John Rabe is longtime public radio report and host of KPCC’s Off-Ramp, a weekly examination of Southern California and especially Los Angeles. The show’s interviews and field pieces provide a radio portrait of the city and its surrounding half-state, highlighting some of the most interesting people, places, and things there without attempting the futile task of precisely representing the massive amount and constantly changing composition of Southern California culture. Colin Marshall originally conducted this interview on the public radio program and podcast The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes link].
I just used the phrase “radio portrait” of Los Angeles to describe your show. Is that accurate, or is that just me being public radio-y about it?
No, I think that's absolutely fine. Off-Ramp is about anything interesting happening in Southern California. It's like an accumulation of snapshots, or a buckshot approach to covering something as huge as Southern California. If you put all of the shows together we've done since August of 2006, you'd have a pointillist portrait on the radio. If you're talking digital, because everything's broken up into tiny little pieces, you've got your radio portrait.
I like that pointillist image. There's a lot of analogies I've tried to describe the show. When I reviewed it on Podthoughts for The Sound of Young America's web site, which I believe is how you encountered me originally, I was just trying to describe what it's doing. Certainly, the idea that it covers not just L.A. but Southern California in general I didn't quite frame when when we started. How far are the boundaries of the show? How far are you willing to go in the name of what's interesting in L.A. and beyond?
Our signal reaches up slightly into Ventura County and all the way down to northern San Diego County. It reaches a little bit past Palm Springs, and then somewhere out into the water of the Pacific Ocean. We try to pick things for the show that are somewhere in that area, which gives us a huge amount of leeway. But there are times when we do stuff I think is simply interesting for Southern Californians to hear that may have no actual connection to Southern California.
I had Alan Furst on the show, the historical spy novelist. There's no connection, but I love Alan Furst. I knew he'd be a great talker. One of out commentators, Mark Hafley, recently realized that everybody was talking about the mosque, the cultural center they want to build on Ground Zero. He said, “Look, this used to be an Arab neighborhood before they leveled the area to build the World Trade Center.” Does that have something to do with Los Angeles? Angelenos and Southern Californians care about that issue. I stretch the boundaries when I want to.
The boundaries are already pretty wide. I'm thinking about the mandate of a show that covers interesting things in Southern California. Southern California is very large. “Interesting things” is an infinitely wide mandate. That seems like it introduces its own set of difficulties. Are there actually as few constraints as I'm describing?
Yes, there are very few constraints. I was simply given the gift by management to do an arts and news show that ran on the weekends. I didn't want to put any constraints on it. I didn't want to have themes. I didn't want to have holes we had to fill. You do a show; if you start doing a thing that's a specific thing every week, you've got to fill it and you've got to do that. I didn't want to have any of that. I wanted to just be able to go out and cover Southern California in whatever way I wanted, and either management agreed or didn't notice that that's how I described it. That's what I've been doing for four years.
This idea of show that is practically limitless — based on the experiences I've had with public radio and the sort of scrapes I've had with mainstream public radio, it seems like getting that sort of blank check, in a strictly metaphorical sense, is tough to pull. How did this come together?
I'm going to write down “scrapes,” because I want to hear about some of these, if I'm allowed to ask questions. I came to Southern California in 2000, when Minnesota public radio got involved with KPCC, which was a station out of Pasadena City College. It was in severe budget trouble. It was an eclectic music station. It had something like 150,000 listeners and, I believe, was in danger of losing some of its funding. Minnesota Public Radio proposed to turn it into a news station.
I was in Minnesota at the time, dying to come to Southern California to escape Minnesota — I hated the winters — so I came and was the local All Things Considered host for about four years. I was stuck in a studio. I'm a reporter; I'm a journalist. I love to get out and explore, and I was stuck in a studio doing weather and traffic every nine minutes and phone interviews when all the reporters of KPCC were out covering the stories. It was really frustrating. I got off All Things Considered. They made me a health and housing reporter, so that gave me a huge amount of leeway to cover interesting stuff in Southern California. By that time, the station had grown, and they could afford to do a show on the weekends about arts and culture and news.
In other words, they needed a reporter for the two or three years I was a reporter. Then, when we hired more people, they could afford the luxury of this show. That is how that happened. I've lost track of your original question.
It's just a fascination, really, more than a question, that you were able to get such creative freedom.
