NPR’s Michael Krasny

Posted on in The Interview by Rob Sidon

On Forum and the Quest of a Spiritual Agnostic


Born in 1944, Michael Krasny grew up in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, to observant Jewish parents and excelled in literature, earning a PhD before migrating to teach at San Francisco State in 1970. A tenured professor, he caught the bug for interviewing in the early ’80s, hosting a fondly remembered San Rafael–based show on KTIM called Beyond the Hot Tub, receiving local heroes such as Grace Slick, Carlos Santana, and Jerry Garcia. After a stint at KGO, he found his true home hosting the award-winning Forum show at public radio station KQED in 1993. Known for its high-minded depth of analysis, Forum is the overall ratings leader in its morning timeslot—a rare, if not unprecedented, feat for a locally produced public radio talk show. The list of A-list interviews Krasny has conducted is as exhaustive as it is varied and reads like a Who’s Who of contemporary society that includes Barack Obama, Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu, Cesar Chavez, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Redford, Rosa

Parks, Maya Angelou, Carl Sagan, Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Salman Rushdie, John Updike, Toni Morrison, and countless others.

A sincere seeker since his youth, he published Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic’s Quest in 2010 chronicling his own personal and scholarly investigation into the mysteries of faith. While earnestly wishing he could believe in God, the sum of too many unanswered questions has made this impossible for Krasny—and thus he envies those with faith. He is considered one of the rare experts on the underexplored subject of agnosticism.

We spoke with Krasny, the winner of multiple awards for journalistic and civic excellence, on the day after Thanksgiving at his Marin County home.

Common Ground: You are an expert interviewer. I am but the ingénue interviewing the master. Is there a secret to creating a good interview and getting people to open up?

Michael Krasny: Don’t get self-conscious, Rob; we’re just having a conversation. I don’t know if there are any secrets. I over-prepare, it’s no secret. I am trained as a scholar, so if I’m going to be interviewing someone I will have gone in-depth to know about the person’s work and their accomplishments. I like to relate to people and listen. Interviewing is a lot about in-depth listening to the nuances and the subtleties of what people are saying.

There are different ways of interviewing. Like Jim Lehrer used to say, one type is invisible—just asking questions, taking a phantom role, and bringing out the person that’s being interviewed. Then there’s the personality who wants to bring him or herself into the interview. I fall in between those two. I have an educator’s weakness and like to bring my own knowledge to the table; I’ve been praised and criticized for that. Over time you get a sense of the timing and how the flow of conversation works and how to keep balance and the audience engrossed. I realized long ago that I wasn’t a shock jock. I wasn’t cut out to be the kind of guy who stirs up controversy, which is often what you hear on commercial radio. It’s not my strong suit, nor what I like to do.

You cut your teeth here in Marin, right?

It’s almost embarrassing now, but I had a program called Beyond the Hot Tub on old freeform radio KTIM in San Rafael. A lot of people remember it fondly. I met Bob Marley there. I had interviews with a lot of the rock people in Marin—Grace Slick and Carlos Santana and people like that. The Grateful Dead. There is a famous story about my interview with Jerry Garcia because he was inclined to use some substances [mimics snorting through a straw] during an interview, and I said, “No, we can’t do this,” knowing there were Deadheads all around the station and not knowing where this could go. This was before the Internet, but Deadheads had their own means of communication. If Jerry was being interviewed, they somehow knew and showed up. I also did a lot of profiles of locals, artists, writers, and people making a difference in those early movements akin to Common Ground, like holistic health and ecology, politics.

Before coming to Marin, you grew up in Cleveland; what was that like?

