Emma Choi Navigated NPR Layoffs, and College
At Mother of Junk, a thrift emporium in Brooklyn, Emma Choi examined a rubber triceratops and invented a back story for a Miss Piggy figurine. “We should go before I buy something,” she said.
Ms. Choi, 23, has built a career out of riffing on weird stuff. Still a few weeks away from her graduation from Harvard, she has already experienced the kind of peaks and valleys of a life in media that once unfolded over decades but have become increasingly common for many young people. She became NPR’s first Gen Z podcast host, having started as an intern at “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!,” NPR’s comedy news quiz show. Less than a year later she was named the host of its spinoff podcast, “Everyone & Their Mom.”
In March, amid a faltering podcast industry, NPR announced that it would lay off 10 percent of its staff and stop production of four podcasts to address a $30 million budget shortfall. Ms. Choi was told in a Zoom call that the podcast would end, and with it her role as host. Two producers of “Everyone & Their Mom” were also being laid off.
Although her sense of humor is intact, some of her optimism about working in media has faded.
“I feel like I’ve aged a lot,” she said. She said she felt proud to have made a show intended in part to usher in the next generation of NPR listeners. But now that it has ended, she has taken some time to reflect on the personal costs of helping an organization break new ground.
Ms. Choi grew up in Vienna, Va., a second-generation Korean American in a mostly white area where she did not always feel able to express herself creatively. She went to Harvard to study English and pursue comedy. Homebound during the pandemic, she applied to NPR’s internship program and landed a role working on “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!”
There, her oddball comedic sensibility and her digital savvy became public-radio superpowers. In the writers’ room, she was laser-focused on getting Peter Sagal, the show’s sweetly square host, to say something embarrassing on air.
She had a profane suggestion for describing King Triton’s posterior. “We compromised and said that he has an absolute badonkadonk tail,” Ms. Choi said.
The production team had wanted to expand “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” to a younger and more diverse audience. Jennifer Mills, a producer, offhandedly asked Ms. Choi to read the credits for one of several pilots for a project that would become “Everyone & Their Mom.” She nailed them, and gradually took on more on-air roles.
In November 2021, Ms. Choi got a call from Ms. Mills that the hosting gig was hers. “This is big, right?” she replied.
The podcast aimed to capture some of the chaotic humor of Gen Z, swaddled in the velvety production style of NPR.
In roughly 15-minute episodes published once a month, Ms. Choi bounced odd news stories off a rotating cast of comedians and other guests. The show’s first episode, in February 2022, was about a zoo that hired a Marvin Gaye impersonator. In another, the chef Roy Choi critiqued Ms. Choi’s grandmother’s kimchi recipe. He didn’t approve of her inclusion of the artificial sweetener Sweet ‘n Low.
She wanted to regularly feature people of color and queer people without expecting them to talk about their identities or unearth their traumas. And she didn’t want to pander to young people.
At first, she felt so grateful for the hosting opportunity that she said she would have done it for free. But exhaustion from rushing from pitch meetings to office hours to interview recordings crept in over time, as did some mixed feelings about her role as host.
“This is so awesome they’re taking a chance on me and that they want to make this kind of show,” Ms. Choi recalled thinking. “But I also understand that I am kind of like a poster child for Gen Z, and for people of color, and for women of color.”
She said that reality had been sinking in the wake of the show’s cancellation. “Can you be used if you get something out of it?” she asked.
Some critics have noted that multiple discontinued podcasts appeared to be the shows that were seeking to diversify NPR’s subject matter and listenership, including “Everyone & Their Mom,” “Rough Translation,” which focused on stories outside the United States, and “Louder than a Riot,” about marginalization in hip-hop.
“NPR had to make the painful decision to stop production on some programs that were doing exceptional work centering diverse voices and stories,” Anya Grundmann, NPR’s senior vice president for programming and audience development, wrote in an email. She added that the company was still committed to featuring “diverse perspectives” across its programming.
“I don’t think it’s their fault that the amazing, interesting new programs have been cut,” Ms. Choi said of NPR. “The way capitalism works is people only care about diversity when it’s profitable.”
The same week that “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” celebrated its 25th anniversary, “Everyone & Their Mom” released its final episode. It was graduation themed.
After her upcoming graduation, Ms. Choi plans to move to the Bushwick section of Brooklyn to continue writing fiction and pursue comedy. She hopes to expand her thesis, a novella set in the Northern California wildfires, into a novel.
When she was informed the show was ending, she was also given an offer to return to NPR in a different role, producing and running social media for “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” She said she may take it, but not without negotiating.
“I don’t want to go back to being the intern,” she said.