‘Inside UVA’ Presidential Podcast Kicks Off Season Two With Alumna Katie Couric
Audio: “Inside UVA” With Award Winning Journalist Katie Couric(28:24)
The Emmy Award-winning journalist dishes on her life at UVA, the highs and lows of her far-reaching career and her newest venture, Katie Couric Media.
Jim Ryan: Hello, everyone. I’m Jim Ryan, president of the University of Virginia, and I’d like to welcome all of you to the premiere of our second season of “Inside UVA.” This podcast is a chance for me to speak with some of the amazing people that are part of the University community, which includes our alumni, and to learn more about what they do and who they are. My hope is that listeners will ultimately have a better understanding of UVA and a deeper appreciation of the remarkably talented and dedicated people who make up the UVA community.
Today’s guest truly needs no introduction. But, per tradition, here goes. She is a journalist who among other assignments has been co-host of the “Today” show, anchored the “CBS Evening News” and was a correspondent for “60 Minutes.” She’s a producer, a path-breaker, an author, a performer, a guest star on episodes of “Glee,” “Sesame Street,” “Austin Powers” and “Murphy Brown.” Like myself, she was an American studies major in college. She is a parent, wife, entrepreneur, genuine icon, and someone I am truly honored to call a friend. A daughter of the University of Virginia, the inimitable Katie Couric.
Katie, thanks so much for being here.
Katie Couric: That is some intro, Jim. Thank you. You read it just like I wrote it.
Ryan: So I have to say, I’m delighted that you’re here, but I’m a little intimidated to be interviewing one of the greatest interviewers of all time. So if you want to give me tips along the way, feel free.
Couric: OK, well, if I feel like you phrased a question incorrectly, or could have done something more searing and probing and insightful, I’ll be sure to let you know, Jim.
Ryan: Thanks so much. So let’s talk American studies. How did you pick that major?
Couric: You know, I think I’ve always been a pretty good writer. I’ve always been, I’ve always gravitated towards words and language. And I love history, and I love reading. I think because my dad was a journalist, he really encouraged us to be good writers and good communicators. And I think I thought that American studies would give me a broad liberal arts background from which I could, you know, go into journalism.
I wrote for the Cavalier Daily. During the summers, I was at UVA. In Washington, D.C., I worked at different radio stations and their news departments. And so I just thought it would give me a broad background because I think early on, I wanted to go into some kind of journalism.
Ryan: Right. So let’s take a step back. You grew up in Virginia; was it always UVA? Or were you looking at other schools?
Couric: Well, my sisters both went to Smith. And I think everyone kind of expected me to go to Smith. But I was sort of a little bit – I wouldn’t say a goof-off, but let’s just say I got by on my charisma and charm, Jim.
And so anyway, but I applied to Smith. And I mean, I didn’t even get wait-listed. I got rejected, and a thin envelope came in the mail. And I was heartbroken.
And so UVA was not my first choice, but I’m so glad I went to UVA. It was a really good place for me, I think, I got a really well-rounded education. I loved it, I lived on the Lawn, I was an RA, I embraced it. So you know, completely. And I think Smith would not have been necessarily the right place for me.
And that’s what I tell kids Jim: They usually end up where they should, as long as they really take advantage of the opportunity any college or university presents them with. You know, colleges are what you make of them, right? And it was also in-state and it was incredibly, you know, economical.
Ryan: So if I’m hearing you correctly, you’re saying you had a lifelong dream to go only to UVA, and that’s the only school you considered, and, lo and behold, you’re here, so that’s that. That is great to hear.
You mentioned living on the Lawn. You didn’t just live on the Lawn – you were the senior resident of the Lawn, which is a pretty big deal. Any highlights from your time?
Couric: Oh my god, that was so fun living on the Lawn, except for walking down the, you know, the path in your bathrobe, with wet hair with your bucket of shampoo and soap and stuff in them in the middle of winter, with icicles forming on your hair. It was just really fun. We had a great group of people. It was so idyllic, you know, to be able to have an American studies seminar on the Lawn sitting on blankets and, and there was something just so lovely and special and historic, and building a fire and you know, it just, it was wonderful. It was a wonderful experience.
