Like many people around the world, holidays lost much of their appeal for me over the past year. Socially distant gatherings outside became monotonous in a city whose only season is chilly. I couldn’t enjoy a festive meal with family, and even if I could, an added trip to the grocery store for Thanksgiving ingredients would just feel like an unnecessary risk in a COVID world.
One of the few benefits of pandemic life, however, has been listening to NPR’s Morning Edition every day. What had been scattered stories on a 20-minute commute is now an uninterrupted hour of news and culture. Making breakfast and washing dishes has never been more educational. As 2020 unfolded, my relationships with the Morning Edition talent gradually morphed from informative journalists to fleshed out allies in the battle to maintain sanity in a rudderless world. The aimlessness became so extreme that I’d forget it was Friday until hearing the weekly StoryCorps segment.
Now I spend more time with the hosts than anyone outside my home. As a result, I’ve begun to know them better, noticing a shift in how I listen to them just as much as, if not more than, the interviewees. I can tell when Steve Inskeep is going to sternly push back on an assumption, or when Rachel Martin is going to press a politician to provide anecdotal evidence supporting a misleading claim. Eventually, these journalists became my friends. And since the pandemic prevented me from enjoying many holidays with my friends, I instead imagined celebrating with my new pals at NPR.
At a Fourth of July barbecue, my friends and I relaxed on deck chairs listening to Noel King nimbly delve into a variety of topics while sampling local beers from the cooler. She cheerfully explained behavioral economics while sipping a Death & Taxes tallboy, and carried the conversation about greatest rappers of all time while drinking her Racer 5. Scott Horsley, manning the grill, seemed content to listen but would occasionally chime in with an interesting fact while cheerfully serving burgers and barbecue chicken. When a raven shat on my cheeseburger, Noel erupted in laughter while Scott chuckled and immediately began cooking me another. As the northwest sun slipped into the Pacific, the cheap beer came out and the drinking games began. Scott politely declined and said his goodbyes, but not before cleaning the grill and teaching us about Kottabos, the original drinking game. Noel’s youthful energy made her everyone’s choice for a teammate during Flip Cup, and to this day my friends still talk about her enthusiastic high-fives and friendly competitive spirit.
Eleanor Beardlsey showed up to my Halloween party in a homemade Eiffel Tower costume and immediately made her way to the bar, where she began serving up Sidecars. Like a sophisticated aunt who always has new stories of life in France, she calmly told my friends where to find Paris’ tastiest pastries and swankiest bars when they visit next year. In the living room, Lulu Garcia-Navarro got to know guests by asking about their interests and experiences. Her quick wit, which she uses each week to help callers during Sunday Puzzle, allowed her to crack jokes by connecting the conversation back to something that was said an hour earlier. Later in the night, she found her way to the garage and dominated the traditional ping pong tournament. Lulu dedicated her win to unofficial coach Will Shortz, then hurried back into the house to satisfy her love for singing by joining the Karaoke crowd. With the voice of a retired lounge singer, it was no surprise when Eleanor stole the show with her rendition of Genie in a Bottle, complete with dance moves.
Thanksgiving was a wonderful reminder of how grateful I am for NPR, as I welcomed a slew of on-air personalities over for dinner this year. Jack Spear spent much of the afternoon in the TV room, keeping one eye on the football game while answering financial questions from the millennials in the room. At dinner, Grandma insisted he say grace before the meal, if only to hear more of his rich melodic voice.
Rachel Martin doled out advice to other guests on dating and disagreements with their parents. Her stories from Iraq and Afghanistan enamored my Republican uncle, while her tales of living in Berlin captivated my bohemian niece. During the feast, she asked everyone at the table to share one thing they’re thankful for, carefully jotting down each response with the promise of delivering the material to Kwame Alexander for his next broadcast poem. After grabbing seconds of dark meat and stuffing, she listened intently to my cousin lament about getting laid off before wandering down to the finished basement to join the kids playing Chutes and Ladders.
David Greene’s sensitivity and love for music made him a hit with my younger cousins. His ability to diffuse tense situations came in handy when my dad became agitated and began parroting MAGA propaganda. David gently nodded and said, “That’s interesting, and I’d love to hear why you believe that,” as several people left the table. After dinner, he thumbed through my vinyl collection and found elements to appreciate on every record I played as we sipped bourbon and debated Modest Mouse’s greatest album.