I grew up in a place called Cleveland Heights. It wasn’t a bad experience or anything, but it was a place I wanted to leave from a fairly early age. There was a combination of middle-class and working-class people. My dad was a factory worker at an ice cream factory. It’s a whole long involved story. It was a family business, and he was supposed to be on the inheritance side of it but wasn’t. He wound up working for relatives, and that sometimes creates an uncomfortable and unhappy story. In his case it was. He wanted to be a doctor and was cut out for medicine. He got a degree in bacteriology but didn’t get into medical school because of the quotas. There were quotas in those days. It is hard to believe, but there were. He was always interested in pursuing knowledge and was a voracious reader who got me on an intellectual track early on. He had a family to support and wound up doing blue-collar work his whole life. It’s funny for a blue-collar guy to have been the state champion of Ohio in duplicate bridge. I guess this is where I get my poker playing.

Did you excel in high school?

In my last couple of years. I got into some smaller schools that I couldn’t afford. I didn’t get any scholarships or anything like that, so it was off to Ohio University, where I got a decent education. I wanted to make my dad happy and thought I would be pre-med. I met my Waterloo in an anatomy class with a fetal pig. It just stunk so much of formaldehyde. It was a moment of truth when I also happened to be exposed to Shakespeare and literature.

A young man at the crossroads—between Shakespeare and the fetal pig.

I had eclectic interests and curiosity, but it’s safe to say I fell in love with Shakespeare and literature. Literature is something you could study historically, linguistically, anthropologically, and even scientifically. A novel has so many portals of understanding. I liked literary criticism, literary theory, and I got a master’s and PhD in literature. Then I got a job as a professor on a tenure track at San Francisco State in 1970, where I stayed for decades.

Was the Bay Area a personal destination or just an opportunity that showed up?

I had an older brother who was a pathfinder who moved here in the mid-1960s. I was taken with the Beats. I was taken with the beauty of this place. There was something cool about California that beckoned. Not so much Southern California, but Northern California. I did get a few job offers, but I also had some good fortune. I was interested in a writer named Jean Toomer who was part of the Harlem Renaissance and the birth of interest in black literature. I wanted to do my dissertation on him, so I went to see his widow just after he died. His widow turned over a bunch of manuscripts to me. It was really good luck.

When did your interest shift to radio interviews?

In the early ’80s. I was tenured but started getting a little antsy. I didn’t realize that I had been watching interviewers without it registering on me as any kind of career. I had been observant of how people like Dick Cavett worked. William Buckley, Ted Koppel, and Phil Donahue. I thought it might interest me. Then, in another caprice of good fortune, a guy named Francis X. Moakley, who ran the audiovisual department of San Francisco State, said to me that KQED television was looking for somebody to do a literary interview and asked whether that would interest me. Definitely, it did. It turned out be with Gore Vidal. That was a tough interview, I don’t mind telling you.

Gore Vidal was your first interview!

The first interview I did, and he was intoxicated, very difficult, snotty. That’s how he could be, and that’s how he was. I had visions that because he’s a literary guy and because we had similar politics that we’d get along famously, but he was insufferable. He had his brilliance and wit, but personally was a nasty piece of work. I had such a difficult interview with him that I wanted to test myself with him years later as he was coming through, and I thought, “Let me see if I can interview him—without enmity,” which was sort of what I felt toward him. I put myself on experiment. It was interesting because I told him before we went on air that I had interviewed him on television many years prior. He said, “I don’t remember that. I’ve done thousands of interviews.” But then he came on the air and said, “Oh Michael, it’s so good to be with you again, as we were on television years ago.” That kind of crapola. Anyway, it was important to me inwardly and a test of my professionalism at the time. I realized I had a taste for that.

Before KQED, you were at KGO for a short time. How was commercial radio?

The other side of the moon. It was understood you were supposed to get people worked up and everything. Once, the program director sat me down and said, “Michael, stop using those big words.” I am drawn to high-level discourse, but they wanted me to bring in the younger demographics and get people banging the dashboard. It wasn’t a good fit, not to mention feeling like a shill for commercial products.

Were you expected to endorse products?

You had to read commercials and sometimes for these ridiculous products, especially when I was on at night. I won’t dignify them by naming them. You realized commercial radio is all about having controversial content that keeps people’s interests and teases them for the next commercial. Ratings mattered above all. A higher-up told me it didn’t matter if you went on and let flatulence out for an hour, as long as you kept the listeners and had the younger demographic.

