In Krys Boyd’s 10-year tenure as host of KERA’s Think, she’s become well known for asking thought-provoking questions of celebrities, scientists, politicians and authors. Her probing opens up a dialogue that oftentimes results in more questions than answers, and Boyd is OK with that. The show is called Think after all.
Boyd’s also known for dogged research, spending hours poring over reading materials a week in advance of interviewing each of her two daily guests. She spends the remainder of the week ruminating on what she’s read and what questions she can ask her guests that others haven’t — and in a way that elicits interesting conversations for her listeners.
The show and Boyd have won more than a dozen local, regional and national awards, including “best call-in show” in 2012 from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. And Think is among the most-downloaded local podcasts in the public radio system, with about 200,000 downloads each month.
The hard work of Boyd and her production team has paid off. After broadcasting in the North Texas market for the last decade, Think’s second hour started airing in markets across Texas on Jan. 2, from 1 to 2 p.m. Now that the rest of Texas is going to become very familiar with Boyd, we decided to turn the tables and ask her some questions about the show, the exciting news and what makes her tick.
Dallas Observer: First off, congratulations on expanding Think. Where is it airing now and how did it come about?
Krys Boyd: Thank you. Houston, Austin, San Antonio, Waco, Texarkana, Beaumont soon and some related smaller cities covered by those stations. It’s something we’ve been talking about as a staff for a long time and looking for opportunities. There’s something called the Texas Station Collaborative of Texas Public Radio stations that do this program called Texas Standard. The stations that take Texas Standard were open to the idea of another program being distributed on the same network. We were ready to go and had the staff capacity to be carried elsewhere.
What’s the feedback been like?
We’ve had a couple of nice emails and tweets from people who have heard the show elsewhere. I’m sure that we will also hear from people who don’t love the show in those places, but so far it’s been positive. If everyone agrees that everything is perfect, you’re probably not stretching yourself very hard.
How do you source your guests for the show?
Within our content staff, we try to read different things and pay attention to what’s happening, and if something catches our eye we’ll discuss it and say, ‘Would this be good for a show?’ We do get pitches that come in; often if someone is touring a book their publicist will contact us.
We have to turn down a lot more really good suggestions for shows. There are a million things that are really well-done, that aren’t right for our show. At the essence of it, we’re about ideas, and about exploring the why of things rather than taking you through a laundry list of facts about something. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of journalism, but I get really interested in the questions that don’t always have good answers, or the questions that raise more questions.
The conversation with Skip Hollandsworth [of Texas Monthly] was a great example. I’m really interested in the fact that within the criminal justice system there are a lot of problems that are not going to be resolved perfectly and neatly. I think that’s something we should all keep talking about.
I loved how you handled callers who didn’t particularly have something insightful to say.
I want to be very respectful of the callers, and I want them to have a good experience, but my job is really to serve the audience. Sometimes a caller has a great point and then they’re on hold for 10 minutes and their point changes and they drift. Sometimes I try to restate what they’re saying. Sometimes I redirect or just say “Thanks!” and move on. Sometimes their question or statement is perfect. I never want to be dismissive. I can’t imagine calling a radio station. It takes some guts.
What are some of your favorite interviews?
This is such a good question, and I should write it down because I’m so fickle. The last 10 things I did are the things on the top of my mind. We did a show last week with this really fascinating title “Against Empathy, the Case for Rational Compassion.” We’ve all sort of embraced empathy and thought if we were only more empathetic, the world would be a kinder, gentler, more moral place. The author said, ‘Well, be careful. Empathy can be laced with bias we don’t realize, and we may be trying to do the right thing but not consider the consequences for other people.’
Whenever we do a discussion that causes me to re-examine something that I was sure I knew to be true, I get very excited by that. I discovered the older I get, I’m comfortable with ambiguity; I’m comfortable with acknowledging this is true and this is also true. The privilege of being a journalist is not only am I not supposed to demonstrate my opinion, I’m not required to make up my mind. I can stay open to different ideas. I love it when I discover when I was wrong about something.
Have you ever done a show where you just plain disagreed with what the guest was saying?
It happens all the time. We don’t have a ton of really polemic people on the show. I like to talk to people who, even if they have a point, can understand the other side of it. But sure, people take a position that doesn’t make sense to me, so I’ll keep asking questions to try to understand it. Unless I think that somebody is not telling me the whole truth, or deliberately tainting something, I’m OK with letting them make their points. I’ll challenge things that sound implausible or untrue.
There’s great value to bringing someone smart on and giving them the time to explain how they arrived at their conclusions. It’s really tempting in contemporary media culture to only hear from people whose views reflect our own. It’s a little bit different in interviewing politicians, because you have to fact check on the fly. The show is not particularly politically focused. I’m more interested in the ideas behind politics than in what the politicians are doing.
Any other favorite shows?
We did a show about stop and frisk and how it’s kind of overused, how it should be well understood by the people who are using it.
I’m very interested in shows about people’s identities — whether that’s ethnic, or racial, or gender, or national, or career, or within relationships. We had a woman on who was talking about being an Arab American, or how Filipino Americans have things in common with Latin Americans even though geographically they’re from different areas, but they were both colonized by the Spanish.
The problem with asking my favorite shows, is that 8 out of 10 of them were my favorites.
We did a fun show in Austin about the bats who live under the bridge down there. We had Bryan Cranston the actor on.
