I'm early to the station on a Saturday morning, navigating gray basement halls with red doors, hopelessly lost until I catch the wings of the writer Scott Carrier's voice emanating from a room in the back, where a man stooped over some papers invites me to sit down. Later I learn that the room was the master control booth, and the announcer was in the middle of a broadcast. That's KCRW for you—a stranger could wander in off the street, like what she hears, and accept an invitation to listen.
Santa Monica College started the station after World War II as a training facility for veterans. By the time general manager Ruth Seymour took over in the mid-'70s, it had the oldest transmitter west of the Mississippi, a tiny broadcast range, and an annual budget bottleneck of $10,000. Seymour says, "You have such great opportunity when you're in such desperate straits." Spoken like a true Bronx native.
Seymour has since turned KCRW into one powerhouse of a public radio station: 550,000 local listeners and more than 50,000 subscribers. KCRW produces more nationally syndicated programs than any other single independent station. It was the first to broadcast This American Life outside of Ira Glass's home station in Chicago. KCRW's signature show, Which Way, L.A.?, hit the ground running with marathon coverage of the 1992 L.A. riots. This year punk-rock icon Henry Rollins signed on to host a show. And then there's the Bookworm.
Michael Silverblatt is bobbing about the Los Angeles Times Book Awards ceremony like a birthday boy ready for cake. "Hi, hi, hi hi," he says. "Hi, hi, hi." You'd never know this man was once so shy he agreed to go to a party only if he could stand next to the host all evening. Cross-eyed (can't drive, can't read unless the type's two inches from his nose), balding, and tall with a bumbling gait, he is far from the polished media persona we're used to. "I'm an intellectual," he once said in a radio interview. "I look like an intellectual. My glasses are pretty thick. I think I smile nicely, and there's something cute about me, but I'm never going to be the dreamy blue-eyed wonder."
Born near Flatbush, Brooklyn, on August 6, 1952, to the children of Russian and Polish immigrants, Michael was raised in a middle-class family of accountants who were not especially literary. Still, his mother read her way through his honors English syllabus and his father often took him to the library, loving concessions to an extraordinarily gifted if sometimes strange son who dreamed about one day becoming the king of books. He kept to himself mostly, which worried his parents. They took him to see The Sound of Music on Broadway. "I was so afraid that they were going to tell me to go onstage and play with the children," he says. "And I was thinking, 'But I don't know the words to these songs.'"
Michael carried his love of literature to college, the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he met and was mentored by such writers as John Barth, Donald Barthelme, and Dwight Macdonald, all of whom left an indelible imprint. He shuffled home each holiday to dutifully explain what he'd learned in school, sometimes resurrecting family debates he had newfound answers to—like why Anna Karenina left her husband (hint: it was not about his ears).
So he split, headed west, tried his hand at screenwriting in Hollywood. Then he lost himself, in the various ways people do once they've followed the rabbit into the hole in search of a life less ordinary. He was broke, jobless, and drinking too much. "At the time, I resembled a homeless person who unaccountably had an apartment," he says.
Friends in a support group dug him out, helped him find a job in what felt like the least likely occupation—public relations. He was at a dinner in Santa Monica representing the actor Ray Sharkey, who played a villain on the TV show Wiseguy, when he found himself sitting next to Ruth Seymour, who had just returned from Russia. She and Michael struck up a conversation about Russian poetry. Impressed by his passion, knowledge, and acumen, she asked him if he'd host a book show.
He hesitated; she prodded: "You know, we're not murdering children here, Michael, we're just doing radio."
Holden Caulfield said: "What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it." That's pretty much what Michael does with writers, except he invites them over—to his sound studio the size of your bathroom, where they sit eye-to-eye across from each other at a desk. He doesn't need notes; he's read (and probably reread) everything by them and everything about them.
In an adjacent studio, sound engineer Mario Diaz records the interviews. He's surrounded by three monitors, a couple of speakers, a mixing board, and an equalizer. Nearby, he keeps his collection of "homies," plastic Latino figurines bought for 50 cents in vending machines.
