© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Want to be an NPR host like Scott Detrow? Pick up a book and start reading voraciously

two people on stage
Troye C Fox
WUWM's Maayan Silver talking with NPR's Scott Detrow in Milwaukee.

NPR’s Scott Detrow has covered Republican and Democratic presidential campaigns, Congress, the White House and even the war in Ukraine from Kyiv. But, in recent months, Detrow switched from full-time reporter to host of Weekend All Things Considered. Now, he also contemplates topics like blues music, new literature and Popeyes chicken sandwiches.

Detrow talks with WUWM's Maayan Silver about his transition and what history does and does not tell us about how to approach the 2024 election. Here are portions of the Q&A.

So one thing that people might not know is that you actually went to Marquette University High School. Can you let us in on your Milwaukee roots?

Yeah, my family moved to Milwaukee when I was 16. I grew up in New Jersey, and then we moved out here and like, it's kind of on one hand, that seems like it might be a worst-case scenario, like you are moving in the middle of your sophomore year of high school. "Congratulations. Good luck."

But actually, it was a wonderful experience. And I quickly connected with and made really close friends in Milwaukee that I'm still in touch with and basically lived here for all of high school. And it felt very much like home. And it's always been nice to have that baseline experience of living here, and knowing [Milwaukee], when obviously, Wisconsin is a very important state for the stuff that I cover.

You covered the 2016 Wisconsin primary when you were a campaign reporter following the Republican candidates. The two primaries that year included former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders on the left and Texas U.S. Senator Ted Cruz and businessman Donald Trump on the right. Cruz beat Trump, Sanders beat Clinton. What do you remember from your time in Wisconsin covering that primary?

One [memory] was being at this big event at Serb Hall. And it was really fun to be there just because like there are so many iconic political scenes from the years there. I think for a lot of people who cover politics or follow politics, the book Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail by Hunter S. Thompson is like this big looming thing. There's the scenes that he's following around the 1972 primary candidates to Serb Hall.

And the other thing I remember is covering a Donald Trump-Sarah Palin joint rally. And Sarah Palin coming out on stage to the tunes from Jock Jams. I was like, "This is a really weird scene, what was going on here?" I feel like that was an early indicator. She was a predecessor to the politics of Donald Trump of "this is what a lot of voters want." And it's not necessarily conversations about policy. It's kind of like politics as this cultural identifier, almost entertainment moment.

Something that you reported on at the time that stuck out to you was how unpopular Trump was in Wisconsin in April 2016. But then, of course, things changed, and he ended up winning Wisconsin and winning the presidency. That's the elephant in the room that's continuing to rear its head in this 2024 election. How have campaigns become so much more high stakes now?

It’s so dangerous to not learn lessons from what you've covered before. And it's also sometimes equally dangerous to learn lessons from what you've covered, because I remember that some of the things I thought were very clear based on evidence in the 2016 primaries was, "Well, maybe rally sizes don't actually tell us that much about how popular a candidate is." Because Bernie Sanders got these massive rallies. He had those huge rallies in Madison, Wisconsin, right? He had this kind of cult following. But he ended up ultimately losing the primary to Hillary Clinton. More people voted for Hillary Clinton than Bernie Sanders, so it tells us something, but maybe it doesn't necessarily tell me anything. Then I was applying that kind of wrongly to the Trump campaign, "He's got these big rallies. But does he really have this broad base?" Turns out he did have enough enthusiasm to win the presidency.

The [2016] election made clear that partisanship goes so far on both sides, and we're seeing it again with this election. At the end of the day, whether someone is in your camp or not from your party is almost like the main indicator, and it's really just at the margins [of voters for whom] whether a candidate's behavior or personality affects them so much that somebody is either going to not vote for the party they usually vote for, or do the very extreme — in the current environment — step of voting for the other party.

We could be seeing Trump-Biden rematch in 2024. And many people, including Biden, are sounding the alarm. Trump has four indictments has been found civilly liable for sexual assault, and has suggested that General Mark Milley, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff should be executed for standing up against him in 2020. Yet a majority of Republican voters still support Trump. What do you say to people who say that NPR can't normalize Trump and treat the potential of a second Trump candidacy as business as usual?

Look, it's an enormous challenge, right. And it became even more of a challenge based on what Trump did after the 2020 election, which was deny the results of that election and try to overthrow the results of an election tried to stay in power, even though he had lost the election and his term as president had ended. [All of which] culminated in the attack on the U.S. Capitol [in January 2021]. And now we're seeing him face criminal charges for that. So, on one hand, you have to keep that in mind. On the other hand, you have to report on what is happening.

