Devon Strolovitch, 43, of San Francisco has an unusual background for a radio producer. His Ph.D. in linguistics included the study of medieval Judeo-Portuguese manuscripts. He’s hosted “Fog City Blues” on local public radio affiliate KALW for more than 10 years, and he is a senior producer on its public affairs show “Philosophy Talk.” He is also the recipient of a Peabody Award.
J.: Are you doing the job you always wanted to do?
Devon Strolovitch: I’m told that one of my first words was “radio.” My dad played around a lot with radios, always recording shows and playing them. In late elementary school, I started making mixtapes and did that all through high school. I have 300 or so. As soon as I went off to college at Oberlin, I knew I wanted my own radio show, so I started with a blues show at 4 a.m. on Saturday morning.
Thinking I would do the academic thing, I majored in linguistics and went straight to grad school at Cornell University. The student radio station was like a commercial classic rock station that felt kind of like a frat. I went to one meeting and it left me cold, so I dropped the idea of doing radio.
And you picked it up again after you came to the Bay Area in 2005?
Right after I moved, a friend told me about KALW’s show “Philosophy Talk” and that there was going to be some staff turnover. I had no real credentials other than college radio experience and a Ph.D., but the guy in charge figured that meant I can learn stuff. And since he had produced a blues show, the fact that my college show was a blues show endeared me to him.
In terms of philosophy, I could talk the talk a little bit at least, and I started hanging out and going to broadcasts and working on other shows until a producer position opened up 2006. I’m now senior producer, and over 12 years have gotten much more responsibility and authority.
You’re probably better associated with “Fog City Blues” than “Philosophy Talk.” How did you get to do both?
KALW has music programs in the evenings, and a previous blues show host had moved away, so given my college experience, I was asked after some time if I wanted to do a blues show. It was only a year or so after I started on “Philosophy Talk,” and I said yes. Now it’s more of a local music show where bands come on to play live, and I play blues when I don’t have anything else going on.
Switching gears, how did you decide to study Judeo-Portuguese manuscripts, and can you give us a short introduction?
I was taking a course on the history of Romance languages and our professor had us find medieval texts in any Romance language that we could make an original contribution to. In a bibliography, I saw that there was a vastly smaller body of manuscripts written in Hebrew script, but in Portuguese. I did a critical examination of the first 27 pages of one manuscript. It was almost certainly done by a Jewish scribe or writer whose native language was Portuguese, and hardly anyone had worked on this before.
In Spain, the Inquisition started in 1478, and there was a long period before the Expulsion. Jews fleeing took a lot of material with them; huge amounts of material made it out. But in Portugal, the Inquisition started around 1538, and Jews were converted to Christianity by decree, so Judaism no longer existed there. There probably was a lot of burning of materials.
There’s a very small amount of [existing] stuff written in Hebrew script in Portuguese before 1497. There are vernacular instructions in Passover sections of machzors [prayerbooks], saying things like when to stand up and sit down and when to say which blessings. One really random one is a short paragraph in a compilation of medical texts on what to do when a horse kicks you in the spleen. Another one was a handbook for making inks and dyes for manuscript illumination, with all kinds of scientific terms.
Having studied linguistics, which languages are you proficient in?
I grew up in Montréal, so I’m fluent in French, and I’m imperfectly competent in Spanish. I understand and read Hebrew fine, but don’t have a great level of conversation, and studied Yiddish and can read it, but speaking or writing would take a long time. I also studied Welsh, and then Portuguese, but never got really good at either. On paper if you’re in linguistics and you have that kind of brain, you can make sense out of a lot of the Romance languages; you can play the Latin game in your head and make one become the other.
What did you win a Peabody Award for?
It was for one of the very first things I worked on in radio, after I finished my dissertation. The Library of Congress had passed a preservation act, selecting 25 recordings to preserve for all time as part of America’s audio history, and I got a job at Ben Manilla Productions to help make radio stories about the recordings. [Each story] was six to eight minutes long. We submitted the series for the Peabody a couple of times before we won in 2013. The ones I worked on were about a Captain Beefheart record, “Trout Mask Replica,” and one by a band called Love, “Forever Changes.” I went to the ceremony at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel; it was the most A-list thing I’ve ever been to. The series is still going on [“Inside the National Recording Registry” on WNYC], but I’m not working on it anymore. It’s still near and dear to my heart.