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First Mover: Audie Cornish

NPR’s new 'Weekend Edition Sunday' host on taking over a legacy show. And Schweddy Balls

Photo by Eli Meir Kaplan/Getty Images for Adweek

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You’re replacing Liane Hansen after 22 years. Is that daunting?
Well, the person before her was Susan Stamberg and I could imagine that would’ve been pretty daunting. The way I look at it is that I’m in a sorority of three. It’s about upholding the legacy and the tradition.

You’re young, too. Is this part of an appeal to a younger, wider demographic?
I think that’s always a part of what’s going on there. The thing that people don’t realize is that there are a lot of young people working at NPR. Their influence is already working its way into the culture there. So it’s not so much of an anomaly as people might think. You look at our host Guy Raz at All Things Considered. He’s interviewing Eminem and Will.i.am and doing fun things that maybe don’t quite fit in on the weekday shows where there’s a lot of news, but speaks to another generation of listener that is coming to us through the iPad and the Web. I mean, don’t expect rap on Sunday morning. A little, but it’s not going to all of a sudden turn into some sort of VH1-light situation because I’m young and brown.

How will your show be different?
Change is hard for NPR. The model I am looking to, and I’m even hesitant to say this, is Jimmy Fallon—it’s still late night. It’s the same late-night show you’re used to seeing, just a little bit more. They have a band, but it’s the Roots!

You should have a house band!
Thinking about it! [Laughs.] At least a DJ. A Sunday morning Bloody Mary DJ.

Is it going to be more of a roundtable sort of a thing?
We’re going to try. We’re also going to try to bring in different voices, maybe people who haven’t been on the network before. The show was originally conceived as the Sunday newspaper. I’d like it to be Sunday brunch. The kind of brunch I go to usually involves some alcohol, usually involves people telling stories and talking about what happened the week before, and what’s going to happen, and did you see this movie? I want that kind of energy.

You go on at 8:00?
The red light goes on at 8 on the dot. But I’m there at 5 or 4:30, I think, because obviously I’ll be very nervous.

So no more Saturday nights out.
Here’s the deal: there’s only like six people in the world that are hosts for NPR. I’ll happily relinquish Saturday nights. Basically if I got hit by a bus right now I can say I’ve been a host for National Public Radio. That’s awesome. There’s no better thing I could have gotten. I don’t know any other gig where I can say “let’s talk to the education secretary, and now let’s talk to Cee Lo,” and take each thing seriously.

How do you combat the NPR cliché?
Oh how do you? Tell me. One of the things to think about is, if you find yourself saying “this is something our audience would like,” you should just back away from the table, because you’re doing something that you think NPR sounds like. That is what leads you to segments that sound like the Saturday Night Live Schweddy Balls sketch [with Alec Baldwin, who famously and profanely spoofed NPR’s wide-eyed earnestness].

Which was the funniest of all time.
It was funny. And we do have those moments where we’re earnest.

You’re keeping Will Shortz, right?
That’s not even a question. Of course!

Any funny business going on between him and Liane?
People used to joke that they were going to run away together. That is not the case. [Laughs.] Can I just say, it’s actually really weird for me to be in a taped interview and not be in control.

Sure, but we’ll probably include it.
I think it’s good for me to see how it feels to be on the other side.