"That one looks like Cher," I tell him.
"No, that's a chola!" Diaz says.
Bookworm's coproducer, Melinda Siegel, who describes her job as "kind of like being a mom," sits next to us. "Mario's really good at dealing with any eventuality without hysteria," she says.
"Hidden hysteria," says Diaz.
A lot can happen in a room where two people tell the truth. In an interview edging on evasive, poet Sharon Olds delicately hedged her answers until Michael told her a personal experience he'd had with abuse. She said, "Give me your hand. There you go. There you go." And then Olds opened up about dealing with emotionally difficult material. [Listen to the interview here ]
From his book-lined apartment (no kidding, even in the kitchen cupboards—and all alphabetized), Michael tells me: "I believe in the elaborate taking care of others. And we live in a culture where 'I'm not my brother's keeper,' 'That's your responsibility,' 'Get a life' have become bywords, code phrases, anthems for elaborate indifference, selfishness, greediness, and the failure of empathetic acceptance. In the same way that we need to repair the economy, we need to repair the effects of an economy of selfishness. And that isn't just the filling in of the big bucks that have fallen out of the system. The rescue that we need is emotional rescue, communicative, large-hearted. I've always dreamed that people listening to the show would hear that readers and writers are expanders of feeling centers, of the global ability to imagine other lives. And I want people listening to the show, yes, of course, to grasp its intelligence, but to also hear that it wants to show the feeling that reading and imagination inspire in writers and readers. We want to share those things with listeners. There are all sorts of other things that you get on radio and television, but I wanted listeners of Bookworm to hear words, ideas, but particularly emotions that don't get discussed in public if at all elsewhere. That is to say, for one reason or another, the show is a crusade that's much larger than the subject of books."
This philosophy, along with his studious preparation (which he calls "just being honorable"), might be the reason writers like to go on the show, why Norman Mailer marched into Ruth Seymour's office to tell her, "Do you know what a treasure you have here?" Why Annie Proulx described him in an e-mail as "a rarity in American literature—a passionate, emotional, understanding, deep-plunging reader." Why Mario Vargas Llosa wrote in a newspaper editorial (translated from Spanish): "No sooner did he start to speak and I was glued to what he said and, almost immediately, I was conquered."
And yet National Public Radio and Public Radio International have declined to distribute Bookworm. Critics say the half-hour format is a hard sell, and that the show lacks objectivity—Michael Silverblatt covers only books he likes. But the Internet has ushered in a whole new golden era for radio. Bookworm's online archive includes nearly 1,000 interviews. Last year, folks from all over the world downloaded 275,270 free podcasts. A younger generation has found Bookworm, much to Michael's delight.
Even so, Michael has had a rough spell. His father died in June 2008. In November much of the show's funding flew out the window, along with many other nonprofit endowments hard hit by the recession. He's since raised money for the rest of this year, and KCRW has chipped in. But come January, he's not so sure.
A friend told me, "Do what you love; the rest will follow." Well, here's a man doing what he loves and doing it well. The rest remains to be seen. But sometimes when you ask for help the real magic begins.
Six tapes, 80 minutes each, eight hours of our recorded conversation. Let's face it—I don't want to let him go. Because talking to Michael feels like an embrace—his well of empathy is awe-inspiring.
The last thing he said to me: "It's one of the secrets of the world. We all have the key to one another's locks. But until we start to talk, we don't know it."
An American Bookworm in Paris
David Foster Wallace
For Bookworm's first five years, Michael volunteered as the host of the show while working a slew of other jobs. Then The Lannan Foundation—a family endowment that supports the arts—stepped in to help with funding, and to ask Michael if he'd host the foundation's "Readings & Conversations" series. (Above: Poet Sharon Olds speaking to Michael in 2002 as a part of the series. Listen to her interview. ) For more author interviews, check out Lannan's online archive: Lannan.org/lf/audio/
To support Bookworm: checks can be made payable to KCRW Foundation with the check memo to read "earmarked for Bookworm," and sent to the attention of Dan Sy at KCRW, 1900 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, CA 90405.