The Host of KQED’s Forum Signs Off

Photo by Kevin Berne/Courtesy of KQED

For 27 years he helped you get to work. He helped you start your day. He helped you stay informed. He took your questions as he talked to prominent newsmakers and political and cultural figures including presidents Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama, Cesar Chavez, Francis Ford Coppola, Jerry Garcia, Rosa Parks, Charlize Theron, Sean Penn, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and many, many more. Indeed, it seemed like that distinctive and articulate voice was as much a part of Bay Area culture as its bridges, sports teams and Indian summers. On February 12, Krasny retires and signs off for the last time.

But what many don’t know is that before Marin’s Michael Krasny moved on to KGO AM in the ’80s and eventually found his home at KQED in 1993, he hosted a public affairs/Marin celebrities show on San Rafael’s 1,000-watt KTIM FM station called Beyond the Hot Tub, the name partially inspired by the infamous George H. W. Bush quote about the county. “The name makes me squirm a bit now,” Krasny says. “But at the time it seemed like a good idea because of this identification of Marin County with hedonism.”

When Krasny finally moved to Forum as its second-ever host it was focused solely on local news, but the interviewer, author and professor quickly mapped out a new path for the show that would gain it the nearly 250,000 listeners per week it has now. “I want to spread this out. I want to do national and international news; I’d like to do the arts; I’d like to talk to authors,” Krasny told his new bosses. “And they were very supportive.

“The whole spirit of the program in my mind was keeping current, having different points of view and being a public place of ideas,” he says, pointing out the important role of the callers, texters and emailers who ask guests questions. “You do a high civic discourse type of program and you can get into the depths and the roots of the content. It becomes kind of fascinating, like a roulette wheel; you don’t know what is going to come up. Sometimes an hour is really just not enough.”

In the ’90s, radio was all about bombast and sensationalism, and Krasny didn’t know if his idea for a more civil, long-form program was going to work. “Back then the goal was to get your listener to pound the dashboard; you want to get them and keep them there. That’s what people like Howard Stern and others who became famous in the radio world for their outrageousness do,” he says. “I didn’t know if my concept would take hold, but it just worked somehow. I think people were also tired of all the bombast, the yelling and the attempt to sensationalize.”

As the show got more popular, the guest list grew to include celebrated political figures, actors and authors at the top of their games. But it was sometimes the unsung hero who made his day. “Some of the ones that made lasting impressions were those who were doing the most enduring and selfless work, work that didn’t get heralded,” he says. “I’m talking about Doctors Without Borders participants or journalists who put themselves in harm’s way. I’ve had the privilege of talking to just an extraordinary array of different people, many of whom don’t usually get spotlighted. And yet, I’ve also had the great privilege of interviewing some of the major news-makers and important cultural figures of our time.”

And as is the case with anyone who does lots of interviews, you sometimes run up against opinions that are different than your own — and to Krasny, those countervailing ideas were just as important as ones he agreed with. “When I started, I had people on from the Hoover Institution [a conservative American public policy think tank], and I got a lot of flak for that,” he says. “I had to educate my listeners that when you hear ideas that are different than yours, it’s a good thing, not a bad thing. If somebody believes something completely contrary to you, you want to know how they think so you can battle their ideas better with your own.”

For now, Krasny is happy to move on to the next chapter and focus on family, writing more books and walking the trails of Marin. “I want to go out on a high note at 76 years old,” he says. “Marin is an idyllic place to live, the weather is great, people are nice, there are a lot of places to hike and to be a part of the outdoors. It’s always been a place one can thrive in.”

Whoever follows Krasny as the host (KQED will conduct a national search) may want to know how he developed his interview skills and succeeded in hosting thousands of live on-air conversations. His advice: “The best metaphor I have for it is a bat in a cave. I follow my instincts, curiosity and radar. It’s an intuitive sense; it’s in the moment.”