Krasny Calling: The renowned radio show host comes to Capitola Book Café this evening.
Michael Krasny, Kvetch Artist
In a new book, the popular radio host critiques his own life and the world in which he lives it.
By Alex Gilrane
Michael Krasny, the longtime host of a popular morning talk show on San Francisco's KQED-FM, describes his new memoir as a "twofer." "It's a profile of a lot of writers," he says, "and it's a book about wanting to be a writer but being thwarted by a lack of talent."
In a telephone interview from his home last week, Krasny delivered this assessment without any apparent self-pity. This was not surprising: he is even harder on himself in the book itself, which he suggests may be considered in part "a memoir of failure."
"My imagination couldn't provide what I felt I needed," he writes, "and I was struck by how that was at least part of my story—how the failure of an imagination to be ignited with the power it longed for and desired was in itself a story perhaps worth telling."
As it happens, it is certainly a story worth reading. Beginning with his childhood in Cleveland, where he was a tough kid from a working-class Jewish family, Krasny tracks the unlikely development of his literary aspirations. He writes about studying at Ohio State University under the novelist Walter Tevis (author of The Hustler), meeting the poet John Ciardi and about falling in love with the work of Saul Bellow.
"I was convinced that writing was my calling," he recalls. But from the start he was plagued by self-doubt: "Did I have the stamina? The grit? The drive? The talent? The wind?"
Much of the memoir is given over to explaining how Krasny came to believe that the answer to all of those questions was "no." That theme is curiously interesting, but not as compelling as the story of his successes. In chronological chapters interspersed with short profiles of the many authors he has interviewed, Krasny delivers a deeply personal autobiography that is also a compelling picture of his times.
Eventually, while intermittently toying with the dream of becoming a writer, Krasny gets his Ph.D. in literature and wins a job as a professor at San Francisco State, where he still teaches. Meanwhile, he finds himself on the radio. And that's where he finds his true voice.
Over a 30-year career, Krasny has interviewed many of the leading writers of our times. This thread of the story begins in 1966, when he impulsively hitchhikes from Ohio to Chicago to interview Bellow, who humors the college sophomore just enough to pique his interest in becoming a literary journalist. The journey continues when Krasny, a few years later, gets a chance to interview the Hollywood sex symbol Ann-Margret, and then in turn Gore Vidal (whom Krasny finds imperious and mean), Michael Harrington (the former aide to Lyndon Johnson and author of The Other America) and Susan Sontag. Having found his niche as an interviewer, Krasny talks his way onto Marin County's alternative FM radio station, KTIM, and then moves to KGO, San Francisco's AM talk-radio powerhouse. A few years later, he finds his way to KQED.
As the host of the five-day-a-week two-hour Forum, Krasny quickly captures the attention of the literary world. Soon, publishers are vying to get their writers on his show. He is soon interviewing Maya Angelou, Russell Banks, Joan Didion, Philip Roth, Don DeLillo and scores of other authors—all of whom appear in vignettes in his memoir.
Meeting these literary stars in the pages of Off Mike is almost as entertaining as encountering them on Krasny's radio show. On air, he is a knowledgeable and charming presence. Over the past two decades, he has become something of a Bay Area institution and gained a national reputation.
Having achieved what many of us would consider success, Krasny is not an entirely satisfied man. Talking about his book and his career on the telephone last week, he finds much to regret. He still seems to wish he'd managed to find his voice as a writer—that's part of it. He also feels a deep frustration with the media, which has undergone a profound change.
"I'm lucky on public radio, because I get to go into a greater depth of analysis, and I have an audience that wants to be informed and not just entertained," he says. "But for the most part, talk radio has become all about the cheapest kinds of entertainment."
The theme also appears in his book. In the epilogue, he wonders about his future, and ours: "Was mine a style whose time had gone? A small voice in a shrinking world—the world of ideas and civil discourse versus the world at large—the culture of rant and excoriation?"
Maybe so. But for now, on air and in his book, there is still something to be learned.
MICHAEL KRASNY appears Wednesday, Nov. 28, at 7:30pm to read from and sign copies of his new book 'Off Mike' at Capitola Book Café, 1475 41st Ave., Capitola; 831.462.4415.
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