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Robert Scheer and 'M.A.S.H.' Actor Mike Farrell Discuss Ending the Death Penalty in America

    Actor and activist Mike Farrell. (David Shankbone / CC-BY-2.0)

In this week’s episode of KCRW’s “Scheer Intelligence,” Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer talks with former “M.A.S.H.” actor Mike Farrell about his efforts to save the lives of people awaiting execution in the United States, and the pitfalls awaiting celebrities who get involved in social causes.

Farrell played Capt. B.J. Hunnicut on the television series “M.A.S.H.” between 1975 and 1983. He has been active in several causes and is president and a board member of the nonprofit organization Death Penalty Focus.

—Adapted from KCRW by Alexander Reed Kelly.

Robert Scheer: Welcome to “Scheer Intelligence.” This is Robert Scheer, and my guest today—and it’s the guest that supplies the intelligence—is Mike Farrell. For those who are too young to remember, when he was the star on “M.A.S.H.” for—what was it—about six years?

Mike Farrell: Eight.

RS: Eight years. Everyone in the country knew who Mike Farrell was. He’s had a long, distinguished career as an actor, and he actually has been a leader in the Screen Actors Guild, much like Ronald Reagan was, only as opposed to Reagan, Mike Farrell has chosen to use his celebrity as an actor to support progressive causes, and, actually, not just progressive causes that are basic to the whole human condition. He was for 10 years a leader and is still very active in [the] human rights organization Human Rights Watch.

MF: Correct.

RS: Which is probably along right up there with Amnesty International. Those were the two major organizations that one looks to for a consistent and honest view of human rights around the world. And then he took on another cause, which is really quite difficult in terms of political acceptance, and that has to do with the death penalty in particular and the administration of justice in the prison system in general, and it’s [called] Death Penalty Focus. And this is an issue where a lot of people think, “Okay, yes, let’s be forward, but they did terrible crimes,” and blah blah blah, and it’s not one of those obvious do-gooder issues. And the reason I wanted to get Mike Farrell in here now—I’ve known him for a long time—I was planning to do him as one of our American originals, with the basic theme of this podcast is, out of the crazy quilt of American culture, we produce interesting people, and they stand up, they stand for something, they have integrity. Careerism doesn’t trump everything. They care about their fellow humans. I always had in mind to feature you in this series, but the other night, a number of people—I couldn’t afford a ticket, actually, I had to teach that night—a Death Penalty Focus—but people came away from that dinner particularly impressed, and I think you had something like 19 people who had been on death row, and yet were innocent.

Maybe this would be a good place to start. Why Death Penalty Focus? Why this issue that has absorbed so much of your time?

MF: There’s a history to anything, but when I was in my 20s, I was involved with a halfway house organization. It had junkies and alcoholics and people with what were then called sexually perverted fixations, and I learned a lot from them. And one of the things we did once we got through the rudiments of it was to go into prisons and take the program in there, because this was not an unusual program, I guess, but it was run by reforming addicts, alcoholics, etc.—people who’d been in and out of prisons, mental institutions. They were the people that ran it, they were the people that set it up. They were quite extraordinary. There was a wonderful psychologist and a couple social workers associated with it as well, and they taught a fundamental lesson that all any human being wants are three things: love, attention and respect. That really rang true to me, because I was hurting when I got there initially, but when we worked through that and I saw the—what do they say in the Bible? The scales fall from the eyes. When I saw people lose the masks, when I saw people being reborn, essentially—really coming to an understanding of their own value, and we took that into prisons, and we talked about it, and I saw the horror of prisons, the soul-deadening aspects of prisons.

None of that made any sense to me. Then, when I got lucky enough to be successful as an actor and I got involved in the anti-war stuff and gay rights movement, there was always this thing eating at me about the death penalty, because that was to me the bottom line. That was the anti-life—by definition—position, and I didn’t understand why we did it. We didn’t use it much in ’40s and ’50s or the ’60s. In ’72 it was held unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. In ’76, when I was doing “M.A.S.H.,” it was reinstated, and a minister contacted me—a guy from Nashville contacted me and said, “I understand you’re against the death penalty.” I had written that or signed a petition or something, and I said, “Yes, I am,” and he said, “We’re heading for a blood bath in this country and I need help from somebody who can get media attention. Would you help me?” And I said, “Yes,” and that started it. He took me to my first death row in Tennessee, and it’s a little like quicksand: Once you step into it, you can’t get out. It keeps sucking you in.

