This Saturday, the radio variety show West Coast Live will broadcast its ninth anniversary program from Berkeley, in what host Sedge Thomson has called "The Freight & Salvage Performing Arts Center." Anyone familiar with the Freight & Salvage will recognize the hyperbole in that remark -- the place is a hallowed, but humble, coffeehouse -- and anyone familiar with West Coast Live, which at its best is at once transporting and grounding, will recognize the truth. As its producer, Brian Vanneman, explained recently, far-flung audiences "have this larger-than-life perception of the show. And Sedge kind of revels in that." Surely this is a radio host's prerogative, if one that must be earned. "People think that it's this kind of big, slick media operation," Vanneman continued, before loosing a short fit of laughter. "We try to be professional, but it's still a funky little public radio show."
West Coast Live is carried by KALW, and based in San Francisco, but often broadcasts from elsewhere -- a few home-away-from-homes like the Freight and more remote outposts, including such wildernesses as Yosemite, Alaska, and Palo Alto. It has thrived for these nine years because it puts the world in an appealing perspective, leaving some of it to the imagination but still making it seem well-designed; because it feels homegrown but not provincial (as Vanneman notes without much remorse, "We try not to be too exclusively Bay Area, but sometimes it ends up being that way"); and because it exudes a steady and contagious faith in the idea that the two hours between ten and noon on Saturday should not be idle, or, as Thomson once remarked, "regarded as radio landfill," but rather put to use for leisurely engagement in music, art, literature, and good conversation.
You needn't be a live radio nostalgist or a multimedia Luddite to appreciate the jaunty charm and exuberance of a West Coast Live broadcast. One show not long ago featured the Byzantine Chorale of the Kykkos Monastery of Cyprus singing ninth-century sacred music, followed by urban geographer Bonnie Loyd's reviews of coffeehouse beverages. This Saturday's anniversary celebration will include a "heartfelt venting" from author and WCL mainstay Anne Lamott, musical interludes from surprise guests, sketch artists from the San Francisco SketchFest, "and some other wacky stuff," Vanneman said. "It's a pretty loose formula. It's kind of like CliffsNotes for the local arts scene." By which he means the program is designed to open your ears to what's going on around here.
The audience, which will likely have bagels thrown its way, and have a few of its "true stories" read on the air, is, as Vanneman put it, "not a real see-and-be-seen crowd." This makes good sense for a radio show, and certainly adds to the general feeling of inclusiveness. They will also have the usual reliable guide in Thomson, who succeeds as an entertainer because he doesn't strain to entertain, and tends to ask questions motivated by his own well-targeted curiosity. His voice is about as radio-right as they come, and his manner could be described as no-nonsense, were it not for his impish proclivity for at least a little nonsense now and then.
West Coast Live broadcasts at 10 a.m. Saturday, January 11 at Freight & Salvage, 1111 Addison Street, Berkeley. Call 415-664-9500 for reservations, or visit www.wcl.org
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