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RADIO : Gotham Grump : Larry Josephson is the host of a public-radio show. He's liberal, in an old-fashioned way, politically incorrect--and really angry

March 01, 1992|SEAN MITCHELL | Sean Mitchell, who is based in New York, is a frequent contributor to Calendar.

NEW YORK — Every week Larry Josephson wants to quit. He gets to thinking about the hours he puts into his bi-coastal Saturday night public-radio show, "Modern Times," about the money he gets in return for these hours (none, according to him), about his love-hate relationship with his West Coast boss, KCRW-FM General Manager Ruth Hirschman, who, he says, does not appreciate him.

He thinks about the fact that he is 52, is not regularly employed, is in debt to credit-card companies, has no pension waiting for him, no savings and a daughter on her way to college.

He thinks about the sublime folly of giving his much-examined life to public radio, where even the good-paying jobs can make teachers' salaries look appealing.

Josephson, in fact, is likely to be grousing about these very matters as he glides slowly, like a Jewish Buddha on casters, through the studios of WNYC, on the 25th floor of the Municipal Building in Lower Manhattan early on a Saturday evening before his live show goes on the air (at 6 p.m. West Coast time). Staff members scurry about searching for guests who haven't arrived, transoceanic telephone connections are being tested for clarity, a substitute engineer inquires about Josephson's monitor levels, and Josephson barks back that they are much too loud.

"How long has Larry been in this mood?" the engineer asks someone in the control room.

"Since he got back from California," a producer answers, meaning since the end of September.

But then 9 p.m. Eastern time arrives, and the bearded, bulky host, who bears a passing resemblance to organist Garth Hudson of the Band, sits down in front of a microphone, drops his scowl and begins to share his ego and a warm intellectuality with listeners in Los Angeles, New York and 21 other cities across the American Public Radio Network.

On this night the topic is "The Mind of Japan," but on another night it would have been women's sexuality, Norman Mailer, California cuisine, the Kurds, Barbara Ehrenreich, cross-dressing, the end of socialism, media coverage of the Gulf War, Irving Howe, multiculturalism and political correctness, Janet Malcolm versus Joe McGinness, homelessness, Father's Day, domestic violence or cats.

When his two hours of live on-airness are over and Japan has been given the Josephson treatment of educated but emotional analysis punctuated with jokey banter, the host quietly bids goodby to his studio guests, gathers his books and papers into a bulging briefcase, rides the elevator down, signs out at the Municipal Building security desk, drifts toward a waiting cab and heads back uptown for a midnight supper of steak and French onion soup in a restaurant. Sometimes he just gets a pizza and takes it home to his Upper West Side apartment, where he consumes it in front of the television and in the reassuring company of his two cats, Kitty and White Kitty. Tonight, like most Saturday nights, doing the program has lifted his veil of grumpiness and made him feel good again. "About half the time it's exhilarating," he says later. And he decides not to quit--at least not until next week.

About 75,000 people each week listen to Josephson, based on audience estimates, or about the same number as subscribe to a magazine like the Nation.

He has built this following presumably because his cantankerousness is the real thing in a broadcast era of soft schmooze and artificial provocation.

Technically, "Modern Times" is a talk show, but it's a talk show that begins and ends with "The William Tell Overture." The program is more like one mordantly curious man's attempt to grapple with the Zeitgeist on a weekly basis--winner take all. It's a show about life in the big city, about the differences between Los Angeles and New York and about the casualties of what used to be called--in a more innocent time--the war between the sexes. There are smart guests and smart callers, but most of all there is Josephson himself, an old-fashioned liberal and confessional philosopher who bends the program unapologetically to his own obsessions and discontent. There are a lot of shows about men and women, food and serious books. There are fewer about Hollywood and none about the environment or exercise.

It is not a "high-energy" show, he admits, and in keeping with this his voice is tender and deliberate while often pitched in the key of outrage or lamentation.

Adamantly autobiographical, he tries to keep things personal and leads with his id. While canvassing a panel of scholars about Japan's refusal to trade evenly with the United States, he interjected, in a line you probably wouldn't hear from Ted Koppel, "Is it like a woman withholding love?" He also said at one point, reflecting on his own girth, "I love Japanese cars, even though I don't fit into them."

He rarely hides his deeper feelings about a subject, even when they are likely to be unpopular with his politically correct public- radio audience.

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