In four months, on the first Friday after the elections in November, Renee Montagne will step away from the host chair on Morning Edition after 12 years.
That's 12 years of arriving at work every weekday at midnight. Montagne works out of the NPR West studio in Culver City, Calif., on the outskirts of Los Angeles. That means at 2 a.m. PT, she's sounding bright and fully caffeinated for Morning Edition's earliest East Coast broadcasts. Her punishing hours were a point of pride — but only to a point.
"It was unsustainable," Renee said in a phone conversation last night. "I live 2 1/2 blocks from the beach in Santa Monica. I've seen a handful of sunsets in 12 years.
"It's a part of life I don't want to complain about. I've enjoyed it and it's been a great experience, but at a certain point, I started thinking about leaving the show, contemplating what that would mean. And one of the first things I thought of was going out in the evening, getting a sense of the evening air. Seeing the sunset. Seeing the stars change. Even on Friday nights, I'm so clicked into the schedule, I go to bed early."
Renee will continue as a special correspondent on Morning Edition, which means she'll have a chance to dig more deeply into stories, contribute to the long-form journalism on NPR's podcasts and maybe do some writing on her own.
"She wants a decent night's sleep and have an opportunity to dig into journalism in a different way," said Christopher Turpin, NPR's vice president of News Programming and Operations. "You know how tough and brutal that job is. It's a transformational time for that program, and Renee's been transforming Morning Edition with [co-host Steve Inskeep] since basically the turn of the century. She feels it's time to do something different than jumping from subject to subject 20 times a day, a hundred times a week, thousands of times a year."
Turpin said the network is planning to name a replacement host.
Renee has been a defining NPR voice for decades, starting in the mid-1980s, when she was a reporter covering everything from science to international affairs. She took the Morning Edition host chair in the wake of Bob Edwards' controversial departure, a move that at the time rankled many hardcore NPR listeners. But Montagne rose above the drama. She was curious, authoritative and down-to-earth. The best hosts mix being cool with being warm, and Renee has had the ability to do that.
"Bittersweet" is how Renee describes her emotions right now. She says she'll miss collaborating with her co-hosts and Morning Edition's small but dedicated army of producers and editors in figuring out the arc of the day's news.
"About the only thing I do alone is speak," she said.
Looking back, the memories came tumbling out. Giggling with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. How hard it was to book Joni Mitchell for an early morning interview, and how the singer ended up visiting the LA studio at midnight — "which was unheard of! She was totally chipper; we were the very best of ourselves." Her love of Afghanistan — "there's life there, not just war." The way a mayor of a small Appalachian town came to tears as he described the effect of opiates upon its residents.
Or the searing, raw poignancy of a photographer outside Damascus, Syria, explaining how people were selling their refrigerators for $5 as they prepared to flee.
"I don't know to this day what he looks like," Renee said. "It was just his voice. That's hosting. It's all voice."
Renee is one of the NPR personalities who seems in real life exactly as she does on air. So smart. So ... soigné. And so incredibly kind. I'll never forget how, as a young reporter, I was practically shaking with nerves before a live interview on Morning Edition. As Renee got on the line, I blurted out my anxiety. Immediately, she said, "I know exactly what you mean." Renee's reassurance, that collected, compassionate voice got me through the interview. It was a voice we all know as listeners. A voice that guides us through the news, even the most awful, by reminding us through her tone and sensibility that we're all in this together.