Robin Sloan
main newsletter
May 2021

Celebrating Alexis

A complex matrix of steel girders.
Interior of Oakland Municipal Auditorium framework, ca. 1913

I sent a version of this newslet­ter to Cal­i­for­nia Com­mit­tee mem­bers back in April, when Alexis Madri­gal was, for a week, a guest host of Forum on KQED: the central, essen­tial radio pro­gram of the San Fran­cisco Bay Area. This ver­sion is updated to cel­e­brate the news that he will be the per­ma­nent host of the show’s 9 a.m. hour.

A bit of background:

I met Alexis in 2008 at a dinner orga­nized casu­ally via Twitter. It’s a bit dizzy­ing to remem­ber how dif­fer­ent that ser­vice was then; how much smaller and more insular, for one thing, which made this other thing possible, its use as a social coor­di­na­tion mech­a­nism as much as (more than?) a broad­cast channel. It was nice! Anyway, a ~blogger~ com­ing through San Fran­cisco adver­tised his interest in hav­ing din­ner with … whoever was read­ing the tweet? Sure, I was inter­ested, and so, it turns out, was Alexis. The blogger’s fol­low­ers squeezed them­selves around a ta­ble in a shad­owy SOMA tav­ern whose name I forget. On that cold night in Octo­ber 2008, I sat across from Alexis Madri­gal and Sarah Rich, and I have been friends with both of them ever since.

More recently, Alexis and I shared an office space in South Berkeley, a ramshackle bunker that we dubbed the Mur­ray Street Media Lab. Alexis wrote a whole book in that lab! I did not write a whole book, but I did a bunch of other stuff. It is the MSML’s library wall that pro­vides the back­drop for the lit­tle inline videos I’ve been putting in my newslet­ters lately. Alexis’s books amassed over that year still occupy the top two shelves, a col­lec­tion of cross-cutting regional histories: race, labor, ecology, technology … everything.

Alexis and I have a lot of inter­ests in common — journalism, bicycling, the gamay grape — but/and the one we’ve talked about the most over the years is: here. This place! The Bay Area’s spirit and history, its avatars and ley lines; Stew­art Brand and Huey Newton, Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity and the Port of Oakland. It’s a big thing to hold in your head, geo­graph­i­cal sweep mul­ti­plied by his­tor­i­cal depth, and I would match Alexis’s grasp of it against anybody’s.

When Alexis told me he would be join­ing Mina Kim on Forum, the news felt both excit­ing and …  inevita­ble? I mean, who else would you want to be the voice beam­ing across the water, ghost­ing through every tech office and every co-op bakery, every con­tainer crane and every microscope, ani­mat­ing the whole sub­stance of here, reveal­ing it, day by day, to itself?

Then, I repeated the news to a friend. She did not reply, “Oh, how great for Alexis” (although it is, of course); her first impulse was instead to say:

“How great for the Bay Area!”

May 2021