Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - June 3, 2011

Out there on the air

'West Coast Live,' a radio variety show that broadcasts from far and wide, comes to Palo Alto

by Rebecca Wallace

When you're a reporter interviewing someone who interviews people for a living, the whole thing turns into a sort of dance. You have your questions; he can't resist his own queries. There's a lot of laughter and redirecting of the conversation. You wonder why you're talking so much about yourself.

Fortunately, when your interviewee is the radio host Sedge Thomson, the experience is so entertaining that you probably won't mind.

Thomson, the creator of the weekly variety show "West Coast Live" on KALW 91.7 FM, is bringing his program to Palo Alto this month for two live broadcasts. The program is based in San Francisco, but it sure gets around. Thomson has broadcast from such diverse locations as a Tlingit longhouse in Alaska, the Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley and the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

And when Thomson speaks to a Weekly reporter about his upcoming Palo Alto shows, he's talking via Skype from Rome, where he's visiting his son. "If you hear me suddenly drowned out by Italian, don't take it personally," he says.

With a background of sirens, car horns and Continental chatter, Thomson talks about how he's looking forward to bringing his show back to the Peninsula. This despite the fact that he fell off the stage at the Lucie Stern Theatre at the last big Palo Alto show in 2002. "It's taken me nine years to recover to make it back," he says, laughing.

Before long, the conversation turns to the Peninsula arts scene, and how this reporter is involved in the arts. The reporter finds herself telling Thomson that she just appeared in a play set in Italy.

"That reminds me of a Guido Sarducci joke," Thomson says, referring to the priest character created by comedian Don Novello. Novello, Thomson says, was introducing him at a broadcast once and said, "His show goes coast to coast, which in Italy is no big deal."

Thomson quickly wonders aloud whether he can broadcast his show from Europe. "Can I phone this in from a terrace cafe?"

In the show's early days, a cafe broadcast would have been more technologically difficult. Thomson started the program in 1984 as the half-hour "Breakfast Jam," then expanded it to "West Coast Weekend" the next year on KQED. In 1994 he ventured on his own with "West Coast Live," distributing the show nationally, and later globally online. All along he has focused on interviewing authors and musicians.

"When I started doing the show, there were few opportunities for writers and musicians to be on the radio together. Most of the authors who could be on radio did how-to books or exposes. They weren't novelists. So I started inviting my friends who were writers," Thomson says. That included the Bay Area writer Anne Lamott, who was one of his first guests and has been on the show several times.

When Thomson expanded to a broader audience, he says: "I wanted to give the wider world a sense of Bay Area voices. So much of public radio comes from the East Coast or from the Midwest. ... I also wanted to focus on the Pacific Rim."

As a result, "West Coast Live" line-ups have featured some interesting juxtapositions. For instance, the May 14 broadcast from San Francisco's Ferry Building included jazz singer Wesla Whitfield, authors Armistead Maupin and Bharati Mukherjee, and David Winsberg of Happy Quail Farms in East Palo Alto.

Many guests are also known outside the Bay Area. The long list has included Arlo Guthrie, Lyle Lovett, Amy Tan, Robin Williams, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Allen Ginsberg, Gloria Steinem and Julia Child (who confessed to a love for Pepperidge Farm goldfish).

One of the show's biggest jumps in technology has been when it started using ISDN lines in 1996, Thomson says. Suddenly the "West Coast Live" team could broadcast anywhere it could get a phone line. "That allowed us to do a show from Camp Curry in Yosemite, and other bucolic places," he says.

Still, much about the show's technology looks the same to the audience members who attend the live Saturday-morning broadcasts, Thomson says. There are cables and microphones, audio engineer Mitchell Holman sitting on stage with a mixing board, musicians setting up. A vintage radio and a glowing ON AIR light reflect the enduring attraction that radio has held for Thomson ever since he was a kid listening to variety shows and baseball games on his transistor radio.