My producer at the time, Queena Kim, and I started doing this show. They liked what was on the air, and they didn't kvetch. We didn't even pilot the show, which I think is remarkable. They trusted us to come up with good material, one hour every week. Instead of piloting the show, we did something I think a lot of show should try: instead of going weekly, we went every other week. We didn't have one perfect show in the can and then a trainwreck the next week because we didn't have enough stuff ready. We could ease into it, and it gave us this great freedom to think a little bit — not too long. We did the show biweekly for a couple months, then went weekly.
By that time, we had our footing. We knew what we were doing. We had more stuff in the can, banked up. That worked very well. The managers liked what we were doing, but they'd also liked what I'd been doing for the past six years. I'd been in the company as a whole since 1993, so they knew and trusted me to come up with good stuff. Queena had had a good track record with the show she was working on, Pacific Drift. There was a lot of trust involved, which — you were talking about scrapes in public radio — might be rare. They didn't think it to death; they just said, “Go and do this and try it.” And this is important in the not-piloting thing: the Program Director said, “If it's awful, we'll cancel it and you'll go back to reporting.”
It's in a way comforting to know “if it's awful, we'll cancel it,” because you know you wouldn't be stuck flailing with a monstrosity, if it were to become that, without getting any feedback telling you to do something different. This makes me think of what you just said, being the All Things Considered host, being stuck in that box with your voice going out into the void, not being able to engage with the world — I've never hosted All Things Considered, but that's a little bit of a surreal experience, isn't it?
It is a little odd. There are people who are perfect at it: the folks at National Public Radio; Steve Julian, who's our local host for Morning Edition; Alex Cohen, our local host for All Things Considered. They love doing that, but you'll even notice, the national hosts for All Things Considered, they get out of the studio every once in a while. They go off and do some fantastic voyage or cover an issue. They get out and have somebody replace them. I think you get in those four walls and get lonely or cabin fever or whatever you want to call it.
It is something I so much enjoy myself, getting outside of the studio, going to engage with the world. On a medium like radio, especially before podcasting took off, it was hard to tell who was listening, who in the world was on the other end of what you were saying. I have to imagine one of the principles of Off-Ramp was that you wanted a very external-world show, for lack of a better term. This is a show that is out there in the world, that is minimally inside a studio, minimally inside the carpeted walls. Is that true?
Absolutely. It's pragmatic as well as thematic. If you bring somebody into a studio, they're going to want to sit there for half an hour or an hour. We're going to wind up usually using five minutes of an interview. So you bring in somebody — they want to sit and talk for a whole hour!
If I go to them — if I grab them on she street or meet them some place in Southern California that is emblematic of their story or sounds like it's not a studio — you can talk for ten minutes and say, “Okay, see you later, my parking meter's expired.” You can leave. You know you have good stuff. You stay and do the interview until you know you have good stuff. But then you can go. The logistics keep it from being some huge involved thing you then have to edit. It's a lot easier to edit ten minutes than a whole hour.
You're controlling the situation. But then, you also sound like your someplace — not in a studio — and people react differently. They sound differently. I think, if you just went out into a parking lot of your station and interviewed somebody and didn't say where you were, didn't say why you were doing it, even just about a book or whatever it might be — not about parking, not about lots, not about outside — it would sound different in just a little way. Listeners would hear it, and it would add another layer without actually having anything to do with what you're doing on the radio.
It does add something — what do they call it in the public radio industry — “sound-richness” as well?
Sure, or just a veneer of interesting.
That's a term I'm going to remember. There is a certain sensibility Off-Ramp has that avoids a pitfall. It has to do with what you were saying about the necessity to cut down studio interview and all that. On this show, we're going to be talking for about an hour, and it's going to run about an hour. That's one end of a spectrum, an end I find can work very interestingly, and the other end, on Off-Ramp, how you go out into the world and have these short segments, that's the other side that is also very interesting. Would I be correct in saying that Off-Ramp avoids falling into that odd middle state some public radio does where it's kind of not one thing, not the other?
I guess — tell me more about that.
Even as I'm saying it, the idea's coming together. Hearing a show like Off-Ramp, it's so out there — meaning out there in the world, not as in weird — and involved in the material it's covering that it makes sense for it to take the format it does: short segments, you grab something interesting, you put it into this pointillist mosaic. I like that a lot. The Marketplace of Ideas, in a sense, couldn't be less out there in the world because we're here in our studios talking for a straight hour. People are going to hear a straight hour. If we had to split the difference between those two, I don't think we'd come out with anything as compelling as either one. Do you agree?
