In his decades on public radio, longtime KQED “Forum” host Michael Krasny has interviewed thousands of people, from world leaders to everyday folks working in the trenches.
But the legendary Bay Area broadcaster, who announced Monday that he’ll retire on Feb. 15, 2021 – exactly 28 years after the first “Forum” in 1993 — doesn’t immediately respond when asked to elaborate on the popular news and call-in show’s most notable personalities and conversations.
“It’s often hard to pinpoint. I get asked at dinner parties, ‘Who was the most challenging? The best? The most exciting?’ he says, adding, “I don’t want to be evasive, but sometimes I avoid that question, because I don’t want anyone’s feelings to be hurt.”
But he does come up with some folks who surprised him. Politician and commentator Pat Buchanan, whom he was “ready to despise,” Krasny says, came off as genteel, witty and even charming; as was “erudite” conservative George Will.
Sean Penn, who he thought would be a bad boy, was “very sweet,” Krasny says, as was feminist scholar Camille Paglia, who didn’t have the sharp teeth he had heard about.
Among the more amusing interviews was fighter Mike Tyson, who apparently thought Krasny was a shock jock. “He came in and started calling me ‘The Kras.’ He said, ‘How’s the Kras?’ It was a funny moment,” says Krasny, who also enjoyed a fun, loose, interesting talk with director Spike Lee.
Actress Debra Winger turned out to be one of his boyhood friend’s first cousins, he recalls, and a segment with Judy Collins marked a one-time occurrence: “Thankfully and mercifully, the only time I burst into song on the air was when she was singing ‘Gypsy Rover’ and I couldn’t restrain myself. I went through just a bar or two with her,” Krasny says.
Other memorable big-name interviews were with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and U.S. presidents Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter. Both were “gracious,” although Krasny admits that he and Carter had a disagreement, about which he declined to provide details.
But Krasny, an English professor at San Francisco State University who has been teaching longer than he’s been broadcasting, is most animated discussing writers he had “the great good fortune” to interview, including some he admired “enormously.” Tom Stoppard, Gloria Steinem, Don DeLillo, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Salman Rushdie and Toni Morrison are on the list, as are local novelists Amy Tan and Isabel Allende, who became dear friends.
Krasny, 76, says he’s retiring because he wants to spend time with family, particularly his 6-month-old granddaughter, who lives in New York.
“Facetime and Zoom only go to a certain extent,” he says, pointing to Jewish grandparents’ need to hug and squeeze their little ones. “I want to see her develop and share the excitement and joy of that,” says Krasny, who won’t be leaving public life altogether.
The author of “Off Mike: A Memoir of Talk Radio and Literary Life,” “Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic’s Quest,” “Sound Ideas” and “Let There Be Laughter: A Treasury of Great Jewish Humor and What It All Means” says he may have a few more books to write.
And in his final weeks on KQED staff he’ll be co-hosting with Kelly Corrigan the 32nd annual National Kidney Foundation Authors Luncheon fundraiser, a virtual event with John Grisham, Brit Bennett, Marcia Goldman, Erik Larson, Jason Rosenthal and Gail Tsukiyama on Dec. 5.
Though Krasny hesitates about sharing what his legacy might be, calling the word legacy “pompous,” he’s pleased he’s been able to share insights with thoughtful radio listeners of varied backgrounds, although that admittedly changed a bit during Donald Trump’s administration, when public radio became seen as an enemy of sorts.
Pleased with Joe Biden’s victory (“he’s a decent guy with empathy and a good heart”) and impressed with Kamala Harris, whom he’s known since she was San Francisco’s district attorney (“I like her personally; I used to throw her some tough questions”), Krasny says he hopes he’s remembered as an educator: “I’d like to think that what I’ve been about is bringing light, and also helping people to be a more informed citizenry.”