Getting Personal

WDET ‘Detroit Today’ host Stephen Henderson’s take on the most ‘interactive’ media


Published:

After Craig Fahle left WDET-FM last summer, the hunt was on to replace the “Best Local Talk-Radio Host” as voted by readers of Hour Detroit three years in a row. In March, Stephen Henderson was tapped to sit behind the mic. The Detroit native is the editorial page editor for the Detroit Free Press, the host of Detroit Public Television’s American Black Journal, and a contributor on MiWeek

After letting him settle into the job a bit, we sat down in WDET’s studios to chat with Henderson. 

(Detroit Today is at 9 a.m. Mon.-Fri. on WDET-FM 101.9, and rebroadcast at 7 p.m. Mon.-Thurs.) 

Q: A Pulitzer Prize, the 2014 Scripps Howard Award for Commentary, now the WDET gig. Pretty good year?

A: It’s OK. I’ll try to do better next year (laughs). … There are days when I wake up and think: “Have I bumped my head ... and I’m dreaming all of this?” 

Q: Past Pulitzers for commentary include household names (to journalism geeks): Maureen Dowd, William Safire, George F. Will. ... This is a first for a Detroiter? 

A: It is. I still am walking around in awe of that, right? I don’t think of myself necessarily as a columnist first. I’m an editor and then an editorial writer. The column was sort of an add-on when I came back to Detroit [after covering the Supreme Court]. I think it’s come a long way. … But I never would have thought it would be singled out and recognized that way. I told Paul Anger [his editor who helped put Pulitzer entries together], “This doesn’t have a prayer. It’s all about local stuff.” Mostly that award goes to national columnists. 

Q: I remember reading columnist Bob Talbert, thinking, “What a cake job!” Before I knew anything, that is. 

A: This is a town with great columnists and always has been. I grew up reading the Detroit Free Press — Neal Shine, (Bob) Talbert, (Joe) Stroud … Susan Watson was my favorite columnist when I was a kid. I still compare myself and my own work to theirs. 

Q: There’s the Freep “day job” and Public Television. Now “Detroit Today.” How’s the juggling act going?

A: Where am I supposed to be? What day is it? Making sure I’m doing them all at a high level is my chief concern — that I’m not mailing it in — in any of those jobs. I enjoy it and I’m really energized by it. 

Q: As a frequent guest and guest host on Craig’s show, you had some idea what to expect?

A: Defining it as my forum is the thing I most concentrate on. I don’t mean me alone, but as a community of people who listen and who call in, and who are guests. Craig was really great at that. [He] really did have a sense of community.

Q: Most talk shows are about the host’s views — Rush, Sean Hannity, etc. You have a more journalistic approach.

A: I want the show to have a pretty sharp news edge. It’s 9 in the morning; people are still thinking about what’s happening today. You want to dip into that conversation that they’re already having … I’m struck over and over by how different it is from television, which is the least interactive media. Even than the newspaper, which has become much more interactive [to] deal with readers … [But] it’s more personal here. I’m able to show more of my personality, which I think makes people respond differently.

Q: One program discussed your Freep editorial on the Inkster police beating a black motorist. But on air, you sort of confessed the column was also about “fear.” 

A: I wanted to inject into that conversation, that sort of “Here’s what this means to me.” Yea, I’m a columnist and I write about it, and that’s a policy question. But I’m also a person and I’m a parent and a citizen of this community. And I have feelings that I don’t often reflect in the column. [Radio] is more an appropriate place to deal with that. And that, in turn, inspires the listeners to share their feelings. 

Q: You have kids and live in Detroit. How does that affect your handling of issues like schools?

A: We live downtown ... school choices are no better for us than they are for anyone else. But it’s different when you get to a more sort of raw emotional level, which I try to extract out of the column. [The column] needs to be a reasoned argument. 

Q: Your Proposal 1 endorsement sounded like you were holding your nose to drink nasty medicine. 

A: It seems like we’re doing that all the time now at the paper. I can’t tell if it’s us or the way policy debates are taking place. 

Q: Tell us a little about your background.

A: I grew up in the downtown Lafayette Park area. I lived in a housing project from age 2 to age 9 — the Martin Luther King homes where they found the two kids stuffed in a freezer. [Those were] really, really disturbing stories for me. … I went to Friends School for elementary; for high school I went to U-D Jesuit, then University of Michigan. I was an intern (for Joe Stroud) at the Free Press … in the department that I’m now the editor of. 

