Something strange is coming to the airwaves in early 2021. KQED radio’s weekday news show “Forum” will begin as usual the morning of Feb. 16, but Michael Krasny won’t be at the mic asking his typically incisive questions in that calm, measured voice.
The day before will be his final show. After more than four decades on the air, Krasny is retiring.
It’s been quite a run. Krasny began on “Forum” in 1993 after on-air stints first at a Marin rock station and then at KGO 810 AM. But his radio work, which brought him national renown, is only one aspect of his career. For nearly 50 years, Krasny was a professor of American literature at San Francisco State University.
On top of all that, he’s also an accomplished author, and he has been a local Jewish community fixture, not only raising hot-button issues on “Forum” (Israel was a frequent subject of discussion), but also moderating countless panel discussions at JCCs and other venues.
“It was really time to pass the torch,” Krasny told J. “My wife is retired, I’m retired from teaching, I have a grandchild, and there’s a book I’ve been trying to finish. I’m 76; not a little kid. There’s a reckoning that comes being on the dark side of 70.”
Since the onset of the coronavirus, Krasny has been hosting “Forum” from home, and the second hour has been hosted by Mina Kim for a while.
Yet he hasn’t let the challenges of the pandemic impede the mission of the show.
“When I started out, I expanded what was essentially a local public policy program to take on state, national and global issues, and arts coverage,” he said. “The idea was you turn on ‘Forum’ and you never know what we’ll be talking about, but it will always be a high level of discourse.”
When asked to name his all-time favorite interviewees, he tends to skip over world leaders, scientists and policymakers, and go right for the writers. As a scholar of literature, he relishes his past conversations with Saul Bellow, Toni Morrison, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, John Updike and Isaac Bashevis Singer. When Krasny asked Singer whether he believed in free will, the late Nobel Prize–winning Yiddish author responded, “I have no choice.”
It was really time to pass the torch … There’s a reckoning that comes being on the dark side of 70.
Though authors on book tours are accustomed to putting up with under-informed interviewers, with Krasny, they met their match. He remembers one in-depth conversation with the Canadian Jewish novelist Mordecai Richler.
“He realized I’d read not just the major works but all of his works, including books that had gone out of print,” Krasny recalled. “He was dazed and baffled by this. When you have a background like I have, I bring more to the table.”
That background includes a Jewish upbringing in Cleveland. After considering the rabbinate as a career path, Krasny followed his love of literature to a master’s degree from Ohio University and a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin.
Once settling in the Bay Area (he’s a longtime resident of Marin County) and establishing both his teaching and broadcasting careers, Krasny barely looked back.
“He is a renaissance man par excellence,” said Krasny’s fellow Jewish radio host, John Rothmann, who met Krasny when the two worked at KGO. “His interviews are among the best one can hear when it comes to radio. He is a natural-born teacher, and he’s always been right there for the Jewish community.”
He did look back at least twice, so to speak, in two autobiographies, “Off-Mike,” a 2007 memoir of his radio career, and “Spiritual Envy,” a 2010 examination of his emerging agnosticism. His third book, “Let There be Laughter” from 2016, explores Jewish humor and its origins, packing more jokes into 300 pages than could fit into Henny Youngman’s suitcase.
Besides his literary chops coming in handy, Krasny’s knowledge of Jewish culture similarly added heft to interviews.
When it came to Israel, for example, Krasny strove to give his audience a balanced view. His guests have included Israeli prime ministers (such as Ehud Barak) and hardline Palestinians (such as the late George Habash, a leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine).
“To some extent I let [both sides] battle it out,” he said, “and I was the traffic director. I’d come off the program and realize each got equal time. The narratives are so polarized, I would come off these shows and hear I was a Zionist stooge and a Palestinian puppet.”
No matter who the guest, Krasny invariably was ready for them, thanks to the seemingly encyclopedic knowledge he displayed on the show, whatever the topic.
As he looks ahead to his final shows, he seems content with how he handled “Forum” day in and day out.
“I just think of it as being well-prepared and listening well,” Krasny said. “I have a curious mind that has always been drawn to learning, like a black hole and just absorbing.”