In her early 30s, Ailsa Chang had graduated with distinction from Stanford Law School, clerked at the U.S. 9th Circuit of Appeals Court, and landed a coveted position with a prestigious law firm. She also found herself unfulfilled and unhappy.
So she quit without a backup plan and wound up applying for an internship at KQED public radio in San Francisco.
Now a host of NPR’s “All Things Considered,” Chang will be appearing at the Wheeler Opera House at 6 p.m. Thursday in conversation with Aspen Public Radio Executive Director Breeze Richardson. They’ll discuss her career path from lawyer to investigative journalist, representation in media, and the importance of public radio.
Chang’s path to “All Things Considered” was unconventional, considering the foundation she had built for her law career, including clerking for the legendary 9th Circuit Appellate Judge John T. Noonan in San Francisco.
But she never looked back once she embarked on her new career as a journalist.
“I was really attracted to her career change and the way she speaks so eloquently about it,” said Richardson. “With the influx of pandemic refugees, there is an opportunity for us to talk about making that change, and what the challenges and opportunities are to think, ‘Maybe the thing I thought I was going to do for the last decade I don’t want to do anymore.’”
Chang’s leap of faith paid off.
After receiving her master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University, Chang started out as an investigative reporter at NPR member station WNYC from 2009 to 2012 and has since earned a string of national awards for her work.
In 2012, she was honored with the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Silver Baton for her investigation into the New York City Police Department’s “stop-and-frisk” policy and allegations of unlawful marijuana arrests by officers and was a former “Planet Money” correspondent and a congressional correspondent with NPR’s Washington Desk.
“I love the medium of radio,” Chang said. “The sandbox I play in is human conversations, and I most gravitate to those that make me rethink about how I live my own life, reflect on my own life lessons, and show me how to love better or revisit childhood traumas in a different way. I get to do that almost every day on this job.”
She and Richardson agree that the power of public radio lies in it being an aural medium, which one, makes it easier to access no matter where you are or what you are doing, “from driving to walking the dog”; and two, allows the audience to use their imagination when listening to a story or an interview without the visual interpretation of what a person or place should look like as you would find in television or film.
“Radio allows you to hear human stories from the humans that are affected by them,” said Richardson. “And whether that’s sharing your story or reacting to the news of the day, hearing authentic voices is so important to you building an understanding of that issue and the people it’s affecting and the people that are affected by it.”
Chang, who is of Taiwanese-Chinese heritage, said that while there are many opportunities for women in public radio, the medium doesn’t exclude her from sexist-based criticism from the public, noting that she has gotten “plenty of negative feedback on the pitch of my voice.” That’s something her male counterparts encounter infrequently or “not at all.”
“Unlike television, in radio we have a different relationship with diversity,” Richardson said. “And even though NPR has this wonderful 50-year-old history of bringing women into the prime-time kind of at an accelerated pace compared to television news, there’s still challenges in being female in that voice of authority.”
It’s an auspicious time for Chang to be here speaking about topics of representation. Over the past two weeks, she has reported on two very different stories that have had a big impact on her and will be top of mind when appearing at The Wheeler.
The first was the deadly mass shooting that claimed the lives of 11 people inside a Monterey Park, Calif., dance studio during Lunar New Year celebrations. Chang, who is originally from the Bay Area and only recently relocated to Los Angeles, was unsurprisingly asked to cover the tragedy.
“It’s (Monterey Park) a safe space for so many Asian immigrants in Southern California,” she said. “There is a lot that I’m still processing. What am I allowed to feel? What am I supposed to feel? What am I not allowed to feel?”
“My mom and dad used to shush me if I ever mentioned death around the time of Lunar New Year. They said it was bad luck, inviting misfortune. I wonder how many Asians are feeling that as we all talk about what’s happened in Monterey Park,” Chang posted on Twitter, Jan. 23, two days after the shooting.
The same week, she interviewed actress, model and media personality Pamela Anderson about her upcoming memoir and documentary about her life, in which Anderson spoke about finally demanding and taking full control over her own story and how she is represented, something she has publicly struggled with her entire career.
“I was so blown away by her. How voraciously curious and how intelligent she is. It was a delight to talk with her,” Chang said.
This week will be Chang’s first trip to Aspen, and while she doesn’t ski, she is looking forward to visiting for a few days and finally meeting the Aspen team in person.
“Aspen Public Radio has been so gracious about making sure I have a great time while I am there,” she said. “I feel like I am going to Aspen to visit friends.”
What: Aspen Public Radio and Wheeler Opera House present “An Evening with Ailsa Chang
Where: The Wheeler Opera House, Aspen
When: Thursday at 6 p.m.
Tickets are available now on aspenshowtix.com. They are $35 per person and support Aspen Public Radio’s non-profit journalism service for the Roaring Fork Valley. Doors will open at 5:30 p.m.