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Scott London's National Radio Show Finds Revelation in the Q & A

By Russ Spencer

For the last three years, Scott London has diligently built an audience for his half-hour radio show Insight & Outlook. Seductively stimulating, this thinking person's radio show is now syndicated to more than 60 stations in the United States and on shortwave in some 130 countries.

After hearing London's gently supportive and prodding style, it's clear that he's in a whole different league than commercial screamers like Rush Limbaugh and Don Imus. But even compared to National Public Radio shows like New Dimensions and Fresh Air, London's uncompromising intellect and insistence on choosing guests of only the highest caliber has set him clearly apart from anything else on national radio -- or television, newspapers, or magazines for that matter.

London has accomplished this remarkable feat quietly, with little marketing, no advertising, and with less than astounding outside funding. Yet -- organizing interviews from his cabin in the Santa Barbara hills and producing them at KCBX's studios in San Luis Obispo -- he now easily secures the country's leading thinkers, writers, philosophers, educators, and psychologists as guests. As such, more than any other single source of information in the United States today, his show defines a certain humanistic slice of our intellectual zeitgeist, and most probably, the zeitgeist of the coming decade.

Concerned with the real-world compassion of his guests, his choices rarely include the cloistered ivory-tower elite. Instead, London prefers figures working outside the establishment or on the leading edge of what might be considered the "sciences" of sociology, economics, and psychology. London calls them simply "frontier thinkers." They include Sam Keen, Marianne Williamson, James Hillman, Fritjof Capra, and Joseph Chilton Pearce, and by now, more than 100 others.

If all those names don't sound familiar, don't worry, London has also done Deepak Chopra. And certainly, making his guests more familiar is a large part of London's crusade. "I hope to fill a niche and build bridges between an audience that cares about a certain kind of program but doesn't have access to forward-looking thinkers," he said. London also works from a strongly held view that the accepted journalistic practice of finding objectivity through a reductive devil's advocate- type grilling is an empty idea. He presents his guests as gifts to the public, and presents them on their own terms, in a forum that isn't built on the idea that trying to discredit their assertions will bring about further understanding of their views. At the same time, London isn't simply a talking head, feeding his guests verbal prompts to spur what is essentially a monologue. Nor is he a glorified publicist, allowing them free rein to pontificate on their latest book. With perfect diction, palpable intelligence, and genuine curiosity, London engages his guests in spirited dialogue. He references their books, compares their views to others, picks their brains, and has even been known to quote Goethe.

And if, in fact, his show is a gift to London's listeners, for him, it is nothing short of a lifesaver. At 32, London has led something of a nomadic existence. He was born in the United States but moved to Sweden at five. At 12 he moved back, to Ohio, and soon became one of the youngest Americans to ever apply for and be given an FCC radio license. He oversaw a show at Ohio's WYSO called "As We See It," which covered the "news and views" of Dayton high school students.

London returned to Europe and came back a few times before moving to Santa Barbara in 1993. He attended the universities of London and Stockholm, worked as a DJ, considered devoting his life to the making of wine, wrote a column for an alternative newsweekly, wrote book reviews, became a translator, and worked for the Kettering Foundation, a think tank. Much of that work was done halfheartedly.

"Joseph Campbell had this wonderful line about following your bliss," London said. "It's a notion that has been bumper-stickered to death. But one of the things he says following that phrase that most people don't remember or mention is that when you do that, doors open -- doors that wouldn't have opened unless you followed your bliss. It's a mysterious thing how that works. And, by the same token, when you are not following your bliss, doors don't open, and that's what my life was like for five or ten years. There were no magical breaks. Everything was a struggle.

After moving to Santa Barbara, things came together for London. He created Insight & Outlook and presented the idea to KCBX's program manager Guy Rathbun, who remembers being "thoroughly impressed." Insight & Outlook has become KCBX's most successful show. "I think Scott himself is the appeal," Rathbun noted. "He does his research; he comes up with very thoughtful provocative questions; he is engaging with his interviewees; and his approach is very personable. I think he gives the feeling of conversation rather than a forced Q & A of the kind that so often comes across in radio."

A token that indicated that his life would never be the same, London's first interview for the series was originally scheduled for November 20, 1994. It had to be rescheduled because London's first and only child, Gabriela, was born that day.

London's decision to do the show was stimulated in part by his experiences as a radio reporter covering the 1992 presidential elections. "My sense was that nobody was addressing the deeper issues," he remembered. "They were talking about campaign issues, pro- life and pro-choice, campaign finance reform, and Washington gridlock. It didn't get to the deeper yearnings and hopes and expectations that I feel is what politics should be about."

London sought instead to do a show that would feature progressive thinkers addressing those "deeper yearnings."

"The idea that we are going to find the right solutions if we just have a big loud raucous debate, with the Rush Limbaughs on one side and the Jerry Browns on the other, and through duking it out verbally we will arrive at some approximation of the truth, well, that's a bankrupt idea."

London does many of his interviews in the field with a portable, digital tape recorder. This allows him to sit with a guest in their own home or office environment. Last spring, he traveled to Sonoma to interview Sam Keen on his ranch. This July, he traveled to Washington DC to meet with philosopher Benjamin Barber; and a month later he met up with mythologist Jean Houston in New York. He also catches up with a lot of his guests as they come through town to give lectures at UCSB, or book signings downtown.

Of course, because of the ease of their access, London has also interviewed a number of Santa Barbarans. By doing so, he has helped bring national exposure to such local figures as Nuclear Age Peace Foundation president David Krieger, UCSB biologist Garrett Hardin, Time magazine writer Pico Iyer, syndicated columnist Lou Cannon, and author Gretel Ehrlich.

The feedback he has attracted from these guests has been enthusiastic. Deepak Chopra commented that his interview with London was one of the best he had ever done. Huston Smith, a philosopher of religion, calls London "a future Bill Moyers in the making," and he would know -- he was recently featured in a five-part Moyers television special. Jean Houston has commented that London's show "is a very different kind of journalism -- a reflection on human culture."

In July 1996, after the show had run for a year and a half just on KCBX and Ohio's WYSO, Insight & Outlook was offered over the satellite to all NPR stations. A few months after that, it was picked up by Radio for Peace International, a Costa Rica-based shortwave station that broadcasts Insight & Outlook five times a week to more than 130 countries -- more than half the countries in the world -- with a potential shortwave audience of 19.5 million.

In 1998, London expects to redesign Insight & Outlook to give it a broader appeal. He hopes to add short documentary segments and essay readings. Although he admits that he derives inspiration from the work of Bill Moyers, at this point he remains dedicated to working in radio, even though he knows it limits his audience and funding sources. For now, though, he prefers his anonymity and relishes what he refers to as the "oral tradition" that radio helps keep alive. And he admits that he also harbors a soft spot for the "resonance of voices."

London offers a full catalog of tapes and transcripts of his show. His catalog now includes more than 90 interviews, some of which are also transcribed on London's Web page www.scottlondon.com. The catalog also includes his occasional special productions.

The fact that London maintains and offers this extensive catalog of tapes is no small testament to the personal faith he has in the value of his own work. And to him, its value goes far beyond simply providing food for thought. In an era in which our society's most basic human concerns are left dangerously unaddressed, London strives to provide reassurance that an active culture of thought and concern does exist. He is creating community.

"I'm trying to talk to the people who see things that we don't usually see, who have tapped into some kind of social and cultural undercurrent," he said. "They help us understand things and see things from a greater perspective, and even if the outlook is a gloomy one, when you understand a situation better, it provides a sense of hope."

This article appeared in the the Santa Barbara Independent, December 4, 1997. Reprinted by permission.