Ryan: Yeah, there’s no place quite like it. So you mentioned journalism, which is obviously your career and it sounds like you, you’d been thinking about it for quite a while. And was that your dad’s influence? I mean, did you come to college knowing that that’s what you wanted to do?
Couric: I mean, I thought it was something along those lines. I was interested in advertising, too. And I remember going up to New York, and I interviewed with all these places, and they all told me to go to business school. Well, I wasn’t super jazzed about that. And it was pouring rain. It was March, mascara was running down my face. I had a cold, my umbrella was going upside down. I couldn’t get a cab. It was a frigging nightmare. And I remember doing an interview, like my third or fourth interview, and this woman said that I should go to business school. I was feeling so defeated. I did what every prospective employee should do in a job interview, I started crying.
She said, “Dear, maybe you should consider getting a job closer to your parents.” So advertising wasn’t for me, obviously. And so I ended up going into journalism, which I did want to do, because as I mentioned, I worked every summer, encouraged by my dad, as a summer intern at WAVA, which was all-news radio in Washington. Then I worked at WASH in the news department. And then I worked at WMAL, WRQX.
So I think I picked a career, Jim, that so fit with my skill set and my personality, that that’s why I was ultimately successful. That and some, you know, luck and good timing.
Ryan: Right. So what would you say was your big break?
Couric: I think it was when Tim Russert, the late Tim Russert, Tim saw me covering [former District of Columbia Mayor] Marion Barry when I was a local news reporter in Washington. And I think he thought I had a lot of pluck, and moxie, and, you know, was sort of persistent. And he gave me a job. He offered me a job as the junior Pentagon correspondent working under Fred Francis. So that opened the door to the network news world.
Ryan: Right. And you’ve held a lot of incredible jobs. Do you have a favorite among them?
Couric: Well, I think probably I was most suited to the “Today” show. Because I think it satisfied my interest in sort of a whole panoply of subjects. You know, I’m interested in pop culture, but I’m also, you know, for all my quote-unquote “perkiness,” I’m actually a pretty serious person. And I care deeply about big issues. And so I think doing the “Today” show was such a smorgasbord of topics.
Ryan: Well it’s like the American studies version of journalism.
Couric: Yeah, it is. And I also think, you know, when I did that job, social media didn’t exist; there were no iPhones. You know, I did it from 1991 to 2006. And when people wanted to know what was going on in the world, they turned on their radio, they turned on their television, or they picked up the newspaper on their front steps. And so I think that we were able to almost establish, sort of, be such an important part of the news cycle, set the tone for the day, what people were thinking about, looking at, and there weren’t, you know, there wasn’t this paradox of choice where there’s just so many outlets, and I feel like that’s when the show was really, really important. And it’s still important, but just its importance has been diluted by so many other options.
Ryan: Right. So as I mentioned earlier, you are widely and rightly known as one of the best interviewers of all time. I’m curious, from your own perspective, do you have a favorite interview that you remember? And do you have, let’s call it a least favorite interview? What’s the best and worst in your mind?
Couric: I mean, that is so hard. That’s kind of like asking someone what is the best meal they’ve ever had.
But having said that, I think one of the interviews I’m proudest of, was the interview I did with Sarah Palin in 2008, because I think it revealed a lot about who she was, about whether she was really ready to be vice president, whether she actually had an understanding of the issue, her ability to be a critical thinker, and to express, sort of, public policy in a meaningful way. And so, I really prepared for that interview, and I didn’t go trying to embarrass her, or, you know, show what she didn’t know. But I thought it was really important to go through, you know, to ask her some questions that really required accumulated knowledge and an ability to think deeply about some of these things. And I think she failed. And because of that, I think it gave people pause about her ability to be a heartbeat away from the presidency. So I was very proud of that. And I prepared for days for that interview.