I agree, but I think a lot of it has to do with you and me. You're comfortable sitting in a studio, talking with somebody for a whole hour. For me, I would get restless. I have listened to a bunch of your podcasts — at double speed, so I could listen to more of them &mdahs; and you carry the conversation. It sounds like you're interested in somebody for a whole hour. You pick people who are going to be able to talk for a whole hour. Frankly, I'm very worried about being about to say something interesting for a whole hour, but we'll see what happens.
Everybody worries about that.
I'm willing to risk it. That's you, and you're comfortable doing that. Your listeners hear that. It works. Maybe you'd be great at doing man-on-the-street stuff; maybe you'd be lousy at it. But you're doing the thing that works and I'm doing the thing that works. That's another key to doing good radio. You have to be doing something that is true to yourself, because every listener has a B.S. filter. They'll hear it. If you're being fake, they're going to go to the oldies station or the classical station or whatever. They're going to tune out.
I think of it as being an actual human being. What setting is going to be able to make you on the radio, the people you're working with on the radio, be actual human beings? One of the things I like about Off-Ramp is that people are actually being people on it. Whatever about the format you've engineered or that's evolved over the years that makes it work — I'm not sure, but we'll get into it. But, some public radio I hear, it does seem like it's trying to do everything, and in the process not quite succeeding at anything. Have you heard negative examples of this, like, “Oh jeez, I want to avoid doing x, y, and z when I'm putting Off-Ramp together.
One of the things I do is, when we edit, we barely ever cut out laughing. That's important. If someone says something funny, we work very hard to keep that in, if there are genuine laughs. Anything boring, we cut out. one of the problems in public radio — and this might help answer your question — is that producers have a sense that something might be good information on the radio, that even though it might be boring or not well presented or explained, that it's okay to put it on the radio because, “Well, this is good information to have out there.” I think it's boring.
If it's boring, it's boring. You can put it on the web. If it's a text somebody wants to read at the beginning of their panel discussion, no, that's awful! It's got to be people saying real things. You've got to just be not boring. Your show isn't boring. I try to make mine not boring. But a 14-minute interview with a singer-songwriter? I don't care about their story. If it moves, sure, absolutely. But if it doesn't, you've got to cut it out. Can I ask you about the scrapes?
The scrapes with public radio. It's not as if I've gotten in trouble with public radio, but at the same time, doing radio stuff and podcast stuff as I do, sometimes I talk to various public radio people about what they might be interested in doing if I were to do something for them. I sometimes come away with the impression on mainstream public radio that some people sometimes think their audience is barely listening and should be programmed to with that in mind. As if the audience were 100 yards from their radio, talking on their cellphone and playing Chinese checkers, and you should make a show that takes that into account. I don't think Off-Ramp falls into that pitfall. But do you know what I mean?
This is an interesting question. My show airs twice. Once, Saturdays at noon. To that show, there are between 65,000 and 70,000 listeners in Los Angeles. Sunday night, at 7:00, there's probably around 30,000, 35,000 people listening then. There's another 10,000 on podcast. The people on Saturdays are driving around in their cars, for the most part, going to Home Depot, shopping, going to soccer — all the things people do on a Saturday. Vacuuming.
I do program with the idea that they're very easily distracted or can't stay with me for very long, although my numbers show they are listening. They will stay in the car a little bit longer. Sunday nights, I figure they can listen a little bit longer and more attentively. You're reading the paper, you're doing the New York Times crossword puzzle or whatever. Podcasting, a totally different animal. I do try to push the boundaries a little bit. I do try to call people's attention. But I guess I don't shout at them.
Shouting, of course, is something you associate more with commercial radio, who do that a lot in desperation, rather that public radio, whose shouting isn't so much shouting. It's like if I'm listening to a piece on public radio and I'm told fifteen times within the span of 20 minutes who's being interviewed and what it's about.
Oh yeah. That awful.
Off-Ramp avoids that, or if you're doing it, I don't notice it. Whatever you're doing, I don't feel that same bad vibe.
