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Saturday, Oct. 13, 2007 | Most weekday mornings, Tom Fudge can be found tucked away in a small studio at the headquarters of KPBS at San Diego State University. As host of These Days, KPBS’ morning talk show, Fudge faces a steady stream of guests whom he must keep engaged, interested and, most importantly, talking.
Six months ago, Fudge was hospitalized when he was hit by a car while cycling to work. He ended up in intensive care with a concussion and leg injuries and his familiar voice was off the air for more than two months. We sat down to talk with him about that experience and also about some of his best and worst interviews over the eight years he’s been hosting These Days.
And, because he’s a master of interviewing, we decided to let Fudge ask himself some questions. For each subject, we started him off, then we got him to ask himself a follow-up question, which is how we got him talking about Brad Pitt, Peter O’Toole, and why he would never say on air whether he thinks George W. Bush is an idiot.
Will Carless: You interview more than a dozen people a week and you always sound pretty lucid. How do you go about researching your subjects, how much time do you spend researching, and how early on do you start?
I usually start at two o’clock in the afternoon, and I spend several hours each week doing research.
If I had to guess I’d say it’s probably about two hours a day I spend just reading research, which is kind of a hardship for me, because I’ve never considered myself to be a terribly good reader. I don’t read very quickly, but the thing that I have learned from the show is how to skim articles — how to really take an article and read the parts that give me the sense of it.
But it’s a lot of reading. I’ve done the show long enough that I feel I’ve done almost every subject once. I’ve forgotten more than I know, but I’m able to go into a subject with some background, some information that’s already up in my head that I can fall back on.
Fudge: Tom, you cover so many different subjects, are these all subjects that you’re interested in?
I think I have the inclination that most journalists have, which is a very active curiosity, and I’ve really found that just about every subject can be interesting.
There are those that are more interesting than others, and when a producer suggests a subject to me and I’m obviously not excited about it and I’m obviously saying “Why do we care about that?” that’s probably not a good subject for us to talk about. Because, whether members of the team like it or not, I’m the one who has to be there being engaged in the subject, and if I’m finding it impossible to get engaged in the subject, or just can’t see where the discussion is — can’t imagine the discussion — then it’s going to be tough to do, and it probably won’t turn out very well.
But I’m interested in just about everything — it’s just a matter of taking the subject and finding out what you can have a conversation about. Not everything is a good conversation.
Carless: Over the time you’ve been doing the show, are there a couple of people who stick out as just really difficult interview subjects?
Yes, there have been, the difficult thing is remembering who they were because I interview so many people.
There have certainly been people who have done poorly in the interview. I interviewed Garrison Keillor once and that was a little tough. I think it was maybe because I wasn’t asking the right questions, but I got the feeling that may be he didn’t consider himself to be a very interesting person, and wasn’t really very interested in talking about what he did. So that was a little bit difficult.
I do remember one woman, who was a curator at a local museum, who came in to talk about a subject that I wasn’t terribly interested in. I could tell with her that she was extremely nervous and not much of a talker, and I was scheduled to talk with her for 40 minutes. About 20 minutes in, I started sending out the help message on my computer to the producer and the technical director, saying “Get me out of here somehow.”
The good thing about that situation was we were in our fundraising campaign, so they just called in a couple of people early to do fundraising and I got off the hook. So the remaining 10 minutes I had to do with her, which probably would have been the longest 10 minutes of my life, I got out of.
Fudge: Well Tom, who are the people who you have really enjoyed interviewing?
That’s also difficult to say because I’m not very good at remembering names.
One person who I interviewed just yesterday, Brooke Gladstone, is very smart and very engaged and I had a good time talking to her.
And there’s one guy, a local author, Garry Wills. He’s written a book about why he is a Catholic, and he also wrote a biography of Ronald Reagan. He was such a memorable character. He’s a guy who is just very interesting, but also has just a beautiful voice to listen to.
That is something that really strikes me. There are some people that just have voices. It’s not even necessarily what they’re saying, but they have voices that you just want to listen to — that are just so engaging. It’s like what people used to say about Peter O’Toole, the actor: He could read the telephone book and still be enjoyable to see in a movie. There are some people I have on the radio like that — they sound so engaging and they sound so enthusiastic that you just want to listen to them.
Carless: You had a bad accident about six months ago. How are you feeling now, are you back to 100 percent?
It depends what you mean by 100 percent. I still have some nerve damage that is healing up. I still have some aches and pains and I still have a little problem with sleep because that was one thing that was affected by my brain injury. So I wouldn’t say that I’m totally back to 100 percent, but obviously I’m healthy enough to do the things in life that I need to do, I’m healthy enough to do my job.
I don’t need anyone to feel sorry for me. But I don’t know when I’m going to go back to riding a bike, I’m still skitterish about that, and I think my days of commuting to work by bike are definitely over. But eventually I’ll get back on a bike, I’m just not quite ready to do that yet.
Fudge: What has the accident taught you about the job that you do?
It has taught me that I have a very close relationship with my listeners, and a much closer relationship than I ever really thought about — a closer relationship than I really thought was possible.
I got just so many wonderful e-mails from folks after the accident. It really made me realize that when you’re on the radio, you might just be sitting in an empty room, talking into a microphone, but you really are in people’s homes. You’re in their cars with them, and they really reach that point, if they follow your show, where they really do consider themselves to have a relationship with you. Even if they don’t call in, and you don’t know their names and you never see them in the flesh.
That was a very powerful thing for me to understand, that what I’m doing sitting there at that microphone really is meaningful to other people. That was quite a revelation, and I think it taught me a lot.
Carless: A lot of radio talk shows in the United States have a very specific political bent. How do you think your show is perceived politically?
I think my show is perceived the same way most public radio is perceived politically. In other words, I think These Days is considered to be part of a liberal network, and they think that’s where we’re coming from.
Now the way we perceive ourselves is that we consider ourselves journalists. We’re trying to give everybody who has a legitimate point of view an opportunity to come in and speak and be part of the discussion and we’re trying to learn the truth.
I think that’s the highest order of journalism, just knowing what’s going on and trying to enlighten people and that’s what we’re trying to do.
Fudge: Well, Tom, if you’re trying to be a journalist, are there things that you will give your opinion on when you’re doing the show?
I would say yes, but my approach to that is to avoid giving my opinion on serious controversial issues.
I think it’s OK for me to say, if I think it’s true, that Brad Pitt is a lousy actor. Now, that may be controversial, but it’s not a serious controversial issue. It’s not like I’m saying George W. Bush is an idiot. Whether I believe that or not — and I do have opinions about that kind of thing — that’s something I would never say on the air because I think that would compromise my ability to be viewed as welcoming to all points of view.
I would not say the president’s an idiot, but I think that to try to be on the air as long as I am and never have an opinion on anything is practically impossible, and if I took that approach I think I would seem somehow less than a human being.
I try to reveal as much as I can about myself when I’m hosting These Days, without treading on that ground that is going to cause me to be viewed as biased on serious controversial issues.
Carless: So, do you really think Brad Pitt is a lousy actor?
I think Brad Pitt is a mediocre actor. I wouldn’t say he’s a lousy actor, but I think his celebrity outweighs his talent. But, you know, nobody’s been arrested for that, so I guess he’s free to do it.