Reed Community

The Man Behind the Mike

NPR host Arun Rath ’92 finds his voice on the air

By Maureen O’Hagan | December 1, 2014

 

If you happened to share a taxi with Arun Rath, you might not recognize his face. But you might recognize his voice: equal parts warmth and precision, alive with curiosity. Arun is the host of the weekend edition of All Things Considered, which plays on nearly 700 local NPR stations every Saturday and Sunday.

All Things Considered is NPR’s flagship news program, of course, a journalistic institution for more than four decades. But Arun keeps it fresh and unpredictable. On a recent Saturday he began by focusing on turmoil in the Middle East. Instead of handling it as a straight news story, however, he compared how the Arab press and the American press were covering the crisis. He then rolled into a segment on the Kansas City Royals’ making the playoffs for the first time since 1985 when, as he said, “Ronald Reagan was president, Larry King Live debuted on CNN, and topping the charts? Careless Whisper by Wham! That was George Michael and... that other guy.”

Next Arun talked about the resignation of Attorney General Eric Holder, then switched gears, introducing NPR listeners to a band called Moon Hooch, which plays house music produced not with electronics but by live musicians playing actual instruments. He also did a squib on Oktoberfest in Munich, an event that, as he put it, “makes Burning Man look like a house party.” 

 “I love diving into the full range of the human experience, which is pretty much the definition of this show,” he said later. 

Identify the top news stories of the week. Find a way to make them intimate and compelling before an audience of two million listeners—well, that’s a real trick.  

And a lot of pressure. 

Arun came to the weekend post for All Things Considered with considerable experience as a reporter. He began his career at NPR working for Talk of the Nation, and eventually became the program’s director. He’s been a senior producer for NPR’s On the Media, where he helped win a Peabody Award, and a senior editor at Studio 360, an arts and culture radio program. He’s also worked for PBS’s Frontline and PRI’s The World, where he developed a beat covering national security and military justice. 

That reporting experience was invaluable. But he soon realized that being a reporter and being a host are two different things. As a reporter, you’re “pretty much a one-man band,” he says. “It was just me with my kit and that was that.” As host, he’s got a full team behind him.

The difference runs deeper than that, however. Reporters try to keep themselves—their viewpoints, their interests, their personalities—out of the news.

“People working in serious journalism, we don’t want to think too much about personality because it seems a bit shallow,” he explains. But as a host, “you can’t be a totally blank slate. People will see a certain amount of fakery in that.”

So Arun understood from the get-go that he’d have to do something to which he was unaccustomed professionally—he’d have to act natural. 

“It’s a weird thing, learning to be yourself on the air,” he says. “It doesn’t come easily.”

Being yourself on the radio is partly a matter of letting your personality shine through, but it also has to do with the stories you select for the show. 

Still, if you ask Arun about the ingredients for a perfect story, he doesn’t really have a formula. It’s fluid, he says, a combination of the news of the week and stray items that catch the eye of himself and his staff.

His personal interests? He’s a news junkie, of course. He also loves music—classical, jazz, soul, whatever. He is an alternative comedy geek and a theatre buff. He’s the first Indian American host of an NPR newsmagazine, and he’s also a dad. Pay attention to the program and you’ll hear—it’s all in there. 

Which brings us back to the sheer range of stories on his program. In some ways, he traces that to Reed. 

He left high school feeling “like a bit of a misfit.” Then he found Reed. “It was a place where misfits were welcome,” he recalls. “It felt like a safety zone, where whatever kind of things you wanted to obsess on or drill into, it was all good.”

He loved it all. From reading the classics in Hum 110 to German literature with his favorite professor, the late Ottomar Rudolf [German 1963–98]; to the one-off explorations of Paideia; to the demands of writing an English thesis—it all had an influence on his career. 

 “That kind of mad eclecticism suited me well becoming a host,” he said.

That interdisciplinary curiosity echoes through the show. One weekend, he has comedian Patton Oswalt on air talking about Moby Dick. Next he’s exploring the minimum wage, reporting on the California drought, or interviewing an author about Shostakovich and the siege of Leningrad.

Still another broadcast examined a new law in California making clear guidelines as to what constitutes sexual consent. When one of the program staffers pitched the idea, it was, to paraphrase Yogi Berra, like déjà vu all over again. Arun remembered talking about the “Antioch rules” when he was a student at Reed. Back then, the Ohio liberal arts college became the butt of jokes when it drew up similar guidelines. “In 2014, we’re having the same conversation,” he said sadly. “I thought we were going to be the last generation that was stomping this out.” 

Packing so many diverse topics into a single hour is an intellectual juggling act—one that requires hours of research, as many as 10 interviews a day, and a deft touch on the air. But Arun thrives on the challenge. Whether he’s explaining the Ebola virus, talking to the Flaming Lips, or examining the mystery of Amelia Earhart, he makes it sound natural.

Maureen O’Hagan is a freelance writer and editor in Seattle. She can be reached at maureen.k.ohagan@gmail.com.

Tags: Alumni, Life Beyond Reed