Thank you for noticing that. On shorter interviews, I won't do a back announce because I figured I just said who it was two minutes ago, and you can go to the web site if you're dying to know. It's better to get into a piece of music that reinforces the mood or move into another piece or make a connection or make a comment or do something more valuable with that time. If an interview goes five minutes, I would back-announce it, probably, or over-announce before a piece, when someone will say “so-and-so is the emeritus chair of x, y, and z,” when they could just say, “Colin Marshall is an expert in old English literature at USC.” Boom. Welcome to the show. “What about Chaucer?”
My degree in old English literature at USC has come in very handy over the years, I guarantee you. It makes sense to do it that way. I do want to come back to a point you made, which is that the show is a podcast as well as a broadcast. Completely different animal. One of the things I appreciate about the way Off-Ramp does this is that, for a lot of public radio shows — this one included, by the way — the podcast equals the broadcast. They're essentially the same thing. On the podcast of Off-Ramp, there are, as I call them, extended dance mixes of the interviews you do and the pieces you have. Longer versions of what might be a segment in the actual broadcast. Was that in place from the beginning of the show's podcasting?
No. Why it's no is kind of boring and technical. I didn't have a really good way to make a special podcast until about a year ago. It's about Pro Tools and learning how to use it and stuff we don't need to get into unless you want a lot of boring discussion. In case your listeners didn't see your post on Off-Ramp, you said one of the things you wished I had more of were these in-depth discussions. I think I wrote back, “Love to, but people are driving around, doing too much stuff for us to do much extended talking.”
That's why I put out these special podcasts. I figure a podcast, somebody can listen to or not. I'm not losing them. If they don't want to hear a half-hour interview with Donovan or the editors of Slake magazine, they can just not listen to that particular one or they can listen to it in chunks, but they'll probably come back and check out the next one. But if it's on the radio, you're just kind of losing them. I try to put the extended stuff into podcasts.
It is cool to have those there, especially, as you mentioned, the editors of the Los Angeles Literary Journal Slake. I really enjoyed that one. Has there been any effect on the way you think about programming, putting shows together, what your record, the material you're getting, because you also have this outlet as a podcast, where you know somebody can hear the unadulterated version of your conversation with… the editors of a literary journal, for example.
With that, I specifically had in mind a special podcast. We did a great interview with a voice actor who does wonderful work in anime. He gave us basically a master's lesson in how to do voice work. The interview is conducted by Charles Solomon, an animation expert. There's probably 30 minutes of audio that's terrific; it really stands up. I just had a sit-down in a studio — in this case, I thought it was okay — and this guy was great, Charles was great, and I'm going to throw in some clips that are examples of this guy in the actual anime. It's going to be a really cool 30 minutes, and I figure we'll get a lot of hits on that.
This is an interview that lends itself to being 30 minutes long, so I set aside that time. But there are many, many other things that are not that interesting, so I'll just release the five-minute or ten-minute version. I'll set it up ahead of time, give myself the time, think of a bunch of questions, and then treat it like a short radio show when I'm on the scene, doing the announces, doing the set-up, so the editing's very easy. We can just throw it out there as a podcast you can either listen to or not, depending on how you feel, where you are, what you're doing.
You mention you were able to, with an interview like that, think up a bunch of questions and have them at the ready. This is interviewer-to-interviewer — maybe it's shop talk — but I myself have never been able to work up questions in advance. That sounds, like, just so unprofessional, but for some reason it hasn't been the style I've been able to get into. You've found you can do that? This is maybe just the fact that you have a lot of experience in public radio, but you can get a lot of workable questions put together beforehand and use them?
Oh yeah. My entire broadcasting career has been based on me preventing myself from making hideous errors. When I started out in radio in 1982 at WLXX 99.5 in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, I had a habit of leaving the mic on.
Right. When the mic was on, my habit was to be absolutely silent. I made a sign for myself: “Turn the mic off, dummy.” Apparently, once I did say the s-word under my breath because a cart wouldn't fire. A cart, for listeners, is something like an 8-track tape that we used to put commercials on. I developed that kind of fail-safe. If I write a list of questions, I know, in case I have a brain fart, that I can go to the next question on the list and nobody's going to know. I do that to cover for myself. You apparently have more confidence and a better short-term memory.
I thank you for spinning it charitably. There's certainly number of ways to frame that. You could say I'm unable to concentrate long enough to write a list of questions beforehand, but I do my research. One of the things I found out was that, as you alluded to, you got your start in public radio pretty young. Like, very impressively young. How did that happen?
