“Whoops,” he said gently.
But even under the circumstances — a pandemic in a city on the verge of lockdown — he was the calming presence he’s always been. “Remember that most of us, and most of our loved ones, are going to be fine,” he started the show on the day the city closed the schools. “But the Russian roulette aspect of this, the randomness of this, is very real. So let’s look it in the eye, and move on together.”
Among his fans, he can do no wrong. He is a cross between Tom Brokaw and Mister Rogers. He is the high school social studies teacher we all wish we had. He is, in the words of the City Council speaker of New York, “your super smart, approachable uncle who you respect and admire, and who always knows way more on every single issue than you would possibly expect.”
Aidy Bryant, the “Saturday Night Live” actress who introduced him at a public radio gala in Manhattan last year, admits to being star-struck only twice in her career: once when she met Prince, and once when she met Lehrer.
Lots of large cities have local news radio figures, like Michael Krasny on KQED in the Bay Area, or Larry Mantle on KPCC in Los Angeles. But to the thousands of New Yorkers who listen to The Brian Lehrer Show five days a week at 10 a.m., our local news radio host is equal parts civic treasure and municipal therapist.
And he’s been at it for some time: Listeners have tuned in to the Lehrer show on WNYC for local and national politics, current events and social issues for the past three decades — through the Central Park Five trial, the Sept. 11 attacks, the 2008 financial crisis, the rise of Black Lives Matter, Hurricane Sandy, the 2016 election and now the coronavirus pandemic.
Lehrer begins each show focusing on a topic in the news (Brexit, gentrification, the presidential primary), providing accessible interviews with authors, politicians, actors, journalists, or the occasional Sesame Street character (Elmo once explained Hurricane Sandy to children).
But it’s after the interview that the show really begins, when Lehrer opens the phone lines to listeners, allowing them to hold forth on a bevy of issues, from the hyperlocal (rezoning in their neighborhood, tension in the school district, a late-arriving Access-a-Ride) to the national (why people should stop buying single-use plastics). Topics flow from the wonky (an explainer on early voting) to the whimsical (“Does the New York accent still exist?”).
For the past few weeks, he has been covering the coronavirus pandemic closely, dedicating segments to discussions with doctors, politicians, teachers and a very informed audience. It has been something of a challenge for Lehrer.
“After 9/11, at least people could come together and support each other in their fears and in their grief,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a situation where there’s a need to support each other and isolate each other at the same time.”
Unable to move around freely, people are spending more time on their devices, getting news and misinformation from social media, which doesn’t help Lehrer’s cause: trying to keep his community calm, and together.
Lehrer was born in 1952, and grew up in Bayside, Queens, which he calls a relatively homogeneous place: most people were “white, Jewish and middle class.” But the calm of the neighborhood was shattered by the tumult of the late 1960s.
People around him were in turmoil over whether they were going to go to Vietnam. “I had a high draft number,” said Lehrer, 67, by way of explaining his ability to look at the issue dispassionately.
“If you grow up in that kind of environment, where the global issue of the time connects to your personal sense of safety and commitment — people in my circles basically didn’t think the war was right — that’s probably how a lot of people got interested in the news at that time.”
A radio devotee even in childhood — his first radio experience was as a summer camp DJ — Lehrer graduated from the State University of New York at Albany with degrees in music and mass communications, the latter designed around his DJ shifts at the college radio station. After graduating in 1973, he got an offer at a rock ’n’ roll station in Albany; Lehrer accepted the job as long as he could open the phone lines on Sundays between midnight and 3 a.m. to host a talk show.
He replicated this practice at stations in Columbus, Ohio, and Norfolk, Virginia, and managed to get two master’s degrees — one in journalism, from Ohio State University, and one in public health, from Columbia, eventually ending up as a freelance journalist. Then, in the late ’80s, WNYC asked him to audition for a news program they were putting together.
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At the time, the bedrock of public radio was newsmagazine shows like “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered,” which were filled with authoritative, expert voices.
At his audition, Lehrer made it clear that he wanted to engage listeners more, taking questions from real people, instead of just listening to pundits spout responses to a host, to democratize the dialogue. He had become interested in this exchange, which often produced better policies, he said, while studying for his masters of public health.
