Smile Politely

Jeremy Hobson is bringing the conversation to the middle

Jeremy Hobson, a white man with reddish hair and beard, is seated in a radio studio behind a microphone. He is wearing a black shirt with white stripes.
Julie McClure

Jeremy Hobson grew up in the middle of the United States, right here in Champaign-Urbana, and now he wants to highlight just how important people in “the middle” are to the national political conversation. Hobson came up through Urbana schools, and graduated from University Laboratory High School, and got his start in radio at WILL at a very young age as one of the hosts of Treehouse Radio. He became nationally known as the host of Here and Now on NPR. Hobson is back home this week to debut his four part live radio series The Middle. The first part will be broadcast live from the WILL Radio studios at Illinois Public Media tonight at 8 p.m.

I had the privilege of speaking to Hobson at the studio this week about his local radio debut, thoughts on covering the current political landscape, and the motivation behind the series…as well as his go-to C-U restaurants.

Smile Politely: Tell me more about Treehouse Radio.

Jeremy Hobson: I was in my 3rd or 4th grade class at Leal School, and this radio person, Cherie Lyn, came into our class and wanted us to do radio dramas for Treehouse Radio. We created these radio plays, and mine got selected, so we came and performed it on the show. Then, she asked me to come in and host the show. I hosted it a few times. One the the times I hosted, I got to interview Dave Barry. I didn’t even know how that was, but there’s tape of me asking him “what do you think of the Clinton Administration.” [Editor’s note: Hobson had the opportunity to interview Barry again as host of Here and Now, in 2014]. One of my co-hosts got to interview Hilary Clinton when she came to Champaign to campaign, in some ways I got the short end of the stick there. 

But then I got to Uni High, and they had this documentary radio project with WILL, that they still have, and I got involved in that my first year. We did one about holocaust survivors living in Champaign-Urbana. I interviewed them and put together a piece, which I really enjoyed, and it won an award from the Associated Press. I did that project throughout my entire time at Uni. The interesting thing is, the person from WILL who was helping us with that project from WILL, in 1994, was Alex Ashlock, who I then worked with for seven and a half years at Here and Now, and who is our director on The Middle, and who’s arriving here momentarily. 

SP: So then did you know that radio was “your thing” from early on?

Hobson: Yeah, even before Treehouse Radio. When I was six or seven years old, I was listening to what was then Oldies 92 in Champaign-Urbana, and I was absolutely obsessed with it. I would listen on Saturday nights to request night, and I would request songs, I would listen to Elvis marathons…and it didn’t really have to do with the music, even though I loved the music. It had to do with the fact that I felt like I had a friend on the other end of the dial. The intimacy that exists on the radio is something that I really just enjoyed and wanted to do. And here I am, still doing it.

SP: Is that what endears you to radio, as opposed to other journalistic mediums?

Hobson: Radio compared to say television, is just so much simpler. You also get to use your imagination, which is kind of fun to do as a listener. There are people that actually prefer to do interviews or be interviewed when they can’t see the other person. Terry Gross, on Fresh Air, actually prefers it when people are not in the studio with her. There’s something different about talking to someone you can’t see. 

When I left Here and Now, I was sort of exploring both print and television, and I would write these print pieces that got published in some newspapers, but at the end of the day I was like “that was not as fun as if I had written that and broadcast it.” I actually much prefer doing a show.

SP: What is it like covering the political landscape right now…or the even the past several years?

Hobson: It’s definitely different, and covering Trump was very difficult because everything changed every day. He would come out and tweet “I’m going to bomb Iran” and we’d have to throw out the show and be like “Is he serious, is he not serious?” The chaos made it more difficult to do a show. I’m somebody who actually likes to plan, and look ahead, and it was stressful to have to cover something that was changing every two seconds. 

That being said, I think a lot of people have kind of given up on our country and our politics for the last several years. My feeling is that the idea that every single person has made up their mind in the last six years and will never change it again is a bit unbelievable. What I think, and what I’m trying to do with [The Middle] is let’s just restart the conversation. Let’s talk to people, let’s not be judgemental, let’s not be condescending, and let’s bring people in that are very important politically  most of the middle of the country — that nobody in the media talks to. Maybe, if we can restart that conversation in a respectful and civilized way, we’ll be better off not just politically or in the media, but as a country. 

