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NPR’s Guy Raz, speaker during the Pittsburgh Humanities Festival, celebrates curiosity

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Kara Frame/NPR
Guy Raz

On the NPR podcasts “How I Built This” and “TED Radio Hour,” Guy Raz interviews innovators, scientists and entrepreneurs. He’s talked to James Dyson about vacuum cleaners, Kate Spade about handbags, and Arthur Blank, the founder of Home Depot.

What makes the shows engaging is Raz’s child-like curiosity, no matter the subject. And curiosity is essential for the host, who appears Feb. 24 at the Byham Theater, Pittsburgh, as the opening speaker for the Pittsburgh Humanities Festival.

“I hope this doesn’t sound hokey, but I think we live in a world where people really emphasize intelligence,” Raz says. “They think intelligent people have more to say, or better ideas, or that intelligent people are endowed with gifts. And I’ve never believed that. I actually think that curiosity is a much more important trait than intelligence, because curiosity is a choice. I think you can choose to be curious and choose to be fascinated by something, and I love that idea because we can all do that.”

Raz has worked as foreign correspondent and bureau chief for NPR, filing reports from London, Berlin, Afghanistan and Iraq. He admits his approach to interviews has evolved in his 20 years at NPR, from the standard question-and-answer segments to a style that is more like two friends sitting down over dinner.

The podcasts give Raz platforms that play to his strengths as a storyteller and guide, and most importantly, as a listener.

“If I’m asking you to tell me about your life or your story,” Raz says, “it’s a conversation and an exchange. Not only am I giving you feedback in my responses, but I’m also giving you feedback in the information I’m sharing with you. You might say something that reminds me of something similar that happened to me. And so a rich conversation to me is an exchange, not just a firehose of information — it’s listening and responding and allowing that person to understand they’re being heard.”

Listening to “How I Built This” or “TED Radio Hour” seems like solitary experiences. But like the venerable radio serials from the 1930s and 1940s that became cultural touchstones, Raz thinks podcasts bring people together.

“You are all in a gathering space — you’re not physically in the same place — but you’re all experiencing that show on a very intimate level, because it’s just you and your ears,” he says. “It’s me talking directly to you, me talking directly to every single person. … There’s that shared experience where you’re all connecting with the guest or the ideas. So I really do think there’s something to that idea of intimacy, and that the relationship building that happened with serialized radio shows is happening with podcasts. I really think that’s true.”

Podcasts seem to be the antithesis of the digital age model, in which information is increasingly disseminated in small portions. But the success of “How I Built This” and “TED Radio Hour” is a reminder that there’s still an audience for long-form journalism and storytelling.

“The beauty of this medium is that there’s no time limit,” Raz says. “There’s no clock. … Podcasts have given storytellers the opportunity to breathe, and have their stories breathe. I feel like it’s very counterintuitive. We’ve been told for so long that everybody wants shorter, faster clips: 30 seconds, one minute. … But with podcasts, it’s the one thing you’re going to make a commitment to for 20 or 30 minutes, 45 minutes or an hour. It almost feels like an antidote to all that craziness, that firehose of information that’s coming to us through social media and the news.”

Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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