My dad was in broadcasting. He knew people and got me my first two jobs.
Someone might say, “Oh, it was nepotism, his dad put him in there.” But, at the same time —”
No, it's nepotism. My dad got me those jobs, and I really only came to that conclusion in the last ten years or so. This is 20 years after the fact. I was like, “Wait a minute…” I mean, he talked to the people. I had some skill. But man. I actually thought about playing you some of the tape, but it's just not available — sorry, Colin! — from 1982. I was awful. I wasn't a whole lot worse than a lot of other people at a small-town radio station, but I was still pretty lousy. I guess I had something, some innate talend that had been trained in me, but I needed that help of the boost to get into radio from my dad.
But here's the thing. If we're going to call it nepotism, when nepotism happens, when your dad gets you a job at a radio station, didn't you feel, on the inside, that there was another layer of proving yourself you had to do because you didn't want to come off like the kid whose dad got him a job? You needed to maybe compensate for the fact that your dad opened a space for you?
No, I really thought I got it on my own merits. And I didn't great jobs. The first job was weekend disc jockey at a lousy little radio station in Sault Ste. Marie. I got the job because my dad knew the station manager, but also because the guy who had previously done that job had gotten drunk one too many times and had not shown up once again. I trained on Wednesday and Thursday and went on the air on Friday. I thought I got it just because I had the minimum skill level, but I also had an enormous lack of self-awareness back then, too. Huge. Just huge.
When I got the other job at WKAR in East Lansing, a reputable public radio station, that job was a reporter job that could only be given to students. Kind of a work study thing. That was perfect for me, too, except, Colin — I'll tell you this, and I'll tell the world this — within two or three months of me doing this job, I wrecked the station car on the way to one of the reporting gigs and had to bum rides, take the bus, and ride a bike for about a year until they trusted me enough. I almost lost it.
This was not operable as a car anymore?
I totaled it. I was going southbound on Hagedorn road approaching Mason. There was a very sharp, 90-degree left hand turn which they may have fixed by now. I was going 40, thought I was hot stuff. Put it into a turn, rolled right over onto the car's roof in the ditch. Was in my seatbelt, so my life was saved, but I can still feel that impact. That is when a little bit of the self-awareness came about.
Awareness of one's own mortality, definitely.
More than mortality, it was idiocy. Like, “You idiot. Good, throw away this job that you kind of need.” I have no idea what I would've done if they hadn't been kind. My boss just said, “Well, just keep your head low.”
You rode it out. Obviously it blew over for you.
Well, they called me “Mario” for a while.
Yes, they couldn't let that level of driving prowess not go alluded to. Small price to pay, ultimately. Since you got started so young, you've seen a lot of change in how public radio is, just the form of information, entertainment, education. There's arguments about that as well, but you've seen the nature of public radio in America change a lot. Do you think it's done that since you started?
Oh yeah, and I can tell you why in two words: Ira Glass. Ira Glass probably has more to do with the success of public radio than any other single person. I'm extremely jealous of him, but I think it's true. I was working at WHYY in Philadelphia in 1991, and that's when they started doing the David Sedaris elf stories.
Yeah, public radio had never heard anything like this before. It was dirty and sexy and profane. Sedaris sounded extremely gay, and this was on Morning Edition! I don't know how they — did somebody have naked pictures of somebody? This was not public radio at the time, but they ran it. People liked it. Nobody died. So they though, “Oh, maybe we can be interesting.” Do you remember when Ira was reporting at a school in Chicago, a high school, and he went in and reported the students' stories? He recorded everything, talked to administrators. Those were wonderful pieces like nobody had ever done before. I think he really broke ground, bringing real people's voices on the radio.
Then he started doing This American Life. There are some things about it that drive me absolutely crazy and I don't listen to it regularly. The music under the stories; he could drop that now. But that let long pieces get on the radio, pieces with regular people in them. I think my show is quite different from This American Life. A lot of people think it sounds just like This American Life, which is fine. As long as they listen, they can think what they like about it. But This American Life definitely opened the doors for Off-Ramp to happen.
You can hear it in other stories on the radio. Just your normal piece on All Things Considered or Morning Edition I think is 50 percent more interesting and sound-rich with more real people in it and not the talking heads. That's absolutely Ira Glass breaking that ground, showing that it can be done, and raising the expectations of listeners. Mean time, National Public Radio's numbers, even for Morning Edition, are huge. I think they were above Howard Stern, when Stern went to satellite. Just huge. Huge numbers.
