In a way, Sarah McConnell has been in school her entire career. Hosting a radio talk show is a lot like being in college, she told listeners on Thursday at Sweet Briar College. Perhaps it’s because McConnell interviews mostly university and college professors for “With Good Reason,” a weekly show produced by Virginia Humanities. Topics cover politics, science, history and the arts, and everything in between.
“I think it’s so good for me because I was not deeply studious,” McConnell admitted during the intimate lunch Q&A with faculty and students in the Fitness and Athletics Center’s Robertson Lounge. “Everything attracted my attention in college, and everything interested me and distracted me. I would love to go to the lectures, not love to write the papers.”
Carrie Brown, director of Sweet Briar’s Center for Creativity, Design and the Arts and host of the lunch conversation, assured McConnell that many students could probably relate.
“But I loved it, and I got a lot out of it, in spite of my superficial dive, but now it’s as though I’m taking freshman seminars in everything, which is perfect for me,” McConnell said. “I don’t want to major.”
She knew early on that she wanted to do journalism, but she wasn’t sure how — though she’d written for the University of Virginia’s student newspaper and worked for their radio station while in college. “I was undistinguished at both,” she said. And there were other things she felt the need to explore, even if they seemed pointless. After graduation, she recalled, her brother urged her to stop waitressing and start getting serious about her career. But she felt differently about it. “My time as a waitress was really valuable to me,” she explained. “I wasn’t going places, as he pointed out, but I was incubating, for life.”
McConnell still believes strongly that college is a time to do just that — incubate. It’s the advice she gave to her youngest daughter, who is now keeping bees, collecting compost and playing music in Boston.
“I think that every step you take leads to the next,” she said. “That our jobs in a way are serendipitous. Few of us who ended up where we are really could have known we’d be there early on.”
However, she added: “If you really know what you’d love to do, make sure you do it.”
Eventually, a friend suggested McConnell try radio stations. She gave it a shot. After several interviews, she offered to volunteer. The news director’s ears perked up. She was hired. And she fell in love. Sometime later, she was offered a permanent job and spent the next 20 years covering local government for WINA in Charlottesville, working her way up to news director. In 2002, McConnell made the decision to swap daily breaking news for weekly in-depth interviews.
She still gets to talk to lots of locals — faculty at Virginia’s public colleges and universities — but sometimes she lands national or international celebrities, too. Among them: Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison and nonfiction author Michael Lewis, with whom she shares mutual friends — John Grisham and his wife, Renee Jones, who live in Charlottesville — as well as a relative in New Orleans. It’s hard to mess up interviewing great speakers because no matter what you ask, their answers are always fascinating, she told the audience in Josey Dining Room last night. But it’s still important to do your research and read as much as you can. And sometimes — many times — you’ll be surprised by how much more interesting an interview turns out to be, she said. Occasionally, though, you may be interviewing someone about Sudoku puzzles, and those answers are less riveting, she admitted to chuckles from the audience. But the opposite happens far more often.
Lucky for the 33 states and 108 stations where “With Good Reason” airs, the show didn’t stay in Virginia, where it started — and where it was meant to be. “There are a lot of voices with a lot to say,” McConnell said, voices that one may not hear on national television. As she sees it, her show covers mainstream topics, but “with lowered voices” — not quieter, she added, but more nuanced, and possibly less divisive.
McConnell said she was impressed with a campus tour she’d received that afternoon and with a history class she had visited earlier in the day in which students calmly discussed abortion from all angles. Several of those students were in attendance during the evening conversation, which was hosted by Dean of the College and Vice President of Academic Affairs Teresa Garrett and sponsored by a series called “At the Invitation of the President,” which brings notable women to campus each year.
Garrett opened the floor to questions after playing several interview clips from McConnell’s show. Students wanted to know how to get started as a writer (“Everyone needs good writers.”), whether she had ever gone into an interview unexcited about a topic and then changed her mind (“All the time!”) and whether she’d ever had a guest who had impacted her so much she’d reconsidered her job choice.
“No,” she replied. “I’m so grateful to have a window into their world.”