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A quietly appealing new radio show gives books the spotlight

Wednesday, May 26 2004
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Being read to has got to be one of the prime pleasures in life. There are few things more soothing than sitting back with your eyes closed and listening to a smooth voice recite a poem, a story, or a chapter from a book. I don't remember my parents reading to me (although I'm sure they did), and I've yet to convince my husband that he should take up the charge, so in the meantime I'll have to settle for radio.

Fortunately, a new show on KALW 91.7-FM fits the bill. It's called Writer's Voice Radio, and it first broadcast on April 11. Its setup is simple: Neal Sofman, owner of A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books, introduces an author, taped during a recent reading at the store. We hear about 20 minutes of the writer's voice (get it?) and some Q&A with the audience, followed by Sofman pitching a few literary events at various shops around town. Then Sofman talks to a local bookseller, who recommends three titles. Jazzy theme music fills in the gaps. The program is short and sweet and quite likeable.

Writer's Voice Radio isn't a big deal: After all, it's just a half-hour on public radio, surrounded on either side by other lit-related shows (Selected Shorts, actors reading short stories; and Book Talk, interviews with writers), all three programs creating the station's so-called "Writer's Block." The idea of broadcasting readings isn't new, either; both the Commonwealth Club and City Arts & Lectures do it, at the very least. But this one stands out, because it's quietly good (as opposed to pat-ourselves-on-the-back, aren't-we-good, which often seems to be the M.O. of book-related endeavors in this city), it has drawn the indie bookselling community together, and it's effective. At the end of each show, I've found myself making lists of authors I want to see and books I want to buy.


Neal Sofman, it turns out, is a natural for radio. His voice is a wonderful mix of New Jersey (he grew up in Orange) and Noe Valley (where he lives now), with a pleasingly scratchy undertone and a friendly, laid-back manner that makes him sound like he's always smiling. In person, he's short and perhaps a little paunchy (and always smiling) -- not exactly TV material -- and radiates warmth and enthusiasm. Even so, he wasn't the most obvious choice as the host of WVR: He had no prior radio experience beyond store ads. But once the KALW folks had auditioned a bookstore employee, a local author, and an actor, they came back to Sofman. "Neal was into it," says Roman Mars, the show's senior producer. "And he was the best."

Mars came up with the idea for WVR after interviewing Wendy Sheanin, the events coordinator at A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books. (Full disclosure: Sheanin is a friend of mine from college.) He'd been thinking that the station should have a local version of City Arts & Lectures, the nationally syndicated series that often hosts big-name writers passing through town. Mars was taken by the lineup of writers at ACWLPB -- friend or no friend, it's the best reading series in town -- and pitched the idea to his boss at KALW, General Manager Nicole Sawaya; they brought Sheanin and Sofman in to talk. Sofman says that he told the others his "fantasy": a radio program featuring store events, with a focus on "emerging" authors.

At a launch party two weeks ago at his shop, Sofman (also the show's producer) stood on a stepstool and spoke to a large crowd about how the program came together and why. He emphasized that he and managing editor Sheanin wanted to highlight up-and-coming writers, those whom people in the Bay Area are talking about but who might not be getting the exposure they should. (Sofman pointed out that the first author, T.C. Boyle, is no up-and-comer, but that they needed a splashy launch, and he knew Boyle would shine.) Indeed, the choices thus far have been intriguing and varied -- a good mix of women and men, not all white; novelists and memoirists; locals and non-; some established and some little known.

The Boyle show set the stage for the program's enthusiastic tone. Irritatingly cocky yet profoundly entertaining, the writer didn't just read from his novel, Drop City: He performed it. He even sang at one point (surprisingly well, too). The delivery was full of energy, anger, authenticity -- and swearing. I mean, when was the last time you heard bleeped expletives on public radio? Next up was Alison Smith, author of the memoir Name All the Animals. Though her subject was ostensibly depressing (her brother's death at age 18), her reading was riveting. At one point Smith imitated a nun who told her to put aside her job and come have a little fun: "'Fuck the phones, blondie!'" (bleeped, of course). Anthony Swofford displayed a striking insightfulness as he read from his Gulf War memoir Jarhead ("The person who is me in this book is not an attractive young man; I wouldn't want to run into him on the street after leaving the bookstore tonight"). Edwidge Danticat's rhythmic, Haitian-accented voice forced me to sit in my stuffy bedroom one warm Sunday evening to enjoy a tale from her book of connected stories, The Dew Breaker. And Andrew Sean Greer, whose delivery while reading from his debut novel, The Confessions of Max Tivoli, was purposely low-key, showed off a riotously funny personality in his intro and Q&A session. Greer attended the Writer's Voice Radio launch party, too; his appearance played over the P.A. as attendees spoke in hushed tones. As Sofman points out, "Most authors are used to sitting alone in front of a blank page," which is a "very different talent" than reading to a crowd, yet these authors pulled off the live act with style.

WVR seems, to me, an improvement on other bookish radio shows. It's quicker (only half an hour, as compared to two hours) than West Coast Live, also on KALW (and supported by the Booksmith, one of the supporters of WVR). West Coast Live usually doesn't focus on writers, and though I've tried and tried, I just don't find it exciting (then again, I haven't yet managed to see it live). Writer's Voice Radio is more local than the nationally syndicated broadcasts of City Arts & Lectures on KQED, even though those happen here at the Herbst. The "Good Lit at the Geary" series -- a co-production of the Commonwealth Club, Books Inc., and ACT -- is only an occasional part of the Commonwealth's broadcasts on KQED, and it's an interview. WVR is nowhere near as excruciating as Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac (my husband and I race to see who can turn it off faster). Selected Shorts, which comes on just before WVR (and also runs on KQED), can be riveting, but it's not Bay Area-focused, and it's not about books; Book Talk, the program right after, can be pretty deadly -- an interview, a few reviews, and zzzzzzz.

Though all the show's readings take place at A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books, the bookseller recommendations come from stores around the Bay Area. Sofman has hosted the co-owner/book buyer of Readers' Books in Sonoma, the owner of "M" is for Mystery in San Mateo, a bookseller at the Booksmith on Haight, the events coordinator from Oakland's Diesel, A Bookstore, and the buyer at City Lights (plus one of his own employees, the most boring of the bunch). It's obvious in these personal, intimate interchanges that Sofman knows and respects his colleagues and their stores, a detail also represented in the fact that 26 local indies and one chain (Books, Inc.) participate in the program. Sofman says it's not a policy to exclude the larger chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders: "It's really almost an automatic thing," he explains. "They're interested in different things than we are."

I do wish Writer's Voice Radio were on earlier in the weekend, so that I could take my lists to the store and buy the recommended books right away. The time (Sunday at 6 p.m.) seems a little like a ghetto, "Writer's Block" notwithstanding. I am grateful, however, that all the suggestions are listed on the program's Web site (www.writersvoiceradio.com): I once caught the show while driving and nearly ran another car off the road as I tried to write down titles. The experience was less than soothing.

About The Author

Karen Zuercher

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