I think the worst interview, I did an interview with John and Elizabeth Edwards that was sort of tone deaf. It was about Elizabeth, and her cancer had come back, and it was kind of about her decision to continue campaigning for her husband. And of course, this predated all the scandal. And I think I asked her about, you know, her choices in a way that was weirdly insensitive, or came off that way. And I regret it because I had lost my husband to cancer. I was somebody who understood what it was like to experience it. And I just feel like it didn’t reflect who I was, or how I felt about, you know, her situation, or the way their family was suffering and dealing with this – something I was all too familiar with.
Ryan: Right. So your latest venture is Katie Couric Media. Can you talk a little bit about that? The why and what and how it’s going?
Couric: Sure. Well, you know, as you mentioned, I have done a lot of big jobs. I’ve been very fortunate. I did the “Today” show for 15 years, I was anchor at the “CBS Evening News.” And after that, I did a talk show for two years. And then I worked at Yahoo, because I saw this digital revolution happening before my eyes.
So after doing all those things, I thought, “Gosh, I don’t necessarily want to go back to a network. It’s hard to go back.” And other people, you know, were coming through the ranks and doing a great job. And so I thought, “I still want to work. I love what I do.”
I’m still endlessly curious. So why not? Given the fact that there’s so much disintermediation, you don’t need the network structure to communicate with an audience. You can do it on podcasts, you can do it on social media, you can do it on YouTube, you can do it on streaming networks. And so as a result, I thought, “I’m just going to do my own thing.”
My husband, John, has a background in finance, and was really kind of semi-retiring. And so he said, “I’ll help you.” So now we have about 40 employees; we do a six-day-a-week newsletter, called Wake Up Call, and people can sign up by going to KatieCouric.com. We have a really vibrant website.
We work with purpose-driven brands to focus on things like health and wellness, cancer prevention, environmental sustainability. And you know, it’s going really, really well; we have a very engaged audience. I think because I got into the business when I did, people look to me as someone they can trust, someone who is not going to be unprepared for an interview, someone who’s not going to give things that are not factually correct. And so as a result, you know, I’m able to interview Neal Katyal, a constitutional scholar, about what it means to go into Mar-a-Lago and what are the consequences of former President Trump’s legal challenges. Or I can talk to my friend Lynsey Addario, the incredible photo journalist who’s covered so many war zones, and she’s in Ukraine right now. She has an exhibition coming up in New York. So I just sent her like six questions about her work and the most interesting story she’s ever covered and what she tries to capture in her photographs, and I’ll have that in my newsletter. And I’m developing some documentaries, so I’m able to continue doing what I love. And I am the boss of me, as our kids used to say.
Ryan: Right. Well, it seems like it’s harkening back, to a certain extent, to the “Today” show where you could cover a huge range of topics, but you get to decide which topics.
Couric: Yeah, I mean, I just can do anything. It’s so fun.
Ryan: Right, right. So let’s shift gears for just a second. I’ve really admired your philanthropic work. And I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the causes that you’ve championed that are near and dear to your heart, and how you decided to use your platform really to bring attention to causes that you believe in, including cancer detection, prevention and treatment.
Couric: Well, you know, I think most people who become intensely committed to a cause do so from personal experience. I remember early in my career, I was asked to emcee, you know, practically every event for every charity you could think of – and all incredibly important, worthy causes. But when my husband Jay died in 1998, when he was just 42, diagnosed in 1997, and after nine months died of advanced colon cancer, I mean, it just, it was devastating. And our daughters were 6 and 2.
And it just made me realize that there was a huge vacuum of knowledge about this disease, about the fact that it was the No. 2 cancer killer of men and women combined, the fact that it was highly preventable with proper screening, or even with a better understanding of the symptoms, because often when you have symptoms, it’s advanced. And that’s, that’s one of the scary things about this disease and about so many cancers, actually.
