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Faces of NPR: Tonya Mosley

Tonya Mosley
Walid Azami
Tonya Mosley

Faces Of NPR showcases the people behind NPR--from the voices you hear every day on the radio to the ones who work outside of the recording studio. You'll find out about what they do and what they're inspired by on the daily. Today, we feature Tonya Mosley, Fresh Air Co-host.

The Basics:

Name: Tonya Mosley

Where you're from: Detroit, MI

Title: Fresh Air Co-host

Handle: @tonyamosley

In a conversation with Terry Gross, you said that you were considered a generalist. How have you broken into this job role without having a niche and being a generalist?

I think it probably comes from the origins of how I got into the business, and that is through television. I started as a production assistant in television where I was doing audio, and then I was running cameras for a really small TV station. And then I moved to producing. And then from producing I moved to reporting and then anchoring. In those early days as a reporter, I reported on all different types of subjects: politics, education, health, crime. And then over the course of my career, I have had beats. So for several years, I was an education reporter. Then I was a crime and courts reporter. For a few years, I covered the statehouse in Indiana, Kentucky and Washington State. And then I was the Silicon Valley bureau chief for KQED where I covered the tech industry. I think all of that experience has made me a generalist, because I know a lot of things about a select few topics. I can go deep and narrow on some specific topics, but I have a curiosity that expands to everything.

Now you're working as a co-host for Fresh Air, and when people think of Fresh Air, they think of Terry Gross. How do you plan to pave your own path and create a name for yourself with the Fresh Air brand?

Such a good question. A few things. I think I'm fortunate enough to have had a career where I made a name for myself, and that is less about what the public has seen and more about how I see myself. And so I feel like I am very centered in who I am and what I can give the audience based on my curiosities. It is not a case where I'm filling the shoes of Terry Gross because Terry Gross is there and this is her show. But serving as her co-host allows me the chance to step into it to find my voice on that show. One thing that Terry said to me when we first met was, "You had more experiences than me." And I said, "What do you mean?" And she said, "Oh, you've been a producer, you've been a reporter, you've been an anchor, you've been a podcast host. This job is all that I've done. And so what I want you to do is to bring all of that experience to this role." That was such a wonderful gift to give me. That does not mean that it's not going to be a transition for the audience to hear my voice more often and for the folks that I work with to learn how to work with me. But it's something that is a challenge and I really look forward to taking on. And you know, when Trevor Noah took over The Daily Show, many of us felt like, "Oh my gosh, there is no one else but Jon Stewart who can do that job. How is he going to step in?" And by the end, you fell in love with Trevor Noah, right? His sensibility, his point of view. And so that is what I look forward to in this role. And the beautiful thing, again, is that Terry isn't going anywhere. So people can have the best of both worlds and they can learn and understand where I'm coming from while she's still here.

What do you plan to bring to the audience that this show doesn't already have?

I think it's important to note that a show like this is really driven by Terry's curiosities. Terry doesn't do anything she doesn't want to do. It's of the news and it's of the moment. And there are people who are important in this moment that she talks to. I'm a Black woman from Detroit who lives in Los Angeles, a mother of two children. I've been married for almost 20 years. I've lived in seven states. I've held many positions. I have professional and lived experiences and curiosities and I will be bringing that to the show.

How are you going to be able to do both Fresh Air and Truth Be Told?

Great question. So this is season five of Truth Be Told and the season will wrap up at the end of mid-June and that feed will be used for another project that I am working on that is investigative nature and will be coming out next year. So it's to be determined what will happen with Truth Be Told overall, but it will be sunsetting for now after season five.

And is there anything you want to share about the investigative series or you'll see that later.

I'll just say an investigative series, more to come!

Tonya Mosley
/ Walid Azami
Walid Azami
Tonya Mosley

You recently did an episode of your podcast where you looked at research related to psychedelics. What has been your personal experience with psychedelics?

