Two Bearded Men

Paul Krugman and Brian Lehrer talk economy at WNYC

“TV is a dramatic medium. It doesn’t accommodate nuance. It’s totally about conflict, and if there isn’t any, it has to be manufactured.” Or so said Tina Brown last week at a panel at Paley Center, talking about media and politics.

I thought about that today as I sat in the audience of a live broadcast of The Brian Lehrer Show. You see, watching a live taping of a radio show is sort of like watching it on TV, which sort of makes radio like TV, but without the picture, right? And sitting there, watching a show that I would usually be just listening to, I was struck by just how wrong Tina Brown was. I was watching, essentially, a television show, and by some miracle of miracles, it was lively, engaging, and completely devoid of manufactured conflict.

Lehrer hosted Paul Krugman in a discussion about the economy. “There’s something off about this process. Why is so much leaking, and the leaks have the feeling of being trial balloons. It’s almost as if they’re saying, how good of a result can we release, while still seeming credible?” Krugman said. The bank stress tests are due out on Thursday, and Krugman said that they may not be the salvation that President Obama hoped they would be: “The test themselves have put a lot of stress on the administration,” he said.

No screaming. No alarming chyrons. No conflict. Just reasonable, interesting conversation.

Lehrer’s show was broadcast today from WNYC’s new Jerome L. Greene Performance space, which is a cool, street-level studio-theater in the Village. The stage is set off with undulating bamboo panels and blue lights. There’s a wide window onto the street, just waiting for hoards of fans a la The Today Show. But it was a rainy day, and most fans were at home next to their radios.

And Lehrer is as fun in person as he is on the radio. It’s neat to see him with his hand up in the air, counting down to a sound bite so that the engineer in the booth rolls it at the right time, or the way his head darts up to check the clock, and how he speeds up or down depending on how much time he has left.

Which is all just to say that perhaps contentious people breed conflict, but a smart host, like Lehrer, doesn’t need it in order to make good radio. Listen to the full episode here.

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Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.