Nationally syndicated radio host and award-winning journalist Tom Ashbrook, 60, was born and raised in Bloomington, Illinois, and studied at Yale University and Andhra University in India. Before becoming a journalist, he worked as a surveyor in Alaska and as a Hong Kong television personality. He spent 10 years in Asia, reporting first for The South China Morning Post and then for The Boston Globe. He served as deputy managing editor of The Globe until 1996, when he became a Nieman fellow at Harvard. His four-year stint as an internet entrepreneur is chronicled in his book The Leap: A Memoir of Love and Madness in the Internet Gold Rush. After 9/11, he was recruited by WBUR and NPR to host On Point, a daily two-hour news program broadcast nationally. He lives in Newton.
Jonathan Soroff: Most bizarre thing you’ve ever heard in the news?
Tom Ashbrook: Every second thing out of Donald Trump’s mouth. What’s more bizarre than a presidential candidate without bounds? That’s something so new it freaks me out.
It feels like the news cycle continues to shorten. How has that affected On Point? We’re ready to change topics on very short notice, and we do. It’s not uncommon for us to plan something in the morning and then shift in the afternoon to something that’s hotter. On the other hand, we don’t want to jump around like fleas. If something’s important, you want to keep your eye trained on it. We can all get lost in the popping popcorn of the 5-minute news cycle. We try to keep our eye on the prize.
You lived in Hong Kong for many years. Favorite food city in the world? Yeah. I lived in India, Hong Kong and Tokyo. They’re all really great food locations, but Hong Kong just pulls the most strands together. No place has as much going on, as vividly, and certainly with Asian cuisines, as Hong Kong.
Is it true that you produced kung fu films? [Laughs.] Yes. I had a show on Hong Kong television, and I got a call from a guy who said he could use my help. They had a pipeline to bring very funky, old-school, pre-revolutionary kung fu films out of China, black and white. From the ’30s and ’40s, pre-Mao. So we would dub them into English and sell them all over the world. I would sit at night in the old Diamond Hill movie studios, where Bruce Lee made all his movies, and I would write the scripts based on nothing. I had old film canisters that you’d mount on a projector and pump with your foot, and I didn’t speak the dialects, so I’d just write the script as it went along. Then we dubbed it, with lots of whiskey and cigarettes, and it was great fun.
Most reliable sources for news? I read The Times, The Wall Street Journal, the major magazines, the online outlets. I try to be as diverse as I can. Of course, I listen to NPR, and then I listen to that babbling brook on Twitter or wherever, where they take me off in all different directions.
Journalist you admire the most? I guess it sounds super old-school, but I’ll go back to Edward R. Murrow. The way he went to where the news was, the way he’d be thinking honestly and courageously, as the news unfolded, bringing you the facts, with a sense of context…He wasn’t afraid to depict a larger picture beyond individual data points.
Do you think there’s such a thing as journalistic objectivity? There’s the effort, the desire. That’s important. Whether we ever deliver it is a different question. Maybe we can’t. We all come with our presumptions and maybe prejudices. But the effort to achieve objectivity, or at least know the difference between that and opining, is an important distinction.
Who’s your all-time favorite guest on On Point? God, so many, but I loved Annie Leibovitz. It was not long after she’d photographed her longtime partner, Susan Sontag, at the end of her life. And in radio, we don’t talk about photography much, because you can’t see it, but you could hear what made her so powerful as a photographer, because she had such a powerful conceptual framework and a deep humanity and intelligence. We were talking about images the listener couldn’t see, and yet everything was hyper-alive.
Biggest story of your career? In my editing days, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. As a correspondent, the rise of Asia. I was in Hong Kong for the handover, and it was one of those epic signifiers of how power was moving east. Seeing Asia emerge from poverty to power and glory was an amazing thing.
Biggest non-story you ever had to cover? Often with scientific or medical breakthroughs, they say it’s so dramatic and life-changing, like things to do with weight or heart disease, and afterward you wonder if it really mattered, if there was any actual progress there. Sometimes, we get buffaloed by those.
One headline you dream of seeing? The Era of Hyper-Polarized America Is Over.
Person from history you most would have liked to interview? If I were George W. Bush, I’d have to say Jesus. But as a born-and-raised Illinois kid, I’m going to have to go with Lincoln. There’s nobody I’d rather sit and talk with.
Most bizarre fan encounter? I don’t know about bizarre, but some of them are touching. I’ve been asked to marry people. A couple, both very shy, who worked at a bakery, listened to my show every night and then talked about it. They asked me to marry them. As it turned out, because of the timing, I couldn’t do it, but it was so touching.
Thing people might be surprised to learn about you? Maybe that I worked in Alaska in dynamite fields to pay for college. I blew up big chunks of Alaska, which I’m not particularly proud of anymore. Also, and PETA would hate this, I was a trapper when I was young. I now renounce that, but I did do it as a young guy.
Guilty pop culture pleasures? Y’know, I’m such a dweeb, because I’m doing homework every night for the show. I don’t really get to watch TV. I have a big stack of reading every night. I don’t get much Game of Thrones.
When you have the rare chance to unwind, unplug and relax, what do you do? I just got back from a big music festival in Montreal, Osheaga. Radiohead and Death Cab for Cutie were there. That was great. I love to get away from the city. Get me deep in nature, deep in the mountains, and I’m happy.
Three adjectives to describe your average listener? Smart, engaged and curious.
Highest accolade you ever received? I’ve had awards, but what means the most to me is when listeners come up to me—and it happens with delightful and humbling regularity—and say On Point means a lot to them. The way we approach the issues of the day, our candor and energy, that humanity is something that’s important to their lives, and it’s the greatest.
So how did things like The Today Show and Good Morning America go from being news shows to Kathy Lee and Hoda drinking wine at 9 am? People are sick of the news.
So is news entertainment? There’s a fine line with news. I came from old-school journalism, 100 percent serious. In the years since then, around 9/11, the influence of social media, changing public tastes, my perception is that people want more personality. So just simply reciting facts, without revealing the penumbra of your own personality and how it relates to those facts, people no longer trust. Even here, on NPR, I could feel people wanting more of my personality than for years I was willing to give. I’ve begun to soften with that, because there’s a new standard. If you don’t give some of yourself with the news, there’s a reluctance to trust you.
Accomplishment you’re most proud of? My family, without question. But professionally? I feel like I’ve always tried to hold the flag up for humanity, and respect and intelligence.