Stonington native Ben Brock Johnson is cracking the new media code with podcast

Stonington native Ben Brock Johnson is cracking the new media code with podcast

Record-Journal


Ben Brock Johnson, a Stonington High School graduate who played the role of Jesus Christ in “Godspell” during his senior year in 1999, is still telling stories to the masses.

Johnson, who stands at the forefront of today’s radio renaissance, is not only the host of American Public Media’s Marketplace Tech, but he is also the creator and host of the podcast, “Codebreaker.”

The idea was to create a program that was “fun, interesting and asks deep questions,” said Johnson, who grew up in Stonington, attended Pine Point School, graduated from Mystic Middle School, studied for a few years at a Quaker School in Pennsylvania and took a year off to travel and work between high school and college. He graduated from Connecticut College with a major in government and a minor in music.

“Technology is changing our lives,” he said. “Codebreaker” allows its creator and its audience to explore “what we do with technology” as it becomes more and more a part of our lives.

Produced by Marketplace in partnership with Tech Insider, the podcast, “dares to ask — and answer — the fundamental questions about technology that consume us every day. In season one, we’re starting with three deceptively simple words: Is it evil?” according to Johnson.

In each episode, Johnson applies the question to a different technology. “Codebreaker,” he explained, also introduces a new way to listen. Each episode contains a hint created to help listeners unlock the next installment and ultimately the entire season. Once listeners think they’ve cracked a code, they can enter it at “Codebreaker.codes” on the website. They can also choose to just listen to a new episode each Wednesday without decoding a thing. Topics range from email and data tracking to the dark web and Internet porn.

“We have complicated feelings about technology,” said Johnson. The name of the show, he said, comes from one of the greatest codebreakers of all time, Alan Turing, the Bristish mathematician who many believe set in motion the computer age and, with his own codebreaking during WWII, helped save millions of lives.

Johnson, who predicts podcasts are swiftly becoming the new Netflix for news consumption, said he became interested in radio a few years back while interning at WNYC, New York City’s National Public Radio station, but those who have watched him grow up and those who have followed his career could almost predict his rise in the industry.

“Ben has always been on the cutting edge,” said his father, Kit Johnson, a musician who taught at Pine Point School when his son was a student. “I thought he’d head towards something more like documentaries or television since he was involved in theater, but he did grow up on NPR.”

Elissa Bass of Stonington knew Johnson had skills when she worked with him at The Day newspaper in New London and listened to him interview the late Luciano Pavarotti.

“He was laughing and relaxed and calm and I thought ‘Oh my God, he is interviewing the greatest tenor in the world like he’s his next door neighbor,’” recalled Bass, who was the features editor at The Day at the time. “I knew he was going somewhere. I knew he was destined for greatness.”

Bass said Johnson had a talent for knowing what to do and when to do it. Plus he was smart. “Super smart.”

“He was a quick study,” added Bass, who owns a social media and consulting business. “He really knew how to tell a good story.”

“He also started the first blog at the Day,” she said. “It was back when the Internet was new to newspapers and Ben was the one who said, ‘I should write a blog about the music scene.’

“It was wonderful to have a young person who was great writer,” Bass said.

Johnson also was a guitarist in the indie-rock band Ringers, and worked as a DJ at WCNI, the Conn College radio station. When the opportunity to intern at the Day arose, he jumped at the chance. He so impressed the editors, that when a job covering the local arts scene opened up, they offered it to him before he graduated.

While there, he won a regional award for feature writing and was recruited to write a weekly entertainment column for the Tribune Media wire service.

Aside from Pavarotti, some of his other interviews include Jay-Z, Hillary Rodham Clinton, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, Josh Homme, Biz Stone, Guy Kawasaki, Col. Chris Hadfield, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Neil Young.

Johnson moved to New York City in 2006 to be closer to his then-girlfriend, Sarah Lumnah Johnson, who is now his wife. He landed a job as an entertainment and music reporter at the Staten Island Advance newspaper, where he soon moved into hard news, working the cops beat. Then he became a weekend city desk editor.

In 2010, he began to work as a freelance web producer at “The Takeaway,” a national radio show produced out of New York’s WNYC Radio in partnership with WGBH, The New York Times and the BBC. Johnson went on to become a freelance radio producer at WNYC, serving as the digital editor for “The Takeaway” while also doing live and features reporting for the station on everything from Occupy Wall Street to New York’s last functioning ship graveyard. While working at WNYC, Johnson started blogging for Slate Magazine’s breaking news blog, “The Slatest.”

In 2012, he left WNYC to manage a partnership between Slate and YouTube, producing daily breaking news videos and other content for SlateV, the magazine’s video department. He also wrote regularly for Slate’s “Future Tense” blog where, he said, he drew the ire of his fellow Radiohead fans by asking the band to stop touring.

The youngest of Jane and Kit Johnson’s two sons, Ben was raised in a Quaker household and was married under the care of the friends at the Westerly Friends Meeting House. His older brother, Munro, is vice president at the New York City Economic Development Corporation.

It was at the Quaker Meeting House on Elm Street, back in 1991, that Johnson’s mother had a premonition about her youngest son’s future.

“We were all writing letters to the president about the Gulf War,” recalled Jane Johnson, who for years was in charge of publicity and community outreach at the Westerly Public Library. “A reporter from the Sun came by with a photographer and took a photo of Ben. It was so sweet. It showed every freckle on his nose.”

Johnson’s letter was published in the Sun, she added, alongside the photo of her smiling son with a newsboy’s cap upon his head.

nbfusaro@thewesterlysun.com


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