On The Spot: Kurt Andersen

Andersen has served on almost every media front. He co-founded Spy in the mid-’80s, then became editor-in-chief of New York. During the Internet boom, Andersen, 47, launched Inside.com, the media-news site and short-lived magazine. His 1999 novel, Turn of the Century, predicted the rise of reality TV. These days he’s working on a second novel and hosting Public Radio International’s culture show Studio 360. The media maker weighs in on the politics of product placement and the likelihood of a Kurt Andersen album.

Q. Of all the kinds of media you’ve worked on, which do you prefer?
A. I certainly like working with a team, whether it’s a magazine or a TV show. It’s a lot of fun if that team is lucky enough to love what it is doing. But as terrifying as it can be on your own in your room making up a world in a novel, I like the 100 percent control of writing a book. Right now, I write in the mornings and then come to the studio most afternoons to work on the radio show. So it’s the best of both worlds.

What have you learned doing Studio 360?
Technical stuff about performance and learning the bits of craft that let you merge spontaneity and performance. You don’t want to be an actor, but it isn’t exactly like having a conversation with a friend either.

What is the show trying to accomplish?
We’re trying to be a place that treats the whole culture, whether it’s classical music and literary fiction or hip-hop and street art. The high and the low and everything in between can be talked about. I try to create something selfishly that I would be a listener to. All I really ever want to do—whether it’s writing a book or making a TV show or a radio show or a magazine—is create something for which I am a prime audience member.

What do you enjoy reading?
Since I’ve been working on my second novel, which is set in the 19th century, I’ve mostly been reading diaries from 1849. While I’m trying to write, I’m careful not to read fiction that’s anything like what I’m writing, so I can read it without worrying about influence. Dave Eggers’ novel is sitting on my bedside table right now. I’m not reading as many magazines as I used to, although I still read The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, The New York Review of Books, Scientific American.

What about TV?
My real appointment television is The Simpsons. I end up watching Friends because I have 13- and 14-year-old daughters who watch it all the time, so it’s always on in my household. I’ve been watching Alias and 24. And I watch the Today show every morning.

Why the Today show?
Loyalty, because my parents watched it, and I wrote for the Today show, my first job. I like Katie and Matt and Al.

Anything you hate on TV?
I hate and am depressed by the ubiquity of reality TV. And if it makes the networks not ambitious to create actual good scripted comedy and drama, I find that pretty depressing. I find The Bachelor and The Bachelorette kind of hateful. I mean, the one time I’ve watched each. And Craig Kilborn. I hate him. I don’t quite understand who likes him.

What do you think about the state of pop culture in America?
I tend to absorb and witness pop culture and don’t have a thumbs-up, thumbs-down take on it. There’s always a lot of bad stuff, and there’s sometimes a few jewels. Now that I’m a digital-cable customer and I have literally over a thousand channels, I’m amazed that we don’t have 300 times better stuff. But I was completely blown away by a Japanese animated movie called Spirited Away. It was as stunning and amazing as any art or culture or high-low pop anything that I’d seen in a long time. As long as those things come along every now and then, you don’t think that civilization is in decline.

How about advertising?
I like ads. If for no other reasons than minute for minute they have vastly more budget and production value thrown at them. How can some of them not be good? The cynic in me says that’s the point. The ads are supposed to be good. They’re supposed to be better than the shows they’re in.

Which ads do you like?
The one with the football player knocking down the office workers [Reebok] I thought was funny. The one with the farm full of dachshunds in the background [Sprint] is funny. I thought the Mitsubishi ads were slick, successful pieces of pop- culture art the first 180 times I saw them.

What do you think about product placement on TV shows?
If personal video recorders take off, then advertisers have to figure out different ways to make advertising inescapable. I haven’t seen anywhere it’s a really terrible and pernicious thing. If the president has to drink a Coke on West Wing because Coke paid West Wing a lot of money, who cares? They have to figure out how to get their advertising messages across. People who make and air television shows have to find new ways to pay for them. So it’s one of those evolutionary mutations that is more interesting to watch than it is disconcerting.

Do you think you’ll do another magazine?
I don’t feel as though I’ll never do magazines again, but what I’m doing now is where I’m best able to challenge myself and make stuff for the world that the world doesn’t have yet. Unless I want to become a recording artist. That’s about the last thing that I haven’t done—and I don’t expect to.