Q: When writing, you edit yourself before hitting “send.” What are the pros and cons of live broadcasts?

A: There’s an energy to it. [But] there are no seconds. The trick is to maintain candor with listeners and if you say something that’s not right,  admit it. “I should have said this instead,” or “I got that wrong.” 

Q: On a recent MiWeek, you and your Detroit News counterpart Nolan Finley “strongly disagreed” on charter schools. Is he going to be a guest on WDET? 

A: I had him on when he started writing about this “Two Detroits” theme ... which I give him an enormous amount of credit for doing. There’s a lot of risk associated with that. He’s starting a conversation that’s really interesting. I had him on so we could talk about the difference between him talking about race and me talking about race. ... When I write about race, there are a lot of people who dismiss it very easily by saying, “Well, he’s a black guy, of course he thinks that.” ... If Nolan says the same thing, those same people have a much harder time blowing it off. That’s one of the values of having two different voices in town, but it’s really the value of the work that he’s doing. ... He’s speaking more to the people who agree with him about other things, who would expect him not to be saying this. Those are not people I can speak to in the same way. 

Q: Like his “Where are all the black people?” in the downtown restaurants. 

A: There’s something perceptibly different about the crowds you see in [new] places. Nolan and I have been talking about that for months. This is not OK. 

Q: At the same time, he’s not a believer in gentrification. Where do you land on that? 

A: We’d be crazy to think that something that has had an effect in every other city going through the same sort of change we’re having wouldn’t have any effect here. [But] the unique characteristics of population and density here make that look very different than in New York or Baltimore. … We’re not seeing the physical displacement of people from neighborhoods here. And it would actually be difficult to do that. We have 140 square miles. And 40 square miles of it is empty. If you added a couple hundred thousand people to the population here you still wouldn’t be at the point where people can’t live where they want to live. ...“Who’s being left behind?” is the question we all need to be asking. The problem with the discussion about gentrification is when it gets to the point where you think that poor people don’t need wealthier people living in their city. They do. That’s who pays the taxes. That’s whose demand for better schools usually gets it. … That’s just the way it works. The question is, how do [the wealthy] come in, and where do they live, and how do we make it so that they’re not pushing everyone else out? That’s why we have [a] commonly elected authority that’s supposed to negotiate that balance between the haves and the have-nots. [But] If you ask somebody like me who’s been here now almost 40 years, it’s hard to identify another period in time when things were more headed in the right direction. We still have serious problems that don’t have any obvious solution. Schools. I don’t know what to do there. 

Q: Do you get a radio equivalent of Facebook “trolls” who call in to rile stuff up?

A: There was a caller who I correspond with at the newspaper who hates my column, hates the way I think. He called and just screamed at me. I knew it was coming. [I thought] “This is Chuck; he doesn’t like me.” But I let him [on air]. I don’t mind that.


Begin the ‘Beginning’

WDET-FM to launch Its first original podcast in late June

You may have heard Alex Trajano on WDET-FM before. The station’s production director is the voice of several promos as well as those song parodies that might almost make you like fundraising season. Now he’s producing WDET’s first original podcast, “The Beginning of the End,” which debuts in June. 

The premise is to have people describe when, how, and why things end — such as a relationship or getting rid of a fear. “The whole idea is to catch them right in the middle of their mental debate of what’s changing in their lives,” Trajano says. 

“The Beginning of the End” was inspired by other public radio stations that have developed national programs and on-demand content such as WNYC’s “RadioLab,” WBEZ’s “This American Life,” and its popular spinoff series, “Serial.”

“I was really adamant that WDET… go in that direction because I want us to play like the big boys play. We have the talent to do that,”  Trajano says. “It’s been a learning process … studying the craft of telling stories.” Being the local host and producer of The Moth StorySlam — popular storytelling events held at Cliff Bell’s — has helped. 

The long-range goal is to develop a catalog of WDET-produced podcasts. “I’m developing a couple of other shows ... but we’re going to see if I can even do one first,” Trajano says. “Because this could be the beginning of the end of my career.”

“The Beginning of the End” launches on June 24. Episodes will be available at beginningoftheend.org or subscribe to the podcast in iTunes. Email story ideas to beginningoftheend@wdet.org or visit wdet.org

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