It’s Not Just a Talk Show

“I never thought of myself as a ‘talk show host.’”

I wasn’t sure if Michael Krasny was just being modest, or if he was claiming the right to self-definition. Either way, the comment struck me as funny, given his stature as perhaps the best-known radio host in the San Francisco Bay Area. For 25 years, Krasny has been the scholarly and erudite voice of Forum, a popular call-in show on KQED, the Bay Area’s premier public radio affiliate. While Krasny’s listenership may not have a national profile, his illustrious guest list certainly does. I interviewed Michael Krasny in the green room for the show. Across the white walls are scrawled the signatures and best wishes of former guests ranging from Senator Cory Booker to famed author and MIT professor Junot Diaz to legendary mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade. Forum, at its heart, is an exchange of ideas about public policy, culture, art, literature, and assorted unusualia that have bearing upon the ways in which we think about ourselves and our world. Krasny, the physically-slight but intellectually-hefty interlocutor, plays an integral role, both orchestral and diplomatic.

“Too many times people just talk AT each other,” Krasny said. “Abraham Kaplan, the noted philosopher and professor, called it a ‘duologue.’ More than a monologue, but basically two people holding forth on their own opinions and ideas without actually being in conversation. They’re not listening to each other. I’ve had guests — like politicians or authors — who come on the show and just repeat their canned messages and talking points. They’re not really listening. To have a real interview, or conversation, you need to listen.”

It is worth noting that Krasny’s background as a professor of literature shows up again and again, in his casual utterances as well as his facilitation of a conversation. I have listened to his show avidly. As a lexophile myself, I continually marvel at his mastery of language. The words are not so carefully chosen, but rather, they infuse themselves natively in his comments. They are the right words. The words I hoped I would have chosen myself, had I the facility, breadth, and depth. They are the words of someone who has read, asked, and listened. When he speaks, Krasny reveals the munificence of the conversation and its power to bring us to an enlightened state of wonder and curiosity.

Despite his deftness with language, Krasny asserts, “I don’t want it to be all about me.”

There’s a dance involved in having a “good” conversation, Michael told me.

Along with the skillfully-placed adjective or the trenchant allusion to a historical, philosophical, or literary piece of text, Krasny insists that his role as listener is primary. And multi-faceted.

“In interviewing, I can be the interlocutor, soliciting others’ opinions, to the point that ‘I’ don’t really exist. There are the interviewers who act more as entertainers, like Charlie Rose or Chris Matthews. The interview is about them and what they think. I move between those spaces and find ground in the center. It is about the listening: Adroitly. Carefully. Scrupulously. Lest there be any misunderstanding, I might say, ‘I heard you say _____________.’ I want to avoid misunderstanding and find clarity, while respecting what the speaker has to tell.”

Krasny continues. “The real challenge of listening can be that people can be dreadfully boring and dull. Or holding forth. Irascible. I need to adjust my listening mode. Sometimes, it requires a response like “How can you make what you’re saying more interesting?” or “You’re talking gibberish.”

Wryly, he adds, “Not in so many words. You don’t want to be rude.”

It happens all the time that people are hard to listen to, Krasny said. Painful, even. “Sometimes, I need to move things along. I’ll recapitulate what they say so that they know they’ve been heard. Sometimes I need to tap dance and improvise. The onus is on me, the interviewer, to restate what has already been said. Or ask a different question.”

Sometimes, asking a different question can redefine, and re-texture, a whole conversation.

When I asked Krasny about an interview he had conducted in which listening and paying attention played a vital role, he was quick to recount an interview he had done years ago with Billy Dee Williams.

Billy Dee Williams, the “African-American Clark Gable”, Lando Calrissian of Star Wars fame, and leading man of 70s classics like Brian’s Song and Lady Sings the Blues, had been a guest on Krasny’s show to promote the San Francisco Black Film Festival.