RS: It’s a moral quicksand. It’s interesting. Let me just start with your own beginning. You said you were at a halfway house, and this is when you were 20?

MF: In my 20’s, yes.

RS: You went as a patient? You were a volunteer?

MF: I was, yes. I got married, just doing what I was supposed to be doing, and then the marriage fell apart after three years and I was floored. I was just shattered. And I was in such bad—I’d never been—everything came apart for me, and this friend of mine who was involved in this place said, “You ought to go there. Go to the house,” as we called it.

RS: You were in Okinawa actually.

MF: I was, yes. I got married, just doing what I was supposed to be doing, and then the marriage fell apart after three years and I was floored. I was just shattered. And I was in such bad—I’d never been—everything came apart for me, and this friend of mine who was involved in this place said, “You ought to go there. Go to the house,” as we called it.

RS: Was it like Delancey Street?

MF: It was similar; it didn’t become a cult. Oh no, Delancey Street. Yes, like Delancey Street.RS: Not like Synanon.

MF: Not like Synanon, like the cult. Tough, really hard, serious therapy. And you got into the mix and these guys, many of them out of the gutter, some of them were on the verge of killing themselves or whatever. The process was a tough one, but it just said, “Open up, look at who you are, take a long hard look and see if you like what you see and if you don’t, what you want to do about it.” It was obviously [a] life-changing experience for me. I went into what we call “the stupid group.” Stupid, because we didn’t know how to ask for what we wanted. And then when I learned some stuff there and challenged one of the people, I became [part of] what they called “the responsible group.” And the responsible people were the ones that went into prisons and try to talk to people about the program and where to come, how to come out.

RS: This is something I didn’t know about you, and it explains part of your trajectory. You’re not one of these celebrities whose press agent said, “Hey, breast cancer, good cause. Get out there.”

MF: Yes, the Boys and Girls Club.

RS: I’ve known you a long time, and here in L.A., we have these do-gooder dinners almost every night of the week, and we honor, generally, wealthy people who can buy tables and the support, and actually they are mostly good causes, but some are safer than others. Cystic fibrosis, for instance, was very popular in Orange County when I lived [in] the area, because you’re not going to get in trouble with on that one. Death Penalty Focus, which you’ve been involved in, is probably the most, or one of the most, controversial. And I just want to remind people, because, first of all, you mentioned pro-life and your Catholic background. I don’t know to what degree you were influenced by religion, but one of the good points about the Catholic Church is that it’s been quite consistent, that opposition to the death penalty has to be part of a consistent—of a pro-life position.

MF: In recent years.

RS: I think—even when you were growing up—I think Pope John I, Pope John, who was quite progressive.

MF: Great pope.

RS: Yes, a great pope. We now have another great pope. The church has had its fine moments, but the reason I bring up that history is, I recall, because I happened to be a graduate student in Berkeley in 1959, ’60, at that time when we had the Caryl Chessman case, and a bunch of us went up to Sacramento to get Pat Brown—the father of Jerry Brown—who was then governor, to look more carefully before the execution of Caryl Chessman, who had not killed anyone. I remember Pat Brown coming out and talking to us, actually, and asking, “Where are you from?” And we said, “Berkeley.” He said, “Yes, that’s not where the votes are that are going wrong.” He himself was a Catholic. His son, Jerry Brown, was a Jesuit scholar and actually went to his father and talked to him about being opposed to the death penalty. And Pat Brown may have destroyed his career—he was a very popular governor—by delaying the execution of Caryl Chessmen. I only bring that up because that was a really hot-button issue that could destroy a politician.

This was not a safe cause, yet over the years, and thanks to people like you—I’m talking to Mike Farrell here—we’ve learned about the miscarriage [of justice], quite apart from whether you think we have a right to kill people. The fact is, one of the things about the death penalty is it ends all discussion, and then you can find out the person is innocent and there isn’t anything you can do about that that would matter to that person. And, I gather, the other night, the people I talked to who had been at your dinner—you did have—I think the number’s 19.

MF: I believe that’s right, as I recall.

