It’s possible Professor Harry Kreisler is one of the best conversationalists on the UC Berkeley campus. As host and executive producer of Conversations with History—a popular hour-long series on UCTV—Kreisler has sat down with this generation’s top thinkers, from academics, authors, activists, diplomats, Nobel Prize Laureates to Hollywood’s royalty.
The show, which has run for over 30 years, is largely supported by departmental funding throughout the university and campus. Kreisler’s partnership with the Graduate Division, managers of the diverse Berkeley Graduate Lectures series, links him to an extraordinary collection of eminent scholars, dignitaries and thinkers.
Despite retiring two years ago, the 69-year-old Professor Emeritus has no plans of slowing down. Last June, the show celebrated its 500th episode. Over the decades, “Conversations with History” has grown beyond its university audience and today reaches a world-wide audience through its YouTube channel. Along the way, the show has also given Kreisler an unexpected education.
“The university is all about ideas,” he said. “I’ve gotten a general education on human knowledge and learned more than I could have in any other discipline.”
Today, he takes the show on the road and recently traveled to Turkey to interview a leading philanthropist and head of Turkish stock exchange and to Atlanta, Georgia, to interview Ahmet Bozer, ExecutiveVP/President of Coca-Cola.
“UC Berkeley is a crossroads; here, you talk to people who pass through, and the show could only happen in a place like Berkeley.”
His conversations with guests are engaging, insightful and low-key, as though you’re watching two friends catch up. However, when it comes to preparing for his interviews with the likes of Oscar-winning filmmaker Oliver Stone or author Noam Chomsky, Kreisler puts in plenty of preparation by researching and reading anything he can about his guests.
“I’ve mastered the art of getting a fix on an individual,” said Kreisler, who considers himself an informed generalist. “In doing the groundwork for the interviewee, you make them more relaxed.”
In the past, he’s also sat down with notable guests like Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone Editor Rich Cohen, U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Barbara Bodine, California U.S. Senator Alan Cranston and former Mexico President Vicente Fox. Once, he sat down with activist Daniel Ellsberg (“a hero for the 1960s generation,” according to Kreisler) and discussed the analysis of presidential decision-making that led to Ellsberg’s choice to leak the Pentagon Papers.
Given the distinguished guests that appeared on “Conversations with History,” it might be surprising to learn that in the beginning, the university didn’t immediately know to save each show.
“Nobody was doing things to preserve the [shows],” Kreisler recalled. After each episode finished airing on public broadcasting, the campus’s Educational Technology Services would erase the tape to recycle it for the next show, he explained. “I insisted that they stop erasing the tape and give me a copy.”
Along with hosting the series, Kreisler worked as the Executive Director of the Institute of International Studies from 1974-2014, and before retiring, taught a course on International Challenges Facing U.S. Foreign Policy at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.
For the future shows, he’s scheduling British philosopher Anthony Appiah, Oxford Chancellor Chris Patten, Norwegian poet Karin Sveen and Oliver Stone for a second interview to discuss art and politics, including the director’s new movie on Edward Snowden in 2015. In addition, Kreisler will continue to interview guests from the Berkeley Graduate Lecture series.
“These interviews are a great teaching tool,” said Kreisler, adding “UC Berkeley is a crossroads; here, you talk to people who pass through, and the [show] could only happen in a place like Berkeley.”
The “Conversations with History” podcast is available for download on iTunes. Be sure to check out Kreisler’s book, Political Awakenings: Conversations with History, a collection of 20 of his most memorable interviews.