TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. If you're a regular listener to NPR, you know my guest, Ari Shapiro, as one of the hosts of All Things Considered. You've heard his reporting and his work revealing other people's stories, but there's so many fascinating parts of his own story that he reveals in his new memoir.
I'm pretty sure he's the only NPR host, past or present, who can say he married his boyfriend in San Francisco in 2004, when then-Mayor Gavin Newsom decided to allow marriage licenses to be issued to same-sex couples, but soon after had his marriage annulled by the California Supreme Court, which voided all the city's gay marriages. What other host has sung at Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl and performed in countries around the world? Ari Shapiro has done that with the group Pink Martini. I am confident that no other NPR host can say they do a cabaret act with actor Alan Cumming, and one night, after performing their show on Fire Island, they went to a gay underwear party.
Of course, Shapiro's memoir is also about his life in journalism. He started at NPR as Nina Totenberg's intern, became an editorial assistant on Morning Edition and eventually became a Justice Department reporter, a White House correspondent during the Obama presidency, London bureau chief and foreign correspondent. He's reported from war zones. He's been hosting All Things Considered since 2015.
Among his awards are two national Edward R. Murrow Awards for his reporting on the life and death of Breonna Taylor and his coverage of the Trump administration's asylum policies on the U.S.-Mexico border. He also won the Silver Gavel Award from the American Bar Association and the American Gavel Award from the American Judges Association. His new memoir is called "The Best Strangers In The World: Stories From A Life Spent Listening." Ari Shapiro, welcome to FRESH AIR. It is a pleasure to talk with you on our show. And I really enjoyed the memoir a lot.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Thank you so much for having me, Terry.
GROSS: And I felt like I got to know so much about you, all of which is interesting.
SHAPIRO: Even what kind of underwear I wear.
GROSS: Exactly. Blue.
GROSS: So I'd like you to compare Ari Shapiro, NPR journalist, ATC host, White House correspondent, Justice Department correspondent, with who you are on stage with Pink Martini or with Alan Cumming in your cabaret act.
SHAPIRO: There is such a rush of being on stage in front of a crowd and knowing in that moment that either you've got them in the palm of your hand or you don't, and you have to get them back. There is an electricity and an adrenaline and a thrill that feels like - you know, there's this one song I sing with Pink Martini. It's called "Et Maintenant." It's in French, and there are, like, four key changes. And as I sing it...
GROSS: Which Americans might know as "What Now, My Love?"
SHAPIRO: Exactly. Yes. It was recorded in English by Shirley Bassey and Elvis and many others. And as the keys go higher and higher and higher, I feel like energy, like electricity is coming through my feet and my hands. And I'm sharing that with the audience, and I feel them giving it back to me. I feel almost like a conduit for something.
And when I'm in the field for NPR stories or when I'm hosting All Things Considered, in a certain way, I almost - I don't want to disappear, but I want to be a surrogate for the listener. I want to make the listener feel like they could be where I am, like they could be in my shoes, whether that is following Venezuelan refugees leaving their country as it implodes, or whether it's interviewing a politician and asking the questions that a listener may never have the opportunity to ask that politician. It's not that I want to disappear, but I want to be able to do justice to the person who is not there. Whereas in the performance, I feel like I am actively exchanging energy with the people who are, if that makes sense.
GROSS: Yeah, but another thing, just in terms of who you are in your performing life and in your NPR life, in your NPR life, you have to be an NPR person.
SHAPIRO: Yeah (laughter).
GROSS: And on stage...
SHAPIRO: I don't get to swear on NPR.
GROSS: Yeah, but on stage you get to be funny. You get to be extroverted. You get to be very gay. I mean, like, the Alan Cumming cabaret act has all kinds of gay jokes in it. It's that stuff you don't really get to do on the air. So those are the two parts of your personality that I'm interested in hearing how you experience differently.
SHAPIRO: When I do a live performance, I often, but not always will - I'll come out. I'll sing a song or whatever. And then I'll say, from the Hollywood Bowl, this is Pink Martini. I'm Ari Shapiro. Which gets a laugh because people recognize, you know, that voice, that cadence. And then I pause and I say - which might be a line you've used, Terry - I say, and you all look nothing like what I imagined either.
SHAPIRO: Which I think is a way of not only breaking the ice, but also saying, this is going to be a slightly different iteration of me than you might be accustomed to hearing on NPR. Like, I bring my full self to NPR, but it's not supposed to be about me.
But when I'm on stage with Alan, when I'm on stage with Pink Martini, I can make bawdy jokes. I can talk about opinions. I don't weigh in on politics, but I can say, I hate this. I love this. I can be camp. I can be gay. I can make Jewish jokes. I can sort of toy with my identity as a vehicle for connection, which is less foregrounded when I'm on NPR.
