September 2, 2012

The Windhook Interview—Guy Rathbun

Guy Rathbun studio shot

Recently we sat down with Guy Rathbun in his studio in Santa Margarita, California, to talk about his amazing 40 year career in public radio, and the newest twists and turns in his creative path. We won't get too deep into the details here because Guy will tell the story momentarily, but he is a remarkable radio producer, host, and interviewer. If you are a Central Coast resident, odds are that you have heard his golden voice on the air. If not, there are numerous references and links embedded in the text below. And be sure to take note of the conversation near the end of the interview about a new project that Guy is launching with us. We're pretty sure you won't want to miss what he's got cooking starting about a week from now.

Michael: Let's start out by getting to know you. We'd like you to tell us a little bit about your background. Your childhood, your history, where you came from.

Guy: I was raised at Edwards Air Force Base. Born in Sacramento, so a Californian all the way. My dad was in charge of Civil Service at Edwards in the later years, but he was transferred there as a line man working to set up the entire communications system between the rocket site and Edwards.

Me being the dense young fellow I was, I didn't realize how steeped I was in history. I wish I had been more aware of what was around me, but I wasn't. The people we met on a regular basis, the adults, were just people to me. But they included Colonel Yeager, astronaut Ed White, and Gus Grissom or "Hot Shot" as they called him.

There was a stretch of road at Edwards named Fitzgerald Boulevard that ran about 4 miles. Most of it was down this sloping desert floor toward the south base. You could hear at the top that Hot Shot was on his way. He had a 1959 red and white Ford Galaxy—souped up, and I think it had glass packs because it was too new a car in '61 or '62 to have rusted mufflers. And things didn't rust there anyway. So he would hit the top of Fitzgerald Drive, and by the time he passed our street on 8th, his car would be going a hundred miles an hour or more. The kids playing in the yards all knew. "Oh, there goes Hot Shot." We hadn't even seen him yet, and pretty soon this red and white would just flash by. It was terrific.

We were raised in the desert, it was hot, dust blowing all the time. And to get to the pool we had to walk a mile and a half in the heat, across the desert, which was always kind of enjoyable because by the time we got to the pool we needed it. And on the way back, there was this little Foster Freeze, and we would go in and have a banana split or something like that, and it would just be the topper of the day.

Peggy: What age were you when you were living at Edwards.

Guy: Seven years old when I moved there, and I graduated high school there.

Peggy: Quite the playground.

Guy: Quite the playground! And the reason it lasted so long was that dad loved his job. I loved going out with him. I would frequently crawl all over the M&M hanger, which was the largest one in existence at that time. Huge! And he would crawl around in the rafters and on the roof, and I would get to crawl in these little areas and look down forever. Here would be this large aircraft and it would look about that big. [measures the aircraft between his fingers.]

Michael: You had a kind of a unique experience in that your dad was a civilian, so he wasn't moved every couple of years like the military people were.

Guy: Yeah. That was good and bad, because I would lose friends. Eddy Gomez, my best buddy in grade school. He was transferred to the Azores, and we stayed in touch for a little while. Then it petered out. No contact. I've lost all contact with him. But that was an ongoing thing. I would see somebody transferred and it would happen in short order. They would come into the school, and a year later, or even sooner, they would be gone. Their dads or moms would be transferred. I can't think of one close friend I had that was Civil Service. They were all Air Force.

Michael: So it was like being a military brat that doesn't get to settle in anywhere, even though you were in the same place.

Guy: Right. I can think of only one family that was there for years and years, and understandably—Chuck Yeager. He had two sons. One was a year younger and the other was older, and I saw them through grade school and high school. I never put it together, "Oh, I see, your dad is a national hero, so therefore he isn't transferred."

Peggy: You probably had no idea of the uniqueness of your experience. There was no way you could know.

Guy: No, I really didn't!

I was into a lot of things. Bees, got stung too often, developed an allergy. My doctor told my parents, "Don't let him get stung one more time." Did that stop me? I loved bees. I had to get my nose down in there with these beautiful creatures. To me they were gorgeous. I couldn't stop.

Michael: Well this one is very interesting to us because I'm a beekeeper. In fact before we started recording we were talking about an encounter that I just had. But I had no idea that you had a connection to the bees.

Guy: I did! And it's still there. If I see a bee, I can't just walk by. I love the movement of its body, the way it's moving around, the mandibles, the proboscis going down into the flower, all of that is just to me one of the most beautiful creatures on earth. And why I never became a beekeeper myself is the stumper. I don't know. And I love honey!

Peggy: We know you're a voracious reader, and we know about your affinity for radio. Do you have inklings of all that looking back at your childhood?

Guy: Oh, yes. I know when it took over. I can tell you two authors that sent me on the path to reading. I read a couple of adult books, and by that I mean mature. They were my mother's books. There was information in there that I didn't understand, but it was toned down. The Foxes of Harrow by Frank Yerby was the first. It was made into a movie with Rex Harrison, which I was old enough to see later on. But when I was a kid I saw my mother reading this book, so when she wasn't looking I pulled it out of the book case and went to my room and I thought, "This must be the adult world—secret world." Well, I was hooked. I thought, "Huh! That junk I was reading over there, with the exception of The Wizard of Oz , that's throw away stuff!" So I finished that book, and my mother never knew that I read it.

