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Brancaccio on Vonnegut

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Every year, the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library hosts "Night of Vonnegut," the Library's signature event. The keynote speaker for this year's program is the host of the Marketplace Morning Report from American Public Media, David Brancaccio.

Along with chow from the Rathskellar and live music, the fundraiser also features remarks from one of Vonnegut's students at the Iowa Writer's Workshop, Suzanne McConnell. McConnell will "present $1,000 scholarships – the Kurt Vonnegut Writing Award and the Jane Cox Vonnegut Writing Award – to two Shortridge High School (Vonnegut's alma mater) students for their interpretations of the unopened letter Vonnegut's father wrote to him during his imprisonment," according to the Library's website.

As for the keynote speaker, Brancaccio's been affiliated with Marketplace in some form since 1993, first as foreign correspondent, then as host. Along with the afternoon edition, simply titled Marketplace, the morning report can be heard every weekday on WFYI-FM. (APM Is one of a number of producers and distributors of public radio content along with National Public Radio and Public Radio International.)

I caught up with David Brancaccio by phone at his office in New York just after he wrapped up a broadcast.

David Brancaccio
  • David Brancaccio

NUVO: I did morning radio for 17 years, and I'm going to ask the question everyone asks: David Brancaccio, what time do you get up?

David Brancaccio: Although I did the horrible morning show hours in the '80s, I've rigged it so that now I only get up at 4 am. You probably found this in your family life — by 6 pm, you're not much fun. You're a potted plant by the time most people are having dinner.

NUVO: We always used to joke about being able to take advantage of the early-bird specials with all the senior citizens.

Brancaccio: We haven't taken advantage of that yet. It is awesome to drive into Manhattan that early; 42nd Street is packed at a quarter 'til five. It's unlike Waterville, Maine, where I'm from — that's a little quieter.

NUVO: There's NPR, APM, PRI – if I donate money to public radio, which of those organizations actually sends me the tote bag?

Brancaccio: Hey, for a very small donation, I'll do your answering machine. Wait a minute — no one has answering machines anymore. I can't even do that.

NUVO: And besides, that's Carl Kasell's act on Wait, Wait ... Don't Tell Me!

Brancaccio: Yeah, he's got that already. I think I was doing it before Karl was doing that show, though.

It's important for me that you don't tell folks I'm on NPR. American Public Media is the former Minnesota Public Radio. We all compete for the attention of our listeners and stations. At one point, NPR — if I have the story right — didn't think that Garrison Keillor made any sense. Why would they want to have a show like that?

NUVO: Whoops.

Brancaccio: Same thing happened with the business show. There was this sense that public radio might not need a show about money and retirement and workplace stuff, and when Marketplace was created it was Public Radio International that decided to be the distributor. There's a discussion right now about who's going to distribute the Ira Glass show This American Life. There's a little bit of competition in the public radio arena. Marketplace is headquartered in Los Angeles ... the parent company is in St. Paul, Minn., and I'm in the New York bureau.

NUVO: What's your connection to Vonnegut?

Brancaccio: I'm not going to set myself up as a Vonnegut expert. I'm a humble radio reporter. But I've done television and radio and I used to do this PBS show called NOW. I was co-host with Bill Moyers. By the time Vonnegut came around, though, I was solo hosting. I was able to get this interview with Vonnegut and it was the last long-form interview on television with Mr. Vonnegut. He may have shown up in shorter forms, sound bites and stuff, but he sat down with me for hours. We put about an hour of it on the air. It was a great honor. The interview wasn't right at the end of his life — I think he was with us for another year and a half after that.

I mentioned this on a visit to Indianapolis when I was stopping by the station there, and they hooked me up with the Vonnegut Library. I'm going to share some of that and show people why that resonated with our audience. I'm bringing a dub of that interview and making sure the library has it and it doesn't disappear in a shoe box someplace.

[Vonnegut] was amazing. He proposed marriage to my wife who hardly ever showed up for my interviews. She pointed out he was already married and also mentioned — very politely — that she was also already married.

He was very intense; very radical. I was looking back on that interview in preparation for my presentation in Indy. I remember thinking during the interview that if you were to get a transcript of the words that Vonnegut spoke, it was extremely downbeat; it was already all over for Planet Earth.

That's what the words said. But you're sitting across from him, and he's full of life. A lot of joie de vivre. I realized I have to resolve this. How does the audience understand that kind of dichotomy? The formal things he's saying are pretty dire, but he still hasn't given up. Why? Why is that? So I pushed back a bit. Among his answers — and it took a few tries until he answered — he said, "David, what you have to do is join a gang."

Join a gang? That's your advice for the young people of the world?

What he was saying was that there's a lot that is wrong with the world: the wheels have come off our politics and our democracy, the environment É but what keeps life worth living is finding other people who are also concerned about the same things and spending time with them. That kind of gang.

I've taken that to heart. When I meet with audiences, I relay that. You can retreat ad give up, or find other people who notice the same things and find some strength in that.

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NUVO: After the interview, did you feel compelled to go back and re-read some of the books you might've read before you met Vonnegut — or read those books you hadn't read at all?

Brancaccio: I'd read a bunch going into the interview that I hadn't read in years. I read Slaughterhouse Five again ... I'd never read Breakfast of Champions. I might've been the last guy on Earth who hadn't read [that book].

I had done some coverage of the 50th Anniversary of the German Marshall plan. I went over to Germany and did Marketplace there on that anniversary. The ghosts of the past were very much on our minds on that anniversary. Seeing some of the ruined cathedrals — I didn't go to Dresden, but I went through Cologne to see the remnants there. I remember sitting down with Vonnegut and that was, I think — I don't know what scholars would say — but that was really the thing that altered the course of his life. I think a lot of what he did was always informed by that.

I think the other thing — and I haven't developed these thoughts fully, I've still got more time before I come see you guys! — I saw William F. Buckley's son Chris perform with Steve Martin. Someone asked Buckley what his biggest influence was. He said "MAD magazine." That opened up the world to me.

I realized at that moment that MAD was one of MY biggest influences. That magazine taught me about planned obsolence in products, marketing, cynical advertising, and what I realized was Vonnegut's got a lot of that, too: the serious, serious sense of purpose underneath really funny stuff. He never took himself seriously, but he took the issues seriously.

For more info and tickets to "Night of Vonnegut," click here.

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