Radio's Rare Class Act Achieves Ratings, Book Success

Michael Krasny has probably interviewed more famous and celebrated authors than anyone, ever. Amazingly, he's done it on a sharply devalued medium, radio.
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Michael Krasny has probably interviewed more famous and celebrated authors than anyone, ever. Amazingly, he's done it on a sharply devalued medium, radio.

Krasny's intelligent and low-key "Forum" on San Francisco's NPR affiliate is the most-listened-to local talk show in the country. It's helped KQED-FM get the highest ratings - and largest audience -- of any U.S. public station. KQED even draws more listeners than the NPR affiliates in New York and Los Angeles, and regularly wins the key 25-54 demo, beating out all Bay Area commercial stations.

So, occasionally, quality CAN go along with popularity. (The Beatles also come to mind).

Krasny, who's also a professor of literature at San Francisco State, has done radio interviews with authors Phillip Roth, Margaret Atwood, John Updike, Barack Obama, Molly Ivins, Joan Didion, Maya Angelou, Salman Rushdie and Studs Terkel, among many others.

The low-key, witty Krasny, who's been on the San Francisco NPR station 17 years, was bounced from his previous job, on commercial radio, for... interviewing too many writers! The salespeople at 50,000-watt newstalk giant KGO said Krasny's author-laden show attracted - here's a charming term - too much "tonnage."

"Tonnage," Krasny explains, shaking his head, "Means older listeners. They told me writers attracted too many over-54's."

But the bookish Krasny got the last laugh with his subsequent and remarkable NPR success. He ripped his old station, KGO, and commercial talk radio in general in a book, "Off Mike: A Memoir of Talk Radio and Literary Life."

Krasny, who's also welcomed Robert Redford, Yo-Yo Ma, Nancy Pelosi, Jimmy Carter, and the late Tony Curtis as guests on his popular, bright San Francisco radio show ("Forum" is on NPR's satellite feed), continues to set himself apart from most of the lightweight radio talk crowd with a new book out this week, "Spiritual Envy," that looks at an often-overlooked subject: It's subtitled "An Agnostic's Quest."

Agnostics, which many surveys have shown are prevalent today, haven't been a popular literary subject. Although, Krasny notes, there have been plenty of books about God and also, about atheism (e.g., Christopher Hitchens' and Sam Harris' recent tomes).

In "Spritual Envy," the San Francisco radio host includes a funny line by humorist/satirist Mort Sahl. "It's about agnostics who move into a Christian neighborhood," Krasny smiles slyly.

"They have a question mark burned on their lawn."

"Envy" includes a forward by literary heavyweight Joyce Carol Oates, as well as tributes to radio anomaly Krasny by the likes of Norman Mailer and Isabel Allende.

The thoughtful Krasny says, "Too many people have answers about religion., and," he sighs, "Answers are what sells."

"I don't have answers," radio's rare class act says. "And I don't think the people who SAY they have answers have answers, either."

The puckish Krasny's well-written and thoughtful new book has other lighthearted moments. For example, it includes a joke about the Ten Commandments, as adapted by the Unitarians.

Krasny: "They're called The Ten Suggestions."

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