Is there anything harder at this historical moment than conducting a lively, informative, civilized political discussion? Respectful conversations across ideological lines have become as rare as unicorns, but when KCRW’s Left, Right & Center comes to UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Thursday, May 9, courtesy of UCSB Arts & Lectures, you can expect to get a good look at one of these elusive creatures. Leading that conversational unicorn will be New York Magazine business writer and popular radio personality Josh Barro. As host and moderator of both Left, Right & Center (LRC) and its recent spin-off, All the President’s Lawyers, Barro rides in this radio rodeo weekly. With consummate skill and diplomacy, he urges some of the brightest and most articulate commentators from across the political spectrum to actually listen to one another for an entire hour and to resist the temptation to engage in senseless conflict or hurl insults. In a setting that would leave most of us emotionally battered and intellectually broken, Barro consistently maintains not only his dignity but also his sense of humor.
When I spoke with him by phone last week, Barro said that the show changes in a couple of significant ways when the panelists take to the stage in front of a live audience. First of all, they can see one another, something that’s not always the case when the show tapes from different studios on different coasts. He also said that the action leaps up a notch because of the way that the panelists feed off the energy that the audience brings to the occasion. “I do less moderating live,” said Barro, “because the show becomes more conversational.” And on LRC, these cross-positional conversations tend to be where the most interesting sparks fly.
Those aren’t the only ways in which the show will adapt to being in Santa Barbara. Panelists Keli Goff of The Daily Beast, Jamil Smith of Rolling Stone, and Conor Friedersdorf of the Atlantic will be joined by Los Angeles Times reporter Laura J. Nelson, who will localize the show by setting out terms for a discussion of California’s transportation issues. In 2015, Nelson won a Pulitzer Prize as a member of the Times team that covered the terrorist attack in San Bernardino. Since then, she’s been immersed in all things mobile, and on Thursday, she’ll brief the LRC gang on everything from the fate of the bullet train project to the pros and cons of electric scooters. This California-centric segment reflects LRC’s intent to embrace issues that are directly relevant to the people in the places where they appear in person.
Regular fans of the show who look forward to its signature topicality have no reason to fear, however, because the panelists will unquestionably also respond to the latest breaking stories from Washington and beyond. They will cite their favorite tweets of the week, and of course no episode of LRC would be complete without the end-of-the-show tradition in which each panelist gets a minute or so to rant about something. In other words, the rhythms and rituals that make LRC so addictive will be observed. What makes LRC so special is the way that it bring the emotional impact and sheer chaos of the news into a framework that feels familiar, even while coaxing its guests to explore new ideological territory. It’s a brilliant formula that’s won thousands of listeners over from other, more strident forms of political opinion media, and it’s going to be a singular pleasure to witness it in person. (As if that’s not enough incentive to go, consider that tickets start as low as $10.)