Ben Kieffer, Broadcasting Services
Ben Kieffer is a senior producer in University of Iowa Broadcasting Services/Iowa Public Radio. In addition to a variety of production and announcing duties, Ben hosts Iowa Talks Live from the Java House, an eclectic mix of conversation and live music, every Friday at 10 a.m. on WSUI (910AM). Broadcast from the Java House coffeehouse in downtown Iowa City, the show reaches an estimated 30,000 listeners statewide on five Iowa Public Radio stations.
A Cedar Falls native and 1987 UI graduate, Kieffer started the Java House show in 2001. Since then, he has broadcast more than 200 shows, which have featured more than 100 musical guests and interviews with authors, academic experts, community leaders, and others.
fyi turns the tables on Kieffer and interviews the master interviewer about the craft of interviewing and what it’s like to be a radio host.
How did Iowa Talks Live from the Java House come about?
Early in 2001, just after I’d started doing call-in talk shows regularly from the studio, I walked downtown on a break to get a cup of coffee. I literally stumbled on the stage at the back of the Java House, and the proverbial light bulb went on. What if we could do a show from here? Bring a show out to a public space where people could see it and participate? Up to that point, our stations had never done any broadcasts outside the studio that involved live music so it was a real challenge. Our chief engineer, Jim Davies, deserves much of the credit. Without his technical wizardry, it would not have been possible.
What have been some of your favorite interviews on Iowa Talks?
Just a few weeks ago, I interviewed T.C. Boyle [award-winning novelist and 1974 Iowa Writers' Workshop graduate]. I felt it was a spontaneous conversation where he was thinking about what I was asking him, and that feeds on itself and makes me a better interviewer. I don’t have stock answers coming out of someone’s mouth, but I have someone thinking about the question, and I can react to it.
It was also an honor to interview Julian Bond, the civil rights pioneer.
Some of my most satisfying and best interviews are done with everyday people who are not well known, such as interviews having to do with depression and suicide prevention.
A couple years back, we interviewed a UI student who talk about his experiences as a midstream transsexual, about what he saw as being born a male in a female’s body, and then changing that and the process of discovery.
Have you ever had an interview take a surprising turn?
Sometimes people become emotional during an interview. During an interview we did on suicide prevention, a woman whose husband had committed suicide 25 years earlier was recounting it and got very emotional. You don’t want to exploit that, and we’re on live radio, so we can’t edit that either. You’ve got to be very considerate of the person you’re interviewing.
How do you choose your guests?
I trust my instincts about the music and topics my audience might find interesting. I regularly get requests from musicians from coast to coast to appear on the show. But we’ve got gems galore right here in Iowa, not only musical talent but also writing talent, as well as other types of people who are just extraordinary in their passions. These are the people I like to have on the show, people who have done something in their life, and you can tell they have a passion for it. It can be anything—music, writing, a commitment to a cause, or helping people.
What was the most unexpected thing that ever happened to you at work?
Once during a fund drive, instead of announcing that listeners who called in with a pledge could get a copy of All Songs Considered, I said “All Thongs Considered.”
Also, singer-songwriter Richard Shindell’s agent made the mistake of not pasting the Java House broadcast into his busy coast-to-coast itinerary. That Friday morning, Shindell woke up in his room in the Iowa City Sheraton Hotel and went out for a morning cup of coffee. By sheer coincidence, he walked right into the Java House during our broadcast.
Talk about a few of your favorite things. Food?
At the moment, anything by T.C. Boyle. Also, Into Thin Air by John Krakauer.
Original works by singer-songwriters and folkie-poppy jazz.
Papillion and The Fog of War.
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
ISC Galaxy (my son’s soccer team).
by George McCrory