GROSS: You know, a place where both parts of your life, in a way, came together was when you covered the Pulse nightclub shooting. Of course, people remember that was a gay bar in Orlando where the patrons were massacred by a shooter. And when you were covering that, you discovered you'd been there before in 2004 when you were filling in for the reporter who was based in Florida. Before you realized that the bar that you'd been to, that kind of really, like, took you in, and you made friends, in 2004, that that bar was actually the Pulse, can you talk about what the bar meant to you then, when you were, like, new to Florida, and you found, you know, a place where you found friends in this bar?
SHAPIRO: I remember this so vividly, but, of course, I didn't remember the name of the bar. And so it wasn't until well into the reporting that I realized it was Pulse. But in 2004, I was doing a bunch of stories from the Orlando area, and after a day of reporting, I just had nothing to do. So I was like, OK, I'll check out a local gay bar because I know that that's, like, a place of safety, a place of community, a place of friendship.
And it was, I think, a Monday night. And so I walked into this place, and it was pretty empty. And so I sat at the bar, and I started chatting up the bartenders, and we just had a really fun conversation. And the next night was their night off. And so they said, why don't you come out on the town with us?
And so it was the kind of experience that is remarkable for being so unremarkable. It was an affirmation that gay bars and clubs are a place you can go when you're a stranger and not be treated like a stranger and not feel like a stranger. And so all those years later, when I heard the news of the Pulse nightclub shooting, I volunteered to go down and cover it. Because even though I do approach a lot of stories as an outsider, I knew that my experience and my familiarity and my understanding of this community could bring something to the reporting that others could not. And as I was doing all of these interviews over the course of the week, you know, to sort of loosen people up and make small talk, I would say, oh, I actually once went barhopping in Orlando, like, years ago in 2004.
And it was at the end of my week covering the massacre that I was interviewing the editor of the free gay weekly paper Watermark - his name was Billy Manes. He has since passed away. And I was chatting with him and I said, oh, yeah, I went barhopping in Orlando and met these two wonderful bartenders and - and he said, what was the name of the bar? And I said, I'm sure it closed a long time ago. And he said, well, describe it. What was the layout?
And so I described you walk in and there's sort of a dance floor to your left and a bar to your right. And he said, that was Pulse. And I remember, I was about to do this interview with him. And I was just - like, I was struck. I was stunned. I was sort of, like, yanked out of my pretense of journalistic distance into the realization that not only had I been in places like where this massacre happened, but I'd been in the actual place where the massacre happened, and I'd met bartenders at that bar. And, yeah, it's just - you know, distance can be a useful tool for a journalist. Sometimes proximity can be, too.
GROSS: Yeah. We should mention that those bartenders were not victims of the shooting.
SHAPIRO: That's right.
SHAPIRO: One had since moved on to another, different job in Chicago. One was still a bartender at Pulse but wasn't working there that night.
GROSS: In high school, you decided to come out in your junior year, was it?
SHAPIRO: Yeah, it was the very end of my junior year.
GROSS: And, you know, you say in your book that you decided back then, before you'd even kissed a boy, that you didn't want to live a double life. And you figured, let's get this over with and come out now. So what was the reaction in your high school? And was this at the same time as the Ballot Measure 9?
GROSS: Explain what that was, yeah.
SHAPIRO: So Ballot Measure 9 was this statewide ballot measure that would have outlawed - you would be able to fire teachers for being gay. Any state institution would have to condemn homosexuality along with pedophilia, bestiality, necrophilia. Like, as teenagers, we didn't understand those words. We didn't have the internet. But because of the debate on Measure 9, everybody knew what they were. And so in my school, everybody was taking sides in this debate. Everybody was wearing pins that said nein on 9 - N-E-I-N, the German - you know? - or straight but not narrow. But nobody actually knew a gay person that they were aware of.
And so it was after the debate over Measure 9, before the debate over Measure 13, which was the next similar ballot measure, which also failed, that I came out. And in that moment, it was like these debates everybody had been having in the abstract suddenly centered on me. And it was the - I kind of came out to my parents and family and my close friends the last week of junior year, not being certain whether I would want to be out at school or not.
But then, I had this summer where I had this incredible experience connecting with queer teens in Portland, Ore., where my family was living. And it was just sort of this beautiful, flourishing experience that when I got back to school for senior year, I thought, well, there's no way I could pretend to be closeted now. I'm not going to try to keep this secret. And so I just - I plastered my locker with photos of scantily clad men. I put a pink triangle pin on my backpack. I came to school in drag for Halloween. I was just like, I'm going to drown out these whispers with a bullhorn and leave no ambiguity.
GROSS: What was the result of that?