Then I saw her reading Frank Slaughter. It was a book about a pirate ship. I was gone at that point. It's interesting. There's one scene in that book. It's a gory scene, but I can still remember reading that page, and not believing what I was reading. It was unreal! You'd never see it in some movie back then, because it wasn't going to be that detailed. And frighteningly so. Not good for a kid to be reading, but did it bother me?

So I went to the library. I was probably in third or fourth grade, and we didn't really have an elementary school library, so I went into the junior high library. I remember how I was so stunned. So many books in the world! There must have been 250 of them right there! I started checking out books, and the first thing I went to was biographies of baseball players. That was my first excursion. They must have had eight or nine in that little library, and I read every one of them.

Michael: I knew we were going to get to baseball at some point.

Guy: Oh, we had to! My third non-youth oriented book was the The Lou Gehrig Story , and it just kept going from there.

Michael: When did you get turned on to radio? Did you listen to a lot of radio?

Guy: I was an avid radio listener, and I was somewhat of a statistician. I couldn't just listen to radio. Whether I liked it or not, I had to write down names of composers, the name of the performer, the recording label. In the early days I wrote down the names of these obscure labels, and they sounded exotic. Oriole Records, and things like that. Then I got used to when certain stations would list their top ten. So I knew to tune in Thursday night for KFWB and Friday night for KRLA. I would tune in and I would write down the songs as they were played in the top 30 or top 40. Then I would predict which songs were going to make it to number one or be in the top ten. Below the list of 30 I would put down my favorites and why they were, and then I would follow them up the charts.

It caused a breakup with a girl once, because I said Stranger on the Shore was going to be number one, and she said, "It's going to be Shirelles, Soldier Boy. And I said, "No Way!" And darned if Stranger on the Shore didn't make it to number one. It was there for four weeks. What do you think number two was? Soldier Boy.

So when I was sixteen I had several years of this, and now I was introduced to jazz. So I had a pretty good background in music, and I was at a friend's house in Mina, Arkansas, where I was visiting family. The radio station, KENA had a contest going on. 
This friend of my cousins, whom I was now visiting—we became close friends, and I'm still in touch with him. Joe Gore. A wonderful fellow. But he got me into trouble. We were building a soapbox car for a race he wanted to run. We were hammering away, putting this thing together, and the radio was on KENA, and the announcer came on and said, "It's 'Name That Tune!' Be the guest disk jockey at KENA!" They came on with a song, and I said the name of the song, the artist performing the song, and the year it came out. Joe said, "Well call and tell them!" I said, "no, no!" and Joe kept pressing. Then the announcer came on and said, "It's not been answered yet, and we just need the name of the song and when it came out." Joe asked me, "Well, what's the name of this thing?" So I told him the information. Well, he went to the phone and dialed. He tried to hand me the phone. He ended up answering the question under my name. So I reluctantly went to the radio station, where I was the guest disk jockey in the middle of the day.

Michael: Wow!

Guy: Yeah, it's not bad for a sixteen year old kid. Kind of fun. But interestingly it wasn't being the guest disk jockey spinning disks of my choice that really grabbed me. It was the fellow sitting on the other side of the glass, with a pencil behind his ear, and every once in a while he would pull out the pencil and write things down, and he would be on the phone, and this was ongoing, and he would record a couple of things, and I couldn't hear him. And then at the top of the hour, I was told that at the point when this commercial was over, I have to point to him. So I did. And there he was with this beautiful mellifluous delivery, and I knew. That's what I wanted to do! So that was my introduction.

And that's what I pursued. I became a reporter many years ago.

Michael: And you've been at this for how long now?

Guy: My first intern position was 1972. So say 40 years, but realistically, it's been 38 years, because I didn't get a full time job for two years. I worked part time at KATY on and off. If they needed a fill in I would be there at 8 o'clock at night.

Peggy: Where was that?

Guy: KATY in San Luis Obispo. It's no longer there. I put two AM radio stations out of business. [laughter] I shouldn't say it that way. I went to work for them and they lost their license.

Peggy: Oh dear!

Guy: Then I became a news director at KBAI. Their home base was in Morro Bay, but they had the best signal in the county. And they lost it too. It was too bad.

Peggy: So those were music...

Guy: Music oriented stations. KATY was "adult listening." It was really cross-spectrum. It was softer, and it was more adult music. So you would hear people like Frank Sinatra.

KBAI was what was called Spectrum 3. I don't think the term is even used now. They had Spectrum 1, 2, and 3 for 35 to 55 year olds. So it's not quite the mature audience of KATY, but it's an older audience. They weren't really aiming at the kids. So they played harder rock, classic stuff. And they had a rotation in the play list. I think it was that five or six songs every hour had to be brand new. So there was a real strong mix of current and classic.

Michael: How did you end up in San Luis Obispo County?

