I’m trying to get inside your head and inside the White House,” says Marty Moss-Coane, interviewing Fire and Fury author Michael Wolff.
The book is a behind-the-scenes tell-all about the Trump administration. Although it became a best-seller, Wolff came under scrutiny for some of its fuzzy facts. When Moss-Coane asks about his reporting methods, Wolff gets downright prickly. Disdain drips through his voice as he gives terse answers. But Moss-Coane doesn’t apologize or downshift to lighter questions. If Wolff wanted a softball interview, he went on the wrong show.
Since 1987, WHYY’s Radio Times has been a forum for in-depth discussions about thorny issues. According to the station, the live show averages 90,000 listeners per week. That’s just in the metropolitan area—thousands more tune in to WHYY-owned stations in New Jersey and on Sirius XM. Shows are also available on demand. Radio Times podcasts receive an average of 33,000 downloads every week.
In a media world filled with constantly non-breaking “breaking news” and an overdependence on anonymous sources, Moss-Coane proudly practices what she calls old-fashioned journalism. “We build interviews around information that we have vetted, that comes from reliable sources, and is factual if it is mixed with opinion,” she says. “‘Stand with the facts’ is public radio’s mantra. Millions of people across the country want facts but are willing to entertain points of view that might not be their own. That’s a tricky thing, but I think the public-radio audience wants to be informed.”
Still, the advent of “fake news” has left its mark. “Listeners are definitely more skeptical—of me, of our guests, and of information that comes out on the show,” she says.
One of Moss-Coane’s remedies is to take her time when covering certain issues. “I’d rather be right than early,” she says.
That’s her approach with the #MeToo movement. While cable TV news shows tend to lump accusations of sexual misconduct into one ugly pile, Moss-Coane feels that the issue is too nuanced to be simplified. “Some accusations were horrific, awful and embarrassing, but others were criminal,” she says. “I think that distinction is being lost. We have been here before, with Anita Hill and other women. Now, we’re at a moment when we need to get this right.”
To further that end of the conversation, Moss-Coane did several #MeToo shows, and it’s a topic she’ll continue to follow.
Despite her best efforts, Moss-Coane fully admits to accidental errors, many of which are because the show is live. Neither she nor her producers know what guests will say. That’s one reason why they are so heavily vetted. Being a “good talker” is also important. “Just because someone wrote a book and is an expert on a topic doesn’t mean he or she will be a good guest,” Moss-Coane says.
She and the producers want guests to offer fresh insights and thoughtful commentary—but speak conversationally, not in platitudes or lectures. “You can’t give seven-minute answers,” says Moss-Coane.
She’s become adept at politely but firmly directing guests. But it wasn’t always like that. Moss-Coane uptalked her way through the show’s first few years, asking questions in a voice she describes as girlish and tentative. “Some guests walked all over me,” she admits. “It was completely humiliating. Now, I ask questions differently. I’m not so breezy.”
Some of that professional insecurity may have resulted from the circuitous path Moss-Coane took to becoming a radio-show host. She calls herself a college dropout, laughingly explaining that she left George Washington University after two years. She bounced around for a bit, working a series of jobs perfectly suited to the early 1970s—like cooking at a macrobiotic-vegetarian restaurant that served $1 dishes—and married her husband, Jim Coane. Two years later, Moss-Coane went back to school and earned a liberal arts degree from Temple University. Then, she worked as a counselor in Philadelphia public schools and as a case manager in a North Philadelphia community health center.
In 1980, she discovered her real passion: WHYY. “I started as a volunteer in the newsroom,” she says. “I called and said, ‘Teach me. I’ll work for free.’”
She worked her way from volunteer to reporter, then to creator and producer of the show that became Voices in the Family with Dan Gottlieb. Finally, it was Moss-Coane’s turn to take the microphone. Radio Times premiered in April 1987.
Although Moss-Coane reduced her hosting duties from two hours to one in 2017, the show maintains the same format it had when it started. Many WHYY programs are taped and edited, but Moss-Coane prefers being live, even though guests and callers can be so unpredictable.
Much listener feedback now comes from social media, which Radio Times successfully incorporates into the show. Moss-Coane reads emails, tweets and Facebook posts on the air.
She also gets plenty of correspondence from listeners who criticize her grammar and articulation of certain words. Moss-Coane saves her “favorite” pieces of hate mail. In honor of the show’s anniversary, she asked 1812 Productions to read them to her on stage for invited guests. “One of the most common criticisms is that listeners think that I say ‘Penn-sa-vania,’ as opposed to ‘Penn-syl-vania,’” Moss-Coane says with a laugh.
Still, Moss-Coane’s audience sticks with her—something she credits to the show’s mix of topics. But it may be her fearlessness that listeners most admire. That was on full display during the Wolff interview. His tone didn’t faze Moss-Coane one bit. In her mind, she’s a surrogate for Radio Times listeners. It’s her job to ask questions that everyone wants answered.