The announcement ends Nnamdi’s 23-year run as the host of a noontime program that explored innumerable topics — transportation, education, gentrification, racial relations, architecture, food and culture — and almost all from a local perspective.
In a medium that tends to prize conflict and confrontation, Nnamdi conducted interviews with newsmakers and ordinary people with a calm and assured manner, his voice inflected with the rhythms of his native country, Guyana.
The station said Nnamdi’s Monday-Thursday slot would be temporarily filled by “The Takeaway,” a syndicated newsmagazine program produced in New York. His weekly politics program, co-hosted with Tom Sherwood, a former WRC and Washington Post journalist, will continue to air on Fridays.
WAMU plans eventually to develop a new daily local program that would permanently replace Nnamdi’s program but hasn’t started yet, the station said.
Nnamdi’s semi-retirement is another major change for WAMU, one of the largest and most popular public radio stations in the country. Veteran host Diane Rehm ended her WAMU-produced and nationally syndicated interview program in 2016. Her replacement, Joshua Johnson, left for an anchor job at MSNBC in late 2019 after just under three years on the air. The station’s general manager, J.J. Yore, who had overseen a dramatic increase in WAMU’s revenue and membership roles, left in July amid staff complaints over his handling of sexual harassment and racial equity complaints.
Like public and commercial radio stations across the country, WAMU, which is owned by American University in Washington, has been hurt by the loss of listeners and sponsorship revenue during the pandemic. As a cost-cutting measure, it declined to renew contracts for 13 employees at the end of 2020. The station said the staff of Nnamdi’s program would be laid off, as well.
Born Rex Orville Montague Paul, Nnamdi changed his name in 1971, adopting the first name of Nigerian President Nnamdi Azikwe along with Kojo, which means “born on Monday” in the African Christian tradition, according to the WAMU-owned news website DCist. He moved to Washington in 1969 after attending Montreal’s McGill University and briefly becoming involved in the Black Power movement, including a short affiliation with the militant Black Panthers in New York.
He joined Howard University’s WHUR-FM in 1973, serving as a news editor and then as news director. In 1985, he became the host of “Evening Exchange,” a public-affairs program on the university’s TV station.
Nnamdi replaced Derek McGinty in 1998 as the host of WAMU’s daily talk program, renamed “The Kojo Nnamdi Show” in 2002. It focused almost exclusively on local issues, with a special emphasis on the region’s changing character, including D.C.’s gradual transition from a Black-majority city to one more racially mixed. His program, especially the Friday politics show, became a must-stop for current and aspiring local and state officials, from D.C. Council members to governors.
“I think that people having a sense of place and a sense of ownership of place is very important, and I think we’ve contributed towards having people in this region feel like ‘this is mine, this is ours,’ ” he told DCist.
“It’s going to take a long time before the kind of reconciliation that we’re talking about takes place, and that reconciliation is going to have to take place at several levels,” he added. “Radio stations such as ours and a talk show such as mine can at the very least get people talking who would not normally be talking with one another.”
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) on Wednesday praised Nnamdi’s interviewing style. “His questions are insightful, and they are direct,” she said, “and they get to the bottom of the issue in a way that has not only informed but entertained his listeners for many, many years.”
Sherwood, who has co-hosted with Nnamdi on his Friday program for 12 years, said in an email that Nnamdi and his producers “have made more sense of the metropolitan Washington area than most any other electronic media. He connects with his audiences in substance and style,” both on the radio and in person via his “Kojo in Your Community” appearances.
“My one complaint,” joked Sherwood, “is that Kojo with his NPR approach is too polite and lets some windbag guests on ‘The Politics Hour’ ramble on way too long. Of course, that’s why I am there — to intervene.”
Nnamdi told DCist that he plans to travel once the pandemic subsides. He is also writing a memoir.