Guy Rathbun coastguard

Guy:  In December, 1964 I completed my 12-week basic training in the Coast Guard at Alameda. My first assignment happened to be on the 95 foot search and rescue cutter Cape Guy Rathbun coastguard Porpoise stationed in Morro Bay. I was there for 2 years before being transferred to Yerba Buena Island where I worked Bay Area rescues aboard the 82 and 44 footers. A rewarding experience. When I was released in 1968, I returned to Morro Bay where I later attended Cuesta and Poly.

Peggy: How were you introduced to jazz?

Guy: Oh yeah. I was thirteen, and I was listening to KFWB late one night. Back then they would shift their format after 9 o'clock. They would play eclectic pop music. It could be pop but not rock.

One night, I was listening very late at night, and this song came on, and I was totally fascinated. The instrumentation was completely off what I'd ever heard. When it was over, I went in to my mother and I said, " Wow, I just heard the coolest thing." It was Ted Weems and his Orchestra. She said, "Oh, that's jazz."

So it didn't take me long to get down to the local music store and say, "I want some jazz." Well, the guy looked at me and said, "What kind of jazz?" What kind of question is that? If I'd walked in and said, "I want rock." would he have said, "What kind of rock?" No! I didn't know. He said, "how 'bout some Cool Jazz?" I didn't know what that was, but if it was cool, it must be good. So he handed me the record, and I paid him the dollar twenty or whatever it was, and I went home and put it on. Then I put it back in its wrapper, and went down to the store and said, "This isn't jazz!" He said, "Young man! Dizzy Gillespie is jazz!"

Peggy: Oh my! That's very different from Ted Weems!

Guy: Exactly! So I hummed a few bars, and I said it was Ted Weems and His Orchestra. He said that wasn't really jazz. I wanted something close so he dug up Red Nichols and his Five Pennies. So I thought, "Cool!" I don't know if I said it that way. That's more modern.

Michael: You probably thought, "Neat!"

Guy: Anyhow I took that record home and I thought, "Now this is more like it! This is it." Next thing you know, I was swimming in jazz. Every record I could get. I lost friends over that too. I would drag them home and say, "Yeah, that's great, but listen to this!" [Pause] "You're not coming back?" It was just not what you were supposed to listen to when your friends are around. It took me a while to figure that out.

Peggy: Did you ever come back to Dizzy Gillespie?

Guy: Oh, yes! I have him in my collection, probably two dozen Gillespie LPs. And several 78s. I have a fairly vast modern jazz collection. Fairly large. I gave away a lot over the years, since I'm not playing it. And the other day, this fellow I know at the coffee house said, "Do you have Dave Brubeck's performance at blah, blah, blah?" and I said, "I think I do." So he said, "I'd love it if you'd run off a copy for me." So I just took over the LP and said, "It's yours." That's how I lose records.

Michael: How long have you been doing Club McKenzie?

Guy: 37 years as of July of this year.

Michael: So from the very beginning of your radio career.

Guy: Yeah, I was so new. I was a rookie. In radio it takes a while to "build your chops", as they call it. And I have to admit that I was very awkward for the first two or three years, or even longer. Partly because I wasn't getting enough practice. Being at home practicing wasn't the same as being on the air. So all that practice I was putting in, I never had it in a real life situation. When I got on the air doing Club McKenzie, I finally got time to practice every week. It took probably 5 years from the time I started to feel like I'd reached a new plateau.

Michael: The radio strikes me as being a very odd and unique performance medium. You are talking to the whole world in a private room by yourself.

Guy: They say a lot of announcers are very shy. And I have to admit that I know a lot of announcers in radio who don't really like to be out in public. I find that I have a dual personality in that respect, because I don't have trouble. I can get out in public, but I'm very private. Being a reader, and in radio, that says introvert. But I feel like I have extended from that, because what I do is talk about real world events, interview people who are doing things in extraordinary fashion, whatever it might be. So I feel like I'm getting out there anyway. And I don't have trouble being extroverted if I need to. But my natural inclination is to go behind the microphone. I prefer that. I don't like a lot of attention. I'm OK if I'm not recognized. So I didn't get into radio to be a star or a celebrity. Odd or not.

Michael: Well. I don't know if odd was the right word for me to use, but it is unique, in that it is both very public and very private or very isolated at the same time.

Guy: Very isolated. How much time do I spend alone in the studio now? One of the beauties of public radio, especially at a public radio station, is that the local audience comes in and is a part of the process. Public radio is what it is because of the audience, not because of the advertisers. So that communication level is so important in getting to know people over the years. To me that was 75% of the reason I was in the business. And yet, I was in radio, so I was behind the microphone. Being able to converse in person with the very people I was talking to on the radio put images in my mind of who I was talking to. So I went there. OK, Charles, I'm talking to you today.

Michael: I don't think I would have been particularly aware of this phenomenon if I hadn't recently had that interview with Dave Congalton about the Phantom Show. I'm sitting in his studio, and I've got the microphone in front of me, and he's got his microphone in front of him, and I am aware that as we are speaking in this tiny sound proof room, it is actually going on the airwaves live, and that people whom I can't see and will never meet are hearing what we are saying. But it was very natural and easy. I didn't have to think about them.

Guy: Yeah!

Michael: I could just talk to him directly. It was a very unusual experience for me.

