In praise of West Coast Live

Three weeks of a dead computer, and those same weeks of nonstop book tour and related chores, can keep a man off the internet.

A note for further consideration: this morning in the San Francisco, as the very last stop in the United States before returning to Shanghai, I had the joy of appearing on Sedge Thomson's West Coast Live.

This is a public-radio program not as well known as it should be to the world at large. If Prairie Home Companion can spawn its own sub-industry, if Garrison Keillor can be a movie star, then Sedge Thomson and his efforts deserve to be at least celebrated enough so that if you heard the name "Sedge" in any context, you'd be able to fill in the references as you can now with "Garrison."

The show is like Prairie Home Companion in the sense that live music, and the host's personality, are two central elements of its appeal. It is different in that it simply seems cooler. (It is usually broadcast live from a louche place called the Empire Plush Room in San Francisco.) Instead of skits and monologues it has interviews conducted by Thomson -- and at the moment I can't think of anyone who is his equal at getting guests off their normal schtick and talking about something interesting and surprising. (Ie: the opposite of Larry King.) He does it without notes, but obviously with careful preparation and with enough time to get the guest away from anything like a canned theme. In my case, he figured out within 30 seconds that I was at the robo-answer stage when it came to anything involving the subject of my latest book. So pretty soon we were talking about .. well, much more interesting things. I have seen and heard him do this time and again. The gifted jazz pianist Mike Greensill is a standard feature of the show; today, they also had singers from the local production of Mother Courage.

More about West Coast Live here and here. The subject for later discussion: that the West Coast is, well, simply better than the East. Seattle, Los Angeles, the San Francisco area -- these are the magical cities of our country. (Yes, OK, I still love Duluth, where as it happens West Coast Live is broadcast.) This is my own particular drama, as someone originally from California who has not figured out how to make the West my professional base. A challenge to reflect upon in Shanghai.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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