I had my first psychedelic experience last September with psilocybin mushrooms in Jamaica, and that has been my first and only experience with psychedelics. But I had done a lot of research on psychedelics as a healing modality for several months before that. And of course, in producing season five of Truth Be Told, the last nine months, I've been digging pretty deep into the subject.

Did you realize that psychedelics help with healing racial trauma?

I learned how psychedelics could be a healing modality through the research of Dr. Monnica Williams. She is a clinical psychologist based out of the University of Ottawa. I happened upon her research when I was a co-host for Here and Now, where I had done a segment about using psychedelics to help heal PTSD in war vets. The person that I talked with mentioned that under PTSD, there are lots of subcategories, and racial trauma falls under one of those subcategories. And I was like, oh, ding, ding. I would love to know more about that! So I found Dr. Monnica Williams research, started digging and having conversations with her just to learn more about how it worked. That's how I got started with it.

I want to know about your experience in Jamaica with psychedelics? Did you enjoy it? What did you learn?

Yes, it was one of the most meaningful experiences of my life. I did not know what to expect because what you bring to the session is what you're going to get out of it. And when you've disconnected from the things that have traumatized you, you put together coping mechanisms to deal with it. I actually hoped I wouldn't encounter something I wasn't ready to face, you know? So I had a lot of trepidation, but I had done enough research to know that I was in capable hands. The place I went to in Jamaica had several facilitators, a psychologist, a psychiatrist, and a medical doctor. The experience was life-changing because my entire trip was one 6-hour experience with my family. I thought work issues might come up or I've had some instances of overt racist incidents, and I thought that that might come up for me. But the whole time it was about me and my family and having conversations with family members, and that was really meaningful for me because I realized that was probably something that I needed to have and I hadn't had.

So was it your research that motivated you to try it or are you just curious?

A bit of both, my research and I had an inkling that I might want to talk about this subject for the next season of Truth Be Told. But I thought it might be an episode. So I said, okay, I'm doing this for myself for personal healing and experimentation. And if I get something out of it, maybe I'll make a show about it. I came back and I was like, "Oh, no, I want to devote an entire season to it. Mostly because I wouldn't be able to get to everything, in just an episode."

Who informs you? Who keeps you up to date so that you can be that reference point for other people?

It's a blessing and a curse that I am so obsessively curious and I've been this way all of my life. If you go in my house, you'll see magazines and books stacked up in corners, it's awful! I am always consuming media and the world around me. One thing that is newer for me now is I am talking on a regular basis to my daughter and her friends. They're 16 years old. I'm saying this because I have felt for the majority of my career that I have had the ability to tap into the zeitgeist and also forecast trends and topics of importance. If I can toot my own horn, it is a gift that has helped me in my career. People who know me always have said, "Oh, Tonya, you are always thinking about and talking about things that, weeks or months later, everyone is talking about." But I will say, as I've gotten older, it's been more of a challenge. So tapping into my daughter and her generation is so important because I'm learning about new artists, new social justice activists, and new authors in ways that allow me to tap into what is coming up and what's important for younger generations. And I want Fresh Air to be that place too. Fresh Air is an NPR mainstay. It has a dedicated audience. And that audience is older and very important. But it's also important to cultivate newer audiences and find ways to connect with them, and not just by covering their favorite artists or having conversations with their favorite artists. There is a way and a sensibility there that is important because then it signals to the listener, "Okay, this person that's talking to my favorite artist knows what they're talking about." So that is my goal as I'm tapping into other parts of the zeitgeist that I know less about.

Tonya Mosley
/ Walid Azami
Walid Azami
Tonya Mosley

Who inspires you?

So many people inspire me. That's such a broad question.