I mentioned earlier that I came to your attention based on writing a review of Off-Ramp, the podcast version, for a site called Maximumfun.org, the site of The Sound of Young America, the public radio show hosted by Jesse Thorn. He's one of the younger people in public radio. He's 29, I believe. I'm a little younger than him, so we talk about what's going on in public radio, how to carve out our own place in it. He brings up Ira Glass as his main inspiration as well. He had a tweet on Twitter recently where he said something like, “I learned from Ira Glass that public radio can be different. The rest of the world learned that public radio can all sound like This American Life.”
I thought that was an intriguing way of putting it. You said people who are maybe not that close to public radio say Off-Ramp sounds like This American Life. I don't think they sound the same at all, but the influence of This American Life is far and wide. Do you personally hear, for good or ill, a lot of the This American Life getting entrenched in public radio?
Oh yeah. Absolutely, and I think it's a problem. Fortunately, I can't remember any names right now, so I won't be naming any names. Producers will think, “Oh, we should put some music under this piece.” It's just absolutely not needed; the voices are compelling enough. There are some announcers now, stringers or staffers, who sound like clones of Ira Glass, with the hesitation and the cadence and kind of a fakey conversationalism. You're on the radio. Sound like an announcer, just sound like a person. You don't have to be, “Uh, uh, well, um, you know, and then I, anyways,” all that stuff. No. That's awful. That's wasting time you could be spending putting people on the radio who are not the announcers.
Sometimes you can just tell a story straight. Maybe it is just a cut-and-copy story or whatever. People might try to get too creative or, “Oh, here we are at a diner,” talking about this or that because diners are hip and cool. Just go out and talk to people. Do you hear it?
Yes, Jesse and I have had conversations about this, in the sense that we bemoan it less for making people think they have to put music under things as just inducing a mindset where This American Life becomes the sound of public radio, and thus things that don't sound like This American Life sound less like public radio in the public consciousness. There's no real reason for that, other than that a lot of people imitate Ira Glass.
So it opened it up and closed it a little bit at the same time.
It's a strange opening and closure. It is bizarre, because I do think of the best success stories public radio has had in the past fifteen, 20 years: This American Life and Wait Wait… Don't Tell Me. Both of those, you can feel the influence all around. Whenever something big breaks out in public radio, the influence of the successful is much more influential than in other media. Do you think that's true?
I don't know that Wait Wait… has had an influence yet. As you said that, I was thinking of something about Wait Wait…. I'm not claiming any credit here for our family — Wait Wait… arose on its own — but something like 60 years ago, my father at the University of Detroit started a radio quiz show called Ask the Professor.
It was very similar to the panel shows that were on at the time, like What's My Line?, where they'd bring on some raconteurs and talk. That show is still on the air. At one time it was nationwide; it was even out here in Los Angeles for a while. Now I think it's just in Detroit. But I just wanted to put that plug out there for Ask the Professor, probably the longest-running radio show out there, with the exception of probably some local ones and maybe the Met Opera.
That sounds good and intriguing enough that it needs to be brought back to national prominence.
Well, Wait Wait…'s numbers are huge.
Their numbers are huge, but like anything else, if you have a competitor close on your heels, everybody is a little more on their ball.
Alright. I'll bring it back.
See to that. I'll check on that. And I was going to ask this about Off-Ramp: it is a Southern California show, its boundaries extend to the whole region. Certainly, listening to the show, I hear pieces from all over the place. But I do think of it as an L.A.-centric show, even though KPCC is Pasadena-based. I think of it as a good reflection of the city of L.A., using almost a purist's definition of L.A. It feels like what I consider L.A. to be. Do you consider it to be a show that centers around or L.A., or is it really more broad-based to you? I think of it as having L.A. as its focal point, but I could be wrong.
It does, but that's a problem. Most listeners are concentrated in Los Angeles, but not by a huge margin. We need to get to Orange county more, we need to get to Ventura County more, more to Riverside county and San Diego County. I think we need to reach out more. But you're right that it is L.A.-centric. I just think it should be less L.A.-centric, because there's a lot of interesting stuff all over, and our listeners live all over. That's one of the things we're going to address in the next year, and I'm glad you brought that.
