Manoush Zomorodi on letting your personality shine

Manoush Zomorodi is the host and managing editor of WNYC Studios podcast Note to Self. Every week, Manoush searches for answers to life’s digital quandaries through experiments and conversations with listeners and experts. Prior to WNYC, Manoush reported and produced around the world for BBC News and Thomson Reuters. In 2012, she published Camera Ready, a guide to multimedia journalism. A mother of two with a hilarious sensibility, Manoush’s unique personality has seen her succeed in the world of media.

What did you want to be when you grew up?
At one point in fourth grade I wanted to be an actress. I became interested in journalism because I thought it would be an opportunity to try out lots of different things and figure out what I wanted to do from there. As it turns out, journalism and the varied experiences it brought with it fulfilled my passion for knowledge.

Who would you most like to be stuck on a desert island with? Why?
My go-to answer is always David Bowie, which seems particularly poignant right now. I've just gone back and listened to as many interviews with him as I could. I don't know how effective he would be at finding a way off the island, but I do know that he would keep my mind occupied, and just make sure that intellectually I was satisfied.

What single book has had the greatest impact on you? Why?
Don't judge me for this but it’s Bridget Jones' Diary by Helen Fielding. I loved that book. I was exactly the same age as Bridget when the book came out and I was working for the BBC so I felt my life mirrored hers. She's ridiculous, but it made me able to laugh at myself.

When do you go to bed and when do you get up?
I've become the most boring person on the planet since I had children. I try to be in bed and reading by 9:30pm. The alarm goes off at 6:00 or 6:15am, sometimes earlier.

Can you briefly explain your career path to date?
I started out as a producer and then later a reporter for the BBC on BBC News. It was great because I saw the United States from a new perspective. I'm a first generation American, so I had never really traveled that much in the United States. Being based in Washington and travelling with BBC correspondents was an awesome opportunity.

Following my time in Washington I was based abroad for a couple of years in Berlin and Brussels. Then after 9/11 I came back to New York and for a brief period ran the Bureau. Ultimately I decided I actually didn't want to become a Bureau Chief. My role became more of a people manager and I felt I wanted to try reporting.

My reporting career started when I freelanced for two BBC programs. I made lots of mistakes in front of not too many people but I learned so much. Later I also freelanced for Reuter’s television.

Then I had my kids. I didn't want to completely stop working, because I think it's really hard for women to get their foot back in the door after a long period away, so I continued to work part time at Reuters. It was after my second child was born, and after she started sleeping, that I felt like I was ready to do something a bit more scintillating.

I had never gotten my Master’s, and I felt like I was slightly behind in the digital space so I used the opportunity to skill up. I wrote a book called Camera Ready and made it a multimedia e-book, so I would force myself to understand publishing. I built my own website and did my own social media marketing. In a way I gave myself a bootcamp and decided that it was going to be my year for giving myself a master’s degree. If I lost money, well, it would be the amount of money that I would've spent getting a degree anyway! I really felt like I needed to be back up to speed and it was fascinating.

Once I put out the book, different sorts of people started to come knocking. I had a sort of self-confidence because I didn't really care what people thought. I was doing it for myself. That was when I started getting more and more interesting opportunities.

Simultaneously, I had started to do this very short tech report for WNYC news. It was different to my previous reporting jobs because I wasn't just being a reporter, I would throw some personality in there too. It coincided with the growth of podcasts, and eventually they offered me the opportunity to run my own. The thing about being a podcast host is that you have to be personable and show your vulnerabilities. I had demonstrated those qualities. It was the first time anyone has ever said to me, "We just want you to be you," which was shockingly amazing.

What is the biggest obstacle you’ve overcome, as it relates to your career or industry?
The biggest obstacle was deciding to quit my staff job at the BBC and become a reporter. That was a really big deal to me. I was in my late twenties and I struggled with changing the path that I thought I’d be on forever. Being able to switch tracks when I had already made it so far was terrifying but, ultimately, I’m much happier for it.

What motivates you?
As a mother I want to feel that anytime I spend away from my children is for a greater purpose, whether that purpose is to my colleagues, or making something, or putting something better into the world. I couldn't just do a job where I felt like I was phoning it in, or that I wasn't proud of what I was making. That would be such a disrespect to my children.

What do you wish you’d known at the start of your career?
I wish I had known I could talk back. There was a lot of lowbrow chauvinism that I thought I had to take. I think I thought that's just the way it is. Here we are twenty years later and I'm sort of appalled at what was acceptable behavior then.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
The show is definitely my third baby. It took us a while to figure out what the show was but I feel very grateful to producers of the show here at the station, who really let the show and me grow, and knew that it would take a while before we found our feet. It's slightly embarrassing that you can go back over the last two or three years and hear all my, let's just call it, growth. Some of which is good, some of which is not. I feel proud of myself for putting myself out there and that I didn't shy away from owning it.

What do you believe has been the key to your success?
There’s been a huge shift in media content and the audience now rewards vulnerability, and kindness, and a sort of intimacy, particularly in podcasting, in a way that traditional broadcasting did not. Before I felt as though I had to put on a persona kind of like “Smart News Woman.” That just doesn't fly in podcasting. There's a realness, and a real relationship and connection that happens between the host and the listener that you can't pretend to be somebody else. They can hear it. They can smell it on you. I feel like I was lucky to have found my way to voice my real self, just as the medium was changing to reward that.

What is your life motto?
Never bring someone a problem, bring them a solution.

Who do you most admire in business? Why?
I greatly admire Laura Walker, our CEO. She is a visionary when it comes to media and has built this station from the tiniest little thing into a media powerhouse that I just wanted to be a part of.

I also admire Brooke Gladstone, the host of On The Media. She's just kick-ass. She is so smart. I want to be her when I grow up.

What do you believe is the secret to rising up to the top?
I used to think that hard work was enough. I was a diligent student in high school and I did well, but what I didn't realize was that I needed to manage up and manage my teachers in order to get A's instead of B pluses and minuses. Personality matters. It does count. Emotional intelligence is going to be your secret weapon at work every time.

What are your favorite traits about women in the workplace?
I believe women are willing to make changes far more easily. They're willing to say, "Here's my idea and I’m happy to tweak it." They know that you can come up with an amazing idea, but it's only going to get better when you collaborate with others.

Who do you turn to when the going gets tough?
My husband is a really good listener. He's also a journalist, that's how we met. He's pretty good to work things through with. 

What’s your favorite TED talk?
Nancy Duarte's, The Secret Structure of Great Talks.

She takes down the rhythm and pacing of all the world's most famous speeches in order to empower and show people that good storytelling adheres to a fundamental structure that anyone can follow.

What's next?
World domination! I really want to keep growing our audience and getting our message out that a tech show isn't just for techies. If you're carrying around a phone, guess what, you're a techie too. There are some really important conversations that need to be had around how we live with all these new digital tools and that we're at an amazing crossroads right now, where big decisions need to be made about what our cultural norms are and how we want our kids to learn with these tools.

It’s also incredibly important to understand how the tools work, so that we don't leave all the power in the hands of the people who make them and that we explain to the people who make them what we want from them. It's an amazing moment in history.


As told to Caroline Hugall over the phone on Wednesday 3rd February 2016