So I think when this happened, it just became obvious that I would be focused on educating people and raising funds. I was so frustrated that the therapy that Jay was on had been used since the 1950s. And, you know, I thought, “This, this is impossible. We have to make more progress in coming up with better treatments and diagnostic tools and prevention strategies for colon cancer.”
So I did my colonoscopy on the “Today” show, just to kind of destigmatize and demystify the procedure. And then from there, I focused on raising a lot of money. I started the National Colorectal Cancer Research Alliance, where we got people, experts from about every aspect of the disease.
And then, of course, when Emily died – my sister Emily, who became a state senator and was running for lieutenant governor of Virginia – and there part of the Clinical Cancer Center at UVA is named after her. I’m just enormously proud of her, and was so heartbroken along with my family and so many of her constituents when she died of pancreatic cancer when she was 54. And thought, “Gosh, all cancers need more funding.”
You know, I knew that only one in 10 promising research proposals was funded by the NIH. And I said there are a lot of great ideas out there that just can’t get funding. And we have to, to take up the slack. So with eight other sort of type-A women like Sherry Lansing, who is a very well-known Hollywood executive, and Lisa Paulsen, who is in charge of the EIF, which is the philanthropic arm of Hollywood, and some other women in marketing and all kinds of backgrounds, we started Stand Up to Cancer.
And we thought, cancer research shouldn’t be so siloed. It should be more collaborative and less competitive. And we need to really help fund these “dream teams” of scientists, who are all working on the same things, and they need to get together. And we’ve raised over $700 million. I think our research has contributed to something like nine new FDA-approved drugs. And so that has been my main focus for the last 20-plus years.
But I’m also doing other things. I’m very interested in ALS research. I’m executive-producing a documentary about a remarkable young man and his wife, Sandra, who met during the Obama campaign, and have really spearheaded three important pieces of legislation on Capitol Hill using their political acumen and their ability to be sort of community organizers from working on the Obama campaign to changing, changing a lot of people’s lives with ALS.
And you know, reminds me of that famous Margaret Mead quote, “Never doubt the power of a few committed citizens to change the world. Indeed, that’s the only thing that ever has,” something along those lines. But I think it just shows, you can really, you know, accomplish something if you set out to do it and are sort of relentless.
Ryan: OK, so last question. If you were interviewing Katie Couric for a UVA podcast, what question would you ask her that you haven’t already been asked?
Couric: How do you feel about the steps the University has taken to mitigate some of the less attractive chapters of its history? But I’ll ask you that question: What do you think, and has the University and the community, writ large, done enough?
Ryan: So taking the first part, I feel like UVA is a different place today than it was when I went to Grounds in 1989 to be a first-year law student. At that time, there was very little conversation about the less attractive chapters of UVA history. And, you know, it was not a conversation about the good, the bad and the ugly; it was mostly a conversation about the good.
And I think that today, there is a much greater recognition about UVA’s full history, and, you know, a pretty robust conversation. And I think that’s a healthy thing. And I sometimes think that people go to either extreme – they just want to talk about the attractive parts, or they just want to talk about the ugly parts. And I think where we’re trying to get is to be comfortable recognizing that history is as messy as current reality; you can’t pick one strand and say that that defines an era. And just being able to have an open conversation about the history is, I think, really important.
In terms of whether we’ve done enough, I think we’ve done a fair bit, but there’s always more to do. I mean, we have done more in terms of telling the full story of UVA, whether it’s putting up the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, which is I think a fantastic memorial, to putting up historical markers that tell the full story of UVA, up to the present. So markers about the admission of women to UVA, markers about the Coat and Tie Rebellion. Portraits of faculty, like Rita Dove, all in an effort to make it clear that history at UVA didn’t stop in 1950; it continued, and some of the most important chapters actually happened after 1950, all of which I think is part and parcel of being a university, founded by Jefferson, who famously said, “We’re here, we’re unafraid to follow truth wherever it may lead.”