But with L.A. there, there's so much going on that it has to feel like, at all times, you're neglecting something interesting in L.A. just because of the sheer amount of culture there. I'm with Werner Herzog when he said that L.A. is the prime cultural producer in North America. You could rely on a few blocks of L.A. to provide everything you needed for the show. That's an influence that you've got to counterbalance, maybe?
It'd get boring. If we just did mid-Wilshire or Silverlake, it would absolutely get boring. It would start to sound like itself. The show would lose a huge amount of… the unexpected, I think. The breadth. It just wouldn't be as good, and I know it wouldn't be as good. I don't worry about stories we're missing, because I figure I'm going to be on the air for — I don't know — another ten years, another 20 years, and Southern California will continue to generate stories, continue to change. We can go out and get those stories. It has absolutely never been a problem to find stories for Off-Ramp.
This brings me to one of my pet peeves about newsrooms: when somebody says it's a “slow news day.” Anybody who says it's a slow news day is a reporter who does their reporting by phone, not out in the street. If you get away from the phone, get away from the desk, go walk out and talk to people, knock on some doors, say, “Hey, what are you thinking? What's your agenda? What do you think should be included in the news today? What's happening in your neighborhood? What are your politicians up to?” You're going to find something happening.
I just hate it when people say, “Oh, it's the summer doldrums, there's nothing happening.” Drives me absolutely crazy. Get out! Go on the street with a microphone and talk to people! How do you know what they're going to tell you. If they're sitting at their desks, they're saying, “Oh, I know what they're going to say,” aren't they?
It's their psychic journalist powers. They see into the minds of the public. They know it's time to pack up early and get a jump on lunch.
That's fine. I'm all for a two-martini lunch. Just say, “I gotta take some time off.” Go to the Bounty, have a burger and a couple martinis. That's fine, but don't say it's a slow news day.
The public radio life journey we've sketched you out as having has you going over a pretty big swath of the United States, starting out in Detroit, ending up — right now, at least — in Southern California. That's a pretty stark contrast, especially if you compare tha places today. I want to get an idea of what you think about Southern California as a place that can be conveyed by the medium of radio. Have is it different, for good or for ill, than the places you've been? What's unique about the way Southern California and public radio can interact?
That's a good question. I don't know if I'll get in trouble for saying this — I don't think L.A. is necessarily unique. It is one of the most diverse metropolises, but if you went to New York, you could still do story after story and never run out of stories. So would you ever talk to everybody about every story? No. There's still tons of stories in New York, or even in Twin Falls, Idaho, or wherever. I don't think you'd run out of stories if you're doing your job and searching. But it is the most diverse… that also has terrific weather? I think it's endlessly fascinating, and I love exploring Los Angeles.
Maybe one of the things that's tough about it is the geographical layout of Southern California. It's really hard to grasp. It's not on a north-south grid like Philadelphia. In Los Angeles, you can get in your car, drive, start going on a road in Los Feliz or in the Hollywood Hills or Topanga Canyon or somewhere in Orange County and you never know what little dead end you're going to find, what weird little houses or odd setups, what business you might find around this or that corner. Things are kind of hidden in Southern California because of the geography, because the roads don't skew exactly north-south. They're not on a perfect grid. A lot of the geography is makeshift, or just follows the contours of the land. Does this make any sense?
It does make sense. This illuminates a certain phenomenon I've seen: when somebody visits from, say, Western Europe, and they do the city tour of the U.S. — New York, Chicago, Seattle — and visit Los Angeles, Los Angeles is always the one that really tends to confuse. They can't quite parse it as a usable city. Spending time there, I find there's so much to be discovered ‐ and a really pretty good user experience. Tell me if you feel the same way, but you have to treat it as its own thing, because bringing the strategies of any other city, you'll just be one of those European tourists in their hotel, too perplexed to go outside.
You can't get mad that there isn't great public transportation, because there just isn't. From the Western European point of view, there just isn't. You can figure it out eventually. You've got to get a car, you've got to drive around. The best strategy is to go someplace high. “Get high on L.A.” Go up to the top of city hall. Go up to Griffith Observatory. Go to the Getty Center, even, or Signal Hill, or any of the high points, and then look out. Bring a map up there and orient yourself. “There's Wilshire Boulevard. See how far it goes? Here's what happenst to Sunset Boulevard. Alameda goes all the way south.” then you can get a handle on where things are in the city and how it works.
