'Today, Explained' debuts on WFAE; co-host Noel King talks about the show and more
The show "Today, Explained" started off as a podcast in 2018 to explore important news stories of the day. And it debuts on WFAE today at 7 p.m.
The 30-minute program focuses on one news topic per episode. Recent episodes include the end of "Phantom of the Opera" on Broadway, the impact of inflation and the looming Hollywood writers' strike.
"Today, Explained" is hosted by Sean Rameswaram and Noel King. Rameswaram was a correspondent for Radiolab’s More Perfect. King has worked as a teacher in Sudan, a correspondent across Africa, a reporter for Marketplace and a co-host of Planet Money. From 2017 until 2021, she was a host for NPR’s "Morning Edition."
In this interview with WFAE's "All Things Considered" host Gwendolyn Glenn, King says "Today, Explained" attempts to dissect big news stories in a way that she believes will help listeners understand why they matter.
"Today, Explained" airs weekdays at 7 p.m. on WFAE.
Noel King: [One thing] we seek to do in each episode is to give listeners context. Here's the news of the day. Here's what's behind it. Here's who the players are, here's an explanation of kind of, you know, the stakes of the story and who's fighting over what. And the other thing that Today, Explained never, never, never does, is it never despairs. It is a very upbeat news show. Sean and I are both positive people and we feel like bringing our positivity to the airwaves is a really important thing, especially in times like these.
Gwendolyn Glenn: So how do you pick that one topic for each show?
King: Sometimes it will be what is the thing that everybody's talking about, right? Whether that's the economy or something that's happening in Washington. And sometimes, it'll just be an amazing story from some place in the country that we picked up on and we're like oh, this deserves further examination.
So recently, we did this great episode about how New Mexico is going to spend the profits from a land grant and take care of early childhood education. And it's on a subject — early childhood care — that a lot of people feel very grim and depressed about. Everybody's having trouble finding day care. It's really expensive. And so that was a recent episode where honestly, we were like, you know what? It's not the biggest news story of the day, but we think it's worth it.
Glenn: And then you delved into why are prices going up, something that really connects with people on the human interest side.
King: And that's really, really, really important to us. We understand that in order to keep people engaged with what they hear on the radio, they have to feel like they have a stake in it. And sometimes all of the political news can feel a little bit like, ‘But what does that have to do with me?’ And so what our show seeks to do is explain what it has to do with you and why you should care.
Glenn: And I notice, too, that it's not just all hard news around here. People were talking about that episode you guys did on "Phantom of the Opera" leaving Broadway.
King: Yes. That was a classic "Today, Explained" feature. I mean, that is a 40-year-old show and that means it has a 40-year-old history. And not all of it has been pretty. Because "Today, Explained" is really highly produced, we have the opportunity to, you know, put in music from "Phantom of the Opera" to make it really beautiful. And so, we pay particular attention on the sound of the show, as well.
Glenn: How will your show be different from the shows like "The Daily" that deal with one topic?
King: "The Daily" is a really great show, but I think if there is a drawback, it's the fact that they can only talk to reporters from the New York Times. My co-host and I both come from public media. Our impulse on any given story is to ask, is there a public radio station covering this? Is there a reporter with deep expertise in this? We can ring up reporters and be, like, 'Hey, this is what we do.'
And because those people come from audio and we come from audio, they know exactly what we're saying. They're like, 'Oh, yeah, no, I know way more than three minutes.' But that's all "All Things Considered" could give me, "Morning Edition," could only give me four. You guys are giving me 20 (minutes). That's awesome. So we distinguish ourselves from "The Daily" by the people that we call, the people that we talk to.
Glenn: Now, what kind of topics can we expect to hear on this show? Because you've done foreign affairs, you've done the economy, you've done inequity. What kinds of topics interest you?
King: I hope you don't think I'm a nerd if I say everything interests me. In all honesty, this is the mark, right? You know, this ... this is the mark of a radio host. You give us one piece of information, one headline, one little bit of gossip, and we're like, 'Oh I need to know more.' I can't think of a single thing where I've ever said, 'Oh, I don't think I could gin up an interest in that.' That's just not who I am.
Glenn: But any favorites?
King: You know, I started my career in the north African country of Sudan. Right now, obviously, there is a pretty serious situation in Sudan underway where you have two men fighting over control of this big country's government. You noted that I covered economics for about six years. So anything that has to do with money or the economy is very much my beat. So I like to focus on things where there are reasons for what's happening and there are solutions.
Glenn: Now, you mentioned Sudan just now, and you also were in Cairo as well, correct? I think we have this in common. I also would go overseas, take my vacation — because I wasn't getting those stories when I was working for various outlets —and I would find ways to cover these stories. And seemed like you did that as well because you went on your own to both of these places, correct?
King: I did. I was an infant when I first moved to Sudan. I was 23 years old, and I was right out of college and I said, I want to be a reporter. I knew nothing about reporting, but I knew that I needed to go to a place where there was a lot of news and there weren't a lot of reporters. And because Sudan was this very restrictive country, no one wanted to be there. It was a tough place to live. And like you, I really saw the value in being in a place where not a lot of American journalists were. And there are a lot of very high-stakes stories in the world that, if we only have reporters posted in the United States, we're really going to miss out on.
Glenn: Yeah, tell me about that. At 23 and I don't know how old you were in Cairo, but to just to pick up and move there ...
King: No, I mean, I'm a kid from a small town. I grew up in rural New York, in a town of 1,300 people, and my family never went anywhere. You know, my parents were lower white-collar and they had three kids. And so it was when you go outside, you're going to go fishing. You're going to go hiking, right? This was what we did.
And so going to Sudan for the first time, I mean, it was the first time I'd ever been in a country where English was not the dominant language. But Sudan was not a country that wanted journalists there. So you kind of had to apply to do anything. You had to apply to move. You're always being watched. And the same with Egypt. By that point, I was covering the Arab Spring. I was about 30 years old. To be able to be on the ground and witness that, there's nothing else like it.
Glenn: Is it true that when you grew up, that when you went to college, you didn't know how to cross the street?
King: That is a true story. My hometown was so small. My house was set back in the woods, and there was a little street that we all used to ride our bikes on and run around. But the fact of the matter is, we never went into cities. I used to have to wait for other people to cross the street in front of me because I did not know the little man that pops up in the lightbox (was) telling you that it's time to walk or it's time to wait. I did not know what all of all the lights meant.
Glenn: Well, how did you go from teaching to this love of journalism?
King: Well, I moved to Sudan knowing that I wanted to be a journalist. But as I said, the Sudanese government was not keen on journalists. So the only way to get in the country was to get a teaching visa. And I said, OK, I'm going to set about getting a journalism visa. It's going to take a couple of weeks. In fact, it took two years. I was teaching fifth grade students. I was a terrible teacher. I sympathize with those poor kids. But it did allow me to stay in Sudan.
Glenn: Well, I'm sure some are wondering, why would you leave NPR for something like this?
King: "Morning Edition" is an incredibly important show for millions of people. It tells you what is going on. But the longer I was there, the more I said, I think people feel empowered when they know why things are going on. And you can't tell the whole story in three or four or five minutes. And so I had been a longtime fan of "Today, Explained." I felt like listening to that show, like, because it was explaining things and because it was putting things in context; and because it had this host who was really, really optimistic about life and really creative, that it would be a fun place to work.
And so, when this job came open, you know, the chance to be Sean's co-host and to do this kind of thing, I jumped at it. I honestly did.
Glenn: So, it was in those early morning hours of "Morning Edition"?
King: Getting up at 2:30 in the morning is not ideal.