor who looks just like you to show up, that may not be what happens. You may be the mentor on your way. You may have to be that person for someone else. That is one of the unfortunate byproducts of how Black Americans have been treated in our culture in particular is like you may be the first, second, third, fifth, whatever it is.
And we all talked all the time. “What parts of the job are working? What parts of the job are not working? Or when does a story feel good to cover? What’s your best day like? What’s your worst day like?” Sometimes people get caught up in the little itty bitty parts of their work, but having a career means you can take a holistic view of what you do. To me, that’s one of the privileges of having a career versus having a job. With a career, you’re not saying to yourself, Oh my God, I’m never going to work again if a particular job isn’t working. You’re saying to yourself holistically, Is this the right match for me at the right moment?
Lindsay: In those conversations though, what have you felt like? And especially being in an industry so long… I feel like people often ask me, “What do you think needs to change in media or in fashion?” And there’s a very long list.
Audie: Don’t you hate that? We are not the gatekeepers. But we didn’t get asked these questions. It’s like, “I don’t know, ask my boss.” But we do and we do it to each other. I actually stopped at a certain point. You’re doing an interview with someone who is a person of color or LGBT and you’re like, “Why is this X, Y, and Z?” And it’s like, well I don’t know. I didn’t do it. I just got here. You’re the Morgan Freeman president character in a disaster movie. Why are you asking me now? So I would say both of us can take that burden off our shoulders, because we’re not going to solve these things.
But I try to be present for people who want that guidance. And I think that’s why when I exited and when people talked about it, I didn’t say, “That’s not me.” You know what I mean? I’ve had a fine time in my career. Yeah there are difficulties, and there are people speaking about it and I’m going to use this time to turn the spotlight to them so that they can be heard. And I think there’s a lot of talk these days about platforming, but that’s what it means sometimes. It means that you actually step out of the spotlight yourself and shine it on other people.
Lindsay: Let’s talk about The Assignment. What can people expect? What are you excited about? What made it so scary to you to embark on this new journey?
Audie: Well, first of all, I’m getting to do a lot more editing. I’m getting to do a lot more supervising of the process than I’m used to. In the past, I was always the anchor and the journalist, but not the editor, not the executive editor, none of that. And so I think having the opportunity to get my hands dirty in that way and to exercise new skills has been awesome. I didn’t think I had been in the business so long until people started to be like, ‘What was it like in the early ops?” And I was like, Oh, okay. I guess I have been in this for a minute. The smartphone’s only been around since 2008. Podcasts haven’t been around that long, but in podcast years I’m about 90. So I have a lot to impart. And it’s been interesting, feeling like you’re in a startup environment even though you’re at a legacy news organization.
I’ve never had that experience, because I stayed in the place where I was an intern for a long time. And that has its own pluses and minuses. The Assignment is a show that is focused on people who are not famous, but people who are in the middle of stories that are infamous. So there are so many things. And just to fangirl for a moment, I think In Her Shoes and the Cut is so good at having a finger on the zeitgeist and just being like, “This is what people are talking about and this is how they’re talking about it and this is the debate that’s happening.” And it’s always so smart. And I remember as a reader, I was like, Is there something in my world that I could be doing that does the same thing? And so it’s similar in a way to what you’re doing, in that we’re trying to find people who are at the center of the story, people who are living the story and just being like, “What’s your group chat like?” Books are being banned. Okay, you’re the librarian. What now? We’re all fighting about it on the feed, but you actually have to buy books or pull books from the shelf. What’s it like at the end of that brutal day? We’re trying to find and talk to people who are experiencing those things, who are experiencing the debate, who are not just doing a hot take. And it’s a huge risk because obviously every podcast is like, “Here’s a pop singer or a famous person and here’s what they do” and get them to talk freely. The flip side is celebrities are now talking to each other. They don’t need interviewers. They can sit and talk with each other. The questions can be hard but not too hard. And then you get the final cut when it’s over. I can’t compete with that, nor do I want to. I think those kinds of interviews are a kind of entertainment. A lot of my colleagues do those kinds of interviews and I think they’re awesome and I’m jealous. And then what I found is that I often felt a kinship and often felt like, I have so many questions for the stranger who is doing something that I want to know more about. It’s sort of that conversation you have when you meet someone at an airport bar or something and you say, “What do you do? Wait. You do that? That’s weird. I heard that that job does X, Y and Z. Is that true?” And then the person goes, “Not the way people think.” It’s that kind of conversation.
Audie: Just the way I have 50 questions for you now, fashion girl.
Lindsay: I think it’s very similar at all media jobs. There’s what people think it is, and then behind the scenes it’s very different.
Audie: Exactly. And I think there’s a world of that. I remember for a while there was this kind of game on social media. It was like “the X starter kit” and it would be little images of things and it would sort of make up what people perceive your job to be. And I like the idea of breaking down each other’s silos. I would love to do an episode about fashion and what’s happened in women’s magazines post-the awokening, as I call it, trademark come.
I think that there have been not-so-subtle changes to those newsrooms, and I would love to have two people in a room, you know, you and someone else. That’s the kind of show it would be where we’d say, “Okay, what happened? When did it happen? When did you feel a shift? How has the job changed? Are things better, some things harder? Can you be a mentor? And by the way, this person who was the gatekeeper, they’re not the gatekeeper anymore. How’s that changed the gig?” I feel like you can do that with a lot of people and a lot of topics.
