As co-host of The Takeaway, a nationally-syndicated news radio program produced by Public Radio International, Northern Arizona University alumna Celeste Headlee knows how important it is to be open to opportunity. In her position, for example, she is responsible for finding good stories, asking the right questions, and paying attention to issues that are of concern to her listeners. In a broader sense, though, Headlee has seen the benefits of keeping her options open. After all, her journey to the upper echelons of national public radio began in Flagstaff when Headlee, a music major and new mother, took advantage of being in the right place at the right time.
"I happened to be at KNAU, where my mother was being interviewed about my grandfather (William Grant Still, who is also known as 'The Dean of African American composers')," she says. "I saw a former classmate of mine and she said, 'Celeste, do you want a job?' So they trained me to do weekend classical music hosting, and after I had done that for a while, it turned out that they needed someone to do cultural reporting. I said, 'Tell me how to do it - I'll learn.' The next thing you know I was hosting All Things Considered and within a month of training as a reporter, I had my first story on national public radio and just never looked back."
Now, in her role with The Takeaway, Headlee is a vital part of an innovative approach to radio journalism that promises to influence both the future of national news radio and the role that hosts play. She and co-host John Hockenberry don't just read canned reports and facilitate reports from others: they actually drive the content. According to Headlee, she is responsible for presenting story ideas, suggesting interview subjects, and conducting interviews. And, she says, the opportunity to be both host and journalist represents the best of both worlds.
"When it comes to topics of discussion, I'm kind of a diversity girl," says Headlee. "I'm African-American, Jewish, and Native American, and I have often felt that the approach to covering so-called 'minority issues' was so anthropological. So now I actually get the opportunity to do stories that make sense to me. And it is a wonderful opportunity I have as host to be able to get those stories out there."
Headlee's penchant for seizing good opportunities began early in her career. When she first arrived at the Flagstaff campus as a freshman, she only planned on staying for a semester, as she had received a full-ride scholarship to prestigious Oberlin (OH) College, but wasn't allowed to start as a mid-year student. After spending five months at NAU, however, she called Oberlin and turned down her scholarship. Headlee had found a new home.
"I loved NAU so much - it was just the right place for me, and the right environment," she says. "The most important thing is to find the college or university that's really going to help you grow personally. It's a mistake to choose a university based on their ratings or how prestigious their name is. You have to find the place where you feel focused and where you feel like you're going to be nurtured."
For Headlee, her time in Flagstaff fit the bill completely. After earning her degree on a full music scholarship—which she received after never having had a voice lesson in her life—Headlee received a full scholarship to the graduate program in music at the University of Michigan.
Her music training has certainly not gone to waste, either: she is a professional opera singer in her spare time. But Headlee, whose journalistic work has defined her career thus far, has learned much during her decade-long journey to the top. One of the most important lessons she has learned, in fact, has everything to do with waiting for an opportunity.
"(As a journalist), don't be afraid of silence," she says. "The best answer you're going to get is one that comes after (an interview subject) has thought about the question. So don't rush to fill that silence. Sit back and wait for it."