Fortunately, I had somebody do that with me one of my first weeks in Los Angeles, so it helped me immensely, but I had to keep going back up and checking out the city. If you're from Europe or any place in the U.S. besides Los Angeles, you've got to go high in the city to see all of it if you have the kind of mind like mine that's very German. I must see things laid out in an analog sort of way.
The other thing is to forget about Hollywood. Yeah, go look at the stars on Hollywood Boulevard, that's cool, but you've got to remember that Hollywood is five percent of Los Angeles in any real way. It's a wonderful legacy; it's fun to talk about. But if you concentrate on celebrity, you're going to miss 95 percent of what Southern California really is. You're going to miss all the interesting neighborhoods, the historical sites that have nothing to do with Hollywood. This is a problem NPR has. They're always trying to feature-ize stories out of Southern California and connect them to Hollywood somehow.
NPR did a piece about the Los Angeles Police Department that was a serious story about problems in the LAPD or choosing the new chief or something, and they used music from Dragnet! The whole setup was Dragnet-esque. When they're choosing the top cop in New York or Philly or D.C. or Miami, they wouldn't use Miami Heat music or N.Y.P.D. Blue music. You'd say, “Oh, this is a serious story; we can't screw around with it like that.” But for some reason, they think you can screw around with Los Angeles this way. I think it comes off as being very disrespectful.
Aw jeez, I'm so glad you said that. That's something I think about all the time. It gets at an element of Off-Ramp I enjoy: yes, “The Industy” is five percent of what's going on there. It's hardly the industry. It's an industry. All the interesting stuff is, to me, outside mainstream film and TV production. Getting around that is task one of L.A. One of the things I do is a lot of stuff in filmmaking. I probably will be going to L.A. soon, and everybody says, “Oh, you want to be near Hollywood, don't you?” I say, “No, that's the sacrifice. I like everything else in L.A.” Being near Hollywood is the burden I'll have to bear to get all the other cool stuff Hollywood bleaches out in the public eye. It sounds like you have a bit of the same feeling.
It's just another thing that drives me crazy. But I love entertainment. We just had a great piece on from actor Christopher Murray, whose mom is Hope Lange and whose dad is Don Murray talking about all the celebrities he knew as a kid. We had a piece just before that about an encounter with Mel Gibson. I do as many star interviews as I can because I find them fascinating. I love to cover it, but I don't feel like you have to have it bleed into everything else you do. It just doesn't define Southern California.
It does remind me of a line you wrote on your blog. You said you didn't want the show to contain any of the usual insecurity about L.A. you could sometimes hear from the city's defenders. Even the phrase “the city's defenders” says something: it's something that has to be defended against an onslaught of criticisms. It sounds like this is going to be a continuing mission for you in the show: not to argue against people who make apologies for L.A., just to avoid them entirely. To treat them like they're not even there.
We talked about this in the long Slake interview. Slake is a literary quarterly that is a grand experiment by Laurie Ochoa and Joe Donnelly, a beautiful 280-page literary quarterly on actual paper. They have enough material for a second edition. They may not have enough for a third or fourth — we're waiting to see — but if you like that kind of stuff, go check them out. Reading this first edition, it came to me that they included a story about surfing, a story about punk rock, a story about celebrity, but they did it in a way that was just about those things because they were interesting, without being insecure about it. Without saying, “Hey, it's Southern California, you gotta talk about surfing, that's what it's all about.” They didn't do that at all, and I hadn't even noticed, after I put down the book, that they had covered all these quintessentially Southern California things.
Doing a piece about a museum in Southern California, some people would say, “Well, you'd never expect to find a great museum in Pasadena, but there is one!” C'mon! The museum is there. Don't waste that ten seconds talking that kind of trash. Just go report on the museum. If it's an interesting place, it'll rise to the level of being interesting all on its own. You can just tell its story. When people do that, it's lazy thinking, it's a bad habit, and they need to cut that stuff out of their scripts and put in interesting things.
Can we say Off-Ramp maybe has a credo of “Just interestingness, no apologies”?
Yeah, that's fine. I might apologize if we didn't bleep out a swear word. Yes. Yes. I know what you're saying and I agree.
All feedback welcome at colinjmarshall at gmail.