How are your ratings now?

I am grateful for the fact that in the Bay Area, my morning program has been the overall ratings leader in its morning timeslot without having to host a zoo or do explosive and controversial things for their own sake. I get too much credit for bringing those ratings numbers up; I’m just doing what I always did but with more sense of balance and equanimity and with an inimitable staff. No other locally originated show on public radio enjoys the same [ratings] status, but I credit the team I work with and the nine counties in the Bay Area, where people want more information. Especially after 9/11, I noticed people wanting more in-depth analysis, more on foreign affairs. I am not being modest; it’s a different kind of listenership here.

Do you mean to say your show could only have succeeded here?

It might’ve been a very different program if I had done something in Boston or Chicago or New York because each city has its own particular character. What was exciting was to be in the vanguard of the vanguard out here. I doubt the program could have been easily replicated elsewhere. There was always a lot of internal spiritual exploration in San Francisco. For example, the holistic health movement and food movements had their roots here. It’s always been identified as a place of bohemianism and artists who unfortunately now can’t afford to live here. It’s become more tech-ified, with all the young millionaires.

You’ve interviewed every A-lister. Do you mind rattling off a few names that come to mind?

Oh boy! Here’s a list. In politics: Jimmy Carter, Obama, Al Gore, Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Newt Gingrich, John McCain, John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi, Dianne Feinstein. People like Desmond Tutu. Supreme Court justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor. Writers like Saul Bellow, Salman Rushdie, Philip Roth, Maya Angelou, Edward Albee, Norman Mailer, John Updike, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Susan Sontag, Gloria Steinem, William F. Buckley, Allen Ginsberg. In entertainment I mentioned Jerry Garcia. Francis Ford Coppola, Jane Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Leonardo DiCaprio, Stephen Sondheim. Who else comes to mind? Charles Schultz, Mickey Mantle, Jacques Cousteau, Carl Sagan, Bill Cosby—before his recent controversy. I interviewed Rosa Parks. An embarrassment of riches, actually.

Those that got away?

We’ve had all the governors: Deukmejian, Pete Wilson, Gray Davis, Jerry Brown many times. But I never interviewed Arnold Schwarzenegger. It is a strange story because we kept after him. We knew people high up in his cabinet, his advisors. They would say, “Well, we will do a pre-interview on Monday afternoon at 4:30 for 15 minutes by tape.” No, that is not what I do. I do a full interview from the top. For some reason he didn’t want his name to be on a public radio program with us. George W. Bush is another. That probably won’t ever happen. They won’t go on public radio. They think it is the enemy camp. I would give a fair interview to him or Kissinger. It would be tough, but it would be fair. There are people I would love to interview like Thomas Pynchon, but I never will. He’s too reclusive; nobody knows where he lives or how to find him. Bob Dylan—that’s a pipe dream interview that will likely not happen.

Dylan—that’s my pipe dream interview. The KQED website archives nearly 8,000 segments, and I know that’s not the whole of it. I am stunned that you have that much bandwidth and preparation under your belt. What stands out?

For many years there were no archives, not to mention the KGO and KTIM stuff. It’s in the thousands. Lots of things stand out. You remember the difficult ones. That’s what I used to say about students too: you remember the superior ones and the difficult ones.

The canvas is too large to identify the best interview or the most difficult, but nevertheless there are programs that stand out in my mind because of their impact and inspiration. They’re not necessarily major newsmakers and people of the highest rank but people who were just doing, ironically, what you might call God’s work. People like hospice workers or people in the trenches. Reporters who put themselves at risk just to get the stories that they were after. Doctors Without Borders types of people. I just had this woman on recently named Larissa Mac Farquhar who writes for The New Yorker. She did a whole book about people who just give so much of themselves and are selfless. I have enormous admiration for people like that. I wish I could be that kind of person with that kind of patience and virtuousness. I’d like to think I’m a decent, goodhearted guy but to have that selflessness? It can be stunning.

