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The LAist Interview: Ben Adair, Public Radio Producer

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We in Los Angeles sure do love our radio. And lucky for us, we’ve got some of the best programming in the country to engage us. The latest addition to the bounty on the airwaves is “Pacific Drift,” which premiered last night on KPCC 89.3 FM.

"Pacific Drift" is the brainchild of Ben Adair, whose previous positions include producing the former public radio show “The Savvy Traveler.” After traipsing to all corners of the globe, Ben’s focus is now squarely on our region. This new audio project promises to continually deliver interviews and insights from intriguing locals, told within a unique format and narrative structure. Ben’s enthusiasm for LA enables him to tap into the vast resources of culture and intrigue, while using radio as a tool to reveal and bridge disparate worlds contained within our endlessly fascinating and often misunderstood city.

So read what Ben has to say about LA, and be sure to tune into "Pacific Drift" Sundays at 9:00 PM!

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1. Age and Occupation:

33 years old. I’m the host and creator of “Pacific Drift”, 89.3 KPCC’s new showcase of art, culture and documentary focused on Southern California.

2. What can the LA radio audience look forward to when “Pacific Drift” airs?

This is, without a doubt, the most exciting, interesting and hardest thing I’ve ever worked on. Also the most ambitious.

Pacific Drift’s first mission is to explore Southern California on its own terms. This region is full of exciting, fascinating, heart-breaking, bizarre people, places and things – anybody who either loves or hates LA really doesn’t know all that much about it. It’s an extremely complicated place. Pacific Drift explores high, pop and street cultures. Pacific Drift has documentaries about all aspects of life here. The show features conversations with some of the smartest, most interesting people doing super exciting things: artists, writers, musicians, filmmakers, scientists, academics and lots and lots of people just like you me – people trying to find their way through this crazy place we all call “Los Angeles.”

3. So, what can the LA radio audience actually look forward to when “Pacific Drift” airs?

Right. Well, the first show featured Miss Vaginal Crème Davis, LA’s most notorious drag queen; Erika Rothenberg, a sculptor and public artist; Charlie LeDuff, a Pultizer Prize winning journalist; Paul Chihara, a world famous classical composer; George Russell and Adam Byram, two Orange County-based photographers; a great, local writer named Steve Abee; and, believe it or not, much more.

My working metaphor for structuring Pacific Drift is a DJ mixtape. Only, instead of scratching and blending records to make one long song, we’re mixing characters and ideas and conversations. There’s a through-line connecting all those people above and it’s both subtle and intuitive. Of course you’ll have to listen to see how it works!

And, in addition to making a kick-ass, fascinating hour of radio each and every week, we have two other, larger goals for the show, born both out of my frustrations living in LA and KPCC’s own mission to “strengthen the bonds that unite Southern Californians.”

First, I want to build a creative community through the show – reach out to all the people who are doing more or less the same thing public radio is doing, just in different media – people who care about the world and the sorry lot of the human condition right about now. I want to reach out to the thousands of crazy talented people working all over Los Angeles, be they “successful” or “struggling.” The genius playwright who’s stuck writing or reading crap scripts? Let’s do something for the radio. The hidden piano prodigy working late nights at the liquor store? Drop me an email. The successful filmmaker who wants to make something real? Give me a call – there’s nothing more real right now than public radio.

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Second, we want to use Pacific Drift to build an actual community around it and KPCC. We’re eventually going to have a live performance series to get everybody together – the people involved in making the show and the audience listening – and make introductions. My great hope for Pacific Drift is that it can forge new friendships, new collaborations, new ideas and a new feeling in Southern California: we are not all isolated, alone, in our cars or single family homes. We’re all Angelenos and we’re all in this together. So let’s have fun with it. This is a really cool place!

4. What’s your process for conceiving of and producing stories?

I’ve been really amazed by the number of people who’ve stepped forward to offer help – mostly in the way of story ideas. Everybody has their own pocket of Los Angeles that they know really well and love – and want to share. Of course Queena Kim, my producer, and I are reading all the papers, the internets, we’re talking to people on the phone all the time, but we’re really depending on our audience to send in their own story ideas. That’s an important part of what this is all about.

In terms of producing, we’re staying out of the studio as much as possible. Studios are quiet and boring. The streets of Southern California are noise, dynamic and way more fun. We’re producing everything on location or in places that make sense for the story.

