Ailsa Chang’s path to journalism began with an unpaid internship in 2006 … at which point she was already “well into her 30s,” she says, and held degrees from Stanford, Columbia, and Oxford. By contrast, her fellow interns at KQED, San Francisco’s NPR member station, “were 19, 20 years old,” she remembers. “They were looking at me like, What are you even doing here? You practiced law, why are you answering the phones with us?” Chang had gone directly from undergrad to law school; she clerked for a year on the Ninth Circuit Court and then went straight to a law firm. Although she had established exactly the career she thought she wanted, she found that she was “a very unhappy lawyer.”
“I realized for the first time in my life that you can have all the pedigreed education in the world; you can collect all the awards you want; you can be so excellent at excelling, but it is still up to you to figure out what makes you happy, what work gives your life meaning. That is all up to you, and it was really scary to me when I first realized it,” she explains. “I had never been intentional about trying to figure out what work gives me purpose.”
Initially, she signed up with KQED just to get out of her apartment. “I was a public-radio listener at the time. I thought the people on the radio sounded smart and down-to-earth and engaged in the world, and maybe it would be mentally healthy for me to hang around people like that for a while,” she recalls. “And I mean, yeah, it was a little weird at first. It was definitely humbling. But I ended up loving that internship. I loved the freedom to be able to jump from story to story, topic to topic, and just follow my curiosity. I felt myself come alive again.”
From that initial news job, Chang went to Washington, D.C., as an NPR Kroc fellow; moved to New York City, where she did prizewinning investigative reporting for WNYC; and then landed at NPR proper. She is the first Asian American woman to host an NPR program, anchoring All Things Considered from NPR West in Los Angeles since 2020. Here’s how she gets it done.
On eschewing a morning routine:
I have always loathed the morning. I wake up at the last possible minute, and my phone is already exploding with Slack messages, text messages, emails, every once in a while a voicemail. I wish I could tell you that I start the day with a beautiful yoga practice, or that I linger over a delicious aromatic cup of coffee, but no. I have a Keurig. All of my friends give me crap about it, but I am not getting rid of this machine. All I have to do is push one button and it spits out coffee really fast. I don’t eat breakfast, but I will never not moisturize my face, and I will never skip makeup. I grew up watching my mom never leave the house without makeup, and I have grown into the same woman. Makeup is my armor. It wakes me up; it gives me confidence. I just feel better about myself when I have my face on. While I’m doing that, I’ll have Morning Edition playing in the background. That gives me a sense of how the rundown of All Things Considered is going to look for the day. After I’m done with my face and I’m dressed, I walk my dog, Mickey, my absolute best friend in the whole wide world. He always takes his time pooping, and I am convinced that the more I’m in a rush in the morning, the more he will stall. It’s as if he’s telling me, You didn’t have to spend so much time moisturizing.
And the joy of alone time:
I spend most of the day talking to humans, whether on live air, in a taping, or in a meeting. By the time I get home, I’ll easily have had a couple dozen conversations if not more, and all I want to do is not talk to anyone. I used to go out after work often and meet up with people. Now I just want to go home and zone out. Even though I come across as pretty extroverted, I’m definitely somebody who needs to recharge alone.
On the best and most confusing professional advice she’s received:
Everyone tells you to “be yourself” on this job. Listeners want authenticity, but everyone has a different idea of what authentic sounds like, right? I have never had a job where so many people are telling me what I am supposed to be: What I should sound like, what I should care about, how I should laugh, how I should ask a confrontational question. It is a constant barrage. People will fixate on what feels like the smallest, most random things — hearing me murmur or sigh too much, or say whoa a few too many times. But you know what? I just have to live my own life. I can go the rest of my life trying to please everybody, or I can settle into the best version of my on-air self that I believe in. That latter option is where I am leaning. It’s really difficult sometimes, filtering out the noise and all the detractors. It’s something you have to be mindful of.
