25 years of tireless talk

During a break , host Marty Moss-Coane (right) talks with her guest, author Patricia Cohen. Producer Susan Greenbaum, at left, says Moss-Coane "leads her life very authentically."
During a break , host Marty Moss-Coane (right) talks with her guest, author Patricia Cohen. Producer Susan Greenbaum, at left, says Moss-Coane "leads her life very authentically." (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 28, 2012

I have an opinion on gun laws. And I am, apparently, middle-aged. I vote, and I believe a dog can be friends with a duck. Rick Santorum is provocative, and I liked the movie The Help, though I avoided the book.

Welcome to a week in the virtuosic world of Marty Moss-Coane, the juxtapositionally acrobatic host of Radio Times. And that's a week with a Monday rebroadcast, and Friday off.

In truth, though Moss-Coane writes upward of 10 intros for her guests each week, she herself probably needs no introduction: The intelligent, even-handed occupier of Radio Times' mid-morning slot on WHYY-FM (90.9) for 25 years has yet to wear out her radio welcome.

"Armed middle age," she shorthanded in jest as she settled in last Tuesday for two one-hour segments, the first devoted to a tangle between state and local jurisdictions in Pennsylvania requiring the reporting of stolen handguns, the second on a new book, In Our Prime: The Invention of Middle Age.

The seven-minute changeover, in which she says goodbye to Max Nacheman of CeaseFirePA and hello to author Patricia Cohen, is typically dizzying, like an overpopulated revolving door. Nacheman came with a pile of notes, Cohen with none. Each arrived with just minutes to spare.

The reading glasses on the Cohen book's cover echo her own, but Moss-Coane, 63, could easily pass for a decade younger. Unfailingly over-prepared, she is not interested in faking it. "You can't really fake it for an hour," she says. She likes to say she's being punished for all the homework she skipped in high school.

But maybe she's actually being rewarded. She tried being a reporter, but distilling a lot of material down to a few minutes was not how her mind worked best. She has made a career of taking knowledge in the other direction, outward and expansive.

"To me, it's a play," she says. "At 10 o'clock, the curtain goes up, at 12 o'clock, the curtain goes down. Whatever happens in there is the show."

Asked what she would ask herself in an interview, she says in a flash, "Why do you do two hours a day, you crazy woman!?"

Answer: "It's what the show is. It's a chance to dissect, to take things apart, to put them back together. So much of the news is either short headlines or a lot of fighting and yelling and screaming going on. I like a good conversation."

Radio Times can also be heard on NPR's Satellite channel (but no longer live), and on the Internet. It has, on average, more than 128,000 weekly listeners on WHYY. Though it lacks the national profile of WHYY's Fresh Air (and she earns $100,000 less than Fresh Air host Terry Gross' $230K), she's satisfied and says she doesn't feel competitive.

Moss-Coane notes that hour-long Fresh Air, edited in advance, is like a film; live Radio Times is more like theater. Gross prefers phone interviews, Moss-Coane wants guests in the studio. And being a local show has pluses.

"That has kind of allowed us to operate a little bit under the radar, to do what we want to do within certain parameters. In the world of national shows, you get a lot of hand-me-downs."

Gross says she is a big fan. "I love Marty. She has empathy. . . . You'd think interviewers would have empathy, but they don't necessarily. She's got plenty of it and it helps her reach the person she interviews. . . . People really enjoy talking with her and listening to her and working with her."

She says Radio Times, with its call-in feature and regional emphasis, "has a really important place in Philadelphia," and praises its mix of issue interviews and talks with writers and artists. Also, Gross said, her Fresh Air interviews are edited, so she can risk a dead-end question or some chaos. Moss-Coane can't.