Guy: I know exactly what you are talking about. A lot of radio announcers are also uncomfortable being public speakers. It's not the same thing at all. And a lot of people who are public speakers are uncomfortable in the radio environment because they can't see their audience.

Peggy: And yet you have a very loyal following, and a seemingly large following for Club McKenzie. How did that develop over the years.

Guy: I don't know. I didn't expect it to do as well as it did when I first started. It was just fun. It was goofy fun. When I first started it was a 10 watt radio station at the corner of Higuerra and Chorro Streets, in what was called the Whitaker Building.

After a year and a half there, it moved to upstairs from Johnson's Baby Apparel at the corner of Monterey and Chorro, just a block away. It was a fun experience in itself, moving that station over night. Shutting it down at midnight and moving all the equipment so we could be back on the air at 6 o'clock in the morning. That was fun.

But the audience initially was so small for the radio station in general, that it gave me a chance to build an idea of where the show was going and what I should be doing with it. It was kind of like having focus groups because I'd get feedback during pledge drives and things like that. So I could settle into what felt like the right mode. I wanted to present as much music as possible, but I also wanted to be informative without being didactic.

It's interesting to me that it has that following, because the music in general doesn't.

Peggy: You've educated so many listeners. It's a genre that most people wouldn't come across.

Guy: That's very true. I had a friend years ago, who said, "You know, you could improve your audience numbers, by playing just Louie Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton..." and he named off maybe a half a dozen. And I said, "Oh! McDonald's of the air! I get it!" And he said, "No, no! You're just playing the best of the best." And I said, "No you're not! You're giving people what people think they want, just like McDonald's. You don't want to break from the mold of the menu. I'm not going to do that."

Here's a good example. I did a show two weeks ago on Clarence Williams in his washboard days. Now that's really obscure. Not so obscure that it was Clarence Williams, because he was such a wonderful composer and pianist, and he was known for his years with Louie Armstrong and Sidney Bechet. But not many people knew him in the washboard days. So I played that and I got really good feedback. It was so off-beat. Where's somebody going to hear that otherwise.

Michael: I have a couple of different comments about what you've just said. The first one is about the McDonald's reference. This is a favorite topic of ours. Artists of all kinds struggle with the question of how do I sell my work. Do I make my work to sell, or do I make it to my vision? You are wrestling with the exact same question.

Guy: Right.

Michael: And I forgot what the other thing was. [Laughter] So never mind.

Guy: Maybe it was something about the obscurity.

Michael: Oh, yes, that's it! The shows I've listened to, I've been very impressed with the depth of knowledge you have about the musicians, and the music, and the history of the genre. And you bring that out in between songs and you just pepper the show with those things. It's a little like listening to radio announcers for baseball.

Guy: Oh, the color!

Michael: You add the color commentary. Maybe we're about to shift into the baseball conversation now, but to me, one of the most valuable things about listening to baseball on the radio is not that they tell you who got what hits and who stole what base, and who threw what pitches. That's important to the game, but what's really useful about radio that you don't get nearly as much on TV, and you don't get at all when you go sit at a game, is the story of baseball.

Guy: And one of the people who can really tell that story is Vin Scully.

Michael: Yes, that's right.

Guy: He's amazing at telling those stories.

Michael: One time you told us a story about a baseball. I want to hear that story again.

Guy: The signature.

Michael: Yes.

Guy: Unfortunately, my mother had need of surgery for gall stones. She went to Los Angeles for the operation. And when she came back, my world changed, oddly enough. I had become a baseball fan in my youth. There was a local radio station in Sacramento when I was small, and they broadcast the games for the Sacramento Solons. But when they concluded their games, the follow on was sometimes the rebroadcast of the Brooklyn Dodgers. So I became a Brooklyn Dodgers fan probably when I was six years old. And then, coupled with that, hearing the name Johnny Podres bandied about in the early 1950s, when he became a Dodger, well! The Solons and the Dodgers were practically the same thing. It didn't hurt that my mother was a big Brooklyn Dodger fan. 

Anyhow, she comes back from surgery, and she says, "Oh, you'll be interested to know that I met someone in the hospital. I shared the room with her, and she happens to be the nurse receptionist for the Los Angeles Dodgers doctor."

So I thought, "Oh really! What's that supposed to mean?" She just said, "You'll be hearing from Zelda."

It turned out that Zelda had been with this doctor for quite a number of years. And back then, each team didn't have a team doctor that traveled with the team and was exclusively their doctor. So when a traveling team came into town and they had a hang nail or whatever it might be, they went to see whatever doctor was on the payroll of the local team. LA Dodgers in this case. So I got a letter from Zelda, and she said, "Hi, I'm looking forward to meeting you someday, and by the way, enclosed are some signatures you might be interested in."

So I opened it up, and here, on the doctor's prescription pad, are these signatures. "Hope you're doing great"—Willie Mays. Warren Spahn. All these names are flying back at me, and I thought,"Oh, my Gosh!" I was about 14 or 15 then. Well, I got a regular letter from Zelda. And we did go down to see her a couple of times. She lived around Silver Lake. She was to me, beyond real, because she had these contacts.