RS: What did they say? What is the story here? Nineteen people who were innocent, and they’ve been cleared by some of these projects which we have now where you can do DNA testing. Why’ don’t you talk about that, because that’s a positive aspect of this work that you do.

MF: When I first got started with Joe Ingle, the minister from Nashville, I went into death row like anybody else, thinking these are child-eating, fang-tooth monsters. And then I saw that they were mostly black and brown, they were mostly ignorant, they were frightened, they were just people, just like you and I, but they had done, in most instances, done a terrible thing. As I said, that kind of sucks you in. The more I got involved and the more I learned about it, the more I saw how politically involved this thing was. It was the political third rail. No politician after the Nixon-Agnew years would say, “I was against the death penalty,” because they replaced “soft on communism” with “soft on crime.” You just see the horror of this thing. We began to talk about the issue. I talked about it publicly. People then got together. I was asked to come to be part of Death Penalty Focus; ultimately I became the president of the board of Death Penalty Focus, and what we did was educate. What we did was let people understand the reality of this thing, how much it costs, how many innocent people are entrapped.

We have now today 156—I think, actually, now, because of two things in Pennsylvania—158 people who are tried, convicted, sentenced to death, spent years on death row, only to ultimately [have] been found to be innocent and exonerated and freed. What we don’t know is how many who were innocent were killed.

RS: How where they found to be innocent? Has it mostly been the new science of DNA testing?MF: Actually, DNA—it results in 15 to 20 percent of the exoneration. The rest is pure research, digging, caring, students, law students, caring lawyers, Sister Helen Prejean.

RS: The Innocence Project.

MF: The Innocence Project primarily does it’s work through DNA. They’ve freed well over 300 people, but not all death row things. The death row free—freeing of death row people started with Kirk Bloodsworth in the, I think, early ’90s.

RS: I interrupted you when you were mentioning a sister.

MF: Sister Helen Prejean—“Dead Man Walking,” the movie. What we began to see was that as you could raise this level of understanding—Larry Marshall, who’s now a professor at Stanford, ran something in Chicago called the Center on Wrongful Convictions, and we co-sponsored the first meeting, at the [University of] Chicago Law School, of people who were exonerated and freed from death row. At that time, there were 76 of them, and Larry was able to get 30-some of them to come and appear on stage. And we had press from all over the world there, saying, “These are people who have gone through our death row process but were innocent.” And they’d each stand up and say, “If the state of California or the state of Illinois or the state of Texas had its way, I would be dead today.” And it was really a marker, a historic marker, I think. Then we had 76; today we’ve doubled that, more than doubled that. We have close to 160 now, probably.

This is just death row. This is not other people who are trapped in the system who didn’t get the death penalty but got life without parole or got [a] life sentence or got … You have the Franky Carrillos of this world, of young men, at 16 years, spend[ing] 20 years here in California in prison, and is now a graduate of [Loyola Marymount University] and just was granted $10 million by Los Angeles County for wrongful conviction. What we did was educate people about the fact that there’s something terribly wrong.

RS: It’s interesting,on a negative comment on American culture here that shows about large-measure American originals, and there’s something great about our culture, our claim to be a melting pot, our crazy quilt, and we do produce a lot of different things, but where we’ve been really weak, from an enlightened angle, is [on] the question of crime, and particularly, the death penalty. [In] a large part of the world, the death penalty is now a closed issue.

MF: That’s right. When I started, of the 100—let’s say 190—nations that the U.N. recognizes, about 25 had given up the death penalty. Today, it’s just reversed. About 160 have given it up and 30 continue it, and the United States is among the top five.

RS: We recognize that those that continue it are being barbaric. That’s a marker. You just say, “Saudi Arabia, marker. China, that’s one of the big, yes marker.” Let me ask you about that—and I don’t want to make this too political—but I remember Christopher Hitchens, who was a brilliant journalist and a friend of mine, but I didn’t agree with him on the Iraq War, and of course, I’m sure you had some disagreements, but there was something he did that has never left me. He described Bill Clinton’s involvement with the death penalty during his first campaign for president.

MF: Ricky Rector.

RS: Yes. Why don’t you tell us about that case because, that to my mind—we have an enlightened politician, progressive, etc., etc., etc., and yet here was somebody who was severely diminished-capacity, and as I recall, he thanked him for giving him his last dessert or meal, because he had no idea he was going to be killed.