Here's the thing that surprises so many Radio Times guests: The host actually has read their books. (Her staff - three or four producers, an intern here and there - tries to limit her to three a week.) The pages of Cohen's book are dog-eared, lines highlighted and circled. Loose-leaf papers are filled with notes and questions. While Moss-Coane has mapped out the hour in advance, she never stops listening. There's a pile of papers on the studio floor, and three more piles in front of her on the table.

In the hour before the show goes live, she softly rehearses her intros while walking the halls of WHYY's offices on Independence Mall. A learning disability makes it hard for her to read aloud from a script, which may explain why she can so effortlessly pace her way through two hours of mostly spontaneous conversation. A few years ago, she took acting and improv classes - only slightly more terrifying than what she does every day.

But she's unflappable, handling the job, raising a son, Jesse, now a 33-year-old filmmaker in San Francisco, nurturing a long marriage to psychologist Jim Coane, wowing friends in their Victorian home with great food and, naturally, good conversation. She plays tennis. She gardens.

Her staff speaks of her glowingly. "She has a wonderful self-ethic," says producer Susan Greenbaum. "She has very good values. She leads her life very authentically."

In the control room, they marvel at how she never runs out of questions, rolls with it when the phones fail, and even adapts to a last-minute topic change, as when a New York guest canceled because construction outside her apartment killed the phone lines.

"We walked in at three minutes after 11 and said, 'You're talking about gardening,' " Greenbaum recalls.

Moss-Coane admits to occasionally waking up in a sweat over an empty slot in a looming schedule. But she's organized enough to overcome true panic. Her toughest show may have been on 9/11, when she went on knowing her son, in New York, was headed to the scene to take photographs.

Jim Coane has watched his wife jump through jobs (waitress, social worker, vegan cook) and hobbies (weaving, terrariums).

"We used it call it 'Marty's Shopping Center' because she would find these different little things she'd do for a while. She was taking courses. She was a weaver. She had a loom."

But even at the peripatetic height of her hippie phase, there was a steadiness, he said, adding, "She used to think it made her boring, being so reliable."

He thinks she connects with guests - especially the creative thinkers, especially the men - because of her late father, head of St. Andrew's School in Middletown, Del., from 1958 to 1976, and, perhaps, the original guest on her interview show. "She was daddy's little girl," her husband said. "He was a terrific guy. She has a secret passion for poets and musicians, creative thinkers."

From her mother, she got constancy that carries her hour after hour. "Her mom could peel potatoes all day and be totally happy," Coane said. "She could start in a museum at the first picture and go through it one by one."

Moss-Coane was sent to boarding school herself, placed in remedial reading classes, and never really found her academic stride. On graduating from Temple University she became a social worker in Kensington. When she burned out on that, her mother urged her to volunteer at WHYY. And when Fresh Air went national in 1987, Radio Times was born.

Moss-Coane is not impressed when cable hosts turn up the volume, finds The View unwatchable, and wonders why Mika Brzezinski must act as Joe Scarborough's minder on Morning Joe: "I mean, she gets to be the grown-up. It's like Marge Simpson and Homer Simpson."

Moss-Coane rarely needs to resort to a mike shutoff (a nod to engineer Kevin Griffin will do the trick) to keep things civil. True, Ed Rendell once cursed at her (off air), and Carl Bernstein tried to bully her into reading a particular excerpt of a review of his book, but last week - even on the heated topic of gun laws - everyone played nice.

Post-broadcast, she turns her attention to filling the next week's blank spaces on the white-board schedule. She doesn't mind a few holes for quick reaction to news, but all that emptiness is, initially, a bit daunting.

Then the spaces start to fill up: Gas prices are rising, and Liz Moore wrote a cool novel about a super-fat guy. How will Santorum and Romney do in Michigan? Syria is crazy, and the universe is puzzling, especially when you talk to a physics guy who wants to explain why there is something rather than nothing.

On Radio Times, the answer to that last question might be Marty Moss-Coane.

Contact staff writer Amy S. Rosenberg at 215-854-2681 or arosenberg@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @amysrosenberg.

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