RIP Matt Holzman: LA's Public Radio World Loses A Big Voice
This morning, as KCRW's signature music show Morning Becomes Eclectic began, DJ Anne Litt did an extraordinary thing: She openly grieved on air. Through tears and long pauses that would have created "dead air" panic at a commercial radio station, she remembered her longtime colleague Matt Holzman, who died of cancer yesterday at the age of 56.
He was a mentor to me and to many of us here. He taught me how to be better on the air and off the air. He was always there with encouragement and advice, empathy, understanding. He was also difficult as heck. He fought hard for what he believed in. And from that I learned that I didn't always have to be the uber polite Southern girl — that it was okay to be a little bit difficult sometimes. Matt, we will miss you. You were born on Halloween and you died on Easter. The dark humor of that is not lost on anyone who knew you.
As a piece of radio, Matt would have loved what Anne did today — especially the unvarnished fumbling of it all.
I cried and remembered Matt right along with her.
A RELENTLESS CHAMPION
Matt found refuge in KCRW around 1989-1990, after leaving a career in the corporate sector, where he worked at the consulting firm Anderson. He started at KCRW as a board operator and then took what he knew about marketing from his old consulting gig to become the tiny station's first underwriting director.
He was a great salesman. Any casual listener of L.A. radio would recognize his voice for his witty, relentless pitches during the fund drives and his promo spots, reminding you of the value of public radio in general and KCRW in particular.
Behind the scenes he was no less vigilant. When Tom Hanks came to KCRW's basement home for an interview years ago, Matt famously pitched the Oscar-winning actor to pay to replace the dingy wall-to-wall carpeting.
And Tom Hanks did it.
But what Matt really wanted to do was produce. He became the first producer of KCRW's The Business, a show he co-created in 2004 that covers Hollywood. He also produced his own stories for other shows, like his moving, personal tale about being on dialysis while waiting for a donor kidney, only to get the big phone call while standing in line for a ride at Disneyland.
You can't talk about Matt without talking about KCRW, and you can't talk about KCRW without talking about Matt. His presence there was tremendous — on air and behing the scenes. When Matt was in a room, you knew it. And he was in every room in that place — every studio, every office and up and down the hallways — putting his stamp on things. KCRW President Jennifer Ferro recounted some of his personal and professional arc in a tribute on Sunday. It read, in part:
Many people shaped KCRW into what it is today. Matt Holzman's imprint won't be forgotten. It's in the voices who emulated him, the producers he trained, and the people who he pulled towards him like a magnet.
I was lucky enough to be one of those producers.
I first met Matt in 2007. We were at the Lazy Daisy on Pico Blvd., not far from the campus of Santa Monica College, where KCRW was housed. I was there to convince him to hire me as the associate producer on The Business. A few years before meeting Matt, I'd left behind a career as a psychotherapist and started working as a producer of a show on KPFK. But that show had lost its funding, so I needed a new job.
At that lunch, Matt and I bonded over coming to public radio from other careers. We also shared similar views of Hollywood. We were on the periphery of the industry, with some friends inside and other friends trying to break in. He used to say he was one of the only people in L.A. who didn't have an unproduced screenplay hidden in his drawer.
He didn't want to work in the business and neither did I. We wanted to figure out the business — how it worked, why some people made it, and others didn't.
One of Matt's best radio stories was his 2005 piece about the filmmaker Richard Shepard. Shepard had made his movie The Matador on a shoestring, and it was his great hope to salvage a languishing career. Matt, who's friends with Shepard, had 24/7 access to the filmmaker following the film's premiere and how Shepard ultimately sold it to then-powerful Harvey Weinstein.
To this day, as far as I know, Matt's is the only public radio story that's also a DVD extra. If you can get your hands on a DVD copy of The Matador, you can hear Matt's KCRW piece in the special features.