And I am such a fangirl of so many fellow journalists and hosts. One host that inspires me because she seems to be unabashedly herself, is Ayesha Rascoe. I really love Ayesha and I love what she's doing on the weekend show. I am still inspired by Oprah. I remember the first day I discovered Oprah. I was nine years old. I was on my grandmother's floor in front of the TV, and there was a commercial that came on and there was a series of man on the street interviews and the reporter was asking people, "What's an Oprah?" They were saying her name wrong. "What's an okra?" And then she came on the screen and she said, "Oprah begins weekdays on W X, Y, Z." I think I said out loud, "She's me." And she has consistently been a reflection of myself and the possibilities throughout my entire life. She was my babysitter growing up. I'd come home from school and watch her show. And we've watched and evolved along with her over the decades. Mental health is something that she's been talking about for the last 20 years, and we're there now. So she continues to be an inspiration for me.

You had mentioned earlier that you started in television, what made you pivot to public radio?

So the joke is, even during my television days, my photographers would say, Tonya, you're the public radio of television. And that was mostly because I'd always have NPR on when we'd be in the car together, going to locations or interviews. I loved the storytelling I'd hear on public radio, and I always wanted to infuse that in my television work. In 2015, I was granted a Knight Fellowship at Stanford, and while I was there, I slowed down enough to figure out what I wanted to do next. I had been working for Al Jazeera America and they had folded, and I knew I didn't see myself fitting into CNN or any of the other national television networks. Public radio seems like a wonderful avenue for me. Coincidentally right at that time WBUR called me and said, "Hey, we have this correspondent/host job here and we were interested in knowing if you'd want to chat with us about it." And so that was my avenue into public radio.

What is your greatest reward from this work? What makes you feel most fulfilled by doing this work?

I am most fulfilled when I can tap into a meaningful conversation that helps people think differently or allows them to see themselves. I'm affirmed when there are aha moments. I am affirmed when I hear from the audience and they say, "Oh my gosh, I now know something I didn't know." I'm even affirmed when I receive mail from people who say you didn't get it right, because that allows me to understand where we need to go. And I may not always agree with what people say, but it allows me to also understand the audience and who I'm talking to. I just love having conversations. I mean, the truth is, if I wasn't doing this job, I'd be doing it in another way. Right?

Who is your dream guest interview?

Everyone's asked that and it's really hard to say because, I know this is not going to be like a satisfying answer, but I am interested in interviewing people who have something important to say and are ready to be as open and vulnerable as possible. I'll give you an example of that. My very first interview I did for Fresh Air was with "Me Too" founder, Tarana Burke. She was so open. She was so patient with herself and with me, and that conversation was very meaningful for the audience. I received more feedback from that than any other interview I've done for Fresh Air, and I believe it's because she came to the table ready to have a conversation.

Tonya Mosley
/ Walid Azami
Walid Azami
Tonya Mosley

So how do you pull out people's vulnerabilities during interviews?

It's a combination of one, being ready. You can't make somebody open up if they don't want to. But I hope that I make people feel comfortable enough and they trust me enough to know that I'm going to only take them to places that are for the benefit of the conversation. Sometimes we're going to talk about hard stuff, and if it's something personal about someone's life, I'm respectful. If you don't want to talk about something that's personally happened to you, that doesn't have any stakes to anyone else but you, I'm respectful that we don't have to go there. And I think that's really important. And it's what makes Fresh Air stand out. Terry is the same way, too. She goes deep and narrow with people, but she's not going to go where you don't want to go.

I also have an intensive research process. I read and consume all the person's work and everything that has ever been written about them that I can find. This allows me to be prepared to follow and lead in the conversation.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sommer Hill (she/her) is a social media associate for NPR Extra. She started with NPR in May 2021. Her primary responsibilities include managing the social media accounts for NPR Extra as well as creating blog posts for NPR.org. In her time at NPR, Hill has worked on many projects including the Tiny Desk Contest, the How I Built This Summit, creating a resource page for Juneteenth material, participating in the 'What Juneteenth Means To Me' video and contributing to WOC/POC meetings.