GPB host Celeste Headlee is here to listen. No, really, she is.

In a time when there seems to be an abundance of talking <i>at</i> rather than talking <i>with</i>, Headlee emphasizes the importance of having real conversations with people on all sides
Celeste Headlee
Celeste Headlee

Photograph by Artem Nazarov

“There are Thin Mint cupcakes for anyone who wants one,” Celeste Headlee tells her team of three producers and one intern. It’s 7:30 a.m., time for the daily meeting in advance of On Second Thought, her weekday Georgia Public Broadcasting talk show. Headlee, who is 47, leads the meeting the way she does her show—with polite but brisk efficiency. The team speaks in a kind of shorthand that gives the appearance of a well-oiled machine. A Dad’s Garage sticker and a photo booth strip showing Headlee and her 18-year-old son are pinned to the wall by her computer.

Headlee came to Atlanta in 2014 to join the small ranks of solo female public radio hosts. (It was not until 2012 that Headlee says she began earning the equivalent salary of a man in the same role.) Tanya Ott, GPB’s vice president of radio and news content, says Headlee’s vision for the one-hour weekday morning show aligned with what station execs were looking for: “a no-pundit zone where listeners get thoughtful, probing, civil conversation between smart people who work in business, science, politics, arts and culture, and other sectors.” The show’s guests have included Issa Rae, creator and star of the HBO show Insecure; Patterson Hood of the Southern rock band the Drive-by Truckers; and congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis.

A practicing Buddhist born and raised in California, Headlee is part black, part white, part Jewish, and part Native American. Her grandfather, the composer William Grant Still, was the first African American to conduct a major American symphony orchestra. Still’s accomplishments influenced his granddaughter, a classically trained soprano who’s worked as a professional opera singer and performed across the country.

Still, Headlee always knew she’d need a day job to support herself even as a professional singer. After graduating with her master’s of music in vocal performance from the University of Michigan in 1998, Headlee landed a position as an arts reporter for public radio in Flagstaff, Arizona. Her musical education served her well. “You have to find someone whose voice sounds good on the air, but they also have to be someone who can pronounce Shostakovich,” she says. The job gave her an entree to VIPs who would have been far outside her world as a singer. “I would never have been able to interview Marilyn Horne or Yo-Yo Ma or Jubilant Sykes,” she says. “I once spent almost an hour talking with Toni Morrison. There’s no other job that gives me that kind of opportunity.”

In 2007 Headlee worked for National Public Radio in Detroit and went on to serve as a host on such shows as The Takeaway in New York City and Tell Me More and Talk of the Nation, both out of Washington, D.C. But after a decade, Headlee wanted greater creative freedom at a smaller network. “I had a lot of opinions about how to diversify public radio, and I wanted to put my money where my mouth was,” she says. Too often public radio focuses on telling enough stories that pertain to black, Hispanic, and Asian audiences rather than just trying to report news—all news—through a more collective lens, Headlee says. “I don’t try to see a difference between ‘black news’ and ‘news,’” she says. “The fact is that all news is just news that affects people.”

Coming to Georgia, Headlee had many questions, perhaps the most poignant: “How do you live in what’s basically the black capital of America—the place where Martin Luther King Jr. was born and helped to lead the civil rights movement—and yet just a few miles outside of town you see Confederate flags flying everywhere?”

After two and a half years in Atlanta, she’s still trying to reconcile those competing notions. “But I’ve tried to talk to all kinds of people and really hear their stories, try to see life through their eyes and understand why they’ve made the decisions they have. I think it’s helped me better understand some of the deep issues that plague our nation. But we have a long way to go before we really understand and can put it all behind us.”

Headlee’s message—to listen, really listen—is central to the two TED talks she’s delivered on how to have better conversations, also the subject of her new book, which is expected to come out this fall. In a time when there seems to be an abundance of talking at rather than talking with, Headlee emphasizes the importance of having real conversations with people on all sides of every equation. “I always—well, as often as possible—try to maintain a sense of curiosity rather than judgment,” she says. “It really serves me well because then I can actually learn. A person is never our prejudgments. They will always surprise you.”

Georgia author Robert Coram was a guest on Headlee’s show last year after the publication of his 14th book, Double Ace: The Life of Robert Lee Scott Jr., Pilot, Hero, and Teller of Tall Tales. “She read the book,” he says. “I can’t tell you how rare it is to be interviewed by somebody—radio, TV, or newspaper—who’s actually read the goddamn book.” She got the subtleties, Coram says, and as a result the interview went much deeper than the banal questions he’s used to from interviewers who have only glanced at the book’s dust jacket.

“She has high standards for herself and for the caliber of reporting,” says Don Smith, the acting senior producer for On Second Thought and editor of Headlee’s first book, Heard Mentality: An A-Z Guide to Taking Your Podcast or Radio Show from Idea to Hit. “High standards but few prejudices.”

This article originally appeared in our March 2017 issue.

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