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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, January 25, 2002

Radio days Radio days (January 25, 2002)

Sedge Thomson's 'West Coast Live' makes Palo Alto debut

by Robyn Israel

As a kid growing up in Seattle, Sedge Thomson would often listen to the radio, tuning in to Vin Sculley's L.A. Dodgers broadcast and "Monitor," a weekend variety show on NBC featuring comedic duo Mike Nichols and Elaine May. He would also write radio plays and perform them with his friends, complete with music and sound effects.

Today, the host of "West Coast Live" is still enchanted by the medium.

"To me it's magic," Thomson said. "There's a box and out of this box come voices and music and sounds, carrying ideas and stories and a sense of place, whether it's a compelling interview or a baseball game."

Each Saturday morning, Thomson's radio show aims to give listeners a different sense of place, be it Berkeley's Freight and Salvage or remote locations like Alaska and the Yukon. The destination this weekend is Palo Alto's Lucie Stern Theatre, where the weekly variety show will present Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and authors Eric Schloss, Carl Hiassen and Peter Hessler. Also on hand will be pianist Mike Greensill, who is currently in the middle of a two-month run at San Francisco's Plush Room with his wife, jazz and pop singer Wesla Whitfield.

As always, the community is invited to attend and be part of the "West Coast Live" audience. Those who cannot participate can listen to the show on 91.7 KALW San Francisco, or tune in via the internet (

"I've always called it two hours of conversation, music and play," Thomson said. "It's a live radio show that allows people to see radio being put together -- the visible radio show, if you will."

Of the literary trio, listeners will probably be most familiar with Schloss, the author of "Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal" (2001). Thomson first learned of the book from Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters, whom he interviewed last year when her legendary Berkeley restaurant celebrated its 30th anniversary. Waters was very impressed by Schloss, whose book addresses the fast-food industry and its negative impact on the nation's health, economy and culture.

"It was an important book for her and it took a more global perspective of many of her own worries about the world," Thomson recalled.

Hiassen, a columnist for the Miami Herald, has written award-winning columns about Florida's rapacious development, its egregious business practices and corrupt politicians. Author of nearly 10 works of fiction, including "Strip Tease" (later adapted into a movie starring Demi Moore), Hiaasen will discuss his latest mystery novel, "Basket Case."

"He's the Molly Ivins of Florida," Thomson said of Hiaasen, whom he interviewed several years ago when his book, "Stormy Weather" was published. "He's very acerbic and funny."

Finally, Hessler, author of "River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze" (2001), will relate his experience as the first American to live in the Chinese town of Fuling during his Peace Corps service. He is currently the Beijing correspondent for the New Yorker, where his book was first excerpted.

Hessler is a natural guest for "West Coast Live," as the show aims to dedicate itself to issues going on in Pacific Rim countries. It is also involved with the Center for the Pacific Rim, a University of San Francisco-based group that awards the Kiriyama Book prize -an annual honor bestowed to a work of fiction and non-fiction that addresses the Pacific Rim. For the past four years, West Coast Live has announced the winners of the $30,000 prize on the air. Hessler won the Kiriyama Book prize last year.

"I believe it's important to bring attention of these books to a larger audience," Thomson said.

Saturday's broadcast will mark the first time "West Coast Live" has broadcast from Palo Alto. The idea has been in the works for awhile, Thomson said, and the city seemed a natural destination for a show that continually hits the road.

"It's the center of a lot of different worlds. And it's different from San Francisco and Berkeley in a lot of ways -- the political climate, the creative climate, the climate climate. This is the place where people start out in garages and build vast empires. This is a place that seems to be busting out of its edges."

Today's Palo Alto is far different from the sleepy college town of Thomson's youth, which he would visit with his family and spend time with cousins. Later, Thomson would continue to have different ties to Palo Alto, through his involvement with Friends of the Stanford Library, writing articles for "Imprint," its publication.

In the late '80s, Thomson participated in a reading group at the Palo Alto home of poet and novelist Janet Lewis. Established to assist local opera composer Alva Henderson get through "The Catalogue of Ships," the second book of "The Iliad" (Henderson would later write "Achilles," an opera based on "The Iliad."), the group would meet weekly and also tackled opuses like "The Odyssey" and Dante's "Inferno."

"We sat in a wonderful adobe house under a kumquat tree, read poetry aloud and then took turns talking about it," Thomson recalled. "They were languorous, literary evenings. I remember Janet Lewis sitting back in her rocking chair, closing her eyes and reciting Dante in the original Italian from memory."

Thomson's own voice has been a fixture on local radio since 1985, when he created, produced and hosted "West Coast Weekend," which lasted for eight years on KQED.

"I started the show originally to give access to authors, poets and musicians who didn't have access to air time. Access to TV is so difficult. I wanted to start a forum, a setting, a space, a time to make it possible," said Thomson, who has also been a guest host of NPR's "Fresh Air with Terry Gross."

Eager to distribute the show abroad, Thomson locked horns with KQED, which resisted the idea. So Thomson parted ways with the station in 1993 and started "West Coast Live," a show designed to feature the voices and sounds of the Pacific Rim to a national radio audience.

Now in its eighth year, the show is carried by more than 60 affiliate public-radio stations, located mainly near the Pacific, but some as far away as New York City and Florida. It boasts 600,000 to 800,000 listeners across the country. Those demographics will expand next month, when the show begins broadcasting on satellite radio (Sirius channel 109) in select markets.

Although artists and entertainers figure prominently on "West Coast Live" (actor Gene Hackman, comic Josh Kornbluth and author Anne Lamott are three previous guests), the show also features figures from the worlds of business, law, medicine and science.

"I'm attracted to stories and to performance. So often that leads to the arts," Thomson said. "I'm interested in creative energies and the turmoil of people who are trying things out in the world -- anyone who's got a compelling story to tell or (who does) something that illuminates our way of life."

An admirer of pop interviewers like David Letterman and Jon Stewart, Thomson is strongly attracted to humor and the unexpected.

"I enjoy listening to an interview where I can hear the guest express a sense of self-discovery. What I don't like to hear are pat answers," Thomson said. "What I try to do is help people relax and say something they've never said before."

First-time listeners of "West Coast Live" will discover that the audience is a key part of the show. Participants, upon entering the Lucie Stern Theatre, will be asked to write down on 4-by-6 cards how they happened to arrive at the show. After the break, Thomson will read on the air as many cards as possible -- exactly as they are written -- yielding some of the show's best material.

"I want the radio audience to hear who the audience is and where they're from," Thomson said. "Sometimes I interview members of the audience, or I'll ask them to come onstage if they've got a particularly curious story."

Next up for the show is a Feb. 2 broadcast from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Thomson has also accepted an invitation to do the show at London's National Portrait Gallery Theatre, but a date has yet to be finalized. And New York City remains a dream destination as well.

But this week Palo Alto beckons.

"We hope it will attract people from San Francisco and Berkeley to discover the beauty and charms of this fair town. It's the first of many Palo Alto shows we hope to do," Thomson said.

What: West Coast Live, with host Sedge Thomson. Guests will include authors Eric Schloss, Carl Hiassen and Peter Hessler, and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.

When: 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. Saturday

Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road in Palo Alto Weekly

Cost: Tickets are $12 in advance and can be purchased by calling (415) 664-9500 or by visiting Tickets are $14 at the door.

Info: Visit

E-mail Robyn Israel at


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