Talk radio's intelligent connection

When TV anchorman Christopher Lydon grew a mustache, his viewers talked about it for weeks. "You'd think I'd grown another head," he recalls.

Now Mr. Lydon could dye his hair magenta, and few people would notice. That's one of the many advantages of life on radio, says Lydon, who for the past 4-1/2 years has been host of "The Connection," a radio call-in show beamed from WBUR, Boston's public-radio station, to 25 other stations around the country.

"Television is all about hair," Lydon says he found during his previous job anchoring The 10 O'clock News at Boston's WGBH-TV. "It's great if you're selling something, but not if you want to have a conversation about ideas."

For two hours a day, five days a week, "The Connection" aims to be just that. With Lydon presiding, guests from all walks of life - authors, musicians, poets, scientists, politicians, ministers, chefs, and more - converse about ideas of mutual delight, passion, or puzzlement with listeners who seem compelled to dial in.

"There isn't a topic that doesn't light up the phones," said Lydon during a break between meetings at the WBUR studios. "Practically everybody has some area of life that is blazingly alive and intense ... people just turn up and want to get in on the conversation."

He is sometimes surprised by the response. Like the time when Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat lit up the phones "like crazy" after Lydon had been fretting that she was too obscure. "Until I got her book, I had no idea who she was. Many of the callers were Haitian, and some of them cab drivers whom I've met since. They just adore her."

Not unlike an online Internet chat group, "Connection" listeners seem to enjoy "meeting" others who share interest in, say, Robert Frost or Brahms or holiday recipes. "People are sort of joining a club of listeners who sound like them," Lydon says. He considers his audience not one group of 100,000 or so weekly listeners, but "thousands of clusters of like-minded folk."

If the first hour's topic doesn't resonate with listeners, the second one might. One recent morning, Lydon started the program with a timely talk about Kosovo. Then he leapt from international politics to a personal topic, moderating a poignant discussion between Irish author Nuala O'Faolain and listeners who related to her struggles with loneliness and singlehood.

That day's program was "a combination of my two lives," says the Boston-born, Yale-schooled Lydon. He explains that the first topic jelled well with his journalistic interests and especially his years as a reporter for The New York Times. The second reflects his growing fascination with the "emotional, mysterious sides of life."

Such diversity of subject matter has become a "Connection" trademark. "We're just dealing with the stuff of people's lives," he says. "It's what everyone does everyday. People leap from soccer momhood to economics to politics to theology to music to food."

Kevin Straley, program director at WRKO, a nearby commercial talk-radio station, says he would "never touch the kind of worldly, in-depth topics Lydon features on 'The Connection.'

"Chris does a very good job," he explains, "but public radio doesn't live and die by ratings, so he can pick and choose what he wants. It's a different playing field."

Callers are often so well-spoken as to make one wonder if they are for real. But Boston's reputation as an intellectual hub isn't the reason. "We're a much smarter country than most media give us credit for," Lydon says.

Talk radio doesn't have to be trashy, he adds. "If one sets a tone that is earnest, democratic, and substantive, and the talk revolves around things that touch ordinary people, good people will plunge into good conversation."

Talk flows easily on "The Connection," Lydon says, because "people are willing to reveal a great deal of themselves on radio, and there are no visual distractions to clutter things up."

His own curiosity, enthusiasm, and graciousness keep the ball rolling too. And lots of preparation by "The Connection" team - five producers and six interns - certainly doesn't hurt.

"We have an amazingly happy family to produce the show," Lydon says. He often reads two books a night to prepare. Guests are mostly chosen by Lydon and senior producer Mary McGrath.

"We try to be fussy," Lydon says. Before choosing a guest, they ask: "Is there a way for listeners to get in on this conversation? Is there something to talk about?"

Some of his favorite guests have included authors John Updike and Salmon Rushdie, and musicians Seiji Ozawa and Yo-Yo Ma. And then there was Harvard Divinity School professor Harvey Cox, who fielded calls on Christmas Eve about the most significant gift people had ever received. "We were all weeping," Lydon recalls. "Callers' stories were so emotional and so powerful. Harvey was floored by them."

Guests they wouldn't invite include "pop airheads," Lydon says, while conceding "popularity isn't an obstacle."

If Monica Lewinsky were doing a book tour, would he want the world's most famous intern to make an appearance on "The Connection"? "Absolutely!" says Lydon without a moment's hesitation. "We'd want to ask her questions she's never been asked."

Almost more than his journalistic experience, Lydon says his run for mayor of Boston in 1993 prepared him for this job. He may have received only 3 percent of the vote, but he gained something invaluable for any radio host: "I learned how to speak in my own voice," he says.

And now, he's not only found his voice but also his niche. "I've never enjoyed work as much as this," he says.

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