For the last 25 years, Art Levine has interviewed politicians, business executives, entertainers, doctors, educators, health care administrators, nonprofit and community groups, and leaders in the arts as the host of “Straight Talk,” a weekly cable show.
Art Levine’s weekly half-hour cable show, which is broadcast in 70 cities, is celebrating its 25th Anniversary. All taping takes place on the campus of California State University, Long Beach. Levine is taping his 587th show on June 2. (Photograph by the Business Journal’s Larry Duncan)
In 1974, Levine moved to Southern California from New York City, where he was a practicing lawyer, to teach ethics and legal studies at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB). In his early years at CSULB, Levine developed the Law Society, which invited practicing lawyers to speak on campus.
“But we also had some elected officials who would speak to us – councilpeople and Congress. As you know, many of the elected officials happen to also be lawyers,” Levine said. “Then I created some debates between candidates running for local office, and university television took an interest, and they videotaped a lot of the debates.”
During this time, cable show “We The People” was looking to grow from a monthly program to a weekly one. However, host Chuck Greenberg was senior partner at the law firm of Ball, Hunt, Hart, Brown & Baerwitz, and his schedule would not allow it. So he recommended Levine to take his place.
Levine hosted the live-airing, hourlong public affairs show every Monday night for seven years. The show ended abruptly when Levine got into a dispute with management. The split from “We The People” eventually led Levine to develop and produce “Straight Talk.”
Starting from humble beginnings, barely being able to cover costs and sometimes paying out of pocket, Levine has grown the show and now has more than 30 sponsors, which has made the shows longevity possible. “Straight Talk” is gearing up for its 587th taping on Friday, June 2. To date, Levine said he has interviewed more than 1,000 guests on the program, which is now broadcast in 70 cities, with an estimated 50,000 people tuning in every week. For airtimes and channels, visit: www.straighttalktv.com.
“The show was originally an hour long, so we had more guests. We’d have four 15-minute segments basically. They could be about an actor, a politician. It was all over the map,” Levine said. “Then we went to half an hour. I’d rather just spend half an hour with one person, sometimes two if they are related. We have been fortunate to have such wonderful guests.”
When asked who his favorite guests have been, Levine said that’s like asking “which of your children is your favorite.” He said he is honored to have been able to host George Deukmejian, the former governor of California, as well as Long Beach mayors Beverly O’Neill, Bob Foster and Robert Garcia on multiple occasions.
Other notable guests include trial lawyer Joseph Ball, who was senior counsel to the Warren Commission after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination; California Congressman Alan Lowenthal; former National Director of the Anti-Defamation League Abraham Foxman; County Supervisor Don Knabe; author William Cohan; eighth commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command Admiral Eric Olson; historian Douglas Brinkley; and writer, actress and businesswomen Arianna Huffington.
“We had one of the Disney Imagineers on. Sally Struthers was a guest,” Levine said. “Nell Carter won a Tony [Award] at the age of 19 for ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’,’ and she was in town to do the 30th anniversary of ‘Raisin in the Sun,’ and she [did] our show. This was very sad [because] she died six days later. Ours was the last television appearance of the great Nell Carter.”
When asked if he had any funny stories from the last 25 years, Levine said the first thing that popped into his head was the untaped episode. He recalled sitting down with a guest and having a great hourlong show. Afterward, the crew in the control room informed Levine that they forgot to put in a tape and the show was not recorded. Though not funny at the time, Levine gave a small chuckle when recounting the incident.
Another memorable episode took place a year or two ago when Knabe appeared on “Straight Talk” during the holiday season. Levine decided to reverse the roles and allow Knabe to act as host and ask him questions.
“I had given him some ideas for questions, but he kind of threw that away and went off on his own,” Levine said. “Now he had the microphone, and I’m waiting to answer questions. And it was very discomforting because I’m used to asking the questions.”
With the recent political climate and the widening schism between political parties, and even within parties, Levine said he has tapped into his roots as an ethics professor. “As a professor of ethics, I look at the values of guests that we have. It’s really important to me,” Levine said. “The country is at risk because of a lack of ethics or the wrong ethics. I’ve tried to work it into the show and even work it into some of the columns that I write in the magazine (Straight Talk Magazine, which he has published the past 12 years).”
Within the next year, with the merging of Charter Cable and Time Warner Cable, Levine said he thinks the program will be broadcast all across Southern California in 150 cities, reaching more viewers than ever.
When discussing the future of the show, Levine admitted that he likes hosting so much that he has not put much thought into a plan of succession for when he steps out of the spotlight. He explained that maybe sometime in the next five to 10 years, he will bring in a co-host and see how that goes. However, Levine questions if a project such as “Straight Talk” is transferable due to the name recognition of him as a host. Regardless of what happens in the future, Levine said he has no current plans to step down or stop broadcasting.
“There are people doing great things all over the city and nonprofit groups and all kinds of stuff,” Levine said. “So this is my contribution to the city. And the fact that it’s lasted 25 years, the longevity of it, is meaningful to me. It’s a message to me that I’m doing something that people are responding to.”