Nathan Callahan | Weekly Signals
1 December 2019 Host Spotlight
by Barbara DeMarco-Barrett
BDB: It’s been six years since I last interviewed you (in that interview, I featured both you and Mike Kaspar. This one is just you, woohooo!)
NC: Thanks for the single spot, Barbara. Now, I get to say twice as much.
Remind me…when and how did the show, Weekly Signals, you co-host with Mike come about?
Mike and I met in 1989 working together on the Larry Agran for President campaign. I had worked with Larry since 1985…. helped him become Mayor of Irvine… was his council aide… worked on bringing about Irvine’s recycling program — the second city recycling program ever in California. (We missed number one by a few months.) At the time, an editorial in the Orange County Register said recycling was a socialist program. It’s amazing how far we’ve progressed. Now, everyone knows recycling is a Chinese hoax.
Just for some campus backstory, as an Irvine city council aide I worked on a project headed by UCI’s soon-to-be-Nobel laureate Sherwood Roland to make Irvine the first city in the universe to ban chlorofluorocarbons and with Peter Bowler of the UCI Arboretum and San Joaquin Marsh Reserve on preserving Irvine’s Quail Hill as a habitat. I counted a lot of geese in those days. The Irvine Company considered me an environmental extremist. I considered that a compliment.
Anyway, Mike and I worked the media on the Agran campaign. I did campaign literature. This was pre-world-wide-web, so everything was print… press releases, speeches, brochures, junk mail.
After the Agran presidency (like that was going to happened), Mike and I kept working together on hundreds of campaigns, political and otherwise — from helping defeat a 8-term rabid loon of a congressmember, by the name of Bob Dornan with the Dump Dornan campaign, to producing a video PSA introducing California’s new pickup truck laws. Working on the Dornan campaign, we compiled a book of Dornan’s quotes called “Shut Up, Fag!” and convinced Oliver Stone to write the forward. As you might guess, Dornan is a bit of a cro-magnon… almost Trumpian. He was known as B-1 Bob on account of his love affair with the military industrial complex. Because of our campaign, Dornan, as was his want, went ballistic. He railed about us on radio and TV. He tried to sue us. He assaulted Mike. We were on the news… did a lot of radio interviews. Everything from WMAL in Washington DC to KUCI in Irvine. Good times. By then, I was writing for the OC Weekly.
A few years later, Mike was doing a late night show on KUCI called “Happy-Go-Lucky.”
One night, after watching Bubba Ho-Tep at University Towne Center with our good friend, educator, and film critic Jan Rainbird, we grabbed some dinner at the Gypsy Den at the Lab. Chances are we were illegally high. Jan suggested that I join Mike on-air at KUCI to co-host a talk show. Mike and I took him seriously. In the autumn of 2003, as Mars made its closest approach to earth in 60,000 years, Weekly Signals was born.
Talk about how you chose the show’s format.
We hired a PR firm, consulted with focus groups and took a number of polls. The demographic that KUCI reaches was… What the hell do you mean “chose?”
We like to talk… express ourselves… think… critique… and with experiences defending ourselves against a lunatic on interview shows around the country, a talk show gab-fest interview format seemed natural and gave Mike and I the opportunity to put our considerable ineptitude on display.
We’ve been through a few configurations. At first we did interviews… Garrison Keillor, Monty Python’s Terry Jones, George McGovern, Arianna Huffington, Joseph Wilson, Daniel Ellsberg. . . .You can listen to all 400 of them at our interview archives. My favorite was Karen Finley. She’s was Ms. Magazine Woman of the Year and one of the NEA 4 — four National Endowment for the Arts performance artists whose grants were vetoed after US Senator Jesse Helms claimed they were indecent. Karen is perhaps most famous for stripping down and smearing herself with chocolate as a symbol of women being treated like dirt. Mike and I talked with her about her book George and Martha which involves an affair between George W. Bush and Martha Stewart… which never happened… I think. After the show, Karen said she really liked our comment segment. She had been listening to it right before her interview. So Mike and I stopped interviews and instead did a series called Timeout where we dedicated the hour to subjects like celebrity, disgust, addiction, hubris, Halloween.
These days we discuss overlooked current events with our dog, Mahler. It’s a Dada version of progressive talk shows. We tackle things like the right to repair, laughing gas, Tasmanian Devil Facial Tumor Disease, vulturine guineafowl, revenge porn, avocado cartels, mass-producing psilocybin, guerilla gardening …
Any co-hosting…advantages? Disadvantages?