So shortly after my 16th birthday, my parents announced that for my birthday, we were going to go see the Los Angeles Dodgers. Well, that's cool, I've been there a few times. This is going to be fun. Nice birthday. "And we're going to have box seats." Really! I'd never sat in boxed seats! They explained that Zelda's doctor was going to give us the box seats for the day, and Zelda might be there. Well, she wasn't, at least not until the later innings anyway.

Anyhow, we were sitting there, and the Dodgers had their batting practice, and the opposition team had their batting practice, and then just as the Dodgers got back into their dugout, I got a tap on the shoulder. It was the usher. Backing up a bit, my mother had handed me a new baseball and said that Zelda wanted me to have it. Well, this was nice. Then I got the tap on the shoulder and the usher said I was supposed to follow him. "Well, go with him!" I didn't know what the problem was. What had I done? Talked too loud at the ballgame? We weren't six rows from the dugout. We were close enough. But he walks that way. And he gets up to this little gate. And there was a uniformed officer. It was a stadium officer standing next to the gate. He unlocked it from the other side, and let us through. I'm standing there. This is weird. The usher said, "Go down there in the dugout and take this pen with you."

I went down in the dugout and here were these heroes. These were larger than life heros. So I'm handing off the ball, and the pen, and I couldn't say anything. I was so dumbstruck. Maury Wills signs it and then Walter Alston gets this big smile and he signs it, and it's just going down the bench. Some of them acknowledge me with a nod, and some just sign the ball and move on. But I could still see their expressions as they took the ball.

Now I don't know if I told you this story. They were playing the Saint Louis Cardinals that day. The dodgers had recently picked up these brothers, Norm and Larry Sherry. And I believe it was Larry Sherry, who had been, up until the last three weeks, a Saint Louis Cardinal. All the batting practice had finished up, and Alex Grammas of the Saint Louis Cardinals, came into the dugout at the other end to talk to his friend, Larry Sherry. And the ball was going around. And Larry takes it and he signs it and he hands it to Alex Grammas. And I standing there thinking, "DON'T CONTAMINATE THAT BALL!!! PUT IT DOWN!" Well, he didn't. Not only did he sign it, but he had his own pen! [inarticulate sounds of disgust as he acts out Grammas defiling the ball] Alex Grammas!

It went on around, and Leo Durocher, and Sandy Koufax, and Don Drysdale and PeeWee Reese, and all these names! Johnny Podres...! I never got over Alex Grammas, and I wanted to write to him. But I got the ball back, and it's gorgeous! And here is Alex Grammas, and it's dark. You know, he did use a darker ink. So I went back and my mother was kidding me about it. "You should have kicked him!"

I carried the ball around with me for weeks. Took it to school. And then one day the dad of my best friend said, "You know, you should keep that in plastic or something." And I looked at it and yeah, it wasn't so white any more. So I put it in plastic about 50 years ago. I really need one of those stands.

Michael: I think you said something about that rogue signature turning out to be significant.

Guy: Very significant. I didn't know this. Someone can pin down the game. They can look at the ball and say, "Oh, that was July 24th, 25th, or 26th of 1962. [Those are the dates of the only series between the Dodgers and Cardinals when both Sherry brothers were Dodgers and Alex Gammas was a Cardinal.]

Michael: Ok. I was going to ask you when it was.

Guy: I know I could sell the ball and do very well. Signatures too. I understand they are even more valuable on the doctor's form with his name on it. I haven't pulled those papers out in years.

Peggy: What's a Solon?

Guy: The Pacific Coast League was sort of what you would call triple A now. It was the level just before you turned pro. And a lot of people didn't want to go to the big leagues. They made pretty good money, and they didn't have to do a lot of traveling. Sacramento had the Solons, and...

Peggy: But what's the word? Solon?

Guy: Oh! I'll have to look that up. I looked it up years ago. [ Here is the answer, under the heading "Nickname"]

I grew up with the Sacramento Solons. They were just there. A small intimate little baseball park with bleachers in the outfield. It was great.

Michael: In the early days of your radio time, did you mostly do music then? When did you start to do programs that were conversations with interesting people.

Guy: I actually started as an interviewer and host. I had gone to Cal Poly and studied journalism, rather than broadcasting. So my first work in radio mostly was interning, where I would go out and get stories and I learned proper microphone use, and eventually I got to write copy for announcers, and eventually I worked my way into announcing. But it took a long time. There weren't that many stations in town, and there were a lot of people who wanted jobs in radio, unlike today. So when I finally did get an offer, it was, "We want you to be a reporter, but we need you to fill in as a disk jockey too." Which I never really had an interest in doing. So I was working 24 hours a week. That was KBAI. Then KCBX went on the air and immediately said I have these records, and I'll record them for you if you want to play them. They said, "Well, do you want to do your own show?" And oddly, I'd never thought of it that way. I went in there and said here's a check for $25 for support of the station. I'm out of here, but if you want these records, let me know. One of the founders of the station called me. This was four months before they went on the air in 1975. It turned out that we were neighbors. He lived across the street and two doors down. He called and said, "Why don't you do a tape of you doing the music, because no one here knows that music that well. So just put together a rough demo tape." That's how I got started.

