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TBC Selects

Q&A: Maura Johnston

July 26, 2023

The longtime music industry professional talks about how she keeps pace with the shifting media landscape.

For Maura Johnston, restlessness is a secret weapon. Over the past two decades, the writer-editor has channeled her need to stay busy into a multi-lane career path that’s seen her work as a DJ, a music critic, an author, and beyond. In her time as a media professional, she’s written for Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, the Boston Globe, and beyond, and worked as an editor for The Village Voice and a founding editor for Idolator. Now, when she’s not deejaying for fun or analyzing new music, the TBC contributor works as an adjunct professor in Boston College’s journalism department (she teaches, appropriately, a course called "Writing About Popular Music"). Here, she chats about her career evolution and how to stay ahead of a rapidly changing media landscape. 

You’ve seen a lot of industry and technology changes in your time as a music critic, and those changes have made music more accessible than ever. Do you find that the function of your job has evolved in response to those changes? 

If you think about the way that you read a newspaper, especially a culture section, your eye falls on things and then you just start reading. But with the structure of journalism online, you have to take that split second to be like, “Am I gonna click this?” And it seems like such a weird thing to focus on. But it is that kind of a split-second decision that you see the results of in [website] traffic reports. Even people who are interested in music only have so much time in the day, and I get it. But, I do think that there is still a function in trying to help people figure out what's going on, because I see with my students that they'll just put stuff on playlists and it'll be this sort of decontextualized [thought]. I feel like it's important to contextualize and help people figure out what's going on. That's always been the case for what I've put forth. It's important to also let people know about your passions and to let people know about things that really excite you, because those things might be lost to the playlist wind.

You’ve appeared in four music videos. Which was your favorite?

I will never forget the Speedy Ortiz video [“The Graduates”] because that was my friend Ivy and our friend Aurora. It was the day after the Grammys, and I only remember this because they were visiting from out of town for a Grammys party, and there was a giant blizzard and we trudged in the snow from my apartment to the now-defunct Alston Diner, which was this vegetarian diner in my neighborhood. I'll never forget that day because of everybody who just showed up in this foot and a half of snow. [Maura first appears at 2:05.]

As someone who’s worked in radio, as a critic, and also as an adjunct professor, you seem to have a flexible idea of how to apply your skills, which feels increasingly important in an unstable media landscape. Was being this versatile always part of the plan? 

I've always just been really restless. I think it's more that I always loved radio. Radio was how I found out about a lot of the music that I love today. I loved MTV. I’m always busy because if I don't keep busy, then I get kind of bored. I think also, you know, it's like you kind of have to [be versatile]. I think about how the money is flowing and not flowing and stuff. And so I'm always sort of trying to be ahead of that. Teaching is really great in that way, ’cause teaching is like my stability. And I learned so much about how to deal with the upcoming landscape too. Because I'm starting to get students who were born after 9/11. Watching even the shifts in how they consume media over the time that I've been at Boston College has been really interesting and eye-opening—and a little distressing.

What’s a piece of advice you have for any aspiring journalists? 

I think flexibility and curiosity are the two things. And also just trusting, and I know this sounds like such a cliché, but trusting your gut. If something doesn't feel right for you, like the pain that you're gonna go through, trying to fit yourself into a mold that you don't fit into or that just feels wrong. It’s not gonna be worth it in the long run. I think flexibility is a combination of curiosity about yourself doing unexpected things and curiosity about the world around you. Flexibility to go with that curiosity because that way, if something comes up you can immerse yourself in it.

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