After three decades of interviewing the greats, KQED radio broadcaster Michael Krasny hangs up his hat.
On February 15, exactly 28 years to the day since he began hosting KQED’s Forum, Michael Krasny will bid his listeners farewell and sign off one last time. The scholarly host — (he owns a Ph.D. in American literature from the University of Wisconsin–Madison) — has become a Bay Area icon, known for his de interview skills and fascinating conversations with literary greats, political and cultural luminaries, and ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Aside from his hosting duties, Krasny has been a professor of English at San Francisco State University since 1970 (he’ll step away from teaching this year as well) and has authored three books, including Off Mike: A Memoir of Talk Radio and Literary Life, in 2007.
Growing up in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, son of an ice cream factory worker and a mother who never finished high school, Krasny developed a passion for literature early on. He dreamed of writing the great American novel, but found his skills were better suited for broadcast journalism, which ultimately brought him to the Bay Area. As they say, the rest is history.
I had a chance to turn the tables and interview Krasny recently, when he spoke candidly about his career, the conversations that stick with him to this day and his plans for the future.
Meet Michael Krasny.
So, let me begin by asking how you are feeling. Has the reality set in that this almost three-decade-long journey as the host of Forum is coming to an end soon? It’s starting to set in, yeah. I’ve loved and been passionate about doing the program on a daily basis. You get to the point where you want to look for other possibilities, other things in life. I’m a grandfather now. My wife is pretty much retired from her law practice. It’s exciting to think of the postvaccinated world, where we can just have the leisure of seeing our grandchild in New York and traveling and doing the kinds of things we want to do. I want to finish the book I’m working on. There’s lots on the table. Lots in the future, I think.
What’s the new book about? The subject is honor, strangely enough. I think it’s something that we need to talk about and need to think about, although it’s a somewhat scholarly book and that’s always a danger. You never know who is going to read a scholarly book.
How did you choose the topic and why is it of interest? Something ignited in me. I used to be an aspiring Shakespearean scholar, and I started thinking about the difference between the Elizabethan era and what we now call the premodern era and our own era in terms of honor. I started doing some investigating and research. There’s a word, strangely enough, all too similar to the word COVID. It’s “koved,” which in Hebrew and Yiddish has to do with honor. It also means recognition, and it means respect.
I started thinking: Where did we separate those things? The notion of what is honorable? What does it mean in different cultures to have honor? There are honor killings, the Ku Klux Klan and honor among thieves. I just felt it was something worthy to explore.
Does the concept of honor change over time? Yes. Most definitely. I’m afraid that we’re in a period where I think it’s worthy and of importance to assess what we mean by honor, because we’ve got a presidency that has been so dishonorable. It’s really an inadequate word.
How did you know it was the right time to move on from Forum? There’s kind of an intuitive sense about these things. I have a great deal of empathy for athletes because their body just tells them it’s time. There’s always been a kind of inner clock with me. At one time, I thought they’ll have to take me out in a casket, but I quickly amended that. One of the things was, I talked to Neil Cohen, who used to host Talk of the Nation. I said, “Do you miss it?” He said, “I miss being on the air. I miss talking to people. I don’t miss the grind and the preparation.” It really takes a lot out of you. Particularly if you’re trying to do right by it.
How long does it take you to prepare for your interviews? Are you actually reading all of these books? My preparation is pretty zealous. I feel I have to do an excess amount of homework; it’s just the nature of how I prepare. There used to be a rule of thumb that for every hour you were on the air, you had to do two hours of preparation. That was when I worked at KGO and ABC. It’s very different when I moved to public radio over the last almost three decades because an hour is really an hour. You don’t have all these commercials, which is one of the things that I grew very blase and jaded about working in commercial radio.
When I read books, I try to read as much of the books as I can. There’s this myth that I read every word — I don’t. I’ll read a few chapters, an introduction, a conclusion, that sort of thing. When I was doing four or five books a week, it was not humanly possible to read all of them, but I read a lot and still read a lot.
As you get older, everything starts to dim a bit, vision is not as good as it used to be. I don’t keep the midnight oil burning the way I used to. There are all these kind of seismic changes.
Speaking of reading books, one of the things that surprised me in your memoir, Off Mike, was that you accidentally became an interviewer. Tell me about your career trajectory as a journalist. Well, I sort of invented myself. I mean, I was an academic and a scholar, and that was my life — with some publishing in addition to scholarship. The reality was, I felt something stirring in me, and I was asked, first of all, to do an interview with Gore Vidal, which, if you’ve read Off Mike, you know was a kind of baptism of fire.