MF: Ricky Rector was a black man who murdered somebody and was arrested. The policeman came to the door and said, “You’re under arrest,” and he had a gun and he put it to his own head and fired, damaged his brain, didn’t kill himself. They tried, convicted and sentenced him to death. Ricky had no conscious understanding of the situation in which he found himself, and in February of—what would that have been, ’92? When Clinton was in—this was in Arkansas, so Clinton was the governor of Arkansas campaigning for the presidency. He left his race, then left the New Hampshire campaign to come to Arkansas to preside over the execution of Ricky Ray Rector to show how tough he was on crime, obviously. Ricky Ray Rector was given his final meal, and he took the pie that was left for his dessert. He said, “I’ll put that aside for when I come back. When I come back from the execution center.” He had no idea that he was going to die.

RS: For Christopher Hitchens, that became a kind of a signature mark of political corruption or opportunism, and his criticism of Bill Clinton and, ironically, Jerry Brown, who was running against—in the primaries—against Bill Clinton, was one of those who said—that time he said, “It’s the evil of two lessers, not the lesser of two evils,” and Jerry Brown has been consistently against the death penalty.

MF: Except not actively so.

RS: Everybody has this reality check. Yes they should be doing a lot more, but it gets the question—here you are in L.A., you’re in the progressive community and you have got this issue, cause, which hasn’t always been popular, and that’s true of human rights in general. As I said earlier, you have been very active in human rights. Are you still on the board?

MF: No, I resigned—I didn’t resign, I just left. I’m the—what do they call it? Ex post facto. I’m the past chair of Human Rights Watch here in California.RS: The thing about Human Rights Watch and Death Penalty Focus and Amnesty International and the ACLU—you’re going to be defending people who may be reprehensible but still have rights, still have soul, and the causes are not going to always be popular, and the people that are doing the bad things in terms of government and so forth can otherwise present as reasonable and enlightened. I was just wondering, with this Death Penalty Focus, what kind of a road has it been in terms of trying to win over the community?

 MF: A tough one, a very hard road. We used to have meetings in rooms this size. You couldn’t.

RS: Just for people listening, we’re in a very small studio at KCRW in Santa Monica. I don’t think you could fit five more people in here, no.

MF: There was a period in, it would have been the ’90s, where we were $13,000 in debt and it was seven of us sitting around a room, and a few people in Northern California said, “You don’t have room”—trying to figure out can we continue, and we decided we would. We’d figure it out, we’d pay the franchise and we’d do it. We went up to San Francisco, and we made common cause with the people up there, and we kept it going, and we kept educating, and we kept trying to get people to understand. We had our first fundraising dinner in a basement of a church somewhere, and then I figured, if we could get a celebrity, somebody that the public’s attention would be gathered by—

RS: You weren’t a big enough celebrity at that point?

MF: No.

RS: People should be reminded, you were at the top of celebritydom at one point. You played a surgeon on “M.A.S.H.” But go on. Not big enough.

MF: It wasn’t me. It wasn’t about me, but we could do it at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and it would give some credibility to the organization and the issue, and we did that. We had a few there. We had them at the Fairmont and then at the Beverly Hill—

RS: Can you mention some of the people you had, because they deserve some credit.

MF: We’ve honored Sen. Russ Feingold. We honored Mrs. Carter, Rosalynn Carter. We’ve honored Jessie Jackson. We’ve honored Danny Glover and Martin Sheen and the people from “The West Wing.” We honored the show because we figured if we could get that kind of attention to the issue and people who were willing to accept the honor from an anti-death—

RS: This is a side of celebrity culture—Hollywood—that often gets a bad rap, but I think there’s something to be said about—it’s a saving grace, in a way, because without people taking their celebrity—and one of the most controversial, recent—today I just noticed the quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers won’t stand for the playing of the national anthem because of his feeling about what’s happening in the policing of the black community, among other things. First of all, it’s probably a career-ender. It certainly requires a great deal of courage, but people say, “He’s a celebrity.” The fact is, a lot of really gutsy, important, good things get attention, get support. AIDS was certainly one, when Elizabeth Taylor was willing to speak out on AIDS. It just changed the whole national discussion about it. I know you’re a very modest fellow, but I think you’re an example of somebody who’s willing to take that celebrity and put it to a controversial cause, in terms of human rights, which [is] sometimes very controversial.

