No slowing down for KCBX’s Rathbun

bmorem@thetribunenews.comJune 6, 2012 

Guy Rathbun is still as tall, thin and long-limbed as the first time our paths crossed at Cuesta College in the mid-1970s while we pursued careers in journalism — his in radio, mine in print.

At 65, with his beard now hoary, Rathbun has enjoyed a radio career that began 40 years ago, with 35 of those years as host of KCBX’s “Club McKenzie,” an eclectic weekly tour through the catacombs of the Jazz Age, each broadcast ending with his mellifluent admonition: “… and stay off the running boards.”

Over the decades, Rathbun has just about done it all for the San Luis Obispo-based public radio station, from salesman to program director to host of “An Evening With …” — a program where he’s picked the brains of national and internationally known experts in various fields. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, for example, has been a guest of Rathbun’s on numerous occasions.

Another program Rathbun initiated is “Turning Pages,” a weekly tour through the minds of nationally acclaimed writers, such as two-time Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner David McCullough.

The program is a natural outgrowth of his insatiable need to read the printed word. To say Rathbun loves to read is an understatement by half; he’s a bibliophile of the first rank because any spare moment of any hour of any day his attention is glued to a book. Others are readily aware of his passion.

“About 15 years ago, I went to a movie. The lights were still up and I opened my book. A person whom I knew came over and said, ‘If I was going to see anyone with a book in a theater, it would be you,’ ” he said with a laugh.

That obsession allows him to ask probing, in-depth questions of authors about their books.

“One of the things authors say to me is, ‘Thank you for having read the book,’ because so many other interviewers haven’t taken the time to do so.” That, in turn, has led Rathbun into friendships with some authors, who then contact him before their next book comes out, wanting to be interviewed.

A case in point is when he interviewed Sue Greun before her “Water for Elephants” came out. Rathbun told Greun — whose narrative parallels the biblical story of Jacob in the Book of Genesis, only in a circus setting: “ You have a bestseller on your hands. Are you going to make a movie out this?”

Indeed the book became both. Which means Rathbun can add oracle to his résumé of skill sets.

Although being able to talk and discuss issues with some of the best and brightest must be fulfilling, if not a downright thrill, it’s been Rathbun’s meticulous attention to our community through interviews with local nonprofits and arts and service groups that have earned him gratitude and respect from listeners.

Indeed, his kinship with listeners, as well as students he’s taught at Cuesta over the years, earned him a proclamation from the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, noting among a host of accomplishments “that in recognition of his 40 years of service dedicated to the education, enrichment and entertainment of his countywide radio audience, and in appreciation of his active participation in the betterment of his community … that Guy Rathbun be acknowledged as a Central Coast treasure.”

The city of San Luis Obispo will similarly honor him next Tuesday with its own proclamation.

As his sister LaRaye Rathbun notes, “I remember one time when my grandson was visiting me. Guy and I were walking with him in downtown SLO and after about 10 minutes, my grandson asked his Uncle Guy if he was running for mayor. Guy said, ‘No, why do you think that?’ My grandson’s reply was ‘Well everyone knows you, everyone wants to say hi.’ ”

Now, the $64,000 question is this: Even though Rathbun’s “An Evening With …” and “Club McKenzie” will continue to be aired on KCBX, why have Rathbun and KCBX parted ways?

A Dec. 13, 2011, Tribune story said Rathbun’s role at KCBX was shifting to freelance. Later, a Feb. 28 Tribune article noted that KCBX had hired Marrisa Waddell as its director of programming and new media … “someone with more new media experience.”

Rumors have swirled that Rathbun was essentially handed his walking papers and that a mediated agreement to the split ensued. In the final tally, it’s difficult to say because of a rumored nondisclosure clause. Rathbun simply said, “We parted ways.” Frank Lanzone, KCBX general manager, doesn’t confirm or deny a mediated agreement. Although he says that “I’m glad Guy is still doing his shows; we don’t plan to change that. He doesn’t require an escort when he comes to the station and he still has keys to the station.”

As for Rathbun, in addition to feeding the station his two shows a week, he’s embarked on independent radio production — a studio — from his home, which he says he’s spent anywhere from $8,500 to $10,000 to bring up to professional broadcasting standards.

And working at home? He laughs again and says simply, “The commute’s not bad.”

He does lots of phone interviewing, “probably twice as many as heard on KCBX, with one of the programs aired weekly.” He sends those interviews to Public Radio Exchange — a distribution house for public radio programs.

According to its website, “Public Radio Exchange is … a growing social network and community of listeners, producers, and stations collaborating to reshape public radio.”

Rathbun’s most recent piece on PRX was filed Tuesday and dealt with “Gandhi and the Unspeakable” as part of his new program called “Idea-Sphere: A Platform for Today’s Voices.” His 29-minute report was an interview with author James Douglas and was pure Rathbun.

Now, if you’d like to get an up-close and personal dose of that Rathbun, a gathering of “good food and good friends” in his honor is set for June 15 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Community Room of the San Luis Obispo County Library. The public is invited, although you should RSVP to chewitt @calpoly.edu to ensure there’s enough food.

And here’s a sweetener: A keepsake book of anecdotes, stories, remembrances and notes to Guy is being put together for the event. Send them to the above email or snail mail to 69 Benton Way, San Luis Obispo CA 93405 in Guy’s name.

I think I can speak for his fans by saying: Thanks, Guy. Keep on truckin’ but stay off those running boards …

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