A Non-Emergency Krulwich

One of the cool things about working in the New York bureau was getting to hang out with NPR's esteemed science correspondent Robert Krulwich. He joins us for a wide-ranging farewell conversation.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

One of the amazing things about producing the BPP here at NPR's New York bureau was working with the talented reporters who have called this place home way before we showed up. That includes NPR's esteemed science correspondent, Robert Krulwich, who became a mentor, a standard bearer, and a butt-saver. The Emergency Krulwich became an all-too-familiar practice. You know, when a guest didn't show up or a story failed, we would always have one of Robert's pieces standing by, because one, they were always good, and sometimes well, two - well, frankly, sometimes there's a little long.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: It gave us time to get it together.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Yeah.

STEWART: And that was the birth of the Emergency Krulwich. It goes a little something like this.

(Soundbite of song "A-Team Theme")

MATT MARTINEZ: When you're doing a live radio show like the Bryant Park Project, sometimes things go wrong. Guests sleep through their alarms, they get stuck in traffic, and sometimes they get better offers. And when they do, the BPP is ready with a piece by NPR's esteemed science correspondent, Robert Krulwich.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

PATRICIA MCKINNEY: (Yelling) Get me Krulwich!

MARTINEZ: We call it Emergency Krulwich.

(Soundbite of "A-Team" theme music)

DAN PASHMAN: But Mr. Martinez, you said only to use Emergency Krulwich in an emergency.

MARTINEZ: Damn it, man, this is an emergency! Control room, deploy Emergency Krulwich!

(Soundbite of "A-Team" theme music)

STEWART: All right. I don't know if getting cancelled qualifies as an emergency...

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: But all I know is it brought Robert Krulwich into the studio live this morning. Thank you for being here.

KRULWICH: Oh. You're welcome, you're welcome.

STEWART: So, what did you think when you first heard that we were doing this?

KRULWICH: It was so flattering.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: I mean, really, it really was. That's one of the nicest things in the world, and this esteemed science correspondent is now - like, ESC, I call myself...

STEWART: There you go.

KRULWICH: Secretly, modestly, by myself in a corner.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Now, one thing that you can offer our staff and our audience is a little bit of perspective on the pursuit of creating creative and informative radio. It's something you've really been dedicated to for a good long time.

KRULWICH: Yeah.

STEWART: We found something from 1978. This is a segment that aired on Morning Edition that was somewhat of a regular feature you did to explain economic concepts, and it was called "Let's Talk Luden"?

KRULWICH: Yes.

STEWART: Do you want to set this up?

KRULWICH: For a little while, I was looking around for a dramatic device that would allow me to repeat the same phrase or the same thought over and over and over again without insulting the audience. And I imagined a man who was going to a country, which I decided was somewhere in Middle Europe, called Luden, a country where they mostly manufactured cough drops, and where there was many, many interesting things to look at, but we never really knew what. And this man, who had dreamed, dreamed, dreamed of going to Luden, bought a Learning Luden record, and the thing about the Learning Luden record is that it gave me the chance I needed. So, the Learning Luden record as I guess you're about to hear...

STEWART: Yes.

KRULWICH: Requires a repetition. So, if I say to you, (Luden Spoken) and then a lady comes translating on saying, excuse me, but your valise is under my chair. Now you try.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: That's the sort of the standard thing. And then he would get very - well, you'll hear. I guess, well, I don't know, let me hear you got there.

STEWART: Yeah. Let's hear the clip.

(Soundbite of NPR's Morning Edition, 1978)

KRULWICH: Norman Brunstein is going to Luden, the fascinating north central European city, where some of the world's most beautiful cement collections are housed in the Luden Bulmenhauder (ph), the cement palace there. But before he goes, like most travelers, Norman has bought a record to help him learn some key phrases in Luden so he'll be able to get around easily and avoid serious problems of communications. So, let us join Norman Brunstein now, as he prepares to learn some phrases from his language record, "Let's Talk Luden."

(Soundbite of humming)

(As Norman Brunstein) I'm going to be talking a little Luden very soon. I've got this record here. It's got an interesting here side 1, and we'll see what we get here. OK.

(Soundbite of record player)

KRULWICH: (As Narrator) Phrases for the street.

(As Norman Brunstein) For the street, OK.

(As Narrator) Phrase one. Excuse me, that is my foot you are touching. Again, that is my foot you are touching.

STEWART: That's funnier now that Larry Craig is happening. I'm sorry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: (As Narrator) (Luden spoken) Now you try.

