The main appeal of a large university, at least for me, is that it’s essentially a hive of interesting people. From staff to students to professors of a sprawling range of disciplines, everyone seems to have their own unusual insights and obsessions.
Given the location of KCSB’s studios dead in the center of UCSB’s campus, you’d think putting two and two together—or rather, putting these fascinating voices, a couple of microphones, and a radio signal together—would be an obvious strategy, one put into action all the time. But alas, in my years at KCSB, I’ve only recently begun to hear this enormous intellectual resource exploited for broadcasting purposes. Question Air, which debuted just last spring, is the purest example yet.
“I always tell everyone that the saddest day of my academic career was when I had to declare a major,” wrote host and producer Alexander Stork in an e-mail conversation. Ultimately giving in to the university’s onerous demand to narrow down to one subject, he graduated with a degree in linguistics. “I had always hoped to take a ‘Renaissance man’ major wherein I would simply pick and choose the most interesting classes on campus. Alas, the College of Letters and Science had other ideas.”
How to spite the administration and keep on pursuing his eclectic scholarly interests? Attending a station meeting, Stork found that KCSB offered a solution. “I looked around the auditorium and realized that 90 percent of the people were planning a music show,” he wrote. “If I wanted to set myself apart (and get a better timeslot), I would have to bring something different to the table.” Formulating ideas for an interview program, he started hunting for interviewees. “I began finding professors by asking friends about their favorite classes. As I had long suspected, it was the professor that made a class interesting, not necessarily the subject matter.”
In some branches of his search, he’d simply go with his hunches: “I would wander around campus popping into various departments. I would knock on open doors and introduce myself. In the first minute, I could usually tell if the person was engaging enough to spend 45 minutes talking about their area of expertise.” These and other methods have so far yielded a wide variety of fascinating long-form interviews about science fiction, topology, geology, UCSB’s library, advanced physics, Tibetan Buddhism, even video games.
Listeners might wonder how Stork can hold his own in conversation with experts in so many fields. In some sense, their interests all coincide with his own. “I’m really interested in physics, math, and religion/spirituality,” he wrote. “I loved math up until calculus, then I stopped understanding what we were actually doing, so I pursued the humanities. There are some who understand math so well that they can give me glimpses into this beautiful realm. As for religion, I am convinced that everybody is saying the same thing about God and spirituality but with different enough vocabulary that they think they are disagreeing. I would really like to help patch up these people’s differences, since religion isn’t going anywhere.”
Though there are as many different ways to approach this kind of interview as there are interviewers, techniques tend to break down along certain lines. You can meet your subject with a list of prepared questions in hand and dutifully ask them one by one, or you can just start talking and be as surprised by the directions the talk takes as your listeners will be. It’s fairly obvious which school of interviewing makes for a more engaging listening (not to mention talking) experience. Fortunately for us, Stork is a devoted disciple of the latter.
“My ‘technique,’ if you want to call it that, is simply treating the interview like a conversation,” he wrote. “I have a few issues floating around my head that I want to address, but I make most of my questions up based on what was just discussed. This allows us to go on fun tangents if we want, and not stick to a clipboard of questions. Although sometimes a guest will finish their answer a little too quickly and I’ll have to scramble to come up with something.”
Despite having opted to produce a talk show rather than a music show, Stork also exercises his musical curation skills by working both words and songs into the final broadcast. Thematically relevant tracks usually precede and follow each conversation. My personal favorite along these lines was Stork’s hour-long sit-down with mathematics professor Daryl Cooper, which included Boards of Canada’s “Music is Math.” Stork also spends time on the internet researching small labels and artists, finding lesser-known sounds to go with his interviews. Rest assured that it’s all accompaniment, not filler.
At a place like UCSB, where you can get ahold of interesting people as if you were picking apples off an orchard full of trees, Question Air will never run out of things to talk about.
Question Air airs Thursdays from 9 to 10 a.m. on KCSB, 91.9 FM.