The Quality More Important Than Confidence

The host of public radio’s 1A on how support from his West Palm Beach community cannonballed him into media

An illustration of Joshua Johnson
Stephen Voss / WAMU 88.5 / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

When Joshua Johnson, the host of WAMU 88.5’s 1A, was growing up, West Palm Beach was a “big town trying to work its way up to being a small city.” It was, and still is, largely built on tourism and real estate. He grew up middle-class, surrounded by supportive family members who never pushed him in any particular direction, but made being successful an imperative.

He participated in career-related programs for students of color that centered on STEM (partly at the urging of his mother), but it wasn’t until traveling to Canada as a high schooler and visiting media stations that he fell in love with broadcasting. In addition to hosting 1A, which is part of D.C.’s NPR station called WAMU, Johnson used to teach podcasting at UC Berkeley.

I recently spoke with Johnson about an early foray into medicine, the importance of being proactive, and the irrelevance, at times, of having a Plan B. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Lola Fadulu: What was your first job?

Joshua Johnson: It wasn’t a job, but it was a kind of working experience. I was probably 11. I was helping my grandmother, who was a housekeeper for decades over on the island of Palm Beach. I remember helping her serve at an event because someone had flaked, and so we all kind of pitched in to help hold trays of canapés or whatever. And it took me a while to realize that the white people who were telling me how articulate and well spoken I was were not actually paying me an ennobling compliment. It was the first time I can remember being damned with faint praise, and having to grapple with that.

Fadulu: How did you realize that these weren’t actually compliments?

Johnson: It was the way you can tell that Sweet’N Low is not sugar. It’s this almost overly sugary, cavity-inducing, cloying sycophancy, like: “Oh my goodness, look at you. Where did you come from? I’ve never met anybody like you. You are incredibly articulate. I couldn’t believe that you … ” It was that.

And I could tell: This is not natural. It’s sweet, but it’s not real. And I don’t want to binge on this, because this is hazardous to my health.

Fadulu:  Do you remember any career advice that your parents gave you?

Johnson: My family wanted me to be successful. It was very clear that a lot had been invested in me by the family and the community and the church, and, you know, folks at the schools I attended who kept an eye on me at my mother’s request—and that whatever I did, I was to do it 100 percent.

I knew that I had a gift for gab. My grandmother—my mother’s mother—believed that I was going to be a preacher, which I guess in some ways I am now.

I was encouraged to take part in a variety of career-related programs, including SECME, which is a program for students of color to learn about math, science, and engineering, and a program out of Temple University, in Philadelphia, at the medical school, for students of color to learn about careers in medical research. That was where I had my first job that actually had a major impact—the program at Temple.

Fadulu: What were you doing in your first job at Temple?

Johnson: It was called the Minority Access to Research Careers program, or the MARC program.

It was a program where students of color, mostly high schoolers, were brought to Temple to work in research labs, shadow a research doctor, assist with the work, and then present a research project at the end of the summer.

We also did clinical rotations at Temple University Hospital, and I was the first middle schooler to be part of the program. I joined the program when I was 13 years old, in seventh grade. I stayed for six summers. Three in Philadelphia and three in Canada at McGill University, in Montreal; at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver; and at the University of Toronto.

Fadulu: Were you interested in going into medicine?

Johnson: I hadn’t thought of it until my mother suggested the program, and I only gave it a try ’cause it was an interesting thing I’d never done, and there was no pressure. She said, “If you don’t want to be a doctor, that’s fine, but I want you to try this.” She was going to be working in the program as an instructor, teaching research skills to the other students, so she would be there and could keep an eye on me. And it was a paid program, so I would be getting some money in my pocket, some valuable experience, and doing something different, and we would be able to poke around Philly for the summer. So I figured, “What do I have to lose?”

Fadulu: You ultimately chose a different path.

Johnson: Wasn’t for me. It didn’t appeal to me. It seemed like an immense amount of education to wait to do something that I wasn’t really dying to do. I was always excited by broadcasting and the performing arts. Those were my two first loves, and so I knew I had an affinity for those.

Over time, in the program, it became really clear that I could make a very good doctor, but I didn’t really want to, and I would miss not pursuing broadcasting. Once I started the program in Canada, I started seeing media and broadcasting in a different light that made me even more enamored with it.