MF: Indeed, sure.

RS: It’s something that people should be reminded of: That people in the Hollywood community, and you have been a leader in that community, sometimes risk their careers.

MF: Absolutely. A lot of people do themselves harm, sometimes by being involved in something that’s not yet fully ripe, or sometimes by being not smart about the way they do it frankly, but if—this poor girl, I was so upset by this poor girl from the gymnastics team in Brazil at the Olympics who, because she didn’t put her hand on her heart during the playing of the national anthem, was excoriated, and I thought, “What are you talking about?” This kid, for whatever reason, didn’t put her hand on her heart. So what? Let’s not be stupid about this. Does this mean she’s anti-American? Does this mean that she’s somehow not sufficiently loyal to this country? I just find that kind of American exceptionalism—

RS: The whole thing with celebrities, you want them on a pedestal, but you also want to tear them down. You want them to be superior, but you want them to be on your level. I’m sure you’ve lived with it throughout your life. There’s this great contradiction of how we, particularly in the United States, look at this celebrity culture. It’s the priesthood—if you’re not famous, you don’t exist, even if you do great work and have a life of great principal. It’s the coinage of the realm. On the other hand, we want the celebrities to come in a form that is convenient to , and then we’re quite eager to show how they’ve got feet of clay. I was going to ask you about that, because you came from a rough background, and we sort of dropped the narrative there. You were in a halfway house, you’re struggling with your own issues. This was before you went into the Marine Corps?

MF: No, it was after.

RS: After the Marine Corps. There you are at, what, 20-something?

MF: Twenty-five.

RS: Twenty-five, ex-Marine, halfway house and so forth. How’d you decide you’re going to be an actor, and how did it work?MF: I wanted to be an actor from the time I was a kid. I was raised in West Hollywood, and my sister—I had an older sister who brought movie magazines home, and I saw young people were movie stars and they got all the things I wanted. I wanted that attention, I wanted that affection, I wanted that love. I didn’t understand it in those terms; I just was attracted to it. Being an actor was something I dreamed about, and being raised—it’s a little like you grow up in the lumber town, you go to the work in the mill. I thought being an actor is possible.

RS: You were at Hollywood High, right?

MF: Eventually I was at Hollywood High, but of course my dad, being who he was, would have lacerated me. I would have [inaudible] bar the door, an actor. After he passed away and I graduated from high school, I went into the Marines, and after I got out, I decided I wanted to try to pursue this career, but I didn’t have any idea what I was doing. I remember sitting in a gas station with a friend of mine, another ex-Marine, and we were talking about life, and he had a guy working with him [who] was from Canada, who had come all the way from eastern Canada to Los Angeles to become an actor, and I said I wanted to be an actor too, and he said, “Maybe you ought to do something about it.” And I said, “What do you do?” And he worked at an actors workshop, and he said, “Come on down.” And I was scared to death, but I thought, “Okay.” You start out. You begin to understand the craft. You begin to work your way up. You meet some people. You get in a play. You have an agent that says, “You have an interesting type.” And then I got married, and then I had to move to Orange County, because that’s where my wife was a teacher, and that kind of put my acting on hold. And then I said, “No I really got to give this a try.”

I spent more time away from home; then I was at home and the marriage fell apart. That put me in the—

RS: You had another marriage to an actress that has been very important to you.

MF: Indeed, a very different kind of situation. I’m married to Shelley Fabares, the fabulous Shelley Fabares, who I met, actually, initially when I was working as an actor in a series, but we just met. She was married, I was married, that was all there was to it. And 12 years later, we met again.

RS: She actually had quite a career.

MF: She did have a fabulous career.

RS: I think she might have even been more famous then you were.

MF: Johnny Angel.

RS: That is interesting, in terms of that—you’ve had a real life. We don’t think that celebrities, and certainly not actors—There used to be a whole thing that actors weren’t very smart, and that goes back. In fact, Tim Robbins, who—“Dead Man Walking” and The Actor’s Gang had a play about that, with the kind of a comedian …

MF: Really?