And I think we absolutely ought to apply that maxim to the history of the University. And we’re getting there. And it is an honor to be a part of that.
Couric: I’m developing a documentary series that I hope comes to fruition, which is really kind of unvarnished history. In the ways Germany has done with the Holocaust and the way Rwanda has done with its civil war, to kind of help people face, face some of the things, and I really think it, it impedes progress, when you mythologize history, and it also impedes being empathetic to groups that were oppressed, and who weren’t the people writing the history. So I think that we could learn a lot from those other countries.
Bryan Stevenson is a person I admire so much –
Ryan: You and me both.
Couric: – and he and I have talked a lot about that. I did, you know, a National Geographic series and one of them was on Confederate statues and iconography. And that’s why I was in Charlottesville covering the Unite the Right rally and really focused on sort of the statue of Robert E. Lee, in the middle of the town square. And, you know, he talks about appreciating history and not to be ashamed or embarrassed, but just to have a deeper understanding.
And I remember I interviewed Gary Gallagher in Charlottesville, the history professor, and I remember him saying to me “‘Gone With the Wind’ has done more to miseducate people about the Civil War than any history professor could.” You know, I think we have these pop cultural references that shape our perspective in a way, and oftentimes they’re really wrong.
Ryan: I agree. I agree. I also think that sometimes we fail to recognize and acknowledge progress. So, you know, the idea that it’s no better in 2022 than it was in 1960, which is false. And I think what it does is it dishonors those who worked so hard to improve conditions for people who were oppressed, and not recognizing the improvements, I think does a disservice to those who came before.
So I think some of it, I mean, in some respects, you know, that the starting point is humility. Humility about the present; humility about our own roles in the present; and recognition, both that those in the past didn’t always meet the aspirations that they had for themselves, just like we don’t, but at the same time, humility that we’re not the first to recognize a problem and try to work on it. And there are those who came before us that deserve our credit and gratitude for their work.
Couric: Yeah, we could talk about all this for a long time and sort of the state of the mood of the country and I think it’s so important, but increasingly difficult to have nuanced conversations.
Ryan: Right. Well Katie, I will officially end the podcast here. I really want to thank you. It’s been a total delight to spend time with you. And I really appreciate you taking the time.
Couric: Absolutely. It was fun. And I think you’ve got a future in podcasting, Jim.
You know her from her 15-year stint on NBC’s “Today” show, from anchoring the “CBS Evening News” and helming her eponymous talk show, “Katie.” But did you know that before she was an Emmy Award-winning news professional, Katie Couric was an R.A. at the University of Virginia? Or that in her fourth year, she was the senior resident of the Lawn?
Her journey on Grounds started after a failed application to Smith College. “My sisters both went to Smith and I think everyone kind of expected me to go to Smith,” she told UVA President Jim Ryan on the latest installment of his podcast, “Inside UVA,” which dropped this week. “But I was sort of a little bit, I wouldn’t say a goof-off, but let’s just say I got by on my charisma and charm.”
Once she got to UVA, Couric never looked back. “I’m so glad I went to UVA,” she said. “It was a really good place for me, I think. I got a really well-rounded education. I loved it.”
Ryan and Couric’s conversation ranges widely. The journalist shares some of the highs and lows in her profession and her deep passion for cancer research and discovery – sparked by the death of her first husband, Jay, who died of colon cancer when he was just 42, and later, the death of her sister Emily, who died of pancreatic cancer when she was 54. Couric came to UVA in 2011 to help dedicate the Emily Couric Clinical Cancer Center.
Couric helped found Stand Up To Cancer, an organization that has raised more than $746 million for cancer research programs. “I think our research has contributed to something like nine new FDA-approved drugs,” she said.
Couric’s latest venture is Katie Couric Media, which focuses on things like health and wellness, environmental sustainability and cancer prevention. Tune in to the season premiere of “Inside UVA” to learn more about her new adventure and listen as she flips the script on Ryan by closing out the conversation with a question of her own.