SHAPIRO: I got a lot of attention, positive and negative. Some people threatened me. Some people offered to defend me. At some point, I decided I should just start carrying mace in case the threats were real. I never was physically assaulted. People would, you know, shout slurs in the hallway, but they did that even before they knew I was gay. At least now I could own it and say, like, yes, and? What's your point? - as opposed to before where I was kind of cowering. Can I tell you about a moment, actually, that was really key...
SHAPIRO: ...That is not in the book? But I want to let you know about it because it was so instrumental in sort of my journey. I hesitate to use that word, but my journey.
SHAPIRO: It was when I was about 15. It was a year before I came out to my family. I was starting to come out to myself. I was sitting in the back of my parents' minivan. And FRESH AIR was on the radio. And you were interviewing someone named Paul Monette...
SHAPIRO: ...Who was a poet and memoirist who later died of AIDS. And I remember sitting in the back seat of that car and thinking, this is the first time I've ever heard anyone talk to a gay person in a way that is not painting them as a victim or caricaturing them as a stereotype. It's the first time I had ever heard anyone treat a gay person as someone worth listening to and hearing from and taking seriously.
GROSS: Wow. It really moves me that it had that impact on you.
SHAPIRO: I mean, 30 years later, I'm thinking about it, and still, like, I'm right there and remembering how important that was.
GROSS: Thank you for telling me that. And for anyone who doesn't know who Paul Monette is, he was a beautiful writer who wrote a lot about AIDS and who wrote about taking care of his boyfriend who had it, and then, he wrote about having it himself. So he was really an incredible writer. Wow, Ari.
SHAPIRO: So thank you for that, Terry.
GROSS: Let's take another break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Ari Shapiro, one of the hosts of All Things Considered. His new memoir is called "The Best Strangers In The World." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF PINK MARTINI SONG, "OCHO KANDELIKAS")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Ari Shapiro, one of the hosts of All Things Considered. His new memoir is called "The Best Strangers In The World."
You are moving toward a career as a performer with musicals...
SHAPIRO: Yeah, you know, I...
GROSS: ...Dramatic theater, Broadway.
SHAPIRO: A little bit of everything. I sort of - I sang in choirs. I did a cappella. I did musicals. I did straight plays. I took acting classes. I was an English major, not a theater major, at Yale. And when I was graduating from college, I thought about applying for graduate programs in performance, and a friend sort of talked me out of it. And so I applied to as many different other things I could think of including an NPR internship, which I got rejected for. So anybody who ever feels like they're a failure, just remember, NPR's Ari Shapiro got rejected for an NPR internship.
GROSS: But then, you found out that Nina Totenberg hired her own interns...
GROSS: ...As opposed to it going through HR or whatever.
GROSS: So you wrote directly to her. What was your pitch to her?
SHAPIRO: I'm curious. I'm hardworking. I know how to - you know, I'm reconstructing some of this in hindsight 'cause it's 20-plus years later. But I think the key is a liberal arts education teaches you how to read, write and think. And whether you're an English major, a history major, a political science major or whatever, the ability to read a complicated document, understand what's important about it and then describe that in writing is a skill that is applicable to Supreme Court opinions, to proposed legislation, to the Mueller report. Those are skills I use every day as a journalist, and they were absolutely useful as Nina's intern, and they're skills I learned as an English major.
GROSS: A nice pitch. And I guess she...
SHAPIRO: I guess it worked.
GROSS: ...Agreed with that. Yeah. So what was some of the advice she gave you that you remember?
SHAPIRO: Well, the most vivid advice I remember is she heard me on the phone next to her. We shared a cubicle. And I was requesting an interview with somebody, and I was sort of, I wonder, would you consider, maybe, possibly - and Nina shouted, Ari, grow a pair.
SHAPIRO: She was like, you need to ask for what you want directly and firmly and don't take no for an answer. That's Nina.
GROSS: Were those words to live by in the future?
SHAPIRO: Absolutely. I've learned so much from Nina. I remember I would - after she would do an interview, I would transcribe it. This is before there were auto-transcription services. And in transcribing it, I would think carefully about when and where she asked the questions, when she asked a follow up, when she moved on, how she framed her questions. Like, I learned so much because I hadn't written for the school newspaper. I hadn't taken a journalism course. Interning at NPR really was how I learned journalism.
GROSS: After becoming an intern with Nina, you got a job as an editorial assistant at Morning Edition. It started off as a temporary position, and then you moved on eventually to Justice Department reporter, White House correspondent, London bureau chief, host of All Things Considered. But you did freelance reporting early on before you got a job as an actual reporter at NPR.
What was your reaction to hearing your voice the first time you actually heard it on the radio? And also you say that early on you tried to have a, quote, "NPR voice." What was the voice you had in your head that you were supposed to sound like? And was there, like, somebody you were modeling that, quote, "NPR voice" on?
