NPR’s Conan, Rudin and Chadwick on stage at Hanna Boys Center
National Public Radio alum call themselves “Nippers,” and there’s a whole colony of them showing up in Sonoma this month.
Leading up to the November presidential election, an all-star cast of NPR voices comes to the stage for the first of the planned Sonoma Speakers Series, “In Conversation with Neal Conan and Ken Rudin,” on Monday, Oct. 17.
On the Hanna Boys Center stage, starting at 7 p.m., Alex Chadwick will interview Conan and Rudin in conversation about the ups and downs, ins and outs of this very unusual political year.
Just seeing those names in print is strange: they are far more often heard than read. The same applies to the other broadcast veteran that Kathy Witkowicki has recruited for the Sonoma Speakers Series, John McChesney – the former "Talk of the Nation" host who now lives in Sonoma.
When Witkowicki stepped down as executive director of the Mentoring Alliance early in 2015, she said at the time, “I have this interest in building a speaker series here in Sonoma Valley,” modeled after the Commonwealth Club, City Arts & Lectures and the Marin Speaker Series. After she serendipitously met Chadwick and McChesney a few months ago, she said, “The time must be right.”
The theme of this first Conversation will be the 2016 election, one that seems in a constant state of rebooting. It will take place just a couple days before the third and final debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump and, if the past few months are any indication, the ground could shift yet again between now and then – and between then and election day.
“The conversation will assess how the campaign is evolving in this remarkable election year,” said Chadwick, who will act as moderator for the event. He noted that the viability of the two-party system itself might be at risk. “But the whole system seems highly polarized and non-functional, and uninterested in returning to function.”
Ken Rudin has an identity as a “political junkie,” which is, as it happens, the name of his current podcast, following his years as a political editor for NPR. He knows his stuff: he picked Mike Pence to be Donald Trump’s VP choice weeks ahead of Trump’s announcement (though he missed with his hunch that Sherrod Brown would be Clinton’s pick). He has promised to bring along a version of his Scuttlebutton, a PowerPoint word game composed of elements from his collection of about 70,000 political buttons gathered over the years.
If Rudin has been following the election cycle closely, the same can’t be said of Neal Conan. For the past month he’s been in a small village in Zimbabwe, with his wife Gretel Ehrlich, working as a volunteer in a children’s protection village. But the former host of “Talk of the Nation” has been keeping up, as his recent Facebook posts show, and should be dialed in for the Oct. 17 event.
For Chadwick, who will anchor the inaugural Sonoma Speakers Series conversation, coming to Sonoma marks a major life change after 25 years in Southern California, and almost 40 years with NPR. Chadwick found his career as a journalist after he returned from military service, joining NPR as a reporter in the mid-1970s. While there he helped launch “Morning Edition,” hosted “All Things Considered,” and explored the world of audio with “Radio Expeditions” (produced in association with National Geographic).
In 2003 he and his wife Carolyn Jenson, also an NPR producer, moved to LA so he could host “Day-to-Day,” the public network’s attempt to create a mid-day radio magazine to pair with Morning Edition and the afternoon program All Things Considered. It proved an uphill battle: the other two programs are “drive-time” radio, far easier to capture a radio audience and, with their loyalty, the revenue that public fundraising could bring in.
The program – which was carried only briefly by NPR’s San Francisco outlet, KQED-FM – was cancelled in 2009, when NPR ran into financial trouble, and Chadwick was laid off. It was the beginning of a difficult time for Chadwick: Jenson died in 2010 after a struggle with myeloma, and in 2013 he tumbled down the steps of his Marina Del Rey condo and landed in the hospital, suffering a brain injury that took almost a year of recovery.
His NPR colleague John McChesney, who moved to Sonoma eight years ago, urged him to visit, and encouraged his decision to relocate here. It turns out that moving to Sonoma, which he did within the past year, has given Chadwick renewed purpose and, more than that, a much-need sense of place. “It feels like the America that I imagined I was going to find when I was about 10 years old,” he said. “I didn’t think there was any place like this, but here it is.”
The Oct. 17 is the first of the new Sonoma Speaker Series, but plans are already well underway for the second, to be held Dec. 5. For that one McChesney will interview two-time Oscar-winning sound designer Randy Thom (“The Right Stuff” and “The Incredibles”).
All proceeds from the event will benefit the youth-serving organizations Sonoma Valley Mentoring Alliance (www.sonomamentoring.org) and A Home Within (www.ahomewithin.org).
Contact Christian at email@example.com.