Radio head: Doug Fabrizio finds a new voice as Sherlock Holmes
RadioWest host takes on the mystery of the world’s most famous detective.
Published: December 19, 2012 09:33AM
Updated: April 8, 2013 11:33PM
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Doug Fabrizio, in an archive photo from 2006, at the launch of his hosting stint of "Utah Now" on KUED.

If Doug Fabrizio ever were to interview himself on RadioWest — not that he would want to, he says, because he rambles too much — he probably would ask to hear the story about the stone hearth.

When he was 10, his parents took him to a production of the perky patriotic musical “George M!” at Valley Music Hall. It was just a high-school production, but he was star-struck by the razzle-dazzle. Later, when

he got home, he noticed that the fireplace hearth, with its raised ledge and its three overhead spotlights — well, it was a kind of stage! As long as he didn’t take big steps in any direction, he could put on his own “George M!” right there in the basement.

He recruited his sister and some neighborhood kids for the supporting roles and he became the leading man, as well as the director, the producer and the guy who turned the lights on and off. It was the first of many plays staged in the Fabrizios’ Bountiful home.

If Doug Fabrizio ever were to interview himself — not that he would want to, because he’s not very interesting, he says — the first question he would ask would go something like this: “You’ve said, Doug Fabrizio, that you wanted to be an actor but you chickened out. Talk about that, if you would.”

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Leaning forward • For as long as Fabrizio can remember, he wanted to perform. At 5, according to his mother, he came home from the doctor’s office, got one of her white shirts, put it on backward and acted out the part of the nurse. He was the kid who, at 7, took a broom, wrapped some white material around the handle and pretended it was a microphone.

He acted at Viewmont High and then enrolled in theater classes at the University of Utah. But in the end, he was too afraid to go to New York City to find work as an actor. Instead, he stayed in Utah and became a radio reporter, news director and, eventually, the host of KUER’s RadioWest.

It wasn’t the career he intended, but Fabrizio has gained national acclaim and a loyal following. One morning during the public radio station’s fall fund drive, I watched a woman volunteer swoon when he walked by. More significant, the guests on his show often describe him as one of the best interviewers in the country.

Radio visionary Jad Abumrad, co-host of WNYC’s Radiolab, himself interviews people for a living. Sometimes, Abumrad says, the artifice of the interview can get in the way, because “you have your questions, and your expectations form a kind of barrier.” Fabrizio is different. “He has the ability to hold the tension between being extremely prepared and being able to throw those questions out the window.”

In other words, Fabrizio does that thing we all mean to do in a conversation but often don’t: He listens. If the guest is in the studio, Fabrizio is leaning forward, looking him in the eyes. It’s a leaning forward both physically and emotionally. “Doug is driven by an honest desire to know,” Abumrad says. It’s the kind of intense curiosity that other interviewers pretend to have but often can’t pull off.

Yeah, Fabrizio says, but the show could always be better.

Making intimate conversations • On Tuesdays and Fridays, Fabrizio and producers Elaine Clark and Benjamin Bombard meet in his office in the Eccles Broadcast Center on the University of Utah campus to do a post-mortem on the week’s shows. They’re a tough crowd.

On this particular morning, Clark hands out a list of previous shows, with a letter grade next to each. There are six C+s, three B-s and one B.

“This is the European grading system,” Clark explains. “No grade inflation. If we get a B, we’re dancing.”

“If we get a B, we put it on the refrigerator,” Bombard says.

Fabrizio is his own toughest critic, reserving a B+ or the very rare A for shows in which he thinks he has actually pulled off what he sets out to do. His favorite shows are the ones they call “intimate conversations,” for example the one he had in 2004 with Gene Jacobsen, a former University of Utah professor who survived World War II’s Bataan Death March.

Fabrizio grades himself hard because he hates complacency. One thing he has going for him is that his lack of self-confidence means he’s always afraid he won’t be prepared enough.

Some mornings he gets to KUER at 4:30 to prepare for the day’s show, coming up with pages of questions, looking always for moments of transformation in his guest’s life or ideas. Then he searches for a narrative arc for the whole show, hoping to create movement and depth as the hour progresses.

Clark collects the praise Fabrizio’s guests pour on: “He asked some of the best questions I’ve ever gotten,” wrote Judith Shulevitz, author of The Sabbath World.

And: “That was the most enjoyable and insightful conversation I’ve ever had about the book,” says Christopher McDougall, author of Born to Run. “I wish he’d read a draft of the book before publication so I could have used some of his ideas.”

Or, as Oxford historian Diarmaid MacCulloch puts it: “Doug is a prince among interviewers, clearly, as American friends had confirmed to me.”

The trick is to ask detailed questions (not just “Tell us about your book” but “Tell the story about the blind zebra finch”) but at the same time not to ask questions that are “conspicuously crafted as to sound clever or informed,” Fabrizio says.

He mentions a painful interview with the Dalai Lama in 2001 and I cringe. When the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader came to Salt Lake that May, Fabrizio, Tribune religion reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack and I were selected to have a private interview with him.

