Twenty years ago, Václav Havel was elected president of the Czech Republic and Ruth Bader Ginsburg was joining the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, DC. Closer to home, 1993 was the year Professor Michael Krasny joined KQED as the host of Forum. Since then, the award-winning live call-in program has become the nation’s most-listened-to locally produced public radio talk show.
This summer, Michael graciously took his turn as an interview subject. Unfortunately, live call-in wasn’t available.
When you were interviewed in 1993 for KQED’s member magazine, you said, “My work in radio started out as a hobby. I’ve always seen myself as an academic, not a broadcaster.” Would you say the same thing today?
I think of myself primarily as a broadcaster and a professor now. But also as a writer. I don’t know which one has hegemony. You talk to a lot of people who hate their jobs or can’t find one thing that gives them pleasure or satisfaction or makes them feel they’re making a difference. These all do that for me. It’s a trinity.
And they all work so well together.
You’re right. They are sort of in synchronicity with each other.
How did your radio “hobby” get started?
It started with television. In the 1970s, I did some interviews for public television, mainly of literary figures, and I did some commentary for Channel 2, KTVU news. But radio seemed like a better fit for me. I was lucky to just go into a little station in Marin, where I lived, and say, “Here’s an idea for a talk show. You guys are all about music. Maybe you’d like to do something about public affairs?” And they went for it. It was a very unorthodox station in its day. What we used to call alternative radio. But the show got some attention. KGO expressed interest and I was there for a number of years. It wasn’t a bad fit, but it wasn’t really the right place for me like KQED is.
After 20 years on Forum, what keeps you interested?
Curiosity. And the news, of course — trying to interpret it and make it viable. I keep enlightenment and illumination the top goals for both me and the listeners. I like the idea of someone turning on the radio and not knowing what they are going to hear us talking about, but knowing it will always be at a high level. Striving to maintain that high level is part of the drive. But really, the main driver is curiosity.
Learning and being an educator have always been primary to me. . . . I like to believe that I can keep the program from being stale and just recycled in terms of topics and content because things are always changing and there are so many interesting people — especially here in the Bay Area. We now have reach well beyond the Bay Area because of Sirius and iTunes, but we have an extraordinary mother lode of people here to offer different points of view and expertise.
When I took over the reins of Forum, it was pretty much about local politics and policies. It was parochial. I said, “Let’s expand it to the arts and world affairs and national issues.” And we have, but we’ve also come back to hitting harder on the local. Part of the reason is that newspapers have cut their staffs. People are counting on us, frankly, to do those kinds of stories. It’s part of serving the public.
It’s been astonishing over the past 20 years to see the growth that we’ve had and how KQED has become the most important radio station in the Bay Area. For a public radio station to have that kind of success is really very unusual. But it says a lot about the Bay Area as well as, I hope, something about us.
There’s a temptation to ask what’s been your favorite interview, but I’m not going to ask you to pick.
I’m glad. I’ve interviewed a lot of impressive people, Nobel Prize winners, ambassadors and heads of state. How does one decide who is the best of the most fascinating? Many of my memories from my 20 years here have to do with ordinary people.
We just won a Public Radio News Directors award for a program we did as part of a series called In My Experience, about people who’d been incarcerated. It was poignant and moving. I am very touched by the stories of people who are putting themselves on the line, putting themselves at risk, out there in the trenches.
A couple of questions about your other professions. You’ve been a professor of English at San Francisco State since 1970. What are you teaching this fall?
I’m doing a course in 20th-century American plays and a course on two authors, Harold Pinter and Raymond Carver — a British playwright and an American fiction writer.
And are you working on another book? [Michael is the author of Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic’s Quest andOff Mike: A Memoir of Talk Radio and Literary Life.]
I’m in the process of trying to finish a book on the subject of honor. It’s more than honor. It’s how the ideals and notions of honor have changed and transmogrified through the years. It’s a combination of cultural analysis and memoir.
I think American honor has become conjoined and conflated with respect and recognition. I was led to this [project] thinking, “What is important for us to honor? Is there such a thing as true or authentic honor? Can it be separated from respect and recognition in many peoples’ minds? And should it be?” It’s a pretty ambitious book, but it’s just about done.
Final question. What’s a guilty pleasure for you?
It’s a guilty pleasure when I read People magazine or even look at the tabloids on the newsstands. Or watch something like Fashion Police with Joan Rivers, which is hilarious, but cutting. Certainly inducing of guilt because most of the people that she makes fun of are, I believe, not exactly substantial people, and they are the same targets every time.