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NPR 'Morning Edition host on replacing a local legend

OCTAVIO JONES | Times Jessica Meszaros, who took over as the host of NPR Morning Edition on WUSF 89.7 FM last July, replaced the longtime Carson Cooper, who died from a long illness.
Published Nov. 30, 2018

Jessica Meszaros took on the unenviable task of following in the footsteps of a popular radio personality when she replaced the late Carson Cooper as local host of NPR's Morning Edition on WUSF-89.7 FM earlier this year.

But the Miami native and Florida International University graduate called on her experience to steel herself for the challenge of filling the void left by Cooper, who died in July after a long illness.

She first blossomed in 2012 as a WLRN intern in Miami while still at FIU, and eventually moved on Fort Myers' WGCU in 2015 for what would become a three-year stint as the All Things Considered local host.

Meszaros, 28, also possesses the necessary lineage. A street in Miami's Calle Ocho district recently was named for her late grandfather, Rolando Ochoa, an actor and comedian with his own successful radio career.

"It's really unfortunate that he died before he got to see that I ended up in radio too," Meszaros said. "He never got to hear me on the radio, but it's really cool to carry on the legacy in a way."

Tampa Bay Times correspondent Jennifer Lima recently spoke with the award-winning journalist about maintaining her legacy while replacing a legend, and why bringing diversity to the WUSF airwaves remains a priority for her.

How did you end up in Tampa?

I learned so much in Fort Myers because so much was expected of me and available to me, and it was a lot of teamwork. It was only like four of us at one point and one was the news director, so it was really tight knit and we all just did what we had to do. Tampa was just the natural next step.

I wanted to stay in Florida because of the knowledge I'd acquired doing this job. I spent six years learning how our legislature works, how our politics work, learning about our environment and then this job opened up and I felt like I'd mastered all I could in Fort Myers. Tampa was a new challenge, new place, a lot more listeners and Morning Edition is a whole different show — four hours — so it's double the show I was used to.

Did you get a chance to work with Carson Cooper when you started here?

No, he was already out sick so I never got to work with him unfortunately. He was a legend, he was at WUSF alone for about 20 years and I was really looking forward to learning from him. He really made people feel like he was in the car with them and that's the goal. It was a huge loss for the area and for the station.

Did you feel extra pressure coming in and filling in for Cooper?

There's a lot of pressure going into a new job anyway. I was more focused on making sure I was doing the listeners justice. I wanted to make sure that the newscast made sense for this area, so I was just focused on doing the job to the best of my abilities and learning from people. It's still evolving, I've been here less than six months almost and I always have goals on how to be better.

What do you think the listeners want to hear in the morning, in this market as opposed to what you were used to in Southwest Florida?

I think all listeners want to hear a friendly voice who's also trustworthy. A voice that you can trust, that's just a little bit calmer since it's early morning, so not too intense because a lot of people are just waking up and making their coffee, and driving to work. Plus a lot can happen overnight, there's a lot of news and it's not always positive so I want to make sure I deliver it in a certain way. Maybe cushion it with something else. That's what I would want to hear as a listener.

That makes sense. I imagine it's a little more challenging as someone who's new to Tampa.

Yeah it is, that's why I rely on a lot of my colleagues and I ask questions all the time. Especially when I first started, every morning I'd message my news director just to make sure I was heading in the right direction. You know, I don't like to assume I know everything. But, you know, this is what I wanted. I felt like I'd done what I could in Southwest Florida, I was really craving a challenge and this is it.

Being on Florida's west coast has allowed you to enjoy more of nature, but as a native, you know the state's nature — the good and the bad — the palm trees and the hurricanes.

That's actually another reason I wanted to stay in Florida – hurricanes. I had my first taste of hurricane coverage during Hurricane Irma last year, and where the eyewall went right over us while we were on the air. We were working eight hours straight, switching out, producing, trying to get people on the phone, getting law enforcement to talk about public safety and just constantly looking. That's was just one night.

Oh my.

I slept under my desk for six nights. I just kept telling stories about the agriculture, the people. I drove out to Everglades City because they were the hardest hit and talked to the mayor and sources. I spoke to one woman whose husband died from an infection from walking in chest deep water to get away from the storm.

After the hurricane passed, things settled, and the WiFi was back up we got so many messages from people saying thank you and how we were all they had during the storm. That's the reason to do this job – to provide a public service for people. There's nothing that I want to do more than to help people and be that voice.

Going from a market like Miami so full of Hispanic culture to Southwest Florida and now Tampa Bay, do you ever think about the diversity you bring and could bring to the table when you're planning your stories?

I do. I went to Guatemala twice last year to report on women's issues there. Some Fort Myers volunteers went over there to teach sex education and hand out hand-sewn menstrual pads and while I was there, I met a lot of Mayan women and when I came back I thought it was really important to tell their stories right.

So what are your goals for the Morning Edition?

I'm always working on being more conversational. Ira Glass from This American Life always says "talk like yourself," and I try to do that but I think it's just difficult for a lot of people because once the mic cracks open you want to make sure you have the proper diction and no matter what, you always have a little bit of a radio voice. For me, I want to be a Carson Cooper where I make someone feel like I'm sitting in the car with them.

The Weekly Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity. Contact Jennifer Lima at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

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