It sure sounded like it. It was very difficult. It should have made me averse to interviewing, but I realized I had an appetite for it. I thought, “This is something I can do, and something I can do in addition to teaching.” I went to this little local station and said I’d like to do some interviews — public service and celebrity interviews, a nice mix — and they went for it.
I thought of myself more as a writer than I did as a broadcast journalist, but as time went on, I saw more opportunities and [had] some good fortune. I worked for KGO and then made the step into public radio. I realized that, indeed, I liked the challenge of interviewing and the improvisational nature of it.
It’s sort of like jazz when you begin to interview someone live without editing. As much as I respect Terry Gross as a colleague, sometimes I wish I could do the editing like she does. For the most part, unless we’re playing a “best-of” or a holiday interview, it’s all live without a net. That’s challenging to me. It really is.
I want to take you back a few years. You’ve said that, as a teenager, you were a bit of a misfit — sort of a bad boy — which I can’t imagine. But in college, you made a conscious decision to be better, to do good. Tell me a little bit about that. I’m not so sure the decision to do good came right away out of high school or college. I think it developed more as I went along. What I wanted to be was a good boy instead of a bad boy. I don’t want to get into too much of the Dickensian mythology about my youth, but the reality is that I ran with some pretty bad boys, and some of them suffered the consequences of being bad boys.
Frankly, I thought it would be better, in terms of attracting girls and all that, if I were good. I also began to sort of think of myself as an intellectual, because I had that kind of appetite. It seemed to me to be something to aspire to. I took a course in international relations and I took two years of Russian early on, and I realized I was really drawn to things like international relations, politics, literature, anthropology, psychology, the humanities and science.
My interests were pretty capricious and I thought I could probably make something of myself. My dad was pretty much a proletarian. I set upon trying to be an achiever. As I became more aware of certain writers and the effect they had on me — one big one was Saul Bellow — it sort of hit me with this notion of, “What does it mean to live a good life? To be a good person?” The idea of trying to not so much be virtuous, but to at least do the right thing as much as you can and to be a good person, that became a part of my DNA, I guess.
Besides being a broadcaster, you are an educator and have taught at SF State since 1970. Do you think being an educator makes you a better interviewer and vice versa? They cross-fertilize, and I think that’s an astute way to put it. Broadcasting has made me a better teacher. For one thing, I’ve interviewed almost all the people — at least, the living writers in contemporary American fiction, drama and poetry — that I’ve taught.
Also, teaching has made me a better broadcaster. There’s something about just listening. It was important for me not to just go into a class and lecture. It was important for me to hear and listen to what my students had to say and what their insights were and what they had to offer.
What makes a great interviewer? Why have you been so successful? I don’t know if I would call myself a great interviewer. I don’t mean that out of faux modesty. I just think that what I have is a lot of curiosity and the desire to learn. Also, a desire to teach. When those things are in harmony with one another, it can be a gift.
Let’s talk about some of the people you’ve interviewed. Presidents, Nobel Prize–winners, great literary figures. Who has wowed you? I mean, there are thousands, literally thousands. It’s very hard. I’m not begging off here. I think there are people who have excited me, who have surprised me, who have disappointed me, frankly. There’s a whole range and a whole spectrum. I often think, though, of people who make great sacrifices, and people who put themselves on the line.
For example, people I interviewed when I was young who do hospice work. I was just knocked out by their dedication, their commitment, their patience. … I think that way about journalists who put themselves in harm’s way to get the story.
I have respect for people who have real modesty, decency and heart to them. I have to tell you, a name that comes to mind is Ram Dass. There was something about his coming on the air after he had a stroke, because he wanted to say what it was like and what he had been through. I recognized that it was a great effort for him. He really didn’t want to be there, but he was. It affected me in a very profound way. It still does.
There was a moment with Joyce Carol Oates when I brought up her agent who lived in Palo Alto, and who was a close friend of hers and had died recently. I just said toward the end of the hour with her, “You want to talk about him?” She just became speechless. She couldn’t even speak. It was one of those moments of real emotion when you realize the authenticity of the moment.
