The Phones Are Alive, With the Sounds of Katie Couric

EAST HAMPTON, N.Y. — Beyond a thicket of dahlias, Katie Couric climbed through a tangle of vines to pick a squat little eggplant. Each week during the summer in this beach hamlet, she takes inventory of her vegetable garden, and on a mid-September Saturday, the patch of soil was s bursting with shishitos, jalapeños, and cherry tomatoes.

She should have brought a basket, she decided, holding an armful of veggies. “Some of them are breaking, but they’re so good, they taste like candy,” she said, before rubbing a yellow tomato on her pants and popping it into her mouth.

Ms. Couric, 62, often broadcasts her harvests on the “Story” section of her Instagram feed, where, like many public figures, she invites followers into her world. Having invited NBC viewers into the exam room for her colonoscopy in 2000, Ms. Couric is arguably a pioneer of oversharing, but back then, she was less open to sharing details from her personal life. (Her first husband, Jay Monahan, had died of cancer two years before.)

On Instagram, Ms. Couric embodies the “Today” show version of herself: the fun-loving mom who can pivot from hard news to “pajamagrams” and family photos. The trick is keeping her 715,000 followers involved. When news of the impeachment inquiry broke, for example, Ms. Couric asked her followers, somewhat un-Instagrammishly, what they thought about it.

“It’s very interesting to me to read the comments because it also gets me out of my bubble of living in New York City,” she said. “I think a lot of people who follow me don’t necessarily live in big urban areas, and have very different points of view.”

Back when Ms. Couric was hosting “Today,” from 1991 to 2006, she would receive audience letters in response to her segments “or if they didn’t like my dress.” When she became the anchor of CBS Evening News in 2006, she wanted to take the idea of viewer feedback a step further.

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CreditCBS/Associated Press

“I remember when I was at CBS, during the Gulf oil spill, I wanted to take questions from Twitter on the evening newscast because sometimes, when you cover these stories every day, you lose sight of some very simple questions,’” she said.

“And I suggested it, and I remember the vice president of the news division said it was ‘beneath the anchor of the CBS News to take questions from the Twitter,’ and I remember thinking, ‘If you have an ability to interact with real people — the viewers who you’re trying to serve — why wouldn’t you do that?’”

Around 2013, Ms. Couric noticed how social media was changing the news business. She joined Yahoo as its global anchor in 2014, the same year she married John Molner, a financier, and a year later founded Katie Couric Media (KCM) with him. “My catchphrase these days is, ‘mass media has become an oxymoron,’” she said. “It’s niche, and how do you, in aggregate, reach an audience?”

Ms. Couric now seems to appear on as many platforms as possible, in as many ways as possible. Since leaving Yahoo in 2017, she has produced scripted series (“Unbelievable” on Netflix), invested in female-led companies (ThirdLove), worked on two documentary series for National Geographic and started a daily email newsletter called Wake-Up Call.

Several of her KCM projects are supported by brands like Proctor & Gamble and Sleep Number, which promote her content on their social channels.

“I don’t want to use the ‘relevant’ word, but it’s just wanting to continue to have a voice, and I think that’s what everybody really wants,” Ms. Couric said.

Perhaps inevitably this will now also mean podcasting, which Ms. Couric first tried from 2016 to 2018 with an interview show, before deciding to do a series about the zeitgeist. She likes how relaxed the medium is compared with television.

“You don’t have to wear makeup, you don’t have to get dressed up, it’s just a very different vibe,” she said. “I also think people are more relaxed when they’re not being videotaped, or they don’t have to be so mindful of their facial expressions or how they look or how they’re coming across.”

Twelve episodes of the new iHeartRadio podcast, called “Next Question,” will be available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts et al beginning Oct. 10. The format is similar to a newsmagazine series, like “60 Minutes,” with each 40-minute episode organized around a central question: “Does CBD really work?,” for example, or “Does eating meat really destroy the environment, and how so?” “How does violent porn affect teenagers?” She also discusses polyamory, vaping and rural poverty.

“I’m taking on these topics that have exploded onto the national stage but are confusing to people,” Ms. Couric said. “I find you get so much information in bits and pieces on your iPhone, just a little story here and there. I’ve always liked to connect the dots.”

The pornography episode was born of “a confluence of conversations” Ms. Couric had with several people, including a man she met at a conference, another journalist and her gynecologist; it was also informed by a piece she read in The Atlantic.

She interviews high-school boys as well as Gail Dines, an anti-pornography activist who accuses politicians of “complete willful ignorance on the part of adults who have been charged with taking care of teens.” Al Fernacchio, a teacher who gives lessons on gender equity to third graders using age-appropriate media like superhero shows and Pixar movies, also appears on the episode.