Michael: That's great!

Guy: And I thank Jim Lopes at the county planning department, because he's the one who came over to my house. He's the one who knew my passion for radio, but also knew I liked what was then called "community radio" over commercial radio. He's the one who came over to my house one friday evening in Morro Bay, and I still see him driving up in his little Volvo. One of those little tiny boxes. And he gets out and he says, "You're really going to find this interesting. There's a community station license that we just OKd and it's going in downtown San Luis.

The next day I was downtown walking around and asking people. I went into this restaurant called Corcoran's. They've closed now. It was probably the best in town back then. I walked in there and asked Corky, who was standing at the counter, "Do you know anything about a radio station coming into town?"

Guy Rathbun studio shot

He said, "I think there's one going in upstairs."

So I went up these stairs in the Whitaker Building, and there was no sign, but I heard hammering. I walked toward the hammering and stuck my head around the door, and there were three people there, building counters and a studio. That's when I wrote the check and told them about my records, and later got the call.

Peggy: Wow. Right time at the right place.

Michael: The other thing is that you didn't assume that they wouldn't want you to do anything. You stepped right up and put yourself out there. You put yourself in the right place when the time came.

Guy: I wasn't a professional. I assumed they would want people with experience. so i didn't even think about pretending.

You know, I remember a time, very distinctly—I was with a lady-friend. I was going to say a young woman, but I was young at the time too, so that made sense. But anyhow, I got back to the apartment, and I thought how odd it was that all this media stuff kept coming at me. I couldn't take ten steps without something else happening that said, "Here I am." At the time I was in college and delivering papers. And on Friday and Saturday nights I'd get to wash dishes for the bar crowd. And at the time I thought that was my career. You know, I could read all I wanted, and who could ask for more? And I had three newspapers that I could read for free every day of the week. This was heaven. But all this media stuff kept coming back around, and then, Jim Lopes coming by the house, and KCBX offering me a show. I was realizing at that point that my calling was calling to me. And I even said that to my friend. So it wasn't as though I was 19 years old in college and said, "Ok, I'm going to get my law degree and then we'll go from there." It kept haunting me.

Michael: This actually ties in with an article I wrote recently about not following your dream. One of the things we talked about there is that sometimes you don't follow your passion, but sometimes you fall into it. And sometimes you have to lead your passion. The idea of following your passion is a little passive. Falling into your passion might be a little passive too. but I guess the point is that you don't necessarily know where you're going when you set out on this journey. And things evolve and change and develop for you in was that you could never have mapped out in advance.

Guy: I absolutely agree with that. In 40 years I can pinpoint so many times exactly like what you're outlining.

Peggy: I'm curious how you find people to interview. The diversity is so broad. The subjects are so unique.

Guy: Magazines, newspapers, I listen to the radio. All these clippings up here, most are from the LA Times or the Tribune. I just wrote to the author today, called Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt . Chris Hedges. I've interviewed Chris before, many years ago. It's whatever catches my interest. And then I also have the good fortune of having eight publicists who constantly send me books. They understand that I get more than I can use. I have five here to consider. Here are books that are already in the can, that I'm already finishing or soon to finish, or soon to interview. And then I have two boxes worth back there that I couldn't get to, and are going to the library. So about eight out of thirty is what I can do. I get about 350 books a year, and I interview about eight a month.

Peggy: That's a lot. Have you seen the book by Ry Cooder? It's called Los Angeles Stories. It's a series of short stories.

Guy: I admire Ry Cooder.

Peggy: He reminds me of you because of the music history—the musicology. The second story is about all this old time jazz that I wasn't familiar with. But I'm sure the names would just grab you. But each story is different. I've only read three so far, but I think you would also enjoy reading about LA in a particular time.

Guy: I'm sure I would. I find Ry Cooder to be one of those really brilliant, insightful fellows, because what he does—yes he has this enthusiasm for the older music, but he will take his own ideas, use the chord structure of an older song, and update it with modern lyrics. I can recognize the music it comes from, but the way he treats it is completely new. I've always enjoyed that about him.

Michael: Back to reviewing books and interviewing the authors on your program. A lot of people, when you hear them interview an author on the radio, it becomes clear that they don't really know anything about what that author has said, beyond crib notes. When you listen to a Guy Rathbun interview, you always know that he has read that book cover to cover. If not, you've fooled me.

Guy Rathbun studio shot

Guy: I have read the book, and generally cover to cover. I'll give you one story about that. There's this part of me, and this is the more introverted part of me. Sometimes when I'm talking with an author, I can get a little excited about what's going on. Over excited, actually. And I feel like I'm coming off as a know-it-all. I'm backing off, thinking, "Wait a minute, that's going to sound egotistical." And I'm always conscious of doing that. I can't tell you how many times I've cut out certain things when I'm asking a question when my ego is coming through too much.

But to give you an example, I feel I must read the book. As I've told authors, "You've taken years. I can take a few hours. It's the least I can do." I used to really enjoy Larry King on CNN. But he never read the book. I don't think he was showing disrespect, but in my perspective, I want to be able to talk the language the author has written in. I want to be able to bring nuggets. What excited me about the book is what I think might excite other people. Plus, how many times have we read a book, and would love to have the author sitting there when we reached a certain point, just to say, "Boy, the way you worded that was like a Van Gogh." It's so gorgeous when they do that.