SHAPIRO: I knew I could never sound like Robert Siegel or Bob Edwards, who were sort of like the two authoritative, stentorian voices of NPR. I wasn't consciously trying to do this, but I think I was aspiring to kind of, like, the warmth of Susan Stamberg, hopefully, and, like, maybe the inquisitiveness of Jacki Lyden.
I - you ask how I reacted when I heard my voice for the first time, and it was painful. I just think, oh, my God. I was, first of all, overenunciating so emphatically. I was so tense. I was - I - forgive me. I sounded so gay.
SHAPIRO: I mean, not that that's a bad thing. Not that I try not to sound gay these days, but I actually - I got a - this is a few years later. It was the first time I was guest hosting Morning Edition. I actually got a postcard in the mail that said, dear Ari, please butch up. I find a daily dose of your personality annoying.
GROSS: Wait, wait, wait, wait. There's another sentence from that postcard that you quote in the book.
SHAPIRO: I'm a person, too.
GROSS: Yes. That's the part that really got me. I'm a person, too. What the heck is that supposed to mean?
SHAPIRO: I love that postcard so much. It has sat framed on my desk for more than a decade now. I just treasure it. It was signed D. Emerson (ph), Miami, Fla.
GROSS: So you write in your book that when you and your boyfriend, Mike, decided to get married - this was in 2004 when Gavin Newsom was briefly issuing marriage licenses to gay couples - you felt you didn't have to ask your parents for permission. They were OK with it. You didn't have to ask your in-laws for permission. They were OK with it. And your parents and your in-laws were good friends, too. They talked on the phone all the time.
But you did need to ask permission from NPR because of NPR's ethics guidelines. What were the guidelines that made you think you should ask for permission?
SHAPIRO: Well, we weren't and aren't supposed to participate in political events. And if there are cultural wars - if there are culture wars brewing, we're not supposed to, like, take sides in them. And at that time, same-sex marriage was, like, the leading edge of the culture wars.
And Gavin Newsom was doing something that no one else, with a few exceptions like Massachusetts, was doing. And it was hugely controversial. And there were protestors. There were - I mean, everybody was talking about it every day. And I was about to go participate in it, which, according to the NPR ethics code, is generally something that we are not supposed to do.
GROSS: So what response did you get?
SHAPIRO: I asked the - my boss, Ellen Weiss, if I could go marry my boyfriend. And she said, of course, Ari, you should go get married. Be happy. Of course, of course, of course. Which I realize how lucky that makes me. And I was still nervous about it.
And I said to her, OK, I'm going to leave my NPR tote bag at home. I'll keep a low profile. I'm just doing it to get married. I'm not doing it to make a political statement. I'm not trying to be the poster child for gay marriage or anything. I just want to marry my college boyfriend. She was like, Of course, I understand. Go, be happy. Do it.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ari Shapiro, one of the hosts of All Things Considered. His new memoir is called "The Best Strangers In The World." We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF PINK MARTINI SONG, "OCHO KANDELIKAS")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Ari Shapiro, one of the hosts of All Things Considered. He has a new memoir called "The Best Strangers In The World." Ari has also been an NPR Justice Department reporter, White House correspondent, London bureau chief and foreign correspondent. He also sings with the group Pink Martini and has performed with them around the world. And he does a cabaret act with actor Alan Cumming.
You covered the Justice Department during the George W. Bush presidency. And stories that you covered were investigating torture at Abu Ghraib prison during the Iraq war. You investigated what was happening in Guantanamo in terms of torturing prisoners there and how prisoners were treated. What kind of pushback did you get then, if any, from the Justice Department or the White House?
SHAPIRO: One of the things that I broke a lot of news on was - I mean, yes, I was doing a lot of kind of, quote-unquote, "war on terror" reporting, but so were many other journalists. At one point, I started to hear rumblings about the Civil Rights Division and the ways that it was being transformed. And so I got in touch with a lot of people who had left the Justice Department's Civil Rights division who were in touch with people who were still there. And I started reporting a lot of stories about the way people were being muzzled, about the way enforcement was changing.
I was the first person to report a story from rural Mississippi about the first time in the country's history that the Voting Rights Act was used to defend minority white voters from discrimination by Black elected officials in a majority Black county in Mississippi. And what made it all the more striking was that up to that point, the Bush Justice Department had not brought a single voting rights case on behalf of Black voters alleging discrimination by white elected officials. And so a lot of people were doing reporting on the sort of war on terror stuff. And I did stories there that I was really proud of. But I think I was sort of at the leading edge of reporting on the transformation of the Civil Rights Division. And that pissed them off.
That got me a lot of blowback from the Justice Department officials. But I had good sources. And my stories were thoroughly and accurately reported. And I made sure they were bulletproof before I put them out into the world. That was a period where I really learned how to do investigative reporting. And it's really satisfying to be able to tell a story that otherwise would not be told because people confided in you about something that was important that you were able to bring to light. That's a unique kind of fulfillment that I think only comes from investigative work.