Ayesha Rascoe and Scott Detrow showed up just in time for dessert, bringing with them an assortment of beers and pies. Their easy banter filled the dining room with laughter, and the elders immediately took a liking to the two reporters who are serious about their careers without taking themselves too seriously. The twentysomethings also appreciated Scott for (barely) passing as cool while discussing Cardi B and the D.C. bar scene, and delighted in watching Ayesha politely yet firmly point out my mom’s microaggression when commending Candace Owens for being “well-spoken.”
One of the highlights from this year’s potluck holiday party was the arrival of Steve Inskeep, Yuki Noguchi, Nina Totenberg, and Mara Liasson (with her dog Buster) in an Uber. Guests scrambled to watch from the windows as the group spilled out of a Ford Fiesta, and a mixture of shouts and chuckles reverberated through the house as we watched Mara pound on the trunk while chasing the car for several yards before the driver realized they still needed to grab dishes and presents from the trunk. As guests settled into seats at the folding tables bridging the dining and living rooms, Nina lauded the Brussels sprouts and sauv blanc, reminiscing about wine dates with her dear friend Ruth Bader Ginsburg. After we all honored the late Justice with a toast, Nina rehashed other stories about her days in D.C. fighting for women’s rights while forging a career in the male-dominated world of journalism.
Mara chimed in with her own accounts of life in the Beltway, captivating us with stories of past presidents while covering The White House. We howled as she revealed Bill Clinton always wore too much Drakkar Noir, and giggled when she admitted George W. Bush had confided to her that he couldn’t bring himself to wear shoes for a week after having one thrown at him in Iraq.
My brother gleefully geeked out on history and cinematography with Yuki, and I couldn’t hide my smile when the science reporter offered numerous facts to graciously debunk his conspiracy theories. Later, I teased the St. Louis native about her hometown beer as we sampled holiday microbrews and swapped late-night Adams-Morgan stories from our twenties. Our conversation was interrupted by a sudden guffaw when Buster began humping the tree after drinking someone’s spiced eggnog that had been left on the floor. Our side-splitting laughter led to Yuki falling out of her chair, so I made sure to snap a few photos for her next Christmas card before helping her up.
Steve talked college basketball with Gramps during dinner, and empathized with the doctors and nurses in my family as they shared first-person accounts of treating COVID-19 patients. After relocating to the living room, we all shared our favorite interviews from his career. Aunt Debbie highlighted several times he grilled Republican lawmakers, while I brought up his unintentionally comedic interview with Deltron 3030, if only because I got to hear Steve say “Del the Funky Homo Sapien” on my pre-dawn drive to work. His hearty laugh was everyone’s highlight of the night, especially during the Yankee Swap when he realized he’d be stuck with the edible underwear my cousin Jamie had contributed to the game.
We said our goodbyes just after midnight as my NPR friends grabbed their gifts and leftovers before carefully descending the front steps. Phones illuminated their faces as they checked for news updates and tracked the status of their Ubers. One by one they climbed into cars and disappeared down the road, eventually leaving me alone on the top step. Beneath a silent winter sky, with just days left in a tumultuous year, I contemplated the invisible virus that had ravaged the world for much of 2020. I thought of America’s divisive, fear-mongering leaders and how their words had fed an even more dangerous enemy — hate.
But then I shifted my gaze south, finding solace in the familiar view of Sutro Tower overlooking the city. The beacon reminded me there’s another unseen force combating the president’s dog whistles and disinformation. All around me were radio waves, carrying with them the reassuring voices of my NPR friends as they provided the same fact-based news and stories to people all across the country, regardless of what they look like or whom they voted for.
I closed my eyes and tried to feel the waves penetrating my body, imagining them serving as antibodies for so many Americans sickened by alternative facts. I wondered if our country’s reputable reporters knew how important they were to our country, members of the free press considered by our forefathers to be so vital to our nation’s existence that they included it in the First Amendment. I wondered how the previous four years would impact the future of journalism in our country and around the world, and was filled with the almost forgotten feeling of hope.
As I stepped back inside the warm house, I was left with one last question. When they get into an Uber, do the reporters ask their drivers to change the radio to NPR?