Matt Holzman found the humor and the humanity in design and planning

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Longtime KCRW staff member Matt Holzman, producer of The Document and curator of Matt's Movies, passed away April 12. Photo credit: KCRW

The entire KCRW family has been shaken up by Matt Holzman’s death. His talents spread so wide that each of us has personal memories of working or playing with him. Here are a few from DnA.

As you know from listening to him on air and reading the many tributes, Matt was a brilliant, maverick, funny, also irascible character who came to KCRW — like many of us in past decades — from another career, on a quest, ready to try anything in radio.

And Matt could pretty much do anything. His talents spanned finance and tapping donors for contributions. He became an impresario, helming Matt’s Movies; and even managed to turn the typically unlistenable pledge drive into a comedic and uplifting experience. 

I often pitched with Matt and was always amazed at how masterfully he would introduce the pledge period as a show or segment ended. Without missing a beat, he would signal to master control to play a stretch of music that he chose on the fly, or a tape of one of his famed phone calls to an awed listener, to say they had won a sweepstakes. It often seemed like the call was a win in itself.

Then he would launch into his why-you-should-subscribe-to-KCRW spiel, except that coming from Matt it never sounded like a spiel. That is because he would rattle off the reasons for supporting the station with such passion and gusto, spiked with jokes, that you would get caught up in his spirit; and suddenly 10 minutes of asking people to give money became a duet of laughs and mutual egging on to greater and greater heights of enthusiasm for public radio. Then it would be over and Matt would switch instantly to eating his lunch, or to a succinct, unvarnished critique of what could have gone better during that heady pitch period.

That is where Matt also shone so brightly: he was a storyteller. Across numerous shows at the station, he aired his own stories or helped edit colleagues.

He always had an ear for the funny, the sad, or the emotional because he understood that radio stories are about people, even when they might be about dry topics, like urban planning.

Take for example Matt’s Never Built Los Angeles series. “Never Built” was a book and an exhibition, created in 2013 by architecture critics Sam Lubell and Greg Goldin, about grand plans for Los Angeles that were never realized; essentially it was a hidden history of LA power and ambition. 

Matt took several of the projects and wove his own narrative around those stories. He looked into the unbuilt Chavez Ravine housing project that was designed by Richard Neutra and rejected because of the Red Scare in 1950s Los Angeles. He looked at how the once conservative City of Santa Monica became the “people’s republic” through a fight to save Santa Monica Pier. He explored an unrealized masterplan for LA by Frank Lloyd Wright and he told the story of DisneySea, a proposed Walt Disney amusement park to be located in the City of Long Beach. Take a listen to the stories and hear how Matt was able to turn these stories of passion, dreams and conflict into great radio.

“Sam and I adored working with him when he did his Never Built series,” Greg Goldin wrote me in an email Monday. “He was a truly generous man; and his on-air presence was always humane, decent, generous.”

He also joined DnA to talk about a documentary about rock photographer Mick Rock. You could not discuss a documentary without getting Matt’s take first. About the Mick Rock doc, he opened with a compliment laced with shrewdness: “Most movies about rock and roll aren’t very rock and roll. And this is a very artistic and very rock and roll movie. It is visually stunning. It is pretentious in a way that lots of rock and roll and art is, so it’s very much reflective of the material.”

One of my last radio outings with Matt was on Press Play for a tribute to the architect I.M. Pei. It came about completely by chance.

On learning of Pei’s death at 102, Press Play host Madeleine Brand’s producers asked me what we should talk about and I droned on to them about Pei’s architectural oeuvre. Then Matt popped his head into the conversation (he was my deskmate; sometimes a curmudgeonly one) and offered a hilarious recollection of visiting the Pei-designed CAA headquarters in Beverly Hills soon after it opened in 1989. 

As former DnA producer Avishay Artsy reminded me in an email on hearing of Matt’s passing, Matt “had such a funny way of describing all the fancy cars you had to pass on the way to your parking spot and how the building ‘was intended to project power’, the odd feeling of being in the silent atrium and the recognition of ‘the craft that had been used to intimidate you’. He could describe anything, even corporate architecture, with such flair. He had a piercing wit that added nuance and color to any topic.”

Matt Holzman will be deeply missed.