(As Norman Brunstein) I can't do that. That's too quick. Well, I didn't hear the - I didn't hear the phrase exactly. Do it again.

(As Narrator) That was very good...

STEWART: So, Robert, these segments developed quite a following.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: Yeah. See, eventually what would happen is he would drop the needle on something that was economic, and so the guy would go, you know, (Luden spoken), and he would say what does that mean? And it means, is your city in default?

STEWART: Oh!

KRULWICH: And then he would wonder what that meant, and then the business of learning what default meant would be first in Luden, then in English, and then with the phrase, now you try. And yes, I did this live, and you can well imagine people were a little puzzled by these kinds of things.

STEWART: But you kept going forward with it?

KRULWICH: We did, we did. And this isn't one of those things I guess you kind of - you kind of decide, at some point in your life, that the adventure you're on is worth the adventure, and that you want to disturb people or tickle people or thrill yourself, but you want to do it at a level that you can feel in your veins. And that is not always what is invited by the companies you work for. It is not - it is almost always not what is expected. And when you do it, when you have a really, really, really good time, two things can happen. One is you have a really good time.

STEWART: Mm-hm.

KRULWICH: And the other thing is that people out there can sense that you're having a really good time, and they get a little excited, a little envious, a little happy with you, and then you get a bond. And sometimes, you have a really good time, and they think, what the? And they hate you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: And you live right between those two posts. And if you don't, if you don't take that chance, you lose the opportunity to be really, really happy, or/and to have many people really, really mad at you. But it's more fun, in a way, and it's more, in a sense, in a moral sort of way, it's more important to be out on that limb than to be safe near the trunk of tree, I've always thought. And so, that's, I guess, maybe an appropriate morning sermon of some sort.

STEWART: Very much so. Now, you've taken your spin at hosting. You were filling in for All Things Considered at one time...

KRULWICH: Yeah.

STEWART: With Brenda Wilson.

KRULWICH: Oh, yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Yes. She put together...

KRULWICH: Well, no, and these were desperate days...

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: This was, like - that was when NPR was very, very small, and there was nobody around on New Year's Eve at all...

STEWART: Yes.

KRULWICH: Except me and Brenda.

STEWART: OK.

KRULWICH: So, we had to do something, and we had no tape and no reporters, no nothing. This puts the John Hockenberry situation, you know, like, that he has at least people to talk to?

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Right.

KRULWICH: We had nothing. Nothing! So...

STEWART: Well, you made something out of nothing. Let's take a listen.

KRULWICH: All right.

(Soundbite of NPR's All Things Considered)

(Soundbite of dramatic music)

KRULWICH: (As Movie Announcer) And now, Brenda Wilson's nightmare, part one. Last night, Brenda Wilson was at a New Year's Eve party, and there were many famous people there, but every time she was introduced, she failed to catch the person's name. You may recognize this famous voice of 1981, but alas, Brenda did not. Listen closely.

(Soundbite of people chatting)

KRULWICH: (As Unidentified Party-Goer) Brenda, Brenda, I want you to meet (Unintelligible). This is Brenda from Public Radio. Say hi.

BRENDA WILSON: Hi.

KRULWICH: (As Unidentified Party-Goer) Brenda, watch out for this guy. He's an absolute pervert.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man: Is accusation without any justification, also. No evidence that we support or promote terrorism, the...

KRULWICH: I went, I went into the archives and I got just everybody that was on the news that year, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and all the athletes and whatever, and I just (unintelligible), and then I designed a cocktail party in which people would always be introduced, you couldn't hear their names, and then a voice would come on. Brenda never knew who they were but always had to guess.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: I just - this went on for 45 minutes. It was the whole All Things Considered. That's what we did the whole time.

STEWART: Well, I'm happy to hear that that was encouraged, that that happened...

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: No, it wasn't encouraged. It was simply allowed.

STEWART: Well, I'm happy to hear that it happened. And that it was allowed.

KRULWICH: It happened, it happened, yes.

STEWART: Yes, a little bit, like parts of this program here...

KRULWICH: Right, so that's the cool thing. It's like you guys, you know, everybody goes out and plays and you take your shots.

STEWART: Yeah.

KRULWICH: Absolutely.

STEWART: We can't thank you enough for all the help that you've given us, and how supportive you've been, and that you've allowed us to use your name in such a way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: At least you heard the name. It wasn't, like, (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Robert Krulwich, thank you, very, very much, on behalf of everybody.

KRULWICH: I've been honored to be an esteemed science correspondent. Oh, man...

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: So cool.

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