GROSS: Yeah, and it's total discovery.
GROSS: What kind of pushback did you get?
SHAPIRO: We're doing good work. You're not reporting on the stuff we're doing on behalf of disability rights. And so then I would say, OK, give me an exclusive about that. And they would. And I would go do an exclusive story about the good work the Bush administration Civil Rights Division was doing on disability rights. And so you sort of, you know, Ping-Pong one off the other, leveraging each story to get the next story.
GROSS: When you covered the Obama White House, where was NPR in the pecking order of journalists?
SHAPIRO: It's funny because NPR was well-respected. Like, not that this actually matters, but we were in the second row of the White House briefing room. You know, the first row is, like, the Newswires, AP, Reuters and the networks and CNN, Fox, MSNBC. And then the second row was, like, credible, respectable NPR, et cetera. And generally, if I had a question, I could get it answered. But the White House wasn't listening to what NPR reported with bated breath every morning the way they were sort of, like, constantly having cable news on 24/7, seeing what the chyron said, if that makes sense.
GROSS: Yeah. Was it frustrating covering things like press briefings and press conferences during times when you knew they were also being televised in real time, and there's a whole lot of other journalists in the room with you covering the same thing?
SHAPIRO: Yeah. I mean, the term is pack journalism, right? Like, the cliche is that White House reporting can just be - you're a stenographer to power. Today the president said, today the president did, et cetera. And when I was on the White House beat, NPR had three White House correspondents. So we would rotate weeks. One week, one of us would be in the White House covering the press briefings, doing today the president said, today the president did. And then for two weeks, we would take a step back and do bigger picture things. And so it wasn't so challenging or frustrating to be in the briefing room every day because if you had real questions, you could get them answered. You had face time with senior officials. You could sort of sniff around and find out what was going on. And then you could have two weeks to do meatier, juicier stories that not everybody was reporting.
GROSS: What do you think is the most consequential story that you broke during the Obama administration?
SHAPIRO: I've actually never asked myself that question. What is the most consequential? It's funny because the stories that I think about from that time were not, like, policy, earthshaking things. The stories that I think about from that time were like, how to explain the fiscal cliff to people in a way that they will understand or, you know, the story of Obama's trip to Afghanistan or, you know, these narrative moments or, like, covering the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. And, you know, I also think about - this is not an answer to your question. But I think about, like, a bunch of people really close to Obama talked about what a good gift giver he is for, like, birthdays and weddings and things like that. And so I did a story about the various gifts he had given to people over the years and what that said about him.
I did a story about, actually, similarities between - now I'm remembering. During the Romney campaign in 2012, I did a story about Obama's time at Harvard Law School and Romney's time at Harvard Law School. And I talked to Laurence Tribe, who was a Harvard law professor. And he pulled out an old calendar where he had noted his first meeting with the first year Harvard Law student Barack Obama. And in his calendar, he had circled it and put three exclamation marks next to it as if to say, this kid's really going to be something (laughter). And then I talked to somebody who played basketball with Obama in law school who talked about, like, how he was always talking smack on the basketball court. And he was throwing elbows. And he was - except for the time that they played against a prison team of, like, convicted inmates. And then he was sort of, like, this meek guy.
I realize that you asked the question of the most consequential story I did on the White House beat. And I'm not answering you with anything about policy. I'm answering you sort of, like, human anecdotes. And it is entirely possible that during the Obama administration, I did some major story that changed policy that's just not coming to mind in this moment. But that also tells you something about my experience covering the White House. And I think, generally, what people remember in good storytelling is, like - it's Larry Tribe circling the calendar entry with the exclamation points next to it. It's the basketball player throwing elbows maybe more than the U.S. credit rating has just been downgraded because John Boehner and Barack Obama were unable to reach a compromise.
GROSS: Well, let's take another break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Ari Shapiro, one of the hosts of NPR's All Things Considered. His new memoir is called "The Best Strangers In The World." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MATT WILSON QUARTET'S "HUG")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Ari Shapiro, one of the hosts of All Things Considered. His new memoir is called "The Best Strangers In The World."
So let's talk a little bit more about your life outside journalism. You sing with Pink Martini and - which started as a local band in Portland when you were living in Portland. You moved there with your family when you were 8. You were a fan. One of your early reports was about them. You became friends with the band. And then, they asked you to sing with them. How did they know that you could sing?
SHAPIRO: Well, after I became friends with them, any time the band would pass through Washington, D.C., on tour, I would throw a brunch, a dinner, cocktails, barbecue, something. I would have them over. And in about 2008, there was a dinner cookout that sort of turn into a late-night singalong around my piano. And it was Pink Martini and this other Portland band I was friends with called Blind Pilot that happened to be in town at that time and all of my D.C. friends, and it was sort of, like - late into the night, we were all singing together.
