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Mat Kaplan | Planetary Radio

1 August 2011 Host Spotlight

by: Barbara DeMarco-Barrett

Mat Kaplan has been a Long Beach resident for nearly 30 years, and has never lived more than 25 miles from the city. He has also completed more than 27 years with the College of Continuing and Professional Education at California State University, Long Beach, where his title is Senior Director of Technology and Development. Mat has worked for the Long Beach Unified School District, and in 1981 helped turn Long Beach public access television into an exciting, community-based service. That effort led to his production of a Long Beach game show that won the cable television industry’s most prestigious award.

Mat knows how fortunate he is to be the host and producer of the Planetary Society’s “Planetary Radio,” public radio’s only half-hour show about space exploration. He was just 17 when he got his first job in broadcasting, but it was the premiere of this weekly series in 2002 that finally combined his twin loves of space and radio. His extensive background in journalism has ranged from public radio reporter covering the political conventions to movie reviewer for an international magazine. One or two people may even remember him as a correspondent for a couple of pioneering national TV series about computers, or as guest host of KPCC’s “Talk of the City.”

Barbara DeMarco-Barrett: Tell me about your show, Planetary Radio, which airs on Thursdays from 5:30
– 6 p.m.

Mat Kaplan: We’ve been doing “PlanRad” for eight-and-a-half years. It started right here at KUCI, where I got my real start in public radio. It’s the only long format series about space exploration, along with what Planetary Society Executive Director Bill Nye calls the “passion, beauty and joy of science.”

BDB: What made you start the show?

MK: I had been volunteering at the Planetary Society for several years, helping to produce special events and creating their first webcasts. I often say that my two favorite things in life, outside of family, are space and radio. Putting them together was a natural, and the Society was excited about how a weekly series could extend its outreach effort.

BDB: Who are your guests?

MK: The most amazing people. Men and women who should be internationally renowned heroes, and some of them are just that. Usually they are the scientists and engineers who are at the edge of our knowledge about the universe, our solar system and our own evolving planet. We get lots of individuals who are leading major missions of exploration, like Linda Spilker. She’s the Project Scientist for the Cassini Mission that has been exploring Saturn, its moons and those beautiful rings for seven years. Then there are the entrepreneurs like Elon Musk of SpaceX, and undersea/outer space explorer James Cameron, who happens to make popular movies. An astronaut, now and then. Authors who trace the history of spaceflight or make the heavens easier to understand are often heard. Lastly, there are the dreamers like Ray Bradbury, Kim Stanley Robinson and other stars of science fiction. Oh, and a folk singer or two.

BDB: Who are your listeners?

MK: More amazing people. They share our sense of wonder and our excitement as ancient mysteries are solved and new ones revealed. They are terrific, and many of them go after a Planetary Radio t-shirt in our regular space trivia contest.

BDB: You had a show at KUCI some time ago, too. Tell me about that.

MK: “Some time ago” is putting it mildly. KUCI was largely responsible for convincing me to transfer to UC Irvine in the mid-1970s. I became the Public Affairs Director when I arrived, and was co-General Manager a year later. In KUCI, we had the best fraternity/sorority on campus, and many of those colleagues have remained among my best friends. I did talk shows with lots of people, including another KUCI GM emeritus, Nick Roman. Nick is the senior news director at KPCC. And yes, I had a music show. Worst DJ in the history of radio. My friends will confirm that.

BDB: How has KUCI changed since then?

MK: Surprisingly little! It’s easier to hear us nowadays, and it’s nice to be in stereo. Tape is gone, thank God, but mixer boards still look pretty much the same. Of course, it’s the staff that has always made the station so special. Today’s crowd is a bunch of hyper-creative, fun-loving, eclectic, obsessed nut cases — just the same as we were in 1975.

BDB: You also cohost astronomy events. Tell me more.

MK: I don’t so much, but the Planetary Society does. The biggest events are the periodic Planetfests that usually coincide with big happenings in the cosmos, like a Mars landing. We’re doing our second ever Planetary Radio Live soon at KPCC’s Crawford Family Forum. I think we’ll get another SRO crowd. What other event combines Bill Nye, the guy who killed Pluto (not the dog), and a barbershop quartet?

BDB: And you’re one of the few KUCI shows–if not the only one–that’s syndicated and broadcast by stations around the world. How did that come about?

MK: Almost by accident. We had been on KUCI for about a year when a handful of other stations started finding out about us. We began sending them CDs, since it wasn’t yet practical to distribute via the Net. We had reached about twenty affiliates when we decided to get serious and hired a public radio distribution consultant. Almost before we knew it, we were being carried by nearly 100 stations. Now we’re at 150 or so, including 20 big stations that get us via the NPR satellite. Sirius XM Satellite Radio also fell out of the sky, if you’ll pardon the expression. They called us, and we’ve been airing on their XMPR station for three years. But it’s the podcast that generates most of our mail.

BDB: If another Public Affairs host, or DJ, wanted to get his or her show
syndicated, what would be the steps?

MK: Begin by adopting an area of interest no one else has claimed. If you’re too late for that, deliver better information in a more entertaining style than the competition. If you have the money, consider hiring a public radio consultant like Creative PR in Los Angeles. You might want to advertise in Current (current.org). There’s the Public Radio Program Directors (PRPD) conference each fall, but exposure there can also be pricey. Definitely check out the Public Radio Exchange or PRX, www.prx.org, something Planetary Radio should be making much better use of. PRX is terrific… and cheap. By the way, don’t expect to get rich. Planetary Radio has achieved fairly wide distribution partly because we make it available to stations at no charge.

BDB: What is your own radio tuned to?

MK: KPCC, the news junkie’s paradise. KUCI when I’m in range. (I live well outside the magical zone of enchantment.) Sirius XM when I get tired of KPCC.

BDB: Is there life on other planets?

MK: I sure hope so. So does every space scientist I know. With any luck, we’ll know for sure before long. We’ve just confirmed that Earth-sized planets in the “Goldilocks” just-right zone for liquid water are all over the galaxy–probably millions of them. And something is making methane on Mars. It might not be life, but I’m very optimistic.

BDB: Anything else we should know?

MK: KUCI rules. But you already knew that.

— August 1, 2011


Barbara DeMarco-Barrett’s son was four when she started “Writers on Writing.” He’s now 16. She’s Orange Coast Magazine’s new literary critic, author of Pen on Fire, and has a story in the newish collection, Orange County Noir (Akashic). More at Pen on Fire .