The story I was going to tell you, is, about ten or fifteen years ago, this author had given me a book to read. So he came in for the interview, and one of the things I like to do when I'm reading—and I do this with almost every book. I'll read it as fast as I can, and then go back through slowly, and I'll stop in the middle of a sentence, or a paragraph, and I'll think about what they have written. For lack of a better term, I call that quality time with the author. I want that quality time, because then I don't have to worry about any questions. All that quality time comes back to me when I'm talking to them. Not necessarily a well worded question, but it comes back, nonetheless.

This particular book, I had not had time to do the quality that I wanted to do. He came in and I said, "I have to apologize to you before hand, Bob, in reference to me reading the book." He assumed that I was going to say I didn't read it, and he said, "Hey, don't worry about it, most people don't read it." Well, I let it go at that, and then we did the interview. And after the interview, he said, "I thought you didn't read the book. " I said, "No, I didn't spend quality time with it. That's all." I have to.

Michael: You're in the midst of a transition right now. 

Guy: That's what I've heard.

Michael: In fact we went to an event in your honor recently. Can you tell us a little bit about the career changes you are going through now.

Guy: It's a little awkward, because there are things I can't say about the changes, because of contractual agreements. But it was better for me not to be at the local radio station any longer. It was healthier for me not to be in the environment that was being created. So my alternative was to set up my own studio. I love what I do here. The nice part of this is that it's all I have to do. Well, that's not true. I have to do marketing, and all the billing, and all the paperwork, but I'm not as distracted, and I can do more interviews now than I was before. I'm not spending time on the road in commute. That's 45 minutes a day where I'm reading, or doing an interview. So the tradeoff for me is that I feel like I have been given some wings. Whether or not I'm going to be able to fly is a question. But I'm not worried about that so much as experiencing the wings.

Michael: Welcome to the world of creative living. Anyone who is creating their own path is going to say exactly what you just said.

Guy: I'm having fun. And I don't think I would go back now for anything.

Michael: And just to be sure we have said what you are doing concisely, it is...

Guy: Independent radio producer. That goes in a lot of different directions. I'm not only producing the interviews we've been discussing, but the music show we talked about, and I'm also doing independent work that is outside of that. For instance I landed a minor contract tied to the 45th anniversary of Bullitt . This is where the creative juices were cut loose, and pull sound from the movie, and interpolate that in with the interview. I had a lot of fun with it. It's going to be posted this week.

Another one is, somebody approached me years ago, I think about 50 hours of interviews this fellow has with Utah Phillips. He worked with him for years, and so I couldn't take it on when he approached me five years ago, but I called him and said, "Are you ready to do this? I think I am." So we're going to have a collaborative effort to bring a special Utah Phillips program to public radio.

Michael: That's great! You talked a little about marketing a minute ago. I'll let you say whatever you want about that, but I'm wondering where fits into this.

Guy: Well,, Public Radio Exchange, is a distribution center for shows. They have over 350 public radio stations tied in to one degree or another. The stations all pay annual dues, and then can pick up shows that are produced by independent authors or other radio stations. The act of marketing though, is picking up the phone and calling all of those people who might be the decision makers to carry a show.

The success rate has been pretty low so far.

Michael: What could our readers do to help with that?

Guy: If you like an interview or interviewee that I am producing on PRX, let me know, but more importantly, grade the show.

Michael: So comments and ranking the show on the one to five scale on the web page.

Guy: Yes. It does make a difference, because when program directors are looking for shows, the ones they are going to target are the ones that get the most comments, and the most stars.

Those shows are all available, and maybe it's too early to talk about this, but a new program I have is going to lead to enhanced broadcasts. It's a new phrase altogether. A new way of thinking about radio. Radio with visuals is what it is. So embedded in these interviews on PRX we will soon have either still shots, graphics, or videos built right in. So if you are listening to a show, say Mound City Blue Blowers on Club McKenzie, you're hearing the music and my commentary, but suddenly, on your computer screen or iPad or wherever you are listening, it's going to pop up and image or video of this band as they were performing in the 1930s. The same will apply to authors. I'll be interviewing an author, and you'll get a graphic or something or a video of something they have done. For instance the installation of the wind farm out here in Carizzo Plains or something like that would pop up on the screen.

Peggy: Tell us about your portfolio on PRX.

Guy: There are three programs that are currently posed regularly, although I haven't had a lot of time for Turning Pages. Turning Pages is a show I used to do locally, and still do. Generally speaking, that's authors. Frequently they're novelists, but not always. For instance, Superman. That's something I posted about a month ago. That was a wonderful book, and a fun interview. I loved it and recommend it for anyone. But it wasn't something that would go into IdeaSphere, but it was good material for Turning Pages. A Wedding in Haiti was a personal autobiographical sketch of a woman who went to Haiti right after the earthquake to meet with friends she had made there prior to the earthquake. So it was a before and after dialog that she had. Wonderful book, but it didn't lend itself to IdeaSphere.