Mahler is a great co-host. So is Mike. As long as your co-host is someone you can work with, having another creature in the studio to bounce-off of makes things more interesting. There’s someone there to check you. Unless you like talking to yourself, having a advocate friend to talk to is inspiring.
You do much more for KUCI than co-hosting Weekly Signals. Tell me everything.
I’m the “webmaster,” which is kind of an embarrassing title. Rather than master the web, I manage KUCI’s webpages and load content. Mason Sedlik does the heavy lifting for KUCI.org. He’s our Computing Systems Manager and was invaluable launching KUCI’s new website last September.
I post the new schedule every quarter and keep things updated. I upload the graphics to our homepage carousel, including live band notices and sporting events and post music interviews, special events programming, keep the weekly Public Affairs calendar up-to-date, and manage KUCI.org. I also help layout artwork for the station. T-shirts. Mugs for our fundraisers. And while we’re on it, if you like freeform, free speech, commercial free, volunteer radio, may I recommend a donation to KUCI. Your generous donation is how we stay on air.
How has KUCI changed since you began here?
Are you kidding me? Everything’s changed, except for Kevin Stockdale. He’s the same adorable character that I remember 20 years ago when I first met him wearing his pajamas and slippers. He was wearing them, not me.
The first time I visited KUCI, I was a student and the station was broadcasting from a dorm closet. It was true pirate radio. One night a DJ played a heart beat for an hour. That’s my kind of music. Since then, computers became a thing. CDs happened. Then streaming. Then podcasts. Which then became not a thing. And then a thing again. Social media came into play.
Facebook was FaceMash when Kevin asked if I’d like to be KUCI’s webmaster. Now everyone on the planet including KUCI has Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and the latest social media phenomenom Parkyakarkus (Let that be a lesson to you: things change.)
We’ve upgraded our soundboard. We’ve gone through dozens of turntables and CD players. Now, a lot of music comes digitally online. As an old man, I can honestly say that the people at KUCI are no different from when they were broadcasting out of a closet. They still offer the widest range of listening experiences of any radio station on earth.
How do you spend your time when you’re not at KUCI? Fess up.
I think. I garden. I’m writing a book about Buddha manifested in a dog… a kind of doghisattva. I go for walks and chant. I listen to my Tibetan bowl until the sound of the ring dissolves joining the rest of the universe. I talk to dogs. I get along better with them than I do with humans. I imagine what it would be like to be locked in a room as a pit bull with our current president as a chihuahua. Then I reverse the roles. I read. I love. I hate. I defend jazz. I go to baseball games. Anteater baseball. Dodger baseball. Angel baseball. Once, when I saw the Dodgers beat the Giants for the division title, after the last out, with the crowd cheering unrepentantly, I saw the ghost of Gypsy Boots crawl out from under the seats and bang on a cow bell. Stuff like that.
You were born in Hollywood, correct?
I was born in Burbank at Saint Joseph’s Hospital. I suppose I may have crowned in the back seat of my parents car at Hollywood and Vine. Actually, I was told by my cousin that I was conceived under the Sixth Street Bridge. Does that count?
My first residence was a remodeled chicken shack in North Hollywood. Nudies, The Palomino Club, Big Daddy Roth, Marilyn Monroe and scores of wanna-be stars, musicians, and blue collar studio workers were neighbors.
Hollywood was a childhood playground of mine. I rode my bike with my friends through the Cahuenga Pass cutting west down Franklin to the Chinese Theater. We would just hang out and annoy tourists.
Was your family involved in the film industry?
Not notably. My mother’s mother, Ruth, trained black cats for silent films. My mother’s father, Howard, was a detective for the Hollywood police force. He had a thing going with Fatty Arbuckle. I think it had to do with Fatty’s alleged rape and manslaughter offense. My father’s father Jack was Jack Warner’s security guard. When he retired Jack had Jack watch his Palm Spring’s complex — four homes together on a residential corner in the Las Palmas neighborhood at the North end of town. John Kennedy stayed there. Salvador Dali stayed there. I stayed there. One night, I camped against a wall and listened to Elvis Presley, who was staying next door in the compound, play Blue Moon live to a swarm of queen bees (or as Keith Richard would say, “Some Girls.”)
Why have you stayed here your entire life?