Sometimes it seems you have a real friendship with your guests, at least onair. Is this true? Where’s the line?

It is a weird line. I have made friends from the program. For example, Isabelle Allende is a close friend, and it’s also become a joke because she’s been on many times. With other guests I’ve interviewed there is a rapport and a certain trust built up, and I might see them in a social situation. Friend is a flexible word in my lexicon. I have 5,000 Facebook friends, but frankly it’s a marketing tool. But to make a friend? Friend is a sacred word. My dad once said to me, “If you can count your real friends on one hand, that’s really saying something.” We’re talking about people who would drive to Tijuana to bail you out of jail if necessary. People you could count on through thick and thin, in trauma and disaster. And they could count on you. Such friends are limited in number; they really are.

Terry Gross [host of the nationally broadcast interview show Fresh Air] is the other interviewer we routinely hear on KQED. How do you compare your approaches?

It’s a different show. It’s like talking about two different species in my mind. Mine is live, hers is recorded, for one thing. That makes a big difference. It’s not only recorded, but it is edited. Mine involves phone calls, hers does not. She’s a crackerjack interviewer, usually. She is high-minded, and I admire her work and consider her a colleague. Like those people who listen regularly, I have my criticisms and qualms. As with everyone, there are areas where she is stronger. She is particularly strong with jazz and music and certain political veins. She is strong with celebrities, although I wish she would be a little tougher with them sometimes, but that is just me. I was a little disappointed that she didn’t want to feature my book, Spiritual Envy.

Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic’s Quest—this is Common Ground territory. Unlike Terry Gross, I am very interested. How was your spiritual background formed, and how did you come to be a hard-core agnostic?

My parents were believers, more than observant Jews, conservative. I was brought up as a boy who believed and accepted the omnipresence of God—that God was there for me to talk to, to have an intimate relationship with, to be present in my life. I tell this story in the book of when I was 12 years old, and I had a British sixth-grade teacher who was wont to use corporal punishment and sometimes severely. Once I was trying to be a good boy and helping out with chores in the classroom, blackboards and sweeping and stuff when he asked me to take a can of yellow paint to the other sixth-grade teacher down the hall. Well, I tripped, and the yellow paint spilled down, and he saw it and gave me the worst punishment. I remember I kept the tears in and couldn’t tell my parents but eventually went out to a shrouded area and let out heartfelt sobs, saying to myself, “God, at least you know that I was trying to be good.” I felt God was there and gave witness to all this and was on my side. At that time there was no doubt about it.

Then I became a voracious reader of Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, Spengler, and Camus, grappling with these major questions such as “Where is God when a child is being tortured or beaten?” As a sixth grader I had the sense that I couldn’t dwell on it, and I moved on. But I started thinking about it later on in life when trying to answer “What do you believe? What does that mean? Do you believe or don’t believe?” People of faith have answers, but I didn’t have an answer. I didn’t have answers and didn’t feel I could just accept and move on like people with strong spirituality or like when I was in sixth grade. That’s probably why I wrote the book.

What is agnosticism? I remember Studs Terkel told me, “I’m an agnostic” meaning “a cowardly atheist.” What does it mean to be an agnostic? I started like a scholar looking at the roots of it in Eastern and Western cultures. And there were people with ancient roots and skepticism, doubt and disbelief or the desire to have either something that would empirically bring belief or something to flip the switch. I was certainly receptive to that. I was willing, open, and ready to have something open up a spiritual vein, but it didn’t. All the cerebral, intellectual study won’t get there. I think Cardinal Newman once said something about notional ascent versus emotional ascent. Notionally, you can think there’s a God, but you need the emotion to really back it up and structure it and support it. Anyway, Spiritual Envy came out of that whole quest.

That darned yellow paint incident!

