How did you get into public broadcasting?
I was involved in theater as an undergraduate and one day followed the crowd to audition for a position as student announcer at WHA. I got the job. That led to contact with some of the best voices and most passionate, outstanding public radio personnel in the world.
What have you learned about the art of interviewing over the years?
That the best interviews are conversations. Knowing what you hope to get from an interview is important, but establishing a relationship with the guest is what makes it work. The result should make listeners feel that they are as involved in the conversation as you are.
Besides hosting TTBOOK, you also spent many years as a classical music host on Wisconsin Public Radio, so it's probably safe to say music is a big part of your life. Have you interviewed many classical musicians?
My mother was a violinist and my dad (who was essentially tone-deaf) took all three kids to hear her perform in symphonies and chamber ensembles, so music has always been part of who I am. My wife and I have performed as singers most of our lives, at one time singing with the Tudor Singers in Carnegie Hall and at the White House. I've also strolled through banquet halls singing Christmas carols while diners concentrated on the clink of their silverware. As host of TTBOOK, I've talked to the great soprano Dawn Upshaw and pianists Jeffrey Siegel and Christopher O'Riley.
You also produce and host Chapter a Day on Wisconsin Public Radio. What is that and how can I hear it?
Chapter a Day was my first true love in radio. I love books (did you guess?) and I love performance. This offers both. The program started in the early days of radio and has continued uninterrupted through today, offering daily half hour readings from the best available books. You can listen via streaming at http://www.wpr.org/chapter )
You’ve done hundreds, if not thousands, of interviews over the years. Which ones have stayed with you?That’s hard to answer because so many interviews have introduced me to new ideas. The one I worried most about ahead of time and felt my sense of American history changed by was with Garry Wills on his book Lincoln at Gettysburgh. He convinced me that Lincoln redefined American history in a way that no one before or since has done.
Public radio hosts don't usually reveal a lot about themselves on the air, but regular listeners know that the Vietnam War was a formative experience for you. You were a conscientious objector?
It's true that the period of the Vietnam War (what the Vietnamese call the “American War") was formative for me. In 1970 I was I-A, which everyone who remembers the Selective Service System knows, means you are eligible for service. My lottery number was low, so I knew I would have to make a stand one way or the other. The process of deciding to apply for status as a Conscientious Objector was long and arduous, involving family, friends and advisors. After an appearance before my local draft board, my status was changed to I-O, Conscientious Objector, and I was assigned to alternative service as a psychiatric aide in a long-term care facility for adolescents. Making the decision, defending the decision, living with the decision, and committing to the service, are all things which have defined who and what I am. I've done interviews with others who faced those same issues, like the novelist Tim O'Brien whose brilliant book "The Things They Carried" is mandatory reading if you are interested in those times.
You have such a beautiful voice! (It's been called one of Wisconsin's state treasures.) Do you do anything to maintain it or keep it in shape?
I always laugh when I hear someone say this, though I'm also flattered. I have a daily half hour commute during which I sing, do vocal exercises, and talk out loud. I don't want to know what other drivers must think.
Last question: do you really read all those books?
Of course. Not. There isn't time to read all of them, but I have a house full of books I still intend to finish one day. And sometimes knowing too much about a book makes an interview incomprehensible to the listener who hasn't yet had the opportunity to read it. Ideally, I think I need to know what part of the book will best define the story we hope to tell, and make sure I know that part intimately.