“It was an eye opener to me,” he said, “how often politics got in the way of the best possible environment policy, because one group or another had to be appeased for whatever reason, and that helped me add another level of sophistication to the show that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.”
So that was that: The sophistication of his show, as well as the accessibility, would involve the very people who listened to him.
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When he started at WNYC, the Fairness Doctrine had just been abolished. Gone was the requirement that broadcast stations balance controversial topics with various points of view. Talk radio exploded, with angry conservative men popping up all over the dial.
Lehrer wanted his show, which premiered in 1989, to be an antidote to what radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh were doing. The original title of Lehrer’s show was “On the Line,” a play on its welcoming interview format.
He now speaks with easily over 1,000 people a year, roughly four people every show — including, once, me. (I was on to discuss The 1619 Project.) And tens of thousands more call and tune in, some names more recognizable than others. Gov. Andrew Cuomo is known to call in. Actress and activist Rosie Perez has, too. And in the middle of a conversation about the crisis for small-business owners in New York City, actor Tony Danza got on the line to talk about his mozzarella shop.
Lehrer’s most useful trait may be his most nebulous one: in a city of 8 million “mean” or “rude” or “cold” New Yorkers, everybody seems to like Lehrer, almost to a startling effect. It’s in no small part that he’s the rare nonlawmaker who fully understands how congestion pricing might work.
Lehrer’s magic is bipartisan: he’s made New York City — with all its internecine drama between the state and the metropolitan area, multiple elections in a year, City Council charter revisions — feel like one big neighborhood. Lehrer is also a self-proclaimed Welcome Wagon for newcomers to the city — giving them a direct line to the mayor, explaining what’s going on with the buses on 14th Street. (In German, his name translates to “teacher.”) He seems to feel a personal responsibility to provide this service.
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“We’re always told how divided we are as a nation,” said Julia Genatossio, who has continued listening online after she left New York for Southern California, “but the broad range of listeners to Brian’s show clearly tells us another version of ourselves.”
So how has a wonky radio figure with a lightly nasal delivery become a universally beloved icon of a city that thrives on cynicism? It might have to do with the fact that Lehrer has kept his personal life private. He has virtually no social media presence outside of the show, which paradoxically lends his program even more intimacy.
For a radio guy, he gets recognized pretty frequently: in the supermarket, on the subway, in the bodega. New Yorkers who run into him might want to do a version of calling in to the show, responding to a topic from earlier that week or telling him what he should be talking about.
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Fans traded drips of his personal life with me — he lives in Inwood, he has sons, he loves to run. The stories bandied about reveal a man who seems, alternately, like a family member and a celebrity, a real mensch.
“What makes him such a great host is that he is one of the only people with a long-running show on radio or TV who I would not consider to be a ‘personality,’” said Mike Bernstein, who’s been listening for over 20 years. “Despite being on the radio every day with a show that bears his name, it’s never about him.”
Every Friday morning for the past four years, the program hosts “Ask the Mayor,” a segment inspired by radio spots mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg had with other stations. The show approached the administration when Mayor Bill de Blasio took office, but was initially rebuffed. After some time — and some bad press — City Hall accepted. Corey Johnson, the City Council speaker and a self-described “huge, huge fan,” requested a segment as well: He sits in for the monthly “Speak to the Speaker.”
To regular listeners, those Friday mornings are a time of community updates, mayoral decree and occasional sparring between mayor and host.
But even de Blasio won’t say anything bad about Lehrer. In a show earlier this month, the mayor bristled at Lehrer asking if he had seen recent video footage of a young black man in Canarsie being detained by six police officers without a clear reason.
De Blasio chided Lehrer and his staff for not tuning in to the previous day’s news conference, where he spoke about the footage at length. Lehrer responded that he had indeed tuned in, but was asking for the many listeners who weren’t able to watch the conference; de Blasio contended that the news conference should have answered Lehrer’s question about whether or not he’d reviewed the footage.
And yet he didn’t hesitate to describe him as the Walter Cronkite of the age.
“I will tussle with him if I think he has his facts wrong, or I think he’s missing something,” the mayor said, “but I don’t for a moment think he has a bias.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times .