Instead of getting paid by the Weinstein Company for use of the audio piece, Matt tried to leverage it to get an interview with Weinstein for The Business. He didn't get it. (Message to Harvey: If you have any money left, you should donate what you would've paid Matt to KCRW now.)
If you live in LA you've probably heard of Matt Holzman. Or heard him on KCRW. He was a friend to many & a best friend to me. He died today. I miss him already & forever. He loved life as no other. He ate it up & lived every minute of it. Sharing it w/ everyone in his orbit. RIP pic.twitter.com/X0RcJJdvvE— Richard Shepard (@SaltyShep) April 12, 2020
WORKING WITH MATT
Matt Holzman was grumpy and opinionated, creative and inspiring.
He always wanted radio stories and movies to be better.
He wanted KCRW to be better.
He wanted Los Angeles to be better.
He wanted all the things — and people — he loved most to fulfill their potential for greatness. That included Matt himself — and anyone he worked with. As an editor, he could be impatient. In the early days before I found my footing, he could overwhelm me with his edits. I had to fight for my voice. It was uncomfortable for me, and sometimes I'd get zapped of the energy that got me doing the story in the first place.
Paradoxically, Matt could also be forgiving and accepting of people's shortcomings. If you were sweating the small stuff, he'd say, "It's only radio."
Bob Carlson, the host/producer of KCRW's storytelling show "Unfictional," started at KCRW around the same time as Matt, and knew him better than most of us. Today he told me:
Matt could make you forget about your insecurities and self doubts and just charge forward anyway. He mainly just bossed you into doing whatever you were nervous about. Then he would badger you until you felt good about yourself. He was hilarious, generous and open-hearted.
In the basement of KCRW, where we sat nearly on top of each other, there was no way to hide our emotions from each other. Matt's outbursts could be hilarious, like the rant that KCRW producer Jenny Radelet captured. In the clip, you can hear Matt raging— and the rest of us cracking up — because someone accused him of having a grandpa's taste in music.
In 2013 when Matt turned 50, KCRW producer Anna Scott and I organized a flash mob to surprise him. Anna choreographed it — she's a former dancer — and I essentially produced it. We lured him into an open space on the SMC campus under false pretenses, and about 20 staffers came out of hidden corners to clumsily perform a dance. Matt was giddy with joy.
In 2014, when I had the opportunity to co-create The Frame at KPCC, Matt enthusiastically put in a good word for me. I felt so guilty about leaving KCRW, and overwhelmed with gratitude for Matt, that I nearly stayed. He looked at me like I was crazy, but he pushed me out of the basement like a momma bird pushing her baby bird out of the nest.
A LOVER OF TRUE STORIES
Our in-person visits had stopped with the arrival of the coronoavirus and the quarantines that followed. My last text exchange with Matt was just under a month ago, when I told him that my husband and I were showing our 11-year-old daughter lots of movies while isolating. At this point, Matt had given up treatment for his cancer and was in home hospice. He was scared, but happy he was no longer fighting the inevitable.
And he was happy to talk about life-affirming things, so he texted me these titles to add to my watch list. They're all documentaries. "Obviously this leans towards more recent movies," he wrote. "These are just a few movies I really love to watch rather than the 'best.'"
I know Matt would want me to share that list with you. So here it is:
• Rivers and Tides
• Stories We Tell
• The Act of Killing
• Apollo 11
• Hale County
• Metallica: Some Kind of Monster
• Man with a Camera
Toward the end of his career, and his life, Matt combined his love of radio storytelling with his passion for documentary film in The Document, a podcast where he'd deconstruct the making of documentaries, using outtakes and untold stories. He was proud of it, but he also felt it could have been better. I'm sorry he won't get a chance to do more with that show. And I'm sorry that the L.A. public radio and podcasting world will no longer have Matt around to push us to fulfill all of our potential.
His presence will be sorely missed. But at least we can still hear his voice.
Darby C. Maloney is the Editor of KPCC's The Frame.
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