Were you a huge fan of Breaking Bad, and was it just as magical interviewing him as I’d imagine it to be?
Huge fan, yeah. You know, he was terrific. I definitely had the sense that he was performing for me in the interview. I always want to break through that, and I’m sure you can relate to this as a journalist, you want to get not only what they give everybody else — I don’t want to be intrusive with people — but I want to have a moment or two where you feel like this is something the person hasn’t talked about anywhere else. I got a couple of those with Bryan Cranston. I mentioned my husband and I, the night before the interview, did a weird marathon of Bryan Cranston in the ’80s doing guest shots on shows like Murder She Wrote. He kinda laughed at that. I don’t think he was expecting to be confronted with that rather than Breaking Bad.
If people are interviewed a lot, they get into boiler-plate mode. They know what they’re going to be asked, and they’ve come up with really good answers and they deliver those. You know you’re going to have the same quotes as everyone else. I try to know what they’ve said in other interviews and to formulate a different kind of question. I don’t like to ambush people, then you just make people defensive, but I like to surprise them and let them know I’m really listening to what they have to say.
You’re notorious for over-preparing.
I just really don’t want to do something stupid, so I feel like I really have to do my homework ahead of time.
What’s your typical day and typical prep like?
I like to work a week out if I can. I read and take notes. It gives me a few days to think of anything else that might be related. You just need time for those ideas to germinate, and then on the morning of, I come in and write the questions and the introduction to the show. If it’s a book, sometimes I might put 50 sticky notes in it and sometimes I might put 150. I have a system for marking things that are good fodder for a question. I tend to over-mark some things. I work with research material that my staff will pull — recent articles, anything that helps me get an idea of who the person is and where they are at the moment we sit them down.
Are you working all the time?
I work a lot. I don’t work on weekends, almost ever. Monday through Friday are pretty full. I get into the office around 8:30, and I write in the mornings, then I do the show from noon to 2. Then I’m in the office until 3:30 or 4. Then I take everything I need to work on and I go home because it can be distracting in the office. I have a study in my house and I sit in an oversized chair with highlighters and gel pens and my materials and I work through everything. I try to be disciplined about not spending a lot of time online when I’m preparing; it’s too much of a distraction.
Sundays I cook dinner for Sunday and Monday. Tuesday and Wednesday my husband always cooks. Thursdays are my night again. I'll be browning onions and have a book open in my kitchen. My husband and my [four] kids and I almost always eat together. I’m glad that they still want to, and we kind of insist on it. The kids clean up and usually there’s another hour or so of prep work and if it’s a really good day I spend a little time on my treadmill. And then I close everything up and just exist with the family until 8:30 or 9.
I read you originally wanted to be a comedy writer and were working at a news station for production credit and ended up falling in love with journalism after visiting a correctional facility. Were there things in your early life that set you up to be a writer or creative?
I always liked writing as a kid. I went to Catholic school, and the nuns were always very encouraging. When I was in school, I was that kid who kept asking the teacher more questions. In high school, a history teacher was teaching us about the Vietnam War, I just kept asking him questions about what it was like — did he get a draft notice, and was he scared? And he spent the whole class period answering our questions, and I felt like I learned so much more from that conversation with a real person than if we had gone through the material in our text book. I think that instinct to ask about things probably existed in me when I was younger before I knew what I wanted to do with it.
Are any of your children interested in following in Mom’s footsteps?
Not really. We have one that wants to be a psychologist, one who’s looking at computers, one who’s interested in a career in theater, and our ninth-grader is trying to figure out what she likes. I’m super proud. They’re all critical thinkers, and they’ve all been inclined to take information and say, “That doesn't sound right to me,” and look it up. We have some great discussions about things happening in the world and how people see things differently.
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Tell me about Krys Boyd outside your public persona of journalist. That could include interests or hobbies or other things you might be working on.
Honestly, work is kind of my hobby, which sounds really depressing, but it makes me very happy. I work a lot. When I have a little time, I like making things with my hands. I do some mosaics. I’m under no illusions that this is a thing I’m super good at. I’m really dabbling just to keep myself busy and make something. It uses a different part of your brain and is very satisfying because you get this tangible thing when you play with little bits of broken glass.
Expanding to other markets is huge news; I’m sure your proud of that. Is there anything else on the horizon? Future plans for yourself or the show?
I would love to see the show to continue to roll out to other markets. I’m not the one making those relationships; if it happens, it would be fantastic. I’m excited about hearing voices from other parts of the state, to get different perspectives on things and learn if people tend to think very differently in Austin or in Houston.
One thing that’s very exciting about being in more markets is that although the show has gained enough of a reputation that people are willing to do it, even when it was just in North Texas, when you’re in more markets, that small subset of people who we’ve struggled to get in the past might be more amenable to coming on the show. Some guests want a larger footprint if they’re going to be interviewed by you, so the wider our potential audience, the better.
Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you’d like to add?
I love that you ask that because for years when I was a reporter that was always my final question, because you just never know. I’m so flattered at the attention and praise for the show. I want everyone to understand that Think is more than just me. There are people who are working to get the guests, and taking care of all the details so I have the luxury of just focusing on the content, and the guest and the writing. It’s really important that people not think it’s all about me in this vacuum. There are people who make it possible for the show to exist. If it were just me, the show would not get done.