WHYY's Marty Moss-Coane has hosted 30 years of 'Radio Times' (and one distressing segment with Carl Bernstein)

Marty Moss-Coane (yes, that’s how you spell it) started at WHYY as a volunteer and got encouragement from none other than Terry Gross to try her hand at interviewing.

Thirty years in any job is an achievement -– and 30 years in radio, that fickle mistress, doing the same show, is astonishing. This year, Marty Moss-Coane celebrates the 30th anniversary of her WHYY-FM (90.9) talk show, Radio Times. She came to WHYY after a few years as a school counselor and mental-health worker. In those days, National Public Radio was still comparatively new, and WHYY was, in her words, “something more like a local station.”

Moss-Coane got hooked the same way many did: by listening to Susan Stamberg read the news on All Things Considered. Sitting in the WHYY lobby and reminiscing, Moss-Coane, now 68, says, “I never knew you could do that on radio — that a woman could do that. I said, ‘What the heck is radio, and how do I get a piece of it?’ ”

She started as a newsroom volunteer and “terrible reporter.” After time as an editor and assistant producer, she was encouraged by Fresh Air host Terry Gross and co-executive producer Danny Miller to try some interviewing. She liked it, and it liked her. On Oct. 27, 1987, the times of Radio Times began.

Camera icon Courtesy WHYY
Marty Moss-Coane (right) reporting in the 1980s.

Gross says with professional admiration that “Marty doesn’t shy away from asking tough questions in political and issue-oriented discussions.  But she also knows how to go deep when she’s talking more personally to guests about their lives and work, drawing on her insights, empathy — and research. And her show is live — no safety net. She’s remained a wonderful, humble, and generous colleague.”

Moss-Coane talks about those 30 years, about favorite and nonfavorite people, and about her plans (spoiler alert: she doesn’t have any).

You went from two hours to one in February. What difference has that made in your life?

This was my decision. I was just working too hard, putting in 60 hours a week, and I needed more balance. I always felt five steps behind when it came to news. And there was the homework problem: I never had enough time to read the books of the people coming on the show, never enough to get smart enough. So I was coming to work feeling very anxious and unprepared, and I just said, ‘Well, I still love doing this, but I need to do it less.’

Now, I can pretty much get all my work done, get home, make dinner, take my dog for a walk, live a more balanced life. And I’m not working all weekend preparing for Monday’s show. It has made my life better. I think the show is better because of it, but other people can be the judge of that.

It was a tough decision, though.

Totally. It took me about three years to make. Some of my hesitation was about giving up that radio real estate, giving up control. I had to work through all of that.

Looking back over the whole show, what change has been the biggest?

I would say the internet. Back in the olden days, I would give interns dimes or quarters, whatever it took to ride SEPTA, and they would go to the Free Library of Philadelphia, go down in the basement, go to the microfiche, look through the old articles, print them out, get back on the bus, come back, and that was the research we did. Today, research is often instantaneous. That also means we’re never really done. Everything is 24/7 now, and what was brand new and fresh and exciting at 10:30 in the morning all of a sudden by 4 o’clock in the afternoon feels like old news.

And we have lots more things to play with, ways we can share what we do. Now we have the live show and podcasts and Facebook pages and Twitter and Instagram. With social media, a show lives on past its airing. … We get comments after the fact, listeners weighing in and having a conversation. And listeners now are in more control of when and how they want to listen. Or not!

Has the mix of topics changed?

Lately, we probably have done a little more politics stuff, just following this dramatic shift from Obama to Trump. One of the tricks has been figuring out how to cover the president, what he says, what he does, and not get played, which is very important. We’re explaining what a high crime is, as distinct from a misdemeanor. Who would have thought we’d ever be discussing the emoluments clause? Yet we just did a whole show on that. And we’re discussing why a president can or cannot be indicted for obstruction of justice.

But you don’t want to ignore the fun stuff. More and more, I get the sense people want to find some sense of balance, listen to discussions of other things, simply to fend off this overwhelming feeling of, ‘I just can’t keep up with everything.’

Is radio now a “heritage” medium?

Our audience numbers are growing for WHYY, and, for NPR, their numbers are bigger than ever.

Favorite guests?

Salman Rushdie. For whatever reason, from the get-go, it just worked. I’ve always felt I could connect with him. He’s a great conversationalist, and you feel this freedom, like you could truly ask him anything and his response would be interesting. I did one interview with Maurice Sendak, and I got him to read Where the Wild Things Are with me on the radio, something he apparently never did. I got to do all the grunts and groans with the monsters.

Camera icon Courtesy WHYY
Marty Moss-Coane doing some close reading with one of her favorite guests, author Salman Rushdie.

Anyone who really surprised you on the air?

Many times. There’s the happy surprises. The novelists, for example, who I’ve had on, talking maybe about their first book, and then gone on to wonderful careers. Sherman Alexie being one. I interviewed him on his very first book of short stories, and he’s a great guest. He was back then, and he continues to be. I got to introduce him to my audience, and that makes me very happy.

Then there are the guests that are less than what you thought they were going to be. I was surprised that Carl Bernstein was so disagreeable, I’ll just put it that way. … This was the year [2007] he wrote [A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton], and he was very difficult to deal with. It was a control issue, and maybe with women, I don’t know; I felt like he was trying to make me say things I didn’t want to say, like, ‘You’ve written the most wonderful book ever.’ At the end, he told me I was a terrible interviewer, and I told him he was a terrible guest.

Is a time coming when you no longer do radio?

Anyone my age thinks about things like that, but, honestly, I haven’t made any plans. I still love doing live radio, and I love the puzzle of preparing for an interview, and with a good guest, I really enjoy the interview itself. As long as I feel that – and I feel it very strongly and still get a great deal of satisfaction from it, beginning to middle to end – I think I could do this for a while.