A New TED Radio Hour in a Time of Reinvention

Manoush Zomorodi, Photo by Wanyu Zhang/NPR
Manoush Zomorodi, Photo by Wanyu Zhang/NPR

How host Manoush Zomorodi is putting her own spin on the podcast stalwart.

In July 2019, longtime host Guy Raz announced he was leaving TED Radio Hour, the juggernaut interview series carried on more than 600 public radio stations and one of the top podcasts in the world. In November, TED announced his replacement: Manoush Zomorodi, veteran journalist, host and creator of WNYC’s tech podcast Note to Self. “For me, it felt like the perfect fit,” Zomorodi says. “I’ve been part of the TED family and community, and public media has been in my blood since I became a journalist nearly 25 years ago.”

The show relaunched with Zomorodi in the host chair at the beginning of March, just as much of the US began grappling with the effects of COVID-19. We sat down with her to discuss the creative challenges of shaking up a longstanding program — especially in an increasingly uncertain world.

Spotify for Podcasters: You were announced as the host of the show in November. Can you talk a bit about what was going on behind the scenes in between that announcement and relaunching the show at the end of March?

Manoush Zomrodi: When it was announced, there was a lot to figure out. I couldn't move from New York to Washington, [where NPR is headquartered]. I have a husband who has a job, a very New York-specific job, and I have two kids in school. We moved the operations and production of the show to work remotely.

We also had to figure out what were the episodes we wanted to do and we needed to start doing interviews and building these episodes. Each episode has at least four or five talks that are featured — the thesis of each show is really, really carefully thought through. The transition was a chance for me to get to know each of the producers as well. They've been with Guy for a long time, so this is new.

How did you plan to put your own stamp on the show as the host? What was the process for determining what you wanted to stay the same and what you wanted to shift as you took on this role?

TED Radio Hour is one of the biggest shows in the world. I don't think anyone wants it to be that different, right? I still want to make sure that people get the TED talks that move them, and to get access to the TED speakers who are just incredible — and that you get much more from [listening to the podcast] than from just watching a talk. You get this sense of context because it is presented with other talks and speakers as well. To me, the audio quality is just a delicious delight. When I was thinking about what makes this show special, it's very much the scoring and the sound design, which I just think is as much of a character in each episode as a speaker or me, the host. It's what makes the show so immersive.

[In terms of what will shift], I guess the biggest difference is me, basically. I'm a woman, I'm a first-generation American, I'm a mom. I think just my take on the world is going to be different because of who I am. I hope that I bring a bit of levity — not that Guy didn't have fun — but my own style of levity to the show, because I think we could use a bit of that now as well.

The show relaunched on March 13, with an episode that was appropriately titled Reinvention — all about navigating through times of change. And it just happened to air at a time when all across the world, we were transitioning to a very different reality as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

I think you could see that that episode landed when it did as awful in some way. On the other hand, it kind of fit. I've gone through this myself. It's the chapters of our life, right? Like when you graduate from college, or you decide to commit to someone, or you become a parent, or you change careers, we are constantly reinventing ourselves. I think it's absolutely terrifying, but it helps to know that we're all doing that, everyone is having that experience and everyone is freaked out by it.

I'm thinking of Valorie Kondos, [an interviewee] in that episode having to completely change the way she did her job, and not knowing if it was going to work. Risk is inherent, and that's okay. I think we all need to hear those stories. For me, taking over TED Radio Hour, it’s kind of scary, I don't want to mess it up. But I also have to remind myself that I'm not new at this game. I know what I'm doing. I have listeners who tell me that I provide a service to them that they really are grateful for and I can do this.

I think there are so many ways to do what I think is the most important thing, which is to provide that service to the listener. That can be a COVID-19-specific podcast. We've seen news consumption just jump. I think I'm one of those people who's like, "A news event? Go, go, go." That's my background, but it can be [useful to listen to] something that has absolutely nothing to do what is going on in the world, but provides the listener with a place to relax — I think of it as therapeutic audio. I think I've had to push back my impulse to make episodes that were exactly about what's going on right now and understand that people don't need that all the time.

^This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

—Katie Ferguson