SAN DIEGO — Shortly after signing on as co-host of "Sun Up San Diego" two years ago, Kathi Diamant interviewed a guest who had absolutely no understanding of television talk show protocol.
Instead of politely answering each question with a provocative comment or candid observation, this guest responded with a series of menacing snarls.
Then, when the segment was over, this guest didn't thank Diamant with the customary handshake. Instead, she chased her startled inquisitor around the set.
"Once each week, someone from the San Diego Zoo comes on with an animal," said Diamant, a trim blonde with the sort of fresh-scrubbed face you see in toothpaste ads.
In Path of 'Fastest Cat in the Wild'
"In this instance, the animal was a full-grown black leopard, the fastest cat in the wild," Diamant said. "Apparently, she wanted to get back to her cage, and I was standing in her way.
"When I reacted so quickly, I became a toy. The leopard chased me around the sofa, dragging along her trainer by the leash. It took the trainer two minutes to contain the cat, but it took me the rest of the show to catch my breath."
Diamant considers this her "scariest moment" yet as a member of San Diego's television talk show corps, a gabby throng of broadcast journalists whose job it is to elevate the art of conversation into a countywide forum for discussion.
"Sun Up San Diego," hosted by Diamant and Jerry G. Bishop, is the longest-running of San Diego's seven locally produced TV talk shows. The hourlong program debuted in 1961 and airs each weekday, starting at 8 a.m., on KFMB (Channel 8).
Fortunately for Diamant, most "Sun Up" guests--usually five per show--are a lot more proper and correct than the surly leopard.
Thousands of Guests
Among the thousands of guests who have appeared over the years are authors plugging their latest novels and politicians plugging themselves; dietitians and beauticians; physicians and musicians; mind readers and cheerleaders.
Topics of discussion are generally light and relative to "what's going on in San Diego," said Channel 8 program director Jules Moreland.
"We don't specialize in controversy," Moreland said. "We're more interested in letting our viewers know what's going on in the county. Most of our guests are local people who for one reason or another are in the news: a new city council member, a new mayor, a health care specialist, an employment counselor, an expert on earthquakes.
"On occasion, we feature celebrities. Just about every big entertainer, like Charlton Heston and Gregory Peck, has been through here at least once. John Ehrlichman comes on every time he writes a new book, and so do lots of other writers.
"But even then, we try to steer the conversation around something relative to San Diego. The heart of our programming is local coverage, and I think our viewers expect that from us."
Gloria Penner, whose 5-year-old "Gloria Penner in Conversation" airs on KPBS (Channel 15), agrees.
"The value of a local talk show lies in bringing people who influence the lives of San Diegans before the viewers in a very personal way," said Penner, who spends each half-hour segment with a single guest.
"It's almost like having somebody like Linda Smith (leader of Mothers Embracing Nuclear Disarmament) in your living room for half an hour, or seeing the energy of (Padres announcer) Jerry Coleman up close. You see these people in their jobs, or read about them in the newspaper, but you never get the chance to sit down with them and just talk.
"As a result, I try to have the same sort of conversation I think our audience would like to have. I enjoy talking to people, particularly politicians, with a philosophy to discuss, with some deep thinking going on.
"I let my guests talk about whatever's important to them, because it helps them relax. And when they relax, you get a good feeling of who they are as people, not just names in the news."
(Penner's show is now off the air for its summer break; during the fall she does programs on local elections called "Ballot.")
While "Sun Up" avoids controversy and "Gloria Penner in Conversation" tends to shun a confrontational style, a third San Diego TV talk show, "Stanley Tonight" on KUSI (Channel 51) takes a different tack.
Siegel and Strong Subjects
"Our show is bolted on strong subjects," said Stanley Siegel, whose hourlong program airs each Saturday and Sunday at 10 p.m. "We're not afraid to talk about anything--and on this show, anything can happen."
The always-animated Siegel, the P.T. Barnum of local television, hosted talk shows in New York and Nashville before bringing his broadcast circus to San Diego, and Channel 51, last August.
Since then, Siegel, in his self-appointed role as ringleader, has mediated--and antagonized--such warring factions as gays and Christian fundamentalists, white supremacists and black activists, and punk rockers and their parents.