Q&A with: New Hampshire Public Radio host Laura Knoy

For more than a dozen years, listeners to New Hampshire Public Radio’s “The Exchange” have been greeted by the silky voice and provocative questions of Laura Knoy.

The program, which brings the outside world in to the Granite State, made its debut in 1995 with Knoy at the helm. Discussing everything from the war on terror to listeners’ stories of terrible vacations, Knoy said the program’s goals are “to try to provide a civil dialogue on the issues that matter to the people of New Hampshire.”

The 46-year-old Knoy – who’s also a wife and mother of two young boys ages 8 and 4 – took time away from the studio to sit with NHBR for a conversation off the mike.

Q. Are you a New Hampshire native?

A. No. I was actually born in Lynn, Mass. We moved to New Hampshire, to Keene, in 1978. I graduated from Keene High School.

Q. Martha Bauman, a regular contributor to our sister publication, New Hampshire Magazine, and The Keene Sentinel, is your mother. Did having a writer for a mother influence you to becoming a journalist?

A. Actually, being a journalist is sort of her second career, so I wasn’t so much influenced by that. She spent much of her life in the social services field.

When she retired, she said she wanted to do something she could do after retirement but not full time. So she started writing a column for the Sentinel, then New Hampshire Magazine picked her up.

Q. So do you guys have competitions on who gets the “above-the-fold” byline?

A. No! But we do share ideas, which is helpful. Sometimes when I’m dry, I call her and ask her, “Whatcha got?” Frankly, I call all my family members when I’m dry. They’re all involved in their own communities in their own way. My mother, sister, niece and brother-in-law live in Keene. My dad and other sister and brother-in-law live in Manchester.

Q. How did you get into radio?

A. When I was a kid, I was always doing fake magazines and newspapers. I’d interview my mother, I’d interview my cat, my sisters. I always liked to write, I always liked journalism. Maybe I’m just nosey. I’d like to tell you that I worked on the Keene High newspaper, but I didn’t.

I went to college and majored in internationals affairs. You could also minor in a couple of different fields, and I always thought I’d minor in communications. I ended up taking some of the economics courses and did pretty well. I thought that seemed more marketable, so I minored in economics.

When I graduated, I luckily got a job for the Institute of International Economics, which was a think tank in D.C., doing grunt work, research.

After a couple of years, I found I kept gravitating to the reporters who came into the office and the writing. I ended up getting an economics research job at USA Today. That kind of got me into journalism.

I remember one week where two or three people in the same week said to me, “You have a really nice speaking voice.” So I was walking down the street thinking about this, when I thought, “You should do radio.”

It really was an “aha!” moment. I remember stopping and looking at the pavement and thinking this.

So to make a long story short, that’s how I got into it. I got an internship. I worked two days a week for free. Then I worked as a secretary, answering phones and making coffee. Eventually, I was able to gain the skills I needed to do reporting, then ultimately hosting.

Q. You wound up doing radio in D.C. for National Public Radio.

A. At first, I worked for a variety of outlets as a freelancer. Then I landed at WAMU, which is the local NPR affiliate. I was there for about four years. Then I went over to NPR for three or four years as a newscaster — doing those top-of-the-hour newscasts that you hear — and fill-in reporter.

When I first moved back to New Hampshire, I’d greet guests at the studio and they’d ask, “Are you here or are you there?” because that’s how people knew me — as a reporter and newscaster for NPR.

Q. What brought you back to New Hampshire?

A. I was in my early 30s. There were a lot of people at NPR who were in their late 30s, early 40s, early 50s who weren’t going anywhere. I just didn’t see myself getting the opportunities to move up the way that I wanted to.

My husband and I are also both really outdoorsy. We love to bike and hike. So it was kind of a combination of personal and professional reasons.

Q. How did “The Exchange” come about?

A. I called Mark Handley, who was the former president here at NHPR, and asked, “Whatcha got?” He asked if I wanted to report for NHPR, but I had kind of “been there, done that.” But then I said, if I had my own show, that might be different. To this day, I don’t know what prompted me to say that!

He said, as a matter of fact, the board had just approved the funding to start a new local talk show, and was I interested.

I sometimes think, what if I hadn’t made that call? What if I was too shy? What if I said, “Oh, I don’t want to bother him”?

But I’m not shy, and I don’t have any problem calling up people and asking them what’s going on.

It was meant to be.

Q. How has “The Exchange” changed over the past decade?

A. Scott MacPherson and I started the show Oct. 9, 1995. In some sense, we haven’t changed. The goals are the same. We try to provide a civil dialogue on the issues that matter to the people of New Hampshire.

I guess what’s changed is that we’ve just gotten more skilled at what we’re doing. I’ve definitely gotten more skilled as an interviewer.