5. How long have you lived in Los Angeles, and what neighborhood is home?

I first came to Los Angeles on April 26, 1990 to visit Occidental College, where I'd applied for college. We were literally the last plane out of O'Hare when a spring snowstorm hit. That day in LA was cloudy, maybe 70 degrees, so when the tour guide said, "Despite the weather, I'd like to offer you a warm welcome," I was already sold. This was like 30 seconds into the visit.

Not counting a few months away here and there, I've been bouncing between Silver Lake and Echo Park since 1994. I like to think of myself as one of the first people priced out of Silver Lake when my bloodsucker landlady raised the rent on the beautiful two-bedroom apartment I was sharing from $650 to $700. I'm sure it goes for $2500 now.

6. Where are you from?

Evanston, Illinois.

7. While working for "The Savvy Traveler," were there any moments when you were a particularly un-savvy traveler?

I tend to look at travel as one giant learning experience. For example, I recently forgot my passport just before an international flight. Lesson learned: you can still travel to Canada on a drivers license, but they'll give you a really hard time.

My own least savvy moment had to do with a delicious dish called "Mexican Chicken," which I ordered at a Czech restaurant in Alamaty, Kazakhstan. Confused? So was my stomach. There's also a bottle of Fanta involved. (To hear the results go here and here.)

8. Please share your favorite travel destinations that are within a 200-mile radius of Los Angeles.

I love deserts. Which is why I love Namibia so much. Namibia is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. However, my favorite story I did for Savvy Traveler aired on the final episode last spring: I spent an amazing couple of weekends out in the Mojave - Death Valley is one of the greatest places on the planet and it shocks me how few Angelenos have been there. Also, you need to get your ass to the Amargosa Opera House right now. Time is of the essence.

9. What's the best radio station anywhere, and why?

89.3 KPCC, of course.

Actually, I've really been blown away by the shared sense of mission at this station. I remember hearing Connie Rice on AirTalk one morning when I first started working on Pacific Drift. She's one of my favorite people in Los Angeles - smarter than anyone and with such a huge, activist heart! She was bombarding the county about the King Drew Medical Center debacle and after the interview Larry Mantle says, "In the interest of full disclosure, Dr. Connie Rice is a member of the KPCC board of trustees." It made me feel so wonderful to be part of an organization lead, in part, by Connie Rice.

KPCC has one heck of a mission statement and they really mean it. It makes me really proud to be a part.

Number two - definitely KCRW - it's without a doubt the best music station in the country. We're lucky to have it. Los Angeles is, in fact, really lucky to have two such great public radio stations.

10. What's your preferred mode of transportation?

It's not PC to say this, but I really like driving - especially in the desert but even on the 10 or the 5 (after 9:30, that is).

11. What's your favorite LA-based movie(s) or TV show(s)?

Kiss Me Deadly is pretty great. So is Less Than Zero. I love that "leaky pipes" scene and the foreshadowing of Robert Downey Jr.'s actual life is something that could have happened only in the movies.

12. Share your best celebrity sighting experience.

I recently googled somebody we're going to have on the show in a few weeks and the very first hit was some film stills of her on one of those Celebrity Skin sites. She wasn't naked but it still made me laugh pretty hard. Can you imagine if your FIRST google hit was some pervy website?!

13. It's 9:30 PM on a Thursday. Where are you coming from and where are you going?

I'm either still at work or driving home from work. Or maybe going to meet my girlfriend at the needle exchange.

14. If you could live in LA during any era, when would it be?

There's no doubt this is the most exciting time in LA's history.

But those party scenes in the Aviator looked pretty happening too. Does anybody throw parties like that anymore?

15. If you were forced to live in a neighboring county, which would you choose? Ventura County is a wussy answer.

San Berdoo, for sure.

16. Do you find the threat of earthquakes preferable to the threat of hurricanes and long winters?

Earthquakes. No question. Here's a fun fact from the Feb. 6 Pacific Drift - 60 people died in the Northridge earthquake in January, 1994. On the same day, 100 people died during a winter storm on the East Coast. Don't miss next week's show to hear some amazing stories from earthquake survivors, including one woman who was buried underneath a collapsed building.

17. Where do you want to be when the Big One hits?

In my lady's arms. In Brazil.

18. What do you have to say to East Coast or Midwest supremacists?

Can I just quote Gary Garrels, the Hammer Museum's new senior curator who was just hired away from New York's MoMA? "Los Angeles is one of the key centers for contemporary artists in the world today ... making it a laboratory for new thinking and for taking risks." That's not just for art, buddies...

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