And the next morning, Thomas Lauderdale, the pianist, who is also Pink Martini's bandleader, said, hey, we're writing this song for the next album that we want a man to sing; why don't you come to Portland and record it for us on the album, which, to me, was such a surreal, out-of-body experience, to be asked to sing with this band that I had loved since I was in high school. I never thought it would actually happen. And, of course, I immediately said yes. And then, it happened. And then, I was in Portland recording with the band - terrified, so, like, not confident in my ability, sure that it would never actually make it onto the album. And then, it did.
And then, Thomas said, well, we need to find a time for you to perform this live with us, so why don't you come to the Hollywood Bowl? And so the first time I ever sang with any band live on stage anywhere was in front of 18,000 people.
GROSS: That's like a nightmare.
GROSS: I mean, it's an incredible opportunity. It's fabulous. But it's also a nightmare.
SHAPIRO: I - you know, you just have to choose not to view it as a nightmare. You just have to choose to view it as a surreal, fantasy, make-a-wish-dream-come-true moment and go out there and know that it's the only time in your life this will ever happen - except that it wasn't...
SHAPIRO: ...Because I've sung there half a dozen times since.
GROSS: That's really great. I wanted to play what you describe as the most meaningful song that you recorded with Pink Martini, and the song is called "Finnisma Di." But before we play it, I want you to tell us what made it so meaningful for you.
SHAPIRO: Well, the tune was written for the first album that the band ever released in the '90s with Spanish lyrics. And for the album "Je Dis Oui," which we released more recently, the band asked a dear friend who's since passed away named Iyad Qasem to reimagine the lyrics in Arabic. And when we recorded it in 2015, the Syrian refugee crisis was at its peak.
And Iyad, whose own family are refugees, said he wrote these lyrics that sound like they're about somebody pining for a lost love, but actually, he was imagining the experience of a refugee longing for his homeland. And so he took the title of the song from something his own mother always used to say, which is there's no breeze as sweet as the breeze of home. So he called the song "Finnisma Di," which means in this summer breeze.
And before he passed away, the band would tour to Lebanon, Morocco, Abu Dhabi, Tunisia, and we would perform it, and he would introduce it. And he would talk about as a Palestinian Jordanian, what an honor it was to have this song performed by his Jewish friend. And then, I would come out and sing it. We would give each other a hug. It was always this very emotional moment. And I, as a journalist, had covered the Syrian refugee crisis, but this felt like a different way of approaching it and a different way of connecting people and a different way of telling a story about it.
GROSS: Well, let's hear it. This is Ari Shapiro singing "Finnisma Di" with Pink Martini.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FINNISMA DI")
SHAPIRO: (Singing in Arabic).
GROSS: That was my guest, Ari Shapiro, singing "Finnisma Di" with the band Pink Martini. Ari, as you know, is the - one of the hosts of All Things Considered.
Ari, you really have a beautiful voice.
SHAPIRO: Thank you.
GROSS: You're so lucky to have that gift. So how do you introduce the band when you're in the U.S.?
SHAPIRO: So I usually come out, and I typically just come right out and sing the first song. You know, Thomas Lauderdale introduces me. I come out, and I sing without saying anything. The applause dies down. And then, I stand in front of the mic. And before I even say thank you, I say, from the Hollywood Bowl, this is Pink Martini. I'm Ari Shapiro. It inevitably gets a big laugh because people recognize the voice, the cadence. There's this sort of, oh-it-really-is-him kind of moment because until then, they've only heard me with my singing voice, not my speaking voice. And it feels like a sort of friendly, familiar icebreaker that allows them to connect the me they know with the me they are just meeting.
GROSS: And it sounds so much like the introduction to All Things Considered.
SHAPIRO: Yeah, exactly. Right.
GROSS: But what do you do when you're in another country and they don't know Ari Shapiro, host of All Things Considered?
SHAPIRO: The first time I went to another country with Pink Martini, I thought, oh, God. Like, up until now, I've been able to ride on the coattails of my reputation as a journalist, as an NPR person. And now I no longer have that armor I can wear, to mix a metaphor. And I thought, well, I guess now we'll find out whether I really can sing or not. And so, you know, I obviously dropped the, you know, from L'Olympia in Paris, this is Pink Martini. I'm Ari Shapiro. And I just tried to pretend I was a guest singer making an appearance with a band in Paris. What would I say?
And I tried to be witty and charming and banter, and the audience responded. And they applauded, and they laughed. And I don't remember the specific words, but I do remember feeling like, oh, I can do this. I don't have to make an excuse. I'm not just the journalist who sings. I can actually hold my own in a country where they have no idea who I am, and I'm just a singer.
