End of the Bat
The last episode of The Bat Segundo Show will air shortly before Election Day. The schedule for the last few shows — and I’m not sure how many there will be — will be intermittent and irregular. The time has come for me to move on. This wasn’t an easy choice, but it was a necessary one.
History has demonstrated that a specialized dirigible of this type can float in the air for only so long. Tom Snyder’s The Tomorrow Show — which aired an especially gutsy interview with Charles Manson and opened its forum to in-depth talk with emerging musicians and cult figures — carried on for eight years, despite constant creative interventions from NBC. Dick Cavett’s ABC incarnation — the version frequently held up as primo — lasted six years. The Mike Wallace Interview, despite the indelible onyx background and the jasper smouldering in the tough interlocutor’s hand, lasted a little more than three years.
Stacked against these models of smart and engaging conversation, nearly 500 installments of The Bat Segundo Show aired over eight years isn’t bad. I’ve put out more episodes than This American Life, although it took Ira Glass and company seventeen years to hit half a grand. My rate of productivity was also slightly better than William Buckley, who pumped out 1,504 episodes of Firing Line over 33 years. These guys had a staff. I didn’t.
I also did not have Wallace’s Parliament Cigarettes to hawk. (I kicked smoking more than two years ago, which may explain why my slight rasp turned somewhat nasal and mildly mellifluous in the last 150 shows.) There was a long period where, despite hundreds of telephone calls and emails, I could not persuade a single advertiser to sponsor the show, although I did have some advertising on this website for a while and, near the end, sponsorship arrived through the good people at Litbreaker. Some income came from turning these programs into newspaper profiles or abridged bits that did not reflect the totality of these in-depth talks. But that’s to be expected. Because the dirty little secret about radio is that many of its finest practitioners can’t even turn a dime. This is a medium designed to be cut into manageable bits, arranged around selling things or hawking selves rather than the other way around.
I fought against these conditions for a long time, but the time has come to move on. If Bat Segundo’s end is how I get somewhere grand or more meaningful, then I would rather risk everything than mope about what I did not attempt or bray about what I did not have the guts to grow into.
I was told by one radio program director that I was “too intellectual” — even though I don’t consider myself much of one. I just read the books, thought about the ideas, staked out original angles, and did independent research. There were some email volleys with another station manager who inveigled me with the prospect of a weekly unpaid slot, but only if I didn’t talk books and only if I dumbed things down. I was never contacted by a single mainstream outlet during the eight years I ran the show, although a handful were kind enough to mention me.
I certainly never set out to dismiss Michael Silverblatt or Robert Birnbaum, who both still do first-rate erudite work. (I have been fortunate to have wonderful conversations with both gentlemen, on and off air.) I worked damn hard to keep Bat Segundo going, often when I had only a handful of dollars in my checking account. I always insisted on high standards, and maybe that was part of the problem. I read the books in full for every guest who appeared on the program, no matter if the volume was 200 pages or 1,000 pages: sometimes twice, sometimes taking notes, sometimes in tandem with other tomes. Sometimes I photocopied interesting articles and gave them to authors. I felt that anything less than this minimum industry was an insult to the author. But what use is a work ethic in an attention economy?
With rare exceptions, I met each author in person. Because that was the only way to do it. This often allowed for unusual encounters, such as the award-winning novelist who I once telephoned from a hotel lobby as his attentions were diverted by a prostitute (to his credit, he did the interview anyway) or the author who was so needlessly nervous that he showed up stinking of redolent weed (I said nothing, but was happy to see him clean up his act years later) or the guest who was so insecure that he asked me to feel his bicep (I did; why not?). Such human moments allowed me to care more about the authors, even as I maintained a febrile curiosity and did my best to ask honest questions, finessing some of the more challenging and critical queries with this ethos in mind.
Each installment took me a minimum of 20 hours to produce. This ranged from booking the interview (which could be anywhere from 5 minutes to three hours to negotiate; it was always the midlisters who gave me the most trouble, not the big names), reading and research, preparing about two single-spaced pages of questions and bullet points that I often disregarded, and mastering the rattly audio that I recorded in cafes, restaurants, hotel lobbies, mysterious rooms, parks, graveyards, laundromats, and any practical location I could discover in a pinch. There’s the maxim touted by reductionist thinkers that 10,000 hours (20 hours x 500 shows) make one a success at any given field. Well, if that’s the case, then Malcolm Gladwell should see how much I earned out.
I grew up doing this show. Perhaps the real commodity I’m considering is time and how to invest this precious and fast-flowing measure with greater sagacity.
I do know that a number of authors were greatly helped by these conversations. I do know that a number of listeners were inspired to pick up books. I do know that there are groups in Switzerland and Norway who are huge fans of the show. I have been genuinely surprised and humbled and moved by the numerous kindnesses expressed by many over the last eight years. The opportunity to connect with so many great books and great people behind the books has been truly incredible.
On the other hand, why should I expect anyone to engage with the history of credit or a conversation revealing what one man has spent forty decades to put together when they can have something more soothing and less challenging? Television, +1 culture, distracting smartphones, and the need to zone out are the present villains against American engagement. Only two of these were around when I started out. It wasn’t as if I didn’t try to make the pith I had seductive or entertaining. Loyal listeners reminded me that I cracked jokes throughout, even when the elaborate Bat Segundo intros became less frequent.
It’s possible that I’ve exhausted my thoughts on literature in this form. My passion for books hasn’t waned, but I may have become too polished, with each interview becoming something akin to slipping on a comfy pair of shoes. If you’re getting closer to forty and you’re going through the motions, there’s a good chance you’re erecting a massive obstacle preventing you from blossoming. I don’t want to stagnate. I want to up the ante and stop repeating myself. My general sense is that this nice round number of 500 is telling me to move on.
The final episode of The Bat Segundo Show will be recorded at McNally Jackson on October 3, 2012 with J. Robert Lennon, who is a deeply underappreciated writer who has taken more lumps than a man of his talent has any right to deserve. Lennon, who appeared previously on the 300th episode of The Bat Segundo Show, is one of the most underrated writers working today and I can’t think of a more fitting way to end the program. Please stop by and say hello if you can.
This was a very fun part of my life, but I’ve got to move on. Thanks to friends and loved ones who put up with me. Thanks to the writers and other folks who came on the show, and the publicists who took chances with my format. Thanks to everyone who listened.