IdeaSphere is the new name for a local show I did called An Evening with... That title is going away very soon. It was ten years in the running on KCBX. However, it was aired in the evening. As of October, the name will change to IdeaSphere, which is the name I've used on Public Radio Exchange now for this year, primarily because I couldn't send out a show with a title that would limit the broadcast time. "Evening with" doesn't sound quite as good at 10 o'clock in the morning.

So I have those three, IdeaSphere, Turning Pages, and Club McKenzie. And I have two other ideas in the pipeline, and of course, Designing a Creative Life.

Michael: This brings us to a topic we're kind of fond of. You and we have been talking for the last few months about a collaborative effort to add a show to your portfolio that involves you interviewing us and our interviewees for Outside the Lines.

Guy: Yes. It will be monthly. Just exactly what you are publishing now, except that this will be a much shorter version extracted from the complete interview.

Michael: Yes. The way I envision this is much like the interviews you do now, where you will be the host, and you will talk to us and our interviewee, as if we were the author of a book. Except that our "book" is an email interview.

Guy: Yeah, so actually we have a title for this that is something you have been using for a while now.

Michael: Outside the Lines is the title of our email journal. I guess you could call it an e-zine.

Guy: yes.

Michael: And the tag line for us has always been "Designing a Creative Life," which describes what we're about. And what we're about, is support for people who are creating their own unique creative path through life. People who want to fashion their lives around their own dreams and their own vision and creativity. Many of the people we have interviewed up to this point have been visual artists. We've also interviewed a taiko drummer, a poet. We've actually interviewed a few people who write. We have an interview coming up with a guy we've known for quite a while who writes a weekly email on investing. But he's a very multifaceted guy. He doesn't just write about investing. He's not all business, and all about how to make money in the market. He lives in Japan and he recently started a large philanthropic project to aid the victims of Fukushima. He's a very interesting guy. His creative path, he writes books, he writes this newsletter, and then he's out there making a difference in the world in a very tangible way with his Fukushima relief work. We'll save his story for our interview in October, but the point I'm trying to make is that we don't only talk to visual artists. We'll talk to anybody with any kind of creative path where they're making their way doing what they love to do. And you're a classic example of that.

Peggy: We're hoping that by introducing readers and listeners to people who have followed their passion, we can reassure folks that it's possible. There are sacrifices, there are things you have to balance, but there are ways to do it. People have done it. People do it all the time. And even if you have to follow your creative path as a sideline, that can still work. There's no one required way to do any of it. So we're just trying to introduce people to a wide range of ways it can be done.

Guy: It can be done.

Michael: That's a really important aspect of this. There is no fixed way that creative people work. There is no set of rules that you have to follow. Everyone finds their own way. Everyone's way is unique, and yet, there are some very common threads that run throughout all of them. I've heard you say numerous things that visual artists say about the focus and dedication you have to have to do what you do. This is true no matter what your creative path is.

We're doing a series of these interviews to start as a pilot project, and we hope to to continue that into the future. But you are actually announcing this new venture to our readers for the first time.

Guy: I'm happy to do it! I think the beauty of what you are doing is that you are introducing to people so many different facets of living the creative life.

Peggy: We still have to convince some of our future interview prospects. We have neighbors who are farmers who retired from engineering careers and are now small scale farmers. They don't see themselves as following the creative path. But they really have. they've made a whole life for themselves, and it's one that a lot of us envy. Except for the great deal of hard work they do seven days a week. But they've clearly made choices along the way, and they're following their path.

Michael: And every day they make choices very much like the choices you have to make in marketing, and the choices that visual artists make in just finding a place to sell what you do. Finding a way to bring in a revenue stream and still get to do what you have in your heart to do. They do it just as much as any artist does.

Guy: And you never know when something is going to ring that universal chord. You never know.

Peggy: We were delighted when you agreed to let us interview you for Outside the Lines—Designing a creative Life because you have followed your passion for 40 years in the radio business, talking about the things you dearly love.

Guy: I consider myself extremely fortunate. This is something I could not have dreamt of in deliberate fashion. I couldn't do that at 15, 16, 17 years old. But I do know that at 16 I saw the announcer and knew that's what I wanted to do. How meaningful is that at 16. How many of us said, "I want to be a policeman." That was at seven. At ten, you're going to be a veterinarian. But somehow, it hit me at that point. If I'm going to have to really work for a living, what better way to do it! There isn't any. So I am extremely fortunate. Thanks to Vin Scully. I can talk really well. And my mother. She was really good at the English language.

Peggy: You better explain the Vin Scully part.

Guy: When I was a kid, I wanted to emulate his style. So there would be times in the dugout when I'm playing ball, and I'm calling the game. And they're telling me, "Shut up over there!" I'd go up to bat and I'm thinking if I were Vin Scully I'd be saying, "There's going to be a fastball here." So I'd try to out think Vin Scully. It never worked. I'd strike out anyhow.

Michael: Should have narrated from the batter's box. Get inside the head of the pitcher.

Guy: I missed that. I had a chance, didn't I!

Michael: Yes, you did.

Guy Rathbun studio shot
Contact Us
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