We spent a lot of time trying to come up with intelligent questions the Dalai Lama had never been asked in his long life of answering questions. But by the time we sat down with him, late in the afternoon, he was tired, and we were trying too hard, and the interview fell flat on its face.

“We would have found out more about him if we’d asked him about how he likes to fix watches,” Fabrizio says — that is, to talk to the Dalai Lama about one of his interests, something everyday and mundane, rather than big questions about big topics like world peace.

Clark and Bombard meticulously search for and screen the authors and scientists and politicians and other experts who appear on the show. They’re looking for smart people who can tell good stories, who are excited about their own work and ideas, who don’t talk too fast or too slow.

And even then, things might not go according to plan. One morning in November, with just a minute until airtime, Clark was still instructing Fabrizio’s guests — two filmmakers who were being interviewed at a radio station in Telluride, Colo. — how to use their microphones. It was Clark’s job to be the frazzled one worrying about sound quality and the clock. It was Fabrizio’s job to be calm.

Acting at the microphone • There’s still a part of Fabrizio that beats himself up for not trying to make a living in theater. And so he often reminds his five children to not be afraid to take risks. “It’s something I hope my children will understand: that failure is a critical part of success. That you have to be able to fail spectacularly.”

In recent years, though, he has tiptoed back toward acting. Plan-B Theatre Company’s Jerry Rapier hired Fabrizio in the mid-2000s to act in three of the company’s radio plays. “A lot of people were surprised by his performance,” says Plan-B’s managing director Cheryl Ann Cluff, who directed him in “Frankenstein.” “They expected to hear the RadioWest Doug Fabrizio, but instead they heard and saw a fully realized, nuanced, emotionally shattering performance, totally unlike his usual on-air persona.”

Indeed, Fabrizio got so into the role that every time he had to scream “He’s alive! Alive! Alive!” he sweated and nearly passed out.

Next week he’ll star again, this time in “Sherlock Holmes and the Blue Carbuncle.”

He’ll play Holmes, so he’s been giving a lot of thought to the clever detective. Like a good reporter, he says, Holmes paid attention. But he really only noticed the mechanics of how the world worked, not how he treated the people in it. “He didn’t have the emotional capacity.”

“He would have been a terrible reporter. He wasn’t interested in the narrative. That’s my hunch.”

Not talk radio • Fabrizio has been doing radio since the cut-and-splice days. At the U., he ended up majoring in broadcasting, with minors in theater and Spanish, figuring that radio could be his backup plan. He volunteered at KUER while he was still in school, got a job there as a reporter and became news director at 29. The station once got a call from a listener wondering why it had hired a junior-high student. He points out that he doesn’t have a classic radio voice.

Long a fan of public-radio storytellers like Ira Glass and Jay Allison, Fabrizio started a magazine-style show called Friday Edition; it eventually morphed into RadioWest in 2001.

Six years later, RadioWest was picked up by Sirius/SM satellite radio and aired across the country. That partnership ended three weeks ago when the network decided to focus on “national content.”

“Locally produced programming is usually the loss-leader of public radio,” says KUER general manager John Greene. More than 50,000 Utahns listen weekly to RadioWest, and a recent survey of the station’s listeners found that they rank the show in the top handful of all NPR programs. “That almost never happens at local stations,” Greene says.

Fabrizio is looking forward to a new venture called VideoWest, which KUER will launch early next year. The project will feature the works of local filmmakers, including Fabrizio, who has produced several documentaries for KUED-TV. He’s excited to be telling stories in a new medium.

As for RadioWest, “It’s not talk radio,” says producer Clark, referring not just to the show’s few on-air phone calls but also its refusal to get into shouting matches or rants, even as Fabrizio drills down to make politicians and pundits explain themselves.

“He’s more than even-handed,” says Paul T. Mero, president of Utah’s conservative Sutherland Institute think tank, who has been interviewed a half-dozen times on RadioWest. “He doesn’t have some sort of agenda; there is no political plot to what he’s doing. I think he just wants to understand.”

“So much in this state is tied up in your cultural beliefs,” says Fabrizio, to explain his reluctance to air his own views about politics and religion, on the radio or even in an interview for the newspaper, for fear that revealing his stance would get in the way of a conversation later, on air.

If Doug Fabrizio ever were to interview himself on the radio — well, he simply wouldn’t.

features@sltrib.com

Another ‘Sherlock’

P “Sherlock Holmes and the Blue Carbuncle,” adapted as a radio play by Utah playwright Matthew Ivan Bennett for Plan-B Theatre Company. Doug Fabrizio will voice Sherlock Holmes, with Bill Allred as Watson, and Jay Perry and Jason Tatom as everyone else. The show is directed by Cheryl Ann Cluff, with foley sound effects by Mark and Eric Robinette.

When • Tuesday, 7 and 8:30 p.m.; the 7 p.m. performance will be broadcast live on KUER, 90.1FM.

Where • Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center’s Jeanné Wagner Theatre, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City.

Tickets • $10-$20. Call 801-355-ARTS or visit www.planbtheatre.org for more information.

Info • At press time, the only tickets available were balcony tickets for the 8:30 p.m. show.