The technology has changed a lot. Everything’s digital now, so we can do fancy footwork that we could never do before. The Internet has changed the way we do research. Our research capacities are huge. We now have the ability to find out a lot on any topic. That has really changed the way we operate. But in terms of the show, the goals are still the same.

Q. “The Exchange” deals with such varied topics. You talk about Afghanistan, campaign reform, taxation of nonprofits, and then travel horror stories. Some are pretty complex topics. How do you pull it all together?

A. I really want to emphasize that there is no way I could do this by myself. Keith Shields is the executive producer — he’s the big ideas guy. He keeps us all on track. He’s coming up with the ideas, he’s helping us hone them. He’s deciding this one’s good, that one isn’t, that one’s truer to our core mission. He’s really making it happen on a day-to-day basis. He’s the captain of the ship.

Our producer is Dan Ankeles. He’s the one who does the booking. He scouts around, gets on the phone and finds the guests. We call it “smiling and dialing.”

Then we have a wonderful longtime volunteer who screens our guests and helps with research, Priscilla Malcolm. She does the bulk of our research.

And then we have a college intern who’s there two days a week.

Then there’s me. I work roughly 30 hours per week because I have two little kids.

Really, much of the work falls on the executive producer. It’s a huge team effort.

Q. What do you do to get ready for a show?

A. I come from the school of being over-prepared. I was a nerd who always turned her papers in early.

Also, there’s a learning curve. The best example that I give is my first electric deregulation show. It was like prepping for a college exam. But a year later, I could almost do it by the back of the envelope. So there’s definitely a learning curve.

Let’s face it, a lot of issues in New Hampshire stay the same, but they change from year to year around the margins.

Q. You certainly are in the thick of things during campaign season. What are some of the more memorable presidential candidates you’ve interviewed?

A. I remember Pat Buchanan. He had won the New Hampshire primary in ’96. He was a real broadcast professional as well as being a real tough guy. I rarely get nervous for interviews, but I was nervous for that one. He just knew what he was doing. He was more media savvy than some others.

One of my favorite things we did in ’04 — Bush was running on the Republican side, so there were no Republican candidates — but we had six Democrats competing closely and strongly in here New Hampshire. They were real interested in getting to that New Hampshire audience. It wasn’t so rushed as it was this time. So we had most of those people on three times. The first interview we did, we said we were not going to talk issues; we wanted to talk pure biography. Some of the stories you heard from them were pretty remarkable.

It was pretty revealing. Like Dennis Kucinich — when he grew up, had like just one pair of pants in high school. Slept in a car, twice. They lived in these apartments that had restrictions on how many kids you could have. So when the landlord came around, they had to hide in the closet.

They always say New Hampshire is a proving ground for presidential candidates. Some of these people really need it. I can interview candidates who have been in the U.S. Senate or a governor for years, and you’d think they’d come in and be perfectly prepared on their talking points — and they aren’t.

They really need that New Hampshire “retail” experience to get it together, because I’ve seen them when they come in unvarnished. And believe me, some of them need varnishing!

Q. Anyone you’re thinking of specifically?

A. People were more varnished this time. And I say that not to get off the hook, but I think everything has just gotten ratcheted up, professionally managed. There’s a little less humanity. And that’s too bad.

Q. I believe you spoke with all of New Hampshire’s governors while they were in office since you’ve hosted “The Exchange” — except for Craig Benson.

A. Governor Benson did come on, but not as our usual “here’s your governor, ask him questions.” He came on to talk about his Canada prescription drug plan. Then he came on after he was governor to talk about an entrepreneur encouragement program. So he has been on the show.

Most of the governors do come, and it’s your hour with the governor, a call-in, a wide-ranging, broad interview on a wide range of topics. He didn’t come in for that.

Q. Why do you think that was?

A. I don’t want to speculate as to why. He gave us his time on those two issues, but in terms of a wide-ranging sit down, he didn’t give us that.

Q. What do you think talk-radio shows like “The Exchange” give to listeners that they can’t get from TV or cable programs, or even other commercial talk-radio programs?

A. We will give them a rich picture of what is going on. It sounds cliché, but we’re not just going to be as a deep as a puddle — we’re going to dive into it.

I hope that we give people an understanding that things are a little more complicated than you might think. The issues that top our headlines are more complicated — you can have your own opinion, we all do — but you can at least appreciate that it’s not always so simple or cut and dry.

I hope that people appreciate other points of view. They don’t have to agree with them, they shouldn’t agree with them, they can have their own point. But I have a strong goal for other people to reach some understanding of why “those folks” feel they way they do. It’s so easy to demonize everybody, and that doesn’t lead to anything.

Cindy Kibbe can be reached at ckibbe@nhbr.com.