GROSS: Well, I want to ask you about performing with Alan Cumming after meeting him backstage at "Cabaret" when he was doing a revival in New York, a fantastic revival of it. And your friend was in the cast, so you got to go backstage and meet Alan Cumming. And then you kind of hit it off. You interviewed him onstage. He asked you to perform with him, and, of course, you accepted.
SHAPIRO: I was like, sure. I'll do a show with you, Alan.
GROSS: Yeah. So you've been touring this cabaret act for some time. One of the songs that you've done together is a new version of the Cole Porter classic "You're The Top." And so you sing about him, and he sings about you. Can you sing the part that he sings about you, about you being an NPR journalist?
SHAPIRO: Yeah. I wrote these lyrics, so...
GROSS: Oh, great.
SHAPIRO: Let me see if I can remember them.
GROSS: Oh, perfect. OK.
SHAPIRO: He sings - I'm just going to go from the beginning because I...
GROSS: OK. That's fine.
SHAPIRO: I can't - OK. So I sing, (singing) you're the top. You are joie de vivre. You're the top. You're a Broadway diva. You're a graceful swan. Your name is on a bar. You are wild and frisky, a Scottish whiskey, a movie star.
Then he goes, (singing) you're the top. You leave haters cursin'. You're the top. You're taller in person. I was Mr. Floop, but you get the scoop. You pop. And if, baby, I'm the bottom, you're the top.
Then we modulate up a half step. Then I sing, (singing) you're the top. You're a vegan dinner. You're the top. You're a Tony winner. You are "Cabaret," a Shakespeare play, a dream. You're the Oxford comma, a network drama, you're self-esteem.
And then he sings, (singing) you're the top. Your career is glittered. You're the top. You're All Things Considered, an effete aesthete, a garden's bumper crop. But if, baby, I'm the bottom, you're the top.
I was proud of an effete aesthete, a garden's bumper crop.
SHAPIRO: I was proud of that one.
GROSS: (Laughter) That's great. So after performing with Alan Cumming, doing your cabaret show on Fire Island, you went to a gay underwear party, which means everybody was in their underwear, unless they were wearing, like, a jockstrap instead.
SHAPIRO: Alan had a jockstrap, yeah.
GROSS: Yes. Did you have any reservations about including that in your book? I'm glad you put it in. It's a very enjoyable story, but...
SHAPIRO: It crossed my mind not to include it, but I just had to - you know, so I'm particularly proud of the way that chapter ends because during the Fire Island show, Chita Rivera made a surprise appearance with us singing the song "Nowadays." And that song, "Nowadays," is about squeezing every drop of juice you can out of life. And the idea of going to this underwear party where - we were staying in this sort of, like, dormitory house where all the go-go dancers were also staying. So we had had breakfast with all of them. And so we were meeting these people like they were old friends as they're dancing on boxes.
And Alan, who's far more famous than I am, is walking around in a jockstrap. And, I mean, as I describe it, Alan's husband, who has this very deadpan sense of humor - these people were coming up, and they were congratulating us on the show they had just seen. And Alan's husband leaned over and said, do you ever have that dream that people are congratulating you on the show you just did, and then you realize you're not wearing any clothes?
GROSS: I know. That is so great. Yeah.
SHAPIRO: I thought, this really is a dream.
SHAPIRO: There were other things I left out of the book, but the underwear party stayed in.
GROSS: But the thing is, in the dream, it's incredibly embarrassing...
GROSS: ...Whereas it was really fun in real life...
SHAPIRO: It was really fun.
GROSS: ...Because it was intentional. And you were all in on it.
SHAPIRO: And I end the chapter with a lyric from "Nowadays," saying, there were...
GROSS: Why don't you sing it?
SHAPIRO: Well, the song begins - it's good. Isn't it grand? Isn't it great? Isn't it swell? (Singing) Isn't it fun? Isn't it nowadays?
And we had talked about Chita Rivera when we did it at Fire Island. And then she stepped out of the wings, spotlight on her. People erupted in joy and cheering. And she said to this Fire Island audience, (singing) there's men everywhere.
Big laugh. (Singing) Jazz everywhere, booze everywhere, life everywhere, joy everywhere nowadays.
And so I end the chapter after telling that story about Alan's husband saying, do you ever have that dream where you realize - I end the chapter saying, there was booze everywhere, life everywhere, joy everywhere.
GROSS: My guest is Ari Shapiro, one of the hosts of All Things Considered, who's been with NPR for about 20 years in many different capacities. He has a new memoir, which is called "The Best Strangers In The World." This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF CLARK TERRY'S "IMPULSIVE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Ari Shapiro, one of the hosts of All Things Considered. He's been with NPR for about 20 years, serving in a lot of different capacities including Justice Department reporter, White House correspondent, London bureau chief and foreign correspondent.