And I feel like so many people want to talk about normalization and want to talk about, “Did the media give Trump too much attention in 2016?” And I think that's a very fair conversation to have. But I think there's also a danger in not covering what's going on and not telling people what a candidate is saying and being clear about what he wants to do. I mean, I think Trump has been very clear about what he would want to do if he retakes the White House, and a lot of that has to do with personal retribution more than any sort of policy agenda. And I think it's important to talk about that.

Detrow asks himself: So how do you do it right? What's the responsible way to do that reporting?

I think it is putting as much context as possible around it. And I think when Steve Inskeep interviewed Donald Trump, I thought that was a perfect playbook on how to to interview someone like Trump and how to put it on the air. There was an interview, you heard the back and forth, but there was reporting around it. Steve would pop out of the conversation and fact check it, he would pop out and talk to an expert reporter putting context around what it is that Trump was talking about.

So [it's] not just handing [someone] a microphone, just saying, “This is what happened at the rally today. This is the thing he said.” But [it's] explaining the background and explaining the story. And I think it is important to point out to people as much as possible, that he is somebody who's facing criminal charges. He is somebody who was impeached twice. He is somebody who continues to deny the clear results of an election that he lost.

At the same time, it's a time of increasing fatigue when it comes to politics. People just don't want to hear about it. They don't necessarily like the options they have. They might not be interested in politics in general. How do you, as someone on NPR, make politics accessible or make these issues important to people again?

I've switched jobs, and I'm no longer a full-time political reporter. Now, I host All Things Considered on the weekend. So, I'm doing a ton of political coverage. But I'm also thinking about what are the other stories happening? … There’s going to be this seemingly existential election, and that's going to require a lot of our time. But there's other stuff to talk about too. When it comes to making politics accessible and making people want to keep listening, I feel like it's the strength that public radio does so well of telling people stories, bringing you along to meet people, to learn about people, to learn about how this affects their lives, telling stuff through stories, not just lecturing. [Public radio reporters can] get out there into the world and bring people along and teach them something and make them interested in the story.

Is it somewhat of a relief to be able to think about things like music and art and Popeyes chicken sandwiches during the work day?

Yes, yes. I'm not gonna lie. It’s nice. It's fun to do stories like that. But I think it's also things that people want to hear, right? People want to hear about a musician. People want to hear about kind of weird food news, people want to be taken to fun places. That's important too, as much as the serious news that we're covering. And I love being able to do that. I mean, there's times that I miss covering politics full time, there's times when I'm thrilled that that my friends on the politics team covered it so I could just listen to what they had to say.

Has there been something where you're like, ‘I really don't want to consider that.’ And then they're like, ‘You have to consider it?’

There's so many things to consider each day! That's been the biggest surprise … in this new job. I'll be doing a feature on voters, then five minutes later, you have to do a really intense interview about the police killing of an unarmed man, and then you have to wildly shift gears and go eat a chicken sandwich on the radio. And you have to reset your brain over and over again and prep yourself over and over again. And that's why you're working with a great production team, because sometimes you walk out of an interview on one topic, and you walk into the next door studio, and you're like, ‘OK, what are we talking about now?’ and somebody says, ‘Here's all the research I put together, you can skim it real quick,’ and [you] get yourself in the brain space to have a totally different conversation. I appreciate that, but it's wild sometimes how quickly have to shift your brain.

Is there a hobby or some experience that you have had that you draw upon to be a well-rounded public radio host?

I've always loved to read and continue to love to read and love to read everything, like any genre — history, fiction, short stories, novels, poems. I've always just consumed information. You mentioned high school, I remember struggling through math class, and sometimes sitting there skimming a Newsweek or a Time magazine in the back row and paying more attention to current events than math, which worked out OK for me in life, I think. Sorry, to my math teacher. But, [I was] just always sucking information. And I feel like over time, I kind of developed the ability to read pretty quickly and retain stuff, which has been like very helpful when you're like, ‘OK, now we're talking about this topic, read as much as you can for an hour and then get in to the studio and interview somebody about it.’ So that's been really, really helpful. And I think [ it was] part of the appeal that drew me to wanting to be a reporter to begin with.

Maayan is a WUWM news reporter.
Related Content