December 23, 1999
Mantle’s Home Run
Spin the radio dial in any direction and most of what you come up with is just plain junk. One clear exception is Larry Mantle's "Airtalk," weekdays on public radio station KPCC. The show deals in a serious, accessible way with local issues, arts, culture high and low, even -- gasp -- ideas.
From the station's new studio on the campus of Pasadena City College, producers Ilsa Setziol and Jackie Oclaray line up topics and guests for the program, then turn their legwork and research over to the show's host. Mantle is in many ways ill-suited to be a radio talk show host in the nineties. He thinks before he speaks. He reads the books his guests have written. He grinds no political ax, and is careful to air opposing views. He asks startlingly perceptive questions.
The handful of other fine local radio interview shows -- Michael Jackson on KRLA, Warren Olney and Michael Silverblatt on KCRW -- don't have the breadth of Mantle's subject matter. One segment might explore early Christianity; the next looks at a school bond issue; the last dissects a controversial film. The range is staggering, and listeners might come away knowing more about Los Angeles River politics than they could have imagined, and be gladder for it.
One reason is the Mantle Moment. It seems to happen in every "Airtalk" interview when a guest -- who undoubtedly thinks of the show as yet another in an unending chain of promo gigs -- is stunned into silence by one of the host's questions. The listener hears that moment as a distinct pause, like a four-count rest note. Mantle knows when it happens too -- he says he can see it in his interviewees' eyes. "I can see them thinking," says Mantle during an interview with the Journal in his book-cluttered office. "I can see the wheels churning." When Tony Hiss, the son of Alger, sat down for a chat about his book defending his late father against an espionage conviction, Mantle unloaded one on him: "Are you psychologically able to admit your father's guilt if someone presented you with proof of it?" Dead silence. "No one had ever asked him that," said Mantle.
In sheer numbers, Airtalk's audience may seem unimpressive. About 25,000 listeners will tune into the program over its three-hour period. That works out to about one-third the audience of large commercial stations in town. But as Mantle unapologetically notes, "It's quality, not quantity." An awful lot of listeners who call in with comments and questions seem bright and articulate. Mantle suspects his audience, like that of many urban public radio stations, is disproportionately Jewish. "I think Jewish children grow up talking about issues," he said.
And he should know. Mantle grew up in Hollywood, the product of deep L.A. roots. His grandfather, Arnold Hubka, was an LAPD detective in the Hollywood division during the L.A. Confidential era. At Hollywood High, Mantle says he hung out with the Jewish kids. "They were talking about the kind of things that seemed important," he recalled. "If you didn't know what was happening in the world, then shame on you."
He attended Fuller Seminary to become a Prebsbyterian minister, but dropped out to follow his passion for radio. At KPCC, in 1985, he proposed the then-novel idea of a local public radio, general interest call-in show. "Why would you forego time with a scholar to put on Joe Average?" a station official challenged him. "Because," Mantle replied, "Our audience is not Joe Average."
The show has grown from a half hour to its current three. With Minnesota Public Radio expected to complete its major investment in the station by July 2000, Airtalk could have the extended resources of a 10-person local news team. That would put the gentle, unassuming Mantle, who is also the station's news director, at the reins of one of L.A.'s top broadcast news sources. Mantle, who is 40 and lives in Pasadena with his wife Kristen, a speech pathologist, keeps his eye on "Airtalk" and stories that elude more mainstream, Hollywood-oriented media. "The Westside entertainment face of L.A., that image has usurped the entirety of the region," says Mantle. " There's such a bigger, more complicated region, and I want to do right by it."
Larry Mantle's "Airtalk" airs on 89.3 FM KPCC weeknights from 4-7 pm. Author and lawyer Jonathan Kirsh, one of the Journal's attorney's, co-hosts the Book Talk section of "Airtalk" on Mondays at 6 pm; and entertainment attorney and Journal columnist Brad Pomerance co-hosts an entertainment industry segment at 6 pm on Tuesdays.