"Intellectually, while I understand the process, it's still magic to me. And it's still magic that at 10 o'clock sharp when we start our show we have access to all these listeners wherever they may be," Thomson says. "And our guests have the ability to reach into unknown places. Yet we retain the intimacy as if we were right in someone's home."

Later this month, listeners, wherever they may be, will be hearing "West Coast Live" broadcast from Palo Alto's Oshman Family Jewish Community Center.

On June 11, Thomson is scheduled to interview Amy Stewart, the author of "Wicked Bugs: The Louse that Conquered Napoleon's Army and other Diabolical Insects" and "Wicked Plants: The Weed that Killed Lincoln's Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities"; and David Shields, whose books include "The Inevitable: Contemporary Writers Confront Death." Pianist Joshua Raoul Brody will be sitting in for the show's usual pianist, Mike Greensill.

On June 18, Greensill will be back on stage along with blues/reggae band Current Swell and Nashville singer-songwriter Marshall Chapman. Authors scheduled to be interviewed are: Stanford professor Paul Ehrlich, author of 1968's "The Population Bomb" and the new "Humanity on a Tightrope"; Pulitzer Prize-winning author Oscar Hijuelos ("The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love"); and short-story writer Daniel Orozco ("Orientation").

"They seemed to represent a panoply of the interests of Palo Alto: the intellectual, the university-related, the gardening," Thomson says. "It's always a matter of trying to figure out the balance and a theme that will hold it (a show) together."

Besides having interesting guests, the show is also known for its level of audience participation. For example, people are asked to fill out cards answering the question "How did you happen to be at the broadcast today?" They can interpret it any way they choose.

Audience members and guests respond to each others' energy, and Thomson is kept on his toes by the unpredictable ebbs and flows of interviews. After researching his guests in advance, he tries to get them away from any standard lines they might often give reporters.

"Part of my job is to try to move people beyond what I call their interview tapes," he says.

Thomson's mission has attracted many volunteers who have worked on the show for years. The number includes Lawrence and Cassie Gay of Palo Alto, who have hosted broadcasts in their living room and kitchen.

Lawrence Gay has been involved with the show for nearly 20 years, he recalls in an interview with the Weekly. As a listener, he says, "I was very impressed with the integrity and the quality of the show ... exposure to arts and literature without any of the pretense." He started going to broadcasts, then began volunteering.

Over the years, Gay estimates, he's encountered some 5,000 guests. Many tell him how comfortable they were with Thomson as an interviewer. "They can trust Sedge and be themselves," he says. "He draws out the real person that's there."

Gay documents the broadcasts in photos and video, but he's also done everything from sweeping the floor to producing. Once, when the show traveled to a remote location near Highway 1, Gay ran a line across the road, then put up a sign that said "Data Crossing: Please Slow Down."

That line worked, but there have certainly been hitches over the years, such as a chair breaking, or a dog walking across the stage, or someone in the audience falling and fracturing an arm. "All these things have happened, and the show goes on," Gay says.

Indeed, "West Coast Live" is a bit like live theater; all the world's a stage, whether the broadcast is from a concert hall or a ferryboat.

On the line from Rome, Thomson ponders the combination of theater and radio, and the concept of bringing both of those things to the wider world.

"I think that's what we get to do. I did so many years of radio in studios," he says. Then once, years ago, he hosted a television broadcast of an opera in the park, and a different vision of broadcasting opened up to him.

"I did the play-by-play in Golden Gate Park, sitting at an outdoor desk with a giant sunhat," Thomson recalls, a smile in his voice. "And I thought, 'This is marvelous.'"

What: "West Coast Live" does a live broadcast with author and musician guests.

Where: Oshman Family Jewish Community Center, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto

When: June 11 and June 18, from 10 a.m. until noon (guests are asked to arrive at 9:30)

Cost: General-admission tickets are $20 at the door and $15 in advance, and $15/$13 for seniors. Kids under 18 pay $5.

Info: Go to http://wcl.org or call 415-664-9500 for tickets.

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