People searching for connections while confined to their homes during the coronavirus pandemic have discovered an old standby: call-in talk shows on the radio.
And rising to the occasion has been none other than John Rothmann, a host let go by KGO 810 AM in 2011 — but now back on those very same airwaves six nights a week. His shows from 6 to 9 p.m. weeknights and 5 to 8 p.m. Saturdays have become a go-to option for many people who want to share what’s on their minds or just hear others’ thoughts and experiences.
“There is a huge hunger for KGO as a community forum, and I’m helping fill that role, and people are responding,” Rothmann said from his home in San Francisco one night before a virtual family seder. “My board is loaded from the time I come in until the time I head home.”
Rothmann, 71, is a Bay Area Jewish celebrity, of sorts. He used to emcee Israel in the Gardens, the annual San Francisco event that ended in 2013, and he emceed a pro-Israel rally that drew 3,000 people to Civic Center Plaza in 2014 (when Israel’s war in Gaza had sparked a surge of anti-Israel sentiment and protests). He’s been highly involved in many Jewish/Israel causes over the past 50 years, including the Zionist Organization of America, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council and the Bay Area Council for Soviet Jewry.
And as a host at KGO radio for 15 years starting in the mid-’90s, he often talked about Middle East news from a pro-Israel perspective and offered a forum to Jewish and Israeli authors, diplomats and others (although such topics were by no means the bulk of his shows).
Nine years ago, he was one of seven on-air personalities let go as part of a KGO format change, but the station has started shifting back to live, local talk, and Rothmann was rehired in March 2019.
Flash ahead 13 months and his show has become pretty much “All Coronavirus, All The Time.” People want to share their stories, their fears and their opinions (often about President Donald Trump) — or hear Rothmann’s: “The worst president in the history of this country.”
In the early days of the crisis, when nerves and emotions were especially frayed, people needed a place to turn, if only to hear how others were coping. They discovered, or perhaps rediscovered, KGO and Rothmann.
“The beauty of talk radio is that it becomes an instant community,” Rothmann said. “I can’t tell you what a privilege it is to be able to come back, particularly being here at a time like this. People crave contact with others, and because we no longer have the physical contact, talk radio is the most intimate, immediate medium, and KGO is the only live, local talk show.”
With much better time slots than his old overnight and late-night shifts on KGO, Rothmann is in talk-show host heaven. He said his screener gets some 80 to 90 calls over three hours, with 25 to 30 callers getting on the air, and he also gets a “couple of hundred” emails every night.
Unlike other media people, Rothmann has not been doing his show at home. He drives downtown from his home in San Francisco’s Laurel Heights, parks and walks to the KGO studios wearing a bandana as a protective mask and, yes, a hoodie over his head.
People crave contact with others, and because we no longer have the physical contact, talk radio is the most intimate, immediate medium.
He generally shows up five to six hours before his show and spends that time preparing. He said he follows news about the coronavirus pretty much round the clock, consuming everything he can (including conservative news) and watching Trump at the White House briefing every day. “You have to know what he’s thinking,” he said.
As for being in the studio, “I feel very safe there. The engineer and producer are behind glass, and so far everything has been good. There are no guests in the studio.” Rothmann did get to interview one big-name guest recently: former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, who lives in the East Bay.
Rothmann, who wouldn’t “mind working 700 hours a month,” in the words of Bay Area media blogger Rich Lieberman, did happily take one day off recently: the first night of Passover. With his wife, Ellen, he engaged in a virtual seder that included his son, Samuel, 27, a former member of the Israel Defense Forces who made aliyah about five years ago, and Joel, 22, a recent college graduate working in a small town an hour outside Minneapolis.
“I sent him some matzah,” Rothmann said. “How else was he going to get any?”
More than providing matzah, the fourth-generation San Franciscan is providing opportunities to people who want to talk, who need to talk, and who need to hear their fellow human beings.
“It’s a depressing time, but it’s history, and it’s important to be able to talk about it as it’s happening. And to involve people.”