SP: I feel like the whole “we don’t hear enough from regular people” became a bit of thing since Trump’s election. How is this different from The New York Times interviewing people in a rural diner?

Hobson: First of all, I’m not a lifelong New Yorker flying into a diner in Iowa. I think that there’s been almost a cartoonish caricature built up in the minds of the people on the coasts about who the people in the Midwest are. I was born and raised in Central Illinois. My husband’s family is from St. Louis, we still have family in the middle of the country, we come here a lot. I realized I never forgot where I came from, and I want show not just people that live on farms and in rural areas. I want to show a diverse place like Champaign-Urbana. Every single state in the Midwest has a city like this. They all have these big university towns. The Midwest is just as diverse and interesting as the coast. We’re all part of one country, so why not have all of those voices in the mix. I don’t want to go in and treat people in the middle of the country like we’re at the zoo, and I think that’s one of the things that has been done before.

I think the most impactful single event of the midterm election season was the abortion vote in the state of Kansas, which shocked everyone in the media because none of them every speak to anyone from Kansas. In their mind, this is a red state, so how could they possibly have voted for this? Maybe you’d find out if you spoke to them more.

SP: I know you have roots here, but is there more to why you chose to begin the series in C-U?

Hobson: One major part is this is an independent production. I have no distributor, we sold this show to 500 stations all by ourselves. I needed a partner. I worked at WILL for a long time, and have kept in touch, and they are being so helpful in making this happen. There were two ways to get a live show onto the satellite so all of these stations could take it live. Either I pay $15,000 for a subscription to the company that makes that possible, or I partner with a station that already has one. WILL is not only hosting the first show, all of the other specials are going to come through here. That was a big part of it.

SP: What went into selecting the other cities to center these specials around?

Hobson: We’re going to Fort Myers, Kansas City, and Phoenix. What I wanted to do was broaden the definition of “the middle” as much as possible. No one would argue that Kansas City is in the middle. Phoenix is an interesting choice, but I think still in the middle, and it’s left out of the national conversation, largely, and it’s so different from the other places. The west coast of Florida…everybody there is from the Midwest. You’re more likely to see an Ohio State flag than a University of Florida flag. And I think having Florida in the mix in an election year is a good idea. 

SP: What is the format of each program?

Hobson: It’s an hour long show, we’re going to be taking calls from around the country, and each show I’m going to have two panel guests, each from the middle of the country. One of the guests in each place is going to be in the studio with me. For the Champaign-Urbana show, Urbana mayor Diane Marlin is going to be one of my guests, the other guest will be a USA Today political correspondent who’s based in Louisville. The other element of the show is that I’ll have a house DJ, like a QuestLove or a Paul Shaffer. I have this guy Anthony Valadez, who I’ve had on shows over the years. He’s at KCRW in California, and he is just such a great presence, and I cannot wait to have him there to add a little levity, add some music, and each show the music going into the breaks will be from the place that we are. 

SP: What do you most hope people take away from listening?

Hobson: I hope that they understand what a diverse and interesting place the middle of the country is, and that we should want the people in the middle to be part of the national conversation. I hope that they realize that radio shows can be fun to listen to. I hope that they appreciate the fact that there is some unpredictability and risk to allowing anyone to call into a show. There hasn’t been a live, call-in, talk show on public radio nationally since Talk of the Nation ended almost 10 years ago. We’re taking a risk, but I think the benefit of that risk outweighs the downside. I want to put the public in public radio.

SP: So, where do you just have to eat when you are back in C-U?

Hobson: The two places these days that I always go to when I come back into town are Papa Del’s, which I have already had, and Black Dog. I love Timpone’s, and I love Art Mart. When I was a kid we used to get the ham and cheese croissants and the herb cream cheese croissants, and that cookie…oh that cookie is so good at Art Mart. 

The Middle will air on WILL-AM 580 and WILL-FM 90.9, Wednesday nights at 8 p.m. from October 19th to November 9th. 

Top photo by Julie McClure.

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