There's something in your book that I regret that you said, and I think it's going to have negative consequences.
SHAPIRO: Oh, wow. I'm really curious to hear what it is.
GROSS: OK, let me tell you. You say - this is advice you give to your readers. You say if someone asks you a question...
SHAPIRO: Oh (laughter).
GROSS: ...You don't feel like answering and you don't feel like answering it at a dinner party or during an interview, start - wait, wait. Let me finish.
GROSS: Start by thanking that person for the excellent question, then pretend they asked something else, and confidently answer the imaginary one without missing a beat.
SHAPIRO: I'm kind of (ph)...
GROSS: Do it with enough conviction, and no one will care. Ari.
SHAPIRO: (Laughter) I was so afraid of what you were going to say.
GROSS: Ari, you were telling people to dodge questions when we interview them.
SHAPIRO: But, Terry, people do that all the time already. I'm just giving civilians the toolkit that every senator and congressperson already has.
GROSS: You're reinforcing it.
GROSS: Don't you hate it when people dodge your questions and act like they're answering it?
SHAPIRO: Sure. But if the story is good enough - you know what? I love a good story. If I asked about the best thing that happened to you in the first grade and you tell me about something that happened to you in the fifth grade and the fifth-grade story is fantastic, I'll run with you.
GROSS: Yes, but if it's a politician who's dodging you and they're doing it because they don't want to answer 'cause it...
SHAPIRO: Oh, of course. Yeah.
GROSS: Yeah. How do you how do you deal with that?
SHAPIRO: Well, it's different depending on whether it's a prerecorded or a live interview. If it's a live interview, I have to look at how much time there is left and decide whether I want to say, OK, but you didn't answer the question, so let me re-ask, knowing that that means I'm not going to get to the next thing. Option two is to say, well, that wasn't really an answer to that question, but I want to move on. So you recognize but don't take the time to beat the drum. And option No. 3 is you just let it go, trust that the listener heard that the question wasn't answered, and move on to the next thing. That's if it's a live interview.
If it's a pre-taped interview, you can do whatever you want. And generally, I'll say, OK, let me re-ask, or, but put a different way. Or I'll - you know, sometimes I will literally restate the exact same words. If I think the person in good faith just gave a different answer than whatever I might have been in search of, I'll find a way to rephrase the question so it doesn't sound like I'm asking the same thing. But I will sometimes, verbatim, word for word, ask the exact same question in the exact same way just so it's really clear, you know and I know exactly what happened here and you can do what you want to do with the question I asked, but I'm not going to ask it any differently.
GROSS: And you'll leave that re-ask in the final version...
GROSS: ...To let listeners know this person's dodging.
GROSS: So you're on a book tour now. You're going to be interviewed in, like, 11 different cities. Being an interviewer yourself, among other things, what do you find frustrating as an interviewee?
SHAPIRO: I think the biggest mistake interviewers make - and I make this myself - is not actually listening and responding. People often will go into an interview with a list of questions. And when you finish answering question No. 1, they will go to question No. 2 even if your answer to question No. 1 opened a door to a path that will lead to places that the interviewer could not have known existed. So that's sort of the first pet peeve. The second one is - and I know you share this - superlative questions.
GROSS: Oh. Yeah.
SHAPIRO: Tell me about the best, the toughest, the most...
SHAPIRO: And a really easy way to tweak that is just, tell me about a conversation that was especially fill-in-the-blank. Because if you ask me to choose the best interview that I ever did, I will be paralyzed. I will not be able to answer that question. But if you ask me to tell you about an especially memorable interview that I did in the last month or an especially, you know, rewarding interview that I did overseas, then I've got a million to choose from, and I can tell you stories all day.
GROSS: It's been so great talking with you.
SHAPIRO: Thank you so much, Terry.
GROSS: Thank you so much. And thanks for writing your memoir. I really, really enjoyed it.
SHAPIRO: It means the world to hear you say that.
GROSS: Ari Shapiro is one of the hosts of All Things Considered. His new memoir is called "The Best Strangers In The World."
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the period journalist Michael Musto described as the drag boom of the 1980s and '90s, when New York's club scene was filled with drag performers who perfected the art form. My guest will be drag performer Linda Simpson, who documented that scene in over 5,000 photos. Tennessee's anti-drag law goes into effect next week.
Also, we listen back to an interview with Bishop Frank Griswold, who died earlier this month. During his nine-year tenure as the leader of the U.S. Episcopal Church, he presided over the consecration and ordination of the church's first openly gay bishop. I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA VIE EN ROSE")
JACKY TERRASSON: (Speaking French).
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I am Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF JACKY TERRASSON'S "LA VIE EN ROSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.