It was a turning point that I didn’t realize until years later. I had already been versed in the writings of a rabbi named Richard Rubenstein, who wrote about the Holocaust, essentially asking, “How could God have allowed babies to be thrown in ovens?” The longest monotheistic people are the Jews, but suddenly you had this question being raised on many different levels in many different contexts by thinkers and theologians and philosophers, which crunched down to: How could God have let that happen? Where was God? How could God let Pol Pot massacre so many, or in Bosnia, or by ISIS? Unless you have faith and believe, I don’t think you can come to an answer.

“God works in mysterious ways.” That didn’t cut it for you?

That is one of the standard boilerplate answers. Or “we cannot divine the Divine.”

This conversation could go deep into the night, but I agree there’s a gut sense of faith that some people have. They feel it in their bones and in their bone marrow.

If you don’t feel it, it is not there. It’s just like love or any other kind of strong emotion. Hate. My friend Jacob Needleman is a philosopher who speaks of inner empiricism and outer empiricism. Outer empiricism wants proof. Inner empiricism is like a sixth sense that requires no metrics by which to know; it just is. The hunger is fulfilled like that, internally. It is a blessing for many people, and that is why I tie it to envy—when people have that.

I like Don Latin [longtime SF Chronicle religion reporter], who said, “His agnosticism is not wishy-washy.” But do you ever wonder that you’re trying to grok God with the mind versus the heart?

I take Don’s comment as a compliment, but I know I’m too cerebral and intellectual; it’s both a blessing and a curse. But I honestly felt that I had an open heart, and I wanted to lead with my heart and feel that. Maybe it will come to me at another time in my life. I’m open to it still, I really am.

Let’s switch gears and talk about politics. The vitriol between the Left and Right seems to have escalated. Personally, I can’t stand it. Have you ever wondered what core human differences make up this divide?

Historically, the Democratic Party was always the party of labor and the party that believed in strong government and the role of government in helping provide equity. The Republican Party was more the corporate party, the party for the privileged, antithetical to the labor movement—let’s put it that way. A lot of that continues to hold up. Since the Civil War, the South had traditionally voted Democrat, but John Mitchell, the attorney general under Nixon, developed a Southern strategy with the idea that these blue states could become red states by emphasizing morality. The thinking was that evangelicals and voters concerned about the moral status quo could be galvanized. Pat Buchanan had a famous speech saying we are two cultures; we are divided. He meant that Republicans have to keep everything morally intact and not move over to same-sex marriage and to the kind of morality that was changing in every other way.

Republicans tried to hold tighter to that conservatism but ran up against changes which ran over them. In the meantime, the Democratic Party became very much a party that was fragmented into ethnic groups and interest groups. It became more and more balkanized. Both parties have faced the purists from within—the purists within the Democratic Party wanting to follow liberal and progressive principles and take America to new heights and vistas while the Republican’s Tea Party became more conservative than ever. I’ve said that Richard Nixon, who by the way was a major environmentalist, or maybe even Reagan, wouldn’t find their present party amenable to them.

You’ve been chronicling these things for such a long time, but have you ever seen it so hateful?

In ninth grade in civics class, I learned that government is based on compromise. That it is a civic responsibility to try to work on compromise. But I’m not sure you have parties now that want to compromise because of the purists. When you throw in the fact that both parties are really dictated to by whomever is giving money to their coffers, that government is ruled by monetary contributions and lobbyists and PACs and interest groups, it is pretty distressing.

On the Democratic side Hillary Clinton has had to move over to the left and over to those people like Bernie Sanders. Hillary distrusts the Republicans enormously. She’s been talking for years about a Republican right-wing conspiracy against her and her husband. The Republican Party doesn’t trust Hillary. You have people like Ted Cruz, who essentially brought the government to a halt and would like to do it again over Planned Parenthood. The Republican centrists are not getting any momentum. John Boehner as Speaker of the House couldn’t get past the obstruction in his own party. Paul Ryan has his challenges cut out for him, to put it mildly.

