By Dave Barton
By LP Hastings
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Courtesy KPCCFull disclosure: I don't listen regularly to Larry Mantle, even though I appear on his two-hour radio program, AirTalkwithLarryMantle,every other Thursday on KPCC-FM 89.3 at 10:30 a.m. It's not Larry's fault: whenever I'm on hold, crafting my final bon mots before clashing with fellow commentators OrangeCountyRegisteropinions page editor Chris Reed and LosAngelesTimesOrange County reporter Jean Pasco, I hear Larry's articulate needling of some venal politician or other and think, "Geez, I should listen to AirTalksometime when it doesn't involve me." But I can't: 10 a.m.-11 a.m. is devoted to Howard Stern farting through the day's news, while I usually spend the second half of AirTalkreading Daily Rotten.
Don't make the mistake I do. AirTalkis a Southern California radio institution, one of the few true salons in a medium long ago ceded to bloviating douches and quebraditamusic. "If the only energy you want to expend when you listen to the radio is the effort of switching it on, Larry Mantle's AirTalkis not your program," writes LosAngelesTimescolumnist Patt Morrison in the intro to ThisIsAirTalk:20YearsofConversationson89.3KPCC.And it's true: as this compilation of interviews shows, Mantle is someone who researches his guests like a Fulbright scholar, who knows how to finagle beautiful, insightful nuggets from even the most recalcitrant soul, an on-air magus who could ask the actor/actress Divine, "Multiple Maniacs,that's the film where your character was raped by a lobster, right?" with a straight face and still keep his dignity.
ThisIsAirTalkbegins with Mantle recalling his youth, one where discussions ranging from local politics to the virtues of teenage masturbation were typical dinner-hour talk and where Mantle played the devil's advocate conservative in junior high debates just for the sake of learning the other side. Mantle's intro is brief and characteristically unassuming, but you get from his words that this is an intellect, someone who is equally at ease questioning Orange County's broken pension system and allowing Milton Berle to throw quips at the rate of five a minute. "I'm an expert at nothing, but interested in everything," Mantle confesses in Socratic fashion.
From here, Mantle turns over ThisIsAirTalkto his career, sharing 21 of his favorite episodes, ranging from the time Jimmy Carter argued that modern-day society is even more segregated than the Jim Crow days of his youth in rural Georgia, to a howler with the aforementioned Divine, to Caroll Spinney, the man who brings Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch to life. By reading instead of listening, you value Mantle's seemingly effortless AirTalkbroadcasts even more for his ability to guide conversations toward bigger and stranger recollections. For instance, on AirTalk'sJan. 15, 2003, broadcast, Mantle asked former heavyweight boxing champion George Foreman about his transformation from a Houston street ruffian to surly boxing champ to a "teddy bear." After Foreman shared a harrowing teenage anecdote—of covering himself in sewage to mask his scent from police dogs—Mantle quickly lightened the mood with the following: "Which seems odder to you as you look back on the development of your life, that you would end up as the two-time heavyweight champion of the world, or you'd end up becoming a beloved icon selling a grill?"
The only drawback to ThisIsAirTalkis really a quibble—nearly all the interviews are with cultural icons and don't include any of Mantle's excellent panel discussions. Perhaps a second edition will include these and share a fuller appreciation of Mantle, who takes as much interest in talking to a bunch of wonky Orange County journalists as he would in a conversation with God.