There was something like that with Billy Dee Williams. He seemed very reticent, and I felt like the proverbial dentist, like I was pulling teeth with him, and I couldn’t understand why. I took a chance and I said to him, “You know, I’ve heard other interviews that you’ve done where you seemed, frankly, more forthcoming or more fluent. I don’t mean to insult you or anything, but you seem reserved with me.” He said, “My mother died.” It was like something out of Camus. I said, “Tell me about your mother.” It wasn’t supposed to be in the interview, but it became, in some ways, an extraordinary interview because he did, indeed, tell me about his mother in ways that were very heartfelt and really quite poignant.
Is there anybody with whom you went into an interview with a certain opinion, and really changed your opinion after the interview? There were people who were very politically different than me, and one of the things I took pride in was to be able to talk to people whose political views I didn’t share. I used to put people on from [the] Hoover [Institution] in the early years and got a lot of flak for that from some of my listeners.
Hoover was very conservative, much more than it is now even. People would say, “Why are you putting these fascists on? This is public radio; they shouldn’t be on.” I thought, “Listen, don’t you want to know how they think, and what their views are or even their ideology? Can’t you use that?”
You’ve met so many people at the top of their field over the years. Have you come to recognize similarities or common characteristics that these uber-successful people share? There are some natural gifts, obviously, but there’s also a common striving for excellence and a desire to succeed. Some of that has to do with human psychology, but it also has to do with people discovering something that is important to them or that they feel driven to accomplish. A lot of it really is drive, when it comes down to it. If I had to ask what was behind some of my success in broadcast journalism, it’s that mysterious nature of drive. The same holds true for being an educator and a scholar. I wanted to be good at it. I wanted to be excellent at those things.
Sometimes there were things I wanted to be excellent at that I just didn’t have the talent, the wherewithal. One was a novelist. I mean, you have to have a certain kind of imagination and ability to craft a novel. I tried. I really did try. I’ll remain a closeted novelist because those will never see light and never should see light. They don’t deserve to see light.
I didn’t have the ability. I had to admit to myself that maybe when it came to broadcast journalism and being an educator, those were where my abilities were. Willy Loman [in Death of a Salesman] could never realize the talent was with his hands. It wasn’t good enough for him. You know? He wanted to be the best salesman like Dave Singleman, who had hundreds and hundreds of people turn out for his funeral. You know who turned out to Willy’s funeral? His family and his best friend Charlie, and that was it.
If there was a highlight reel of your career at Forum over the last almost 30 years, what moments would you capture? To the great fortune of my listeners, I had never burst out in song, not once, until one time with Judy Collins. I actually found myself, for some reason, trying to harmonize with her when she was singing the Gypsy Rover. Why I did that — to this day — remains a mystery, but I did. She was very gracious about it. I thought, “God, you’ve done a lot of duets, but this is probably the worst one.”
Funny moments like that come to mind — ones that are worth cherishing. There was a moment when I interviewed Barack Obama where he was laughing. He had a pretty good sense of humor, and something I said — it was probably a swipe at the Republicans of some kind — made him laugh. It was hearty and real, an authentic kind of belly laugh, which was gratifying.
You were in television for a while, you still write. What makes radio different? What do you like about it?Well, I could make the old joke: This is a face for radio, which it is, to some degree. But it’s an intimate medium. The old cliche is that you’re creating a drama of the mind in radio, and the challenges are not only to make word pictures, but also to move in-depth in ways that you usually can’t in television. At least the kind of radio I like to do.
You wrote in your memoir, “I wanted to live a life that could answer Saul Bellow’s primary question, ‘How should a good man live?’” Do you feel like you’ve lived it? I’m still a workin progress.
You’ve got lots ahead of you. Well, I hope so. There are other chapters ahead, even at my age. You try to live a good life. You aspire to a certain kind of humility, decency, gratitude and kindness. Kindness is important. I think about this a lot as logic. There’s still stuff that I’d like to do. There’s still maybe a few pipe dreams left, but there also comes a time when you can maybe say to yourself, “It’s been a pretty good run. I’ve done a lot — the best I could do. I made mistakes, certainly. Some of them may have even been grievous, but I can live with that and move forward.”
The biggest risk I’ve ever taken … Sometimes life itself is a risk.
The biggest regret I have is … I think there are times when I could have said more than I said, or done more thanI did. It’s not only words. It’s deeds.
I’m happiest when … I’m with my family, relaxing and eating good food — or the food that I like, which isn’t always good food. When I’m reading things that are engaging and challenging, or fun even.
If I had a magic wand, I would … Try to bring some diminution of the terrible suffering that’s going on around us, particularly now in this pandemic.