 RS: Yes, about whether actors had brains, and the night I went to it, I think it just last month, and then I thought, “Here’s Tim Robbins, who’s certainly shown you have a great deal of your awareness of your society, big brain,” and so forth. How should we think of actors these days? The industry has changed. It used to be, as Ronald Reagan famously described it, if you worked for the studio, you worked for Warner Brothers. They not only told you what to think and what to say, they told you who to date and who to marry and how to dress. And now it’s a much more fragmented world, but can people speak up? Is there intellectual freedom? What are the pressures?

MF: I think the pressures are immense if you get into a certain level of fame, and a certain level, therefore, of money-making capacity for the people around you. Actors continued, I think, to be the royalty of our society. I think celebrity is taking a heavy shot because of reality TV and the rise of Mr. Trump. I think people are becoming a little more leery, assuming that being a celebrated individual means you have some gravitas.

RS: There’s such a thing as bad publicity.

MF: Yes, but within the industry, if you begin to have success, there are those things if you’re—there are some, not only smart enough, but caring enough, thoughtful enough, to involve themselves in really meaningful issues, but most of the time the people in the position of significance in the industry are warned away from involving themselves with things that are controversial, because it can cost them. It can cost them money, in terms of the amount of money they’ll be paid for a film or a television series, or it can cost them popularity.

RS: Did you experience that kind of pressure?

MF: No. Ed Asner says that there’s a gray list that—no longer the black list, but a gray list—that some of us are on. I’ve never had any sense that that was true. I’ve had some disagreements with people about things and been open about it, but I don’t have any personal experience of having somebody say to me, “I’m never going to work with you.”

RS: You’re not going to work in this town.

MF: You’re never going to work in this town, yes.

RS: Let me ask you about the—one thing that has happened as we got a more diverse population of not only actors but producers, directors, so forth—one of the big payoffs of diversity is you suddenly have a group of people who might assert concerns about problems in the society that larger society would like to ignore, and it doesn’t always work that way. We know, famously, again, that in Hollywood, even though there was prominent Jewish ownership and presence, Jewish actors were told to change their noses and their names, and Hollywood didn’t discuss the emerging Holocaust and what had happened till quite late in the day. It’s not an automatic, but I would say one issue that has really changed dramatically because of that is the gay issue, which you mentioned. I have not seen any issue with such rapid progress.

MF: It is amazing.

RS: Yes, and part of that has to do with people in Hollywood coming out of the closet and saying, “Look, if you’re going to have a reality show, you’re going to have a gay guy on it,” and so forth—gay women—but the issue, and getting back to the issues that you’ve cared about, human rights in general, and not that gay rights are human rights, and the death penalty—this requires a different sensitivity, which almost requires going back to your Catholic background, evoking some notion of Jesus and the other, and the good Samaritan or something, that everyone has a soul.

MF: Indeed.

RS: In terms of your work on the death penalty vote, which have had to remind us, that even people charged with the worst crimes, most insensitive, anti-human crimes, have a soul, have complexity, and in fact maybe wrongly accused.

MF: Absolutely. There are four hypotheses I have put out, which are that any human being, every human being, has intrinsic value, no matter what he or she does. No one is only the worst thing he or she has ever done. There is always a reason for human behavior, and the state killing lowers the entire community to the level of its least member at his or her worst moment. We just have to understand; it’s not like there’s some other out there who does terrible things. This bad-seed notion makes me ill—that people behave sometimes terribly, but if you look at the background, you’d understand that there’s a reason for their behaving terribly and that there’s a reason that society fails to not recognize how to deal with the circumstances of these lives, rather than simply terminating the individual because of his or her inability to behave in what we deem to be an appropriate manner.

RS: That’s a good place to end this. I’ve been talking to Mike Farrell, and I must say, I’ve been around this Hollywood scene for a long time. I worked for the L.A. Times for 29 years. I got to know a lot of people, and I have long regarded you with incredible respect. You’re not showy, you’re not at it for your career, you don’t exploit for any kind of big personal reason. You just work these issues, and it is really that workmanlike attitude of getting the facts, finding out what these cases are about, getting support, trying to educate the community. You really have become a really important public intellectual, so I want to take this moment to thank you. And that’s it for “Scheer Intelligence.” My producers are Joshua Scheer and Rebecca Mooney, and my engineer today has been Mario Diaz. We taped here at KCRW in Santa Monica. See you next week.

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