Kurt Andersen gives spark to ‘Studio 360’

By Deborah Caulfield Rybak

Who’d have thought that Minneapolis-based Public Radio International (PRI), once mainly a distributor of such homespun classics as “A Prairie Home Companion,” would evolve into public radio’s equivalent of HBO in terms of turning out cutting-edge programming?

Consider “Studio 360,” a PRI-WYNC Radio New York co-production that since February has aired locally at 2 p.m. Sundays on KNOW-91.1 FM. It’s described as an arts-and-culture show, which may sound rather dull and sedate. But that’s like describing HBO’s “Six Feet Under” as a show about a mortuary.

Each week, host Kurt Andersen – a vibrant fixture in cultural journalism since his days as co-founder of Spy Magazine – presides over a stunning hourlong array of topics and guests, both highbrow and low, organized around a central theme.

Last week’s show provided a perfect example of Studio 360’s mantra: “where art and real life collide.” With “artistic rivalry” as the umbrella theme, Andersen talked with author Paul Theroux about his highly publicized rift with his former mentor V.S. Naipaul, which led to a longer piece on cultural rivalry through history. Also included: pieces on Hong Kong action-film battles and competition between hip-hop artists. Another feature looked at embedded “combat artists” who’ve been creating art from U.S. military battles since the Revolutionary War.

“It’s a great gig,” Andersen said during a recent visit to the Twin Cities from his home in Brooklyn.

A Big Dog

Andersen is one of mediadom’s big dogs: After he and Spy co-founder Graydon Carter (now Vanity Fair’s editor) helped bring about the Age of Irony, Andersen’s seemingly genetic sense of zeitgeist took him through gigs at New York magazine (editor), the New Yorker (cultural correspondent) and the aggressive but short-lived media insider Web site (co-founder).

He is so well connected that many reviews of his 1999 first novel, “Turn of the Century,” began with disclosures of a reviewer’s personal or work relationship with him. Despite plenty of publicity, the book never became a bestseller.

“Turn” also was prescient, lampooning the stock market, reality TV, Silicon Valley and cyberspace with a style many compared to Tom Wolfe and “Bonfire of the Vanities.”

With those kinds of creds, it wouldn’t have been surprising to find a black-clad, attitude-heavy cognoscente holding court in an upstairs parlor at the Minneapolis Club.

But Andersen more reflects his Midwestern roots (he was born and raised in Omaha) in looks and attitude. A lanky, boyish 48, he is predictably witty and cool but unafraid to reveal his enthusiasm for a topic with wild gesticulation.

“I can’t imagine a better perch from which to do media and quasi-journalism,” he said. “In the broadcast world, there generally aren’t a lot of places to have serious but not homework-y conversations about ideas and culture and movies and TV, but also painting and sculpture – serious and not so serious. I’m happy to be a part of that.”

He’s Delighted

As a newly minted “radio talent,” he’s been delighted at the response to Studio 360 – now heard on more than 160 stations nationwide.

“It’s a great audience. At the New Yorker, aside from my mother, I never knew anybody who read [my pieces]. But we’re getting amazing listener response.”

Dean Cappello, WNYC’s vice president of programming, said Andersen embodies Studio 360’s intent.

“Everything that Kurt did up to that point kind of led to what the show tries to do,” he said. “He has the unique ability to make connections between ideas that aren’t always obvious to other people: There is no disconnect for him between the hottest movie star in Hollywood and high art.”

Andersen opens each show with a commentary as far-ranging in subject as the show. He has scoffed at U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft’s decision to shroud a bare-breasted statue in the Justice Department’s Great Hall, wondered who the modern composer equivalents of Brahms and Tchaikovsky are and “why we don’t know their names,” and used Google to find the number of Internet citations for “love.”

While many of his commentaries over the past few months referenced the war in Iraq, he’s carefully avoided political posturing, saying “my tendency in all things is not to go to the poles.”

Andersen said he spends about half his working time on the show and the rest at home on his second novel – a historical fiction – which he hopes to finish by year’s end. It may sound strange for someone considered a modern-day cultural oracle to turn to the past – until he describes the historical period he plans to cover.

“It’s a period of time around 1848 where all this amazing stuff all happened: the Gold Rush, the telegraph, the railroad, photography and a wave of revolutions that swept like a tsunami across Europe.

“I didn’t want to write the same book over and over,” he said, then added dryly, “although that may be what I’m doing in my odd 150-years-ago kind of way.

For Andersen, “dividing my time between a radio show and writing novels every few years looks really good. It’s a comfortable place.”