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.

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.

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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