“The one skill I think I have is detecting patterns and trends and issues that are going to be sort of at the forefront just a little bit before they are, and I think it’s because I read a lot and I talk to a lot of people,” Ms. Couric said. Right now, she is working on a podcast episode on ageism, in which she interviews Lyn Slater, a retired professor with a popular Instagram account, @IconAccidental.

“Only 15 percent of media images feature people over the age of 50, and when they do, the vast majority of those images are sort of stereotypes of older people,” Ms. Couric said. “It’s rare that you see a woman who is aging naturally on television, and the fact that it’s so rare makes it shocking when you do.”

Ms. Couric stayed on the air longer than most female anchors, for a while known as America’s Sweetheart, and often tiresomely described as “perky.” (In a 2012 video for Makers, she suggested that someone do a “feminist thesis” on the word, which she believes has sexist undertones.)

When she entered the media in 1980, she said, “I saw women feeling like they had to be pleasers to their male superiors.” That wasn’t her style. In her archives, she unearthed a 1984 note she had written to a boss who offended her on the job. “I’ve always tried to speak up and stand up for myself. That’s just who I am.”

“When I got to the ‘Today’ show, I had to fight initially to be treated equally, but then when the audience responded to me in a positive way, they didn’t really have a choice,” she said. “When I first started, Dick Ebersol, who I really, really like and I consider him a friend, but, I got word that they wanted me to wear fox-fluffy sweaters and small earrings, and I said, ‘absolutely not, I’m going to wear what I want to wear’ and I’m not there to adhere to someone’s view of what a woman on television is supposed to look like. I’m there to be myself, and if viewers respond to me, great.”

On a 2012 episode of “Katie,” she revealed that she battled bulimia for six years during her early 20s, beating it by going to therapy and researching the long-term effects of purging. “Unexpected,” a memoir she is writing for Little, Brown, will cover this struggle, along with her decades in the newsroom, and the loss of Mr. Monahan and her older sister, Emily, to cancer.

“While I’ve told personal stories throughout the course of my career, I didn’t talk about what it was like to be 40 and have your husband diagnosed with terminal cancer,” Ms. Couric said. Because she never kept a journal, she is reconstructing a timeline from the documents in her East Hampton basement, which has become an archive of the past 40 years. (Her home resembles a cozier Nancy Meyers film set; there are banana leaves on the table and a Richard Misrach photo of a lone woman on a beach takes up an entire wall.)

She likens the writing process to therapy, except, “you’re the therapist and the patient.” While the book will be personal, Ms. Couric also plans to cover how women’s roles in the media have changed from 1980 to 2020.

“I’m going to be looking closely at this massive cultural shift and the aftermath of it, and whether it has really changed things,” she said. “I think one of the things that has been lost in the mix has been the subtle sexism that can be so pervasive in addition to more overt behavior.”

Over a decade after her “Today” departure, her former co-host, Matt Lauer, was fired from the show after sexual harassment allegations surfaced during the first wave of the #MeToo movement.

“It definitely wasn’t one of those things that was an open secret,” she said. “I never had any instances where someone came to me upset about his behavior, and so the only thing that was understood was that he was in an unhappy marriage and that he wasn’t necessarily faithful, you know? That was it.”

(Ms. Couric’s name also popped up in columns recently as one of several powerful people who attended a dinner party at Jeffrey Epstein’s house in 2010, several months before Prince William married Kate Middleton, she said. “It was conveyed as an opportunity to talk to Prince Andrew about the upcoming royal wedding. I hadn’t heard that much about him,” she said of Epstein. “Bad on me that I didn’t do more homework on him, but I trusted the person that invited me and other people were going.”)

She is reading “The Art of Memoir,” by Mary Karr, to figure out how to process all this experience into prose, but is hesitant to read too many memoirs, in fear of being overly influenced by another writer’s style. Ms. Couric doesn’t want to enlist a ghostwriter, either. “I’m trying to write it myself because I want it to be from me,” she said.

“We’re drowning in a cacophony of voices, and people gravitate to voices that they think are interesting or have something to say,” she said over the phone a few weeks later. “So, I think at this stage in my life, I have a lot to say, so I want to be able to say it.”

Ms. Couric describes her pivot to digital media as a natural evolution, and while she always tried to show her personality on air, she likes that social media allows her to develop her voice and paint a more tangible picture of who she is.

“I hate to use the word ‘authenticity,’ because that’s been co-opted and overused at this point, but I think people are craving sort of realness,” she said.

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