LAFAYETTE -- In case you missed it, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee declared Feb. 15 "Michael Krasny Day," honoring the longtime radio host's 20 years at the microphone.
The Commonwealth Club of California is extending the hoopla into the East Bay with a March 21 commemorative event at the Lafayette Veterans Memorial building.
As host of "Forum," the popular National Public Radio news, literature and arts program, Krasny asks more questions than your mother did when you missed curfew as a teen. But it's a lot more fun to listen to the dignified (and occasionally indignant) answers of the distinguished people on his guest list. -- Hillary Rodham Clinton, Al Gore, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Rosa Parks, Toni Morrison, Newt Gingrich, Robert Redford, John Updike, Michael Chabon, Maya Angelou and plenty of others.
The show's ratings are, and mostly have been, on an upward trajectory for two decades.
Krasny lit-speaks like the San Francisco State University Professor of English he also is. In a 60-minute interview two weeks before his visit to Lafayette, Krasny is challenging, like the final round of a spelling bee championship ("Quick! How do you spell that obscure Yiddish word, or the multi-syllabic surname of that Russian author?"). And he's thorny, suggesting after 30 minutes that readers might not be interested in him. At all.
It's not exactly arm wrestling, but there's a visceral, sweat-invoking reality to a Krasny encounter. It's verbal fencing, ending in, "Boy, was that fun, or what?"
"Thanks for keeping from road rage," he says, responding to a suggestion that his 9-11 AM show distracts a driver from violence aimed at errant turn signalers and their ilk.
Krasny says he prefers face-to-face conversations over phone interviews like this one, because there's a wealth of information in a face.
"I can make eye contact and use gestures. In the studio, I have an arsenal of tools," he says.
Included in that toolbox is research. Krasny is a voracious consumer of the written word.
"It's entirely dependent on who I'm talking to and it's hard to quantify the time. It's like being open for business seven days a week."
Between his teaching and radio gigs, he's also managed to write two books, "Off Mike," a memoir, and "Spiritual Envy," an investigation into agnosticism. He's working on a third book, about honor, or "kavod."
"The genesis is a Yiddish word, suggesting respect and recognition," he explains. "In terms of my own life, it's a driver, but in a broader sense, there's a scholarly historic meaning. It's behind a lot of nations, wars, aggression."
This is vintage Krasny -- a single word sprouts classifications. Before you know it, there's "toxic honor," defined as aggressive and retaliatory, like terrorist attacks; "generational honor," like opposition to the war in Vietnam or support for the Civil Rights movement; "noble honor," the form that led to duels and foot binding; and "American vestigial honor," like a writer's road rage.
What makes Krasny fascinating is that he's talked to leaders in all these honorable categories. And he's not afraid to stir up trouble -- not in pursuit of a ratings bump, but to relieve his boundless curiosity.
One program on hip-hop had "people who are stodgy and think it's coarse or vulgar" objecting. He's interviewed boring guests, who he says require him to "be an alchemist, to make it interesting." He's even hosted a mime.
"Making something that's highly visual work on radio is the crux of what I do," he says.
But he hasn't interviewed everyone he'd like to, which is why he reluctantly agrees to a game.
"What would I ask Shakespeare?" he reflects. "I'd start in a gentle vein, but I'd want to get to asking him about his sexuality, how he viewed people of darker color and Jews. The questions would be interminable."
George W. Bush? Krasny would ask the former president about faith, drones, public enmity and what was in his head in that Texas classroom when he was told about the 9-11 attacks.
He would ask President Obama about political polarization and whether his commander-in-chief position gives him the right to order kills, at will, without adjudication.
And his mother and father, both deceased, he'd honor by asking for answers we all seek from our ancestors: Who are we -- this family -- and why.
Twenty years of thinking on the opposite side of the mic from some of the most interesting, knowledgeable and outspoken people in the world has made Krasny a mighty oak, with fascinating stories buried beneath his "bark."
A last question, about retirement, reveals Krasny, the wordsmith.
"There's a mechanism inside me that will say secession. It will signal rest, hang up my cleats, I hope, gracefully. But not yet."
When: March 21,
Where: Lafayette Veterans Memorial building, 3780 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette
Cost: $22 standard, $12 members, $7 students (with valid ID). Premium (seating in first few rows )$45, standard, $30