Robin Sloan
The California Committee
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!”

Sent to the California Committee committee in May 2021