And every single summer—when I was in Montreal, when I was in Vancouver, when I was in Toronto—I got closer and closer to the media and fell more in love with it, to the point where I said, “I gotta stop doing this. I’m not going to lie to myself and pretend that medicine would make me as happy as media.” And so I walked away from it.

Fadulu: So what were you seeing in Canada? How were you getting closer to media there?

Johnson: In a couple of ways. When I was in Vancouver and Toronto, I talked my way into touring local stations there. In Vancouver, I talked my way into a tour of a station called VTV, Vancouver Television—which at the time was one of the most original, groundbreaking, beautiful indie stations in the country. They did news and sports and were very community-oriented. It’s what NPR would be if NPR was a commercial television station. It was really extraordinary.

And when I lived in Toronto, I talked my way into seeing a station called Citytv, which is kind of the independent broadcaster in Canada, and also into touring the [English-language programming] headquarters of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. So I got to see the CBC in Toronto. And when I saw them, I just … That was it for me. That was the end of the rainbow.

The summer I was in Montreal, I kind of got hooked in a weird way. I got hooked through movies. And that summer, I began to see movies in a more critical light that made me understand how they’re made and emboldened me to think about how I could tell stories better if I was the one in charge.

Fadulu: How did you talk yourself into these tours?

Johnson: I nagged and hung around. I think people don’t realize the power of asking. Of just saying, “Hey, I’m really interested. This looks cool to me. I don’t mean to be a pest, but is there any way I could get in and just see it?”

More people would get farther if they would just ask. Public radio has built many careers for people who just asked, particularly to be volunteers. And they get in the door and they start learning how things work and then before you know it, they have skills for a job.

I figured the worst they could tell me was no. And sometimes I just had to kind of nag until I got a definitive answer, but the definitive answer was never no. It was always yes. I think the fact that I was willing to ask assertively and respectfully made a world of difference.

Fadulu: Interesting. So then you go off to the University of Miami. And I guess you made this realization that you’re not going to go the medical path, and you’re starting college. How did that look? Did you have a plan for what you wanted to achieve in college?

Johnson: Yeah. I registered at UM studying theater, film, and premed. And premed fell away as soon as I took Calc 2 and Chem 2. That was that. That was it for me. I think I got a C in Calc 2 and I bled my way to a B– in Chem 2, if memory serves. I was like, I need to quit or I’m going to die.

So I dropped premed. I had done film, including filmmaking and film history and screenwriting, at UM. I realized I was a better fit for broadcasting, and I changed my major from film to broadcasting, kept theater, and somehow still managed to graduate in four years.

Fadulu: What was keeping you sort of thinking about premed when you enrolled?

Johnson: Well, I wanted to have a backup plan in case the whole broadcasting/media/performing-arts thing didn’t fly. The fact of the matter is that it took me a while to realize that the time I was wasting on Plan B, I could have been spending on Plan A. I knew what I actually wanted, so why the hell was I wasting my time? I knew medicine wouldn’t make me happy. I knew that if I went into medicine to pay bills, then that’s kind of a cowardly reason to go into something you don’t love. And I knew I was really, really, really good at communication, so I could probably earn a great career if I built my skills to the level of my ability. So what did I have to be afraid of?

It took me a while to build up the confidence and rest on that, but once I did, I wasn’t looking back.

Fadulu: Do you know what would have happened if things hadn’t worked out with broadcasting and film and all of that?

Johnson: I don’t know what would have happened. I really don’t care. Like, I would have driven this thing until the wheels fell off. There’s nothing I can think of that would have fulfilled me like this.

Either go chase the thing that will fulfill you, or live with the regret. And I was not prepared to live with that kind of regret, ’cause that’s something else I saw growing up—people who never bothered to figure out what their calling was. Or, worse, they found out and they pulled over and parked for some reason, and never got back on the road to it. That’s worse.

And it doesn’t make them bad people. It doesn’t mean they’re not lovable or worthy, but that’s not me. And that wasn’t what I was put here for.

So the prospect of dying on the road to what I wanted, or decaying on the side of the road, safe and out of traffic—it’s a no-brainer. You drive. You drive until you’re out of gas, or until someone comes to bring you fuel, but drive your ass off and get there.

Decisiveness is more important than confidence. You don’t need to be confident. You just need to go. Just start. You will figure it out. Stop whining about what you don’t have. You have feet, so start walking toward what you want. Just go.