Lindsay: How is podcasting different for you than radio in practice? And you talk about how there’s so many other podcasts out there doing celebrity or different genres — how do you stay focused on what you really want to do?
Audie: It’s great that there’s this enormous pod ecosystem, because when I got into audio, people would say, “Why are you doing that? Who’s going to do radio?” It just felt very integrated. “You should be doing a blog.” So I’m happy that this big world exists. I really wanted to focus on what mattered to me as a journalist. And that is different from being a person who is a podcaster for fun or an actor who’s getting into podcasting or a comedian who’s getting into podcasting. We’re motivated by different things, and I’m motivated by a love of inquiry, a love of ideas.
I love this moment we’re in where essay writers and pop culture critics… it’s very blurry, that line. And it means that we’re bringing a real richness of discussion to even things that seem small and in the past might have just seemed kind of frivolous. Some TV show or whatever. I think a great example would be this conversation about LGBT characters on TV shows and how they are often essentially killed off by writers, and how that trope will appear over and over and over again. You have this character and you celebrate this character and then they die. The fact that there is now this robust dialogue where people have a voice and a platform to say, “Hey, we notice what you’re doing. We don’t like it. Here’s how it’s connected to other kinds of erasure,” that’s so wonderful and such a great dialogue to be in. And I wanted to do something that does that, taps into that. Because we’re all critics now. We all have that capability of jumping onto a platform and bringing a new point of view.
Lindsay: I love that. People are very divided on this stance overall in media, but it often feels like — especially with the rise of social media — that you have to have your own personal brand and put yourself out there personally as well as having your job. And you’ve been one to kind of reject having to share so much and be vocal about having your own personal brand. How does that come to life and what is that dance like, when you have your own show but also just want to have something to yourself still?
Audie: It’s hard. I spend a lot of time trying not to have my face on things. I’m reluctant in that way. Not because I am trying to hide anything, but because I just keep wanting to push other people into the light because I’m fascinated by them. I’m into you, Lindsay. I’m now going to be like, “I have a friend who told me you can visit the fashion closet, but you can’t leave anything with it.” And by the way, one of the things I learned at NPR, I learned from Susan Stamberg who had been the longtime host of All Things Considered especially in its early years and also weekend edition, she said, the reason why we’re called “host” and not “anchor” is because we are bringing people together the like a host at a party. You bring people together and you say “Have you spoken to this person? He does this for a living. And what’s interesting is we were just talking about this movie, you’re like the ringmaster in a way.” And this is not to say…being an anchor, the gravitas of that is important, but it really helped me understand a different way of doing that job and that there was still journalism in drawing people out, drawing conversation and ideas out and helping to manage and move the conversation forward and bring more people into the discussion. It really does feel like a service when it’s done well. And I sometimes think when it’s done well, you remember the host, but the host wasn’t the whole thing. To me, the highest compliment is when I meet someone on the street and they say, “Oh my gosh, I love this interview you did with so-and-so, it was so amazing. And then when they said X, Y, and Z, I was blown away.” That’s when I have done my job. When you’ve taken away something from the conversation and that something didn’t necessarily come from me.
Lindsay: What stories would you say you’re looking forward to telling? What stories do you feel like you are ready to expire and leave in the past and you don’t want to do anymore?
Audie: I’d like to say politics, but we’re heading into midterms and the election, so it’s not going to happen. I’ve never gotten away from it. I would say what I’m interested in doing is more things that are what I would call at the intersection of different conversations. Like politics and culture, the culture of campaigns. I like the business of sports, not just sports. I like to read about the movie business, not just the creative part of it. And I like to hear about feminism and politics. I actually think that’s how most of us are taking in the news and synthesizing the news in this moment. We are all mixing up things in the feed, but on the news side of things, we’re still mired in the beat system. These reporters talk about this, these reporters talk about that. These reporters talk about this. This is your news hour or half-hour. These are the segments. And to me, I’m looking forward in the podcast space to mixing that up, to really making it feel like that dialogue that you are already having with your friends in your group chat or when you send each other TikToks and some of those TikToks are about student debt legislation and some of those TikToks are about The Slap. To you guys it’s all news, right? It’s all news and culture. But I think that we could do better on the journalism side of showing how those things intersect.
Lindsay: I’m so looking forward to the show.
Audie: Good. Then I’ll call you to be like, “Bring a friend, we’re doing our fashion episode, Writing In the Battlefield. “Lindsay in the magic closet” is what we’re going to call it.
Lindsay: I love it, and I absolutely will. Thank you again for doing this. I so appreciate it. Congratulations on everything.
Audie: It was awesome talking with you.
Lindsay: In Her Shoes is hosted by me, Lindsay Peoples. Our producer and editor for this episode is Tarkor Zehn, our engineer is Brandon McFarland, and our executive producer is Hanna Rosin. The Cut is made possible by the excellent team at New York Magazine. Subscribe today at the cut.com/subscribe. I’m Lindsay Peoples. Thank you so much for listening.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.