Every year, the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library hosts "Night of Vonnegut,"
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.
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
I caught up with David Brancaccio by phone at his office in
New York just after he wrapped up a broadcast.
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!
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?
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
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
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.
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
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.