Henry Miller said that you don’t need to waste your time with travel or moving around to find fulfillment. You find your home. You burrow in. You create. Miller also said colonies are for ants, which is probably why I’ve always felt out-of-place in Laguna. I lived-in and loved Southern California my entire life. Every corner here is a memory. And, contrary to its reputation, Orange County is one of the most interesting places in the world. It’s human factor ranges from billionaire creeps and entrepreneurial deconstructive caffeineheads to fallen angels and skateboard punks. I’ve spoken with Carlos Casteneda, Slavoj Zizek, Jacques Derrida, John Cage, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Timothy Leary here. I feel the spirits of Philip K. Dick and Christopher Isherwood here.
I like to think that the institutions I’ve worked for have helped turn Orange County blue in spite of the fact that John Wayne and John Birch once called it home. Some people think Orange County is hell. Well, you know the old saying: heaven for the climate, hell for the company. If you don’t like it here… one word… leave. And guess what, it spite of it being hell, the weather’s great.
What’s on your nightstand?
An alarm clock radio. A reading light. An iPad for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Spotify. Headphones. Lavendar hand cream. Kleenex. Is this getting too personal? There’s a small stack of books. I usually read a few things at once, so the ideas can co-mingle. Right now I’m on Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz. You might know her from her work as editor of Grist. The book addresses how being wrong affects us. Wrongology. Think of it as the analysis of the permanent possibility of someone having a better idea. On top of that, there’s a copy of Lily Anolik’s Hollywood’s Eve. I love stories about Southern California. Eve Babitz is a legendary Hollywood character. Remember the poster of Marcel Duchamp playing chess? He was playing with a naked Eve. I’m also reading The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religions by Jonathan Haidt. I’m hoping to find a cure for my aversion to the current Republican Party. So far, it isn’t working. There’s some good ideas in the book, but many key arguments by Haidt are flawed. Nevertheless, it’s fun to conjured a case against them. I also have American Bystander magazine’s Halloween issue on my nightstand. The publisher, Michael Gerber, is one of my favorite and most articulate Facebook friends. His magazine has been called “the last great humor magazine.” Short Reads. Long laughs.
In your refrigerator (everything!)?
Heavy whipping cream, Greek yogurt, boiled chicken for Mahler, turkey, elderberry juice, hummus, pico de gallo, lemonade, pills, eggs, sesame seed bagels, green apples, lemons, garden rocket, turnip greens, Chinese cabbage, rapini, I’m not really quite sure what this is, broccoli, zucchini, green onions, endive, cream cheese, parmesan cheese, lemon curd, Endangered Species 88% dark chocolate, creamy no-salt almond butter, candles, pink grapefruit marmalade, maple syrup, corn and chili salsa, grilled artichoke, Elysian Space Dust IPA, butter, aïoli garlic mustard sauce, batteries and a Kiva cannabis infused orange chocolate bar.
When you’re in your car, what do you listen to?
Most of the time, I listen to the car. When the sound system’s on, it’s usually on KUCI or something from my playlist. I’ve been known to change stations incessantly, making sound collages, like I’m playing the radio. I like instrumental more than vocals. If the announcers are good, I’ll listen to baseball games because of their inherent narrative. As they say: The bad thing about radio is you can’t watch it. And the good thing about radio is you can’t watch it.
Words of advice for new Public Affairs hosts?
Have fun. Enjoy your on-air time. Make good use of it. Come prepared. Remember: radio is the theater of the mind. Your voice supplies the set and setting.
If you’re doing interviews, don’t be afraid to ask anybody on your show. ANYBODY. Ask Greta Thunberg. Ask Bernie Sanders. Ask Mark Zuckerberg. Ask Megan Rapinoe. The worst they can say is “no.” The “K” in front of our call sign gives you an advantage because a established station means a lot when someone is booking. Just act like you know what you’re doing. Don’t be shy.
One morning, on the way into KUCI to do Weekly Signals, I got a call from Laurence Tribe. Tribe, in my mind, is the most brilliant legal scholar on the planet. I sent him an email invitation to be on our show the day before. He wanted to know if we wanted him on the show that morning. What a thrill. 7 am and a life-long hero of mine calls me on the phone and wants to talk. What a great way to start the day. KUCI rocks. We’re all lucky to be here.
— December 1, 2019
Barbara DeMarco-Barrett (Public affairs director twice during her 21 years at KUCI) is host of Writers on Writing, Wednesdays at 9 a.m., and a contributor to USA Noir: Best of the Akashic Noir Series (Akashic, 2013). Watch the book trailer at penonfire.com.