Krasny recalls, “Here was Billy Dee Williams…and he was nothing like I expected he would be. He was subdued, quiet, almost monosyllabic in his responses. The interview was not going anywhere like I thought it would. At one point, I felt compelled to say, ‘This is not who I thought you’d be. You’re not coming across like I thought you would.’ Williams paused for a moment and said, quietly, ‘My mother just died. I thought about not coming on the show. Then, I thought that I needed to do this, to talk about the Black Film Festival. But, yeah, my thoughts are somewhere else.’ I asked him, ‘Tell me about your mother…’ And he did. The interview ended up being one of the most poignant and powerful interviews I’ve done. It was poignant for both of us. I needed to go where the interview, and Billy Dee, needed to go.’”

The dance of the listener is improvisational and adaptive. I haven’t yet heard that interview with Billy Dee Williams. I’d like to hear it. Even if Billy Dee Williams had come on to the show with a particular objective, like promoting the SF Black Film Festival, I would imagine that the story he was most concerned with was that of his mother. I’m sure that the SF Black Film Festival is all about stories — of ourselves, our families, our mothers. As a listener, Michael Krasny opened the space for Mr. Williams to tell the stories he needed to tell.

In my work, as a facilitator, visual scribe, and storyteller, I call myself a “public listener.” I asked Michael Krasny if he thought of himself in the same way. While he didn’t completely demur, he didn’t exactly embrace the title, as stated.

“I’ve learned to value public listening as a craft. What I really wanted to be was a novelist, which I always thought ‘required real talent.’ I’ve learned to realize that listening is a skill. People like to tell their stories. Like Faulkner said, ‘If a story is in you, it needs to come out.’ Are you open to listening? I listen to people, even people with whom I disagree. If you really hear what people are saying, you’re growing up. Your humanity is opening up.”

Krasny is careful to use the phrase “until they prove otherwise.” When I asked him what lessons about listening he would share with those who wanted to listen better, he said, “Give the benefit of the doubt…until they prove otherwise.” He went on to say that respect, honor (a subject about which Krasny is currently writing another book), recognition, deference, awareness, tolerance, and humanity are among the traits of the “listener.”

Until they prove otherwise.

We are not compelled to listen when it is clear that we have been conscripted, part and parcel, into another’s narrative. A “sense of mutuality”, Krasny offers, is required if we are to embark on that great endeavor of listening.

“I am an assertive listener,” he said. “Sometimes, if I’ve known people a long time, like my producers, or other staff here, or my family, we get into habits of thinking that we are listening to each other. We really aren’t. We think we are listening, but we aren’t. Sometimes, it’s okay to say, ‘Hey, I don’t think you’re listening to me.’ Chances are good that you’re not. Listening is an ongoing relationship.”

Before our interview ended, I asked Michael: “People have listened to you on the radio for 25 years. Who LISTENS to you, though? Really listens?” I love this question, generously given to me by my friend (and interviewee) Justine, a psychotherapist and master listener in her own right.

Michael smiled. “Well, I hope my wife does, though I don’t know if she’d say the same about me. My daughters do…sometimes.” He becomes more serious. “It’s the hallmark of a close relationship. To have someone who listens. You don’t need many of those people in your life. You’re lucky if you have just one.”

Despite having had hundreds of thousands, if not an accumulation of millions, of listeners and fans over the last quarter century, as Michael Krasny has, sometimes having just one person in life who listens is important. Listening happens at different levels of scale, as well as at different levels of intimacy.

Michael bid me goodbye, and as he ambled out of the green room, he graciously told me, “Let me know when your book comes out.”

I closed my laptop, gathered my things, and took one last look around the “green room” with the white walls, decorated appreciatively with the signatures, notes, and assorted graffiti from all the guests who had appeared at some point on Krasny’s “talk show.” What a gift it is, as well as a service, to be a public listener.

You’re right, Michael Krasny, you’re not a talk show host. You’re so much more than that. Thanks for listening.

Anthony Weeks is a public listener, visual storyteller, social documentarian, and writer based in San Francisco, CA.

The “Green Room” at KQED, San Francisco, CA