On the challenges of reporting live:
One especially difficult moment was back in 2021, when we had just learned that Bill Cosby’s conviction had been overturned. The news broke during our broadcast, and I got word that we would be adding a live interview with one of Cosby’s accusers to the show. And the thing is, live radio imposes so many artificial constraints on human interaction. For example: a clock. If you are a guest and I’m interviewing you, no matter what you are saying to me, no matter how moving your words might be, I need you to stop talking at a very precise time, even if it means cutting you off mid-thought. So I started interviewing this woman live, only a couple of hours after the news broke. All the pain and the betrayal that she felt from this overturned conviction was so raw and wrenching, but I’m still watching the show clock tick down and hoping that we will be able to end this interview gracefully. It seems to be heading there. And then, with about 30 seconds left on the clock, she starts a fresh point. She starts talking about the impotent rage she and other rape survivors are feeling at this moment. How re-victimized they feel, how silenced, and I just thought to myself, How can I cut this woman off now? I had a choice to make, and I let the control room do it. She’s still talking, and the music is getting louder and louder, and she just fades out as she’s saying those very painful words. I felt so ashamed. Every day, we ask people to come onto our show, sometimes in their most painful, most vulnerable moments. We’re asking for trust, and what we should do in those interactions is treat people with dignity or we will break that trust, right? I didn’t feel like we treated this woman with dignity that day. I sat there, in my chair, while my mic was out, and I just started crying. It was in between segments, and I was sobbing pretty hard. I apologized to her and she was so gracious and understanding, and she understood the constraints of the time limit. But it didn’t make my regret go away.
And on picking herself back up again:
I am very, very hard on myself. I have a loud inner critic. And one thing that has been a game changer for me is developing the ability to forgive myself; to tell myself I can only do so much in a given amount of time. Maybe that seems trite, but it is so crucial to acknowledge that you tried your best, and sometimes it’s necessary to lower the bar that you’ve set in your head. It’s crucial to speak to yourself more kindly when it feels like the world is exploding all around you.
One thing that has really helped me get there is therapy. I’ve been going to therapy most weeks since my mid-20s. I think anyone can benefit from it. I mean, when else in life do you get to sit around with another human being and talk about yourself the entire time? But let me be real: Therapy has really helped me talk back to my inner critic when she’s surfacing and she’s getting louder. Half the battle is recognizing that inner critic’s voice when she’s rearing her head, and being able to say to her, Oh, it’s you again, ripping me down once more. Well, I’ve heard enough, good-bye.
On redefining success:
When I first started in journalism, I was so incredibly intense. I was always reaching for the next brass ring. I wanted to win as many awards as I could. It was kind of the way I got by as a high-school student, a college student, a law student: I have always been good at achievement. What I had been less good at was figuring out what makes me happy, and as I get older, I see my work less as a vehicle for acquiring personal glory and more as a way I can help people, mostly by making them see what they have in common with others, so that they might treat those people with more understanding and compassion. It’s thinking about work now as more of an extension of who I want to be as a person. Ambition, the way I used to define it, was about achieving concrete things, but now it has expanded. I want very much to lead a better life: To treat people kindly, to treat myself kindly, to take care of my physical and mental health. That is what I’m ambitious about now.
On the people who help her get it done:
My parents came to this country speaking almost zero English, with no money, no family, no friends. My father finished his Ph.D. in chemistry in the U.S. in three and a half years, partly by flipping his entire sleep schedule around so he could monopolize the lab in the middle of the night without competing against other students for space and equipment. He could run several experiments simultaneously and accelerate his research. My dad is one of the most intense, determined people I know. He has so much fight in him. When I was a kid, I used to wish that my parents would just blend in. Now, the things that made me feel self-conscious about my parents when I was growing up are the things I most admire about them and the things I seek to emulate. They are the least self-conscious people I know. They will go up to anyone to speak their minds. They will stop at nothing to defend and protect the people they love. They are exactly who I channel when life gets tough or when I feel insecure. They remind me that it’s time to be loud, it’s time to fight, and I love them for it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.