‘Airtalk’: No Time for Airheads
A listener traversing the radio dial on a recent Monday would have heard talk shows filled with discussions of the O.J. Simpson murder case, the nuptials of Lisa Marie Presley and Michael Jackson, the morality of spanking children and the question of whether women somehow invite rape.
But at KPCC-FM (89.3) that day, “Airtalk” host Larry Mantle was interviewing Michael Tobias, the environmentalist author of an ambitious tome titled “World War III: Population, the Biosphere and the End of the Millennium.” The discussion ranged from the perils of global overpopulation to providing food to underdeveloped nations to the religious and cultural barriers to birth control.
In an era where so much of talk radio is devoted to lightweight tabloid-style topics, Mantle instead focuses for two hours each week night on the art of conversation--quietly but incisively drawing out his guests, then distilling the key points of their discourse for his public-radio listeners.
Tobias, who was in the midst of a media-blitzing book promotion tour, came away from the hourlong interview heartened by the level of discussion.
“His goal implicitly suggests transcending the sound-bite mentality and achieving a modicum of substance that is impressive,” Tobias said.
“Airtalk” is sometimes compared to “Which Way, L.A.?,” a daily, issues-oriented program produced in the Santa Monica studios of KCRW-FM (89.9), KPCC’s public-radio cross-town rival. But that show, born out of the Los Angeles riots of April, 1992, and hosted by veteran Los Angeles broadcaster Warren Olney, focuses specifically on issues and problems that face Southern California, while Mantle’s show is more wide-ranging. Recent programs have focused on the nature of paranoia, whether there is a health-care bias against women, new forms of evangelism, the artistry of comics and an anthropological look at dogs.
“This show is about me learning, as much as anything,” he said. “I know it’s a good program when I come out of the studio (thinking), ‘I didn’t realize that. I even read the book and I didn’t realize that.’ Or maybe a listener called in and asked a question from an angle coming very differently than I would have and, wow, it connects and it’ll open me up to something else.”
Mantle, 35, repeatedly points out the sophistication of his listeners, crediting their articulate involvement for the success of his show.
“We reinforce each other,” he explained. “I’m trying to reflect the audience that I think is already (listening to KPCC), that’s attracted by the National Public Radio programs, that is interested in the kinds of music that we play. Then what I try to do is offer them, in local issues or points of controversy or on global issues, something that is really going to catch their interest, that isn’t just posturing and carrying on for the sake of carrying on.”
Mantle’s fans, for their part, seem to appreciate his measured, non-combative style. “Airtalk” had an average audience of 13,500 during the most recent Arbitron quarterly ratings period.
“Larry Mantle has mastered the art and science of getting to the point,” listener Martin Barnes, a retired professor of entomology, said in an interview. “He never gets off track. And he’s so open-minded. He seeks opinions in a very fair manner from the people he’s interviewing and he has a lot of rather unconventional guests. He must be very well-educated; he seems to have a very broad background based on the kinds of questions he asks.”
Mantle does indeed have a broad background.
After getting a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Southern California College, a Christian liberal arts school in Costa Mesa, in 1979, he spent some time studying for the Presbyterian ministry, then briefly studied psychology in graduate school. But an internship at KPCC, which is licensed to Pasadena City College, led to the realization that his calling was broadcasting. He landed a full-time job at a commercial radio station in Riverside in 1982, then returned to KPCC the following year as news director.
He helped to create and became the host of “Airtalk” in 1985 and was named KPCC’s program director as well as news director in 1989.
Mantle’s love affair with radio goes back at least as far as when he was 5. “The first thing I bought with my own money was a transistor radio,” he said. “I took my radio everywhere. I was a real verbal child and it was my constant companion.”
Hosting “Airtalk,” he said, “is the best job in the world. I look forward to coming to work. I get to talk with literally the most interesting people in the world. How could I not love it? The kinds of topics that I can do include science, history, social issues--and from all different perspectives. Someone like Rush Limbaugh only handles basically political issues. But this is the kind of thing you don’t get tired of because it’s different every night.”
“Airtalk” is not immune from tackling some of the topics that its commercial counterparts do, such as sensational crime stories, but when it does, it takes a different approach.
“If we do the hot or trendy thing, we try to get to the next level below that, as with O.J. Simpson,” Mantle said. “We won’t discuss ‘Did he do it or not?,’ but we’ll look at ‘What does this case raise in the way of legal issues?’ ‘Does someone who’s rich and famous have advantages or disadvantages, and how does that work in the justice system?’ ”
The show’s mandate, he said, is to go beyond the headlines and the obvious points of controversy.
“I think anyone who works in public radio recognizes that if we’re going to serve our listeners and we’re going to effectively compete with commercial radio stations that have enormous budgets, we have to do something that they can’t,” Mantle said.
“And the thing that we’ve got is time--and we have a very socially conscious and educated listener. That’s the advantage we have over all of the commercial stations.”
* “Airtalk” airs week nights from 5 to 7 p.m. on KPCC-FM (89.3).