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From my interview archive: four Los Angeles public radio stars

This year, I’m listening again to selections from the archive of long-form interviews I conducted on the public radio program The Marketplace of Ideas and podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture between 2007 and 2015.

“So when is KCRW or KPCC going to give you your own show?” a Los Angeles-based New Yorker writer once asked me just after we’d finished recording an interview. I told her it was a good question and one I’d wondered about on occasion myself, but by that point it hadn’t crossed my mind in some time; I’d already decided to move to Korea, and none of the experience I’d had with the city’s two public radio stations had proven particularly encouraging about my prospects with them. The one-on-one interactions I’d managed to arrange with individuals from those stations always felt positive, sometimes thrillingly so, but when encountered as organizations they tended to leave a surprisingly bad taste in my mouth.

Even before moving to Los Angeles, I’d remotely interviewed Michael Silverblatt, host of KCRW’s Bookworm, and John Rabe, host of KPCC’s (now soon to end) Off-Ramp, on The Marketplace of Ideas. With my interest in the city’s public-radio culture thus stoked, and figuring I’d need some source of income lined up before making that move, I applied to a job with one of those stations and wound up with the offer of a one-day trial internship. (This was 2011, bear in mind.) So I came down from Santa Barbara, and one of a quartet of producers for the station’s flagship talk show sat me down in front of a computer and instructed me to “keep an eye on the headlines” scrolling by on their proprietary headline-watching application.

This was the day that Standard & Poor’s downgraded the United States’ credit rating from “outstanding” to “excellent,” so most of the news had to do with that. Every other headline was about rape: not one rape in particular, but various rapes. Though all four of the producers could see me, none again acknowledged my presence until the end of the day, six or so hours later. I didn’t know what would happen if I asked them whether I could go get lunch, so I just never did. The next week I received an e-mail from the producer who showed me where to sit (and who, in what I now recall as a bad sign, didn’t know where “K-town” was when she asked where I planned on living) saying they needed someone “with better news instincts.”

Not long after settling in Los Angeles, income stream be damned, I got an interview with the other station for a job that actually paid — a job whose nature I never really grasped, but a job with a major Los Angeles public radio station nonetheless. A friend with public-radio credibility had recommended me for the position, then insisted I apply for it so he didn’t “look like an asshole.” I wound up crossing town for an interview there not once but twice, sitting before three of the station’s people each time, getting along pretty well with everyone, but also sensing a deep, unidentifiable malaise permeating the environment, like nobody there knew what to do with themselves. (I later found out the reason, which had to do with changes at the top, but I had no idea at the time.)

Weeks went by before I could successfully extract their admission that I didn’t get the job; later I heard through the grapevine the mystifying explanation that my radio experience — that is, the fact that I had radio experience — had been a concern. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have bothered. Experiences in the years since have taught me that I’m not really suited to situations where I have to outshine other candidates in a set of fixed criteria. If you want to work with me, let’s talk; if you don’t want to work with me, I completely understand. What I can’t fathom is when you don’t know whether you want to work with me. If I have to convince six whole people that they want to work with me, I might as well throw in the towel and just enjoy a chat with them — which, as I recall, is more or less what I did.

Though I’d psyched myself up in the moment to perform as best as I could at both stations, I to this day feel regular waves of relief that I never got that job I didn’t understand (it had something to do with organizing the promotion of events on air, I think) or worse, the unpaid internship in that hellish newsroom. Yet I also still struggle to square this with the coolness and friendliness of all the Los Angeles public radio people I’ve met one-on-one, especially those I’ve interviewed: Silverblatt and Rabe I met face-to-face for second interviews on Notebook on Cities and Culture, and I later sat down on that show with Patt Morrison, formerly of KPCC, and Madeleine Brand, who jumped to KCRW after a high-profile dispute with KPCC (involving a guy who interviewed me about Who Framed Roger Rabbit last year, incidentally).

Sometimes I wonder what space I could have carved out for myself in Los Angeles public radio if I’d doubled down my efforts — starting a podcast focused on the city entirely instead of partially, say, or showing up at more of the events in that cultural sphere. It’s not an impossible vision, and not an entirely unappealing one, but my poor fit with most organizations of any kind, and more so the chasm between my broadcasting sensibilities and those in current public-radio fashion (Jesse Thorn once explained to me that “program directors hate it” when you interview a guest for more than half an hour), make it an unlikely one. (This may make me sound like William Gaddis saying he wouldn’t have been terribly surprised to receive the Nobel Prize for The Recognitions, but a call from a national public radio network begging me to fill a prime time slot with long-form conversation wouldn’t have struck me, after I started The Marketplace of Ideas, as too far out of the natural order of things.)

In any case, if anyone could have made a reliable contact for my entry into that world, I couldn’t figure out who. Angelenos get a bad rap for being “fake,” an accusation you can most of the time dismiss as incoherent slander. But sometimes the accusers are, I think, expressing an understandable frustration with the way you never quite seem to know the terms of the relationships you have there, especially with people of any level of fame. Another reason I don’t mind never having developed a career tying me full-time to Los Angeles is that it allowed me to move to Seoul, a city with a relatively clear social landscape and one in which, despite my thorough outsider status, I’ve got more traction in a year and a half than I got in four back there. And of all the things people here ask me to explain, nobody ever demands to know why I don’t have a car.

Still, the dream remains to spend, down the line, part of the year in Seoul and part of the year in Los Angeles. Apart from the writing on Los Angeles I do no matter where in the world I am, I don’t know exactly what I’d do in my Los Angeles months, but probably not public radio, a medium which still offers work of brilliance but whose self-regard as the thinking man’s alternative has lulled it into a disheartening complacency on the whole. It didn’t seem to see podcasts coming, for instance, and has been astonishingly slow to incorporate that medium’s discoveries and innovations. Besides, I don’t know where the intellectual land mines are buried in public radio — the same reason I don’t go into academia — and really, how many thinking men do you know who compulsively change the subject every five minutes?

Some of American public radio’s dysfunctions run even deeper, making me wonder whether — despite the admirable work of the figures I’ve interviewed and others — it can ever solve, or even acknowledge, its real problems. A few years ago a friend invited me to come watch a show taping at one of these major Los Angeles public radio stations, and during it I got to talking with its producer in the control room. “You should work here,” she suggested toward the end of our conversation. “You’re way too smart for this, but you’d have to volunteer answering the phones. Everyone starts that way.” I had to summon all my willpower to stifle the response already on its way out: “Yeah, I hear that’s how they do it at Google.”