ON a Sunday morning like any other, when so many Southern Californians are sleeping in or heading to the beach, Ian Masters, Australian expatriate, former BBC journalist, Hollywood dropout and indefatigable student of American foreign policy, has arrived at his post behind a live microphone in the political free-fire zone of KPFK-FM (90.7) on Cahuenga Boulevard.
Looking a bit bleary-eyed, Masters nevertheless has an air of authority about him. Dressed in a smart sports coat and pressed jeans, with a healthy shag of white hair and overseas accent, he reminds you of a former road manager for the Rolling Stones. "I didn't get much sleep last night, my girlfriend was up sick," he tells me moments before the clock in the studio reads 11 a.m. straight up, and he bends into the microphone to introduce today's edition of "Background Briefing," his brainy show about current events and geopolitics that he has been doing for 26 years.
Like many programmers in public radio, Masters gets no money -- zero -- for all the hours that go into producing a program that is considerably more ambitious and frequently more illuminating than such Sunday morning television fare as NBC's "Meet the Press" and ABC's "This Week With George Stephanopoulos."
Though he doesn't earn a salary for "Background Briefing" and "Live From the Left Coast," the name given to a second hour he got as a consolation prize in 2002 for surviving one of the purges that occasionally sweep through left-leaning Pacifica affiliate KPFK, the two shows earn a good amount of money for the station in donations. "In the last pledge drive, Ian raised $10,600 an hour," says KPFK senior producer Alan Minsky, "which was substantially higher than any other show -- and he's not in a prime radio slot."
On this day, Masters will interview ex-CIA officer Graeme Fuller to talk about the possibility of a U.S. military strike against Iran; he will talk to constitutional law professor Dawn Johnsen of Indiana University about the U.S. attorney firings and then to Rocky Anderson, the mayor of Salt Lake City, who has called for the impeachment of President Bush. In the second hour he will phone "old friend" Gloria Steinem to talk about the Hillary Clinton-Barack Obama rivalry and then interview Jeremy Scahill, the author of "Blackwater," about the 100,000 American private contractors operating in Iraq.
He will cross this expanse of intellectual and political terrain armed with smart questions drawn from a store of knowledge and reasoned opinion that he does not hesitate to share. His interviews tend to be more conversational and more probing than most -- a rare mix that eschews the kind of formal objectivity familiar to American broadcast journalism without lapsing into pure advocacy or rant. With his clear, understated voice set at an unwavering pitch, Masters seems to be pushing ever onward toward the heart of the matter.
"You try not to bring baggage to the story," he says. "You try to be an advocate for the truth, not an ideology. Ideology has been the death of the American right and self-righteousness the death of the left." It's not just his accent that reveals that Masters grew up in a very different political culture. "Politics is more of a contact sport in Australia and England," he notes.
"He has the ability to ask questions and provide a point of view that inspires people to go deeper into subjects," says Andrew Davis, the Hollywood director of "The Fugitive" and "Collateral Damage" and a longtime friend who has used Masters as a consultant. "He sees linkages that other people don't see."
Often out in front of the herd, Masters was among the first to interview former diplomat and WMD-debunking emissary Joseph C. Wilson IV about the problematic case made by the administration to go to war. Well before Scooter Libby went on trial for perjury in the outing of Wilson's CIA agent wife, Valerie Plame, Masters interviewed Vincent Cannistraro, former head of counterterrorism at the CIA, who told him he believed the forged letters implicating the African nation Niger in uranium sales to Iraq (and mysteriously acquired by an Italian intelligence agency) originated not in Niger or Italy but in the U.S.
Sometimes the program contains so much bracing information from political insiders, scholars and authors about the deceits and policy failures of government leaders, it is hard to listen and not despair.
"It is a dilemma," Masters says, "but you can't be Pollyanna. I think people fighting the good fight are inspiring. At the end of the day, it's all about trying to empower citizenship. I've spent some time in Washington, and I'll tell you there isn't much to expect from the people on the Hill. The lobbyists are in control. Until the people get back into it, nothing is going to change."
Documentary as springboard