I would be rather pessimistic in what would enable them to compromise, if anything. When there was that terrible shooting of children in Connecticut [Sandy Hook], I thought, “Here’s going to be one time when these parties can come together and get something through, if even just a check on backgrounds of buyers of guns.” I expected some fairly minor form of legislation, but they couldn’t bring it forward because of the polarization of the parties. This had a lot had to do too with the fact that the NRA is an organization that both parties are afraid to buck.

In general, what else pisses you off?

People who are unfriendly. I will say hello to people—usually, people I am acquainted with—who will not even give a response. A lot of people are weird that way. Somebody once said to me, “Well, there are a lot of weird people who are engineers and stuff.” People try to convince me that geeks are unfriendly by nature. I don’t think that’s true, but there are people that don’t know how to be courteous. But that is just a pet peeve. What “pisses me off,” to use your phrase, is injustice, bigotry, and close-mindedness.

I am often surprised at the extent people carry anger. Sometimes it feels like it’s bubbling under a thin crust, and it’s scary.

I would agree with you. There are a lot of angry people out there. Probably fewer per capita in this region than, say, New York or New Jersey or places where it’s colder. I’ve often thought of the novelist Toni Morrison, who says there are people who almost live for the sense of their grievances or their anger or indignation.

Conversely, what makes your heart leap?

They used to have these devices at carnivals where you take a sledgehammer and swing it down and try to make the weight go to the top and maybe win a Kewpie doll or something. There are certain shows that I’ve had through the years that have absolutely hit that top rung. You know it internally. Sometimes it’s when people touched a peak emotional level, either in their own narratives or by the stories they told, or by the caller responses. Something is just downright inspiring, and it feels like this is really going to make a difference in people’s lives, maybe alter their whole vision of life. Occasionally, you come away feeling, “This is one for the ages.”

You’ve had so many remarkable encounters. Is there some net epiphany that you can share about the beauty of the human spirit?

It’s hard to crystallize things, Rob, the range being so great and diverse, but the more compelling stories come from people who have made it through trauma and bad times, but who nevertheless come out whole and still dedicated to living a full productive life, making a real contribution. It does inspire a sense of resiliency of the human spirit.

This is me, but when I hear you talk that way about those crystalline moments, I just sense the hand of God. And I am not here to convert you, and I know you’re famously agnostic, but I do wonder why you don’t make that leap of faith. Are you really trying, or holding back?

If I gave the impression to the contrary, I wasn’t speaking in a way that was consistent with my thinking. Of course I have tried to make it. There’s just too many questions that remain unanswered. I have a great admiration, and even reverence, for the human spirit. But do I know where that comes from, over the ages and over evolution and over the centuries? There are too many things about the human condition that can dampen one’s faith in humanity as easily as one can feel uplifted. It goes both ways for me. Bertolt Brecht, the great German dramatist, once said, “The man who laughs has not yet been told the terrible news.” I think certain people who have faith are able to give the goodness and give the qualities that I’m emphasizing here over to a Creator or to a Divine force. But then I wonder what they do with the other side of that. What do they do with the underside or the darker side? I think it is individual to individual. Faith is something you don’t manufacture intellectually. You either have it or you don’t.

So how would you answer the question, “What makes Michael Krasny tick?” What compels him?

I am motivated by public education, and I think that’s the fundamental role of public radio and dedicated teaching. Beyond that, I think it’s a combination of neurotic energy and wanting to bring light and do good.

Might you share a parting message to Common Ground readers, many of whom are forward thinking and sophisticated and likely dedicated listeners of yours?

I don’t like to proselytize or preach or get on a high horse, but when you talk about Common Ground, it makes me think of community and the importance of building community. When people find they’re doing something that enhances community, they are making a contribution, maybe more than they realize. If I was schooled in anything, it was a kind of existential belief that we are in this alone, but we are also in this together. We need mutual support, and we need to be mindful of those who are occupying this planet with us. Just try to be as community- and fair- and equitably-minded as we can. That is a very simple message, but it is one that maybe needs to be reiterated.

Rob Sidon is publisher and editor in chief of Common Ground.

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