Levine’s Straight Talking Style Has Served Him Well For Two DecadesPublished: November 14, 2011
Nobody will ever accuse Art Levine of being a wallflower.
Levine, a long-time professor of ethics and legal studies in the College of Business Administration, recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of “Straight Talk,” his aptly named weekly half-hour talk show broadcast on cable systems in Long Beach and 40 surrounding cities reaching 650,000 viewers.
“We gear the show to be comprehensible to a bright 12-year-old. I want viewers to be able to readily follow the conversation,” said Levine, who prides himself on being a straight talker. “If a guest uses a fancy word or term, I’ll explain the meaning if I know it or ask the guest to if I don’t. I believe in simple English. Make it understandable and then make it emotional. The best guests are those who have a passion for whatever it is they’re doing. I view myself as a proxy for our viewers, asking the questions they would want to ask if sitting in my seat, and then making sure the answers are responsive.”
“Straight Talk” focuses on politics, business and the arts, providing a platform for in-depth discussions with elected representatives, government officials, business leaders, university heads, faculty experts, leaders in the arts, entertainers, and representatives of non-profit organizations and community groups.
“For two decades, ‘Straight Talk’ has been a staple in the city of Long Beach and has served an important role in helping to shape the surrounding communities,” said CSULB President F. King Alexander, who has been a guest on the show a number of times. “Art Levine should be very proud of the continuous public service he has provided in a classy and professional manner.”
“I prefer one guest for the whole show,” said Levine, noting that the intimate feel of the program is by design. “We want the viewer to get to know the guest. We shoot our guests tight so you can clearly see their eyes, which are windows to the soul. We like to get behind the persona and learn something about them as a person.”
Levine says he doesn’t believe in grilling guests but, for example, if a politician tries to do a song and dance in answering a question, he will cut to the chase. “I’m trained as a lawyer, went to a fine law school and won my moot court competition. So, I know how to cross examine and get to the bottom line,” he said.
“I also believe that less is more,” he added. “We use a clean desk in front of a simple backdrop. On the desk is a classic, old-fashioned microphone that to me represents a different era, a better era, the time of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. The most important thing we have going is our credibility. I teach ethics as well as law, and ethics is a passion of mine. That’s why I named the show ‘Straight Talk.’ But right behind the importance of the show’s integrity is the need to make it viewable and compelling.”
Levine grew up in New York City and earned an A.B. from Princeton University and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Following several years in the private and public practice of law, he went to work on Wall Street doing investment banking for such top investment houses as Lehman Brothers Inc. and Ladenburg, Thalmann & Co. But after weathering two boom-and-bust cycles, he decided to relocate to the West Coast in 1974 following a vacation visit during which time he was offered a teaching opportunity at CSULB. “I thought teaching would just get me started and then I would do something else,” he said. “I took and passed the California Bar exam and got admitted to the practice of law, but I grew to love teaching and stayed with it.”
Levine considers himself a creative, entrepreneurial kind of individual who, when he sees a need, works to fill it. “When I first came to campus there was no pre-law organization so a year after I came here I founded the Law Society,” he said. “I’ve been their faculty advisor for the last 35 years and it’s still going strong.
“I saw a need for an economic conference in town so in 1988 I created the CSULB Economic Outlook Conference,” he continued. “I served as its director for five years and each year we put on a well-attended half-day Saturday conference on campus. The conference has since continued under the auspices of the university and there is also now one sponsored by the Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce. But ours was the first. I saw the need and filled it.”
Five years ago Levine looked to fill yet another need and co-founded, together with campus Vice President Doug Robinson, the CSULB Distinguished Speakers Series. He serves as director of the series, which brings a top-name speaker to campus each year for the benefit of students and the community. To date, the series has landed such guests as ethics expert Michael Josephson, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, former Wall Street investment banker and best-selling author William D. Cohen, and Huffington Post co-founder Arianna Huffington. This past October, Fox News political analyst Juan Williams was the featured speaker.
As for his unexpected career in television, it has evolved to what it is today after Levine was offered an opportunity by the local cable company to host a show.
“I got started in television when the cable company called me in and said they needed a host,” recounted Levine. “That was seven years before the start of ‘Straight Talk.’ The company had been doing a monthly public affairs show hosted by a wonderful gentleman, the late Chuck Greenberg, a prominent attorney in town. They wanted to go from a monthly taped show to a weekly live show and Chuck’s busy schedule would not accommodate the change. Chuck knew of my work on campus moderating some political debates for the Law Society, a few of which were televised, and he recommended me.
“So I was hired for this brand new show called ‘We the People,’” Levine recalled. “For almost seven years I hosted this one-hour, live weekly public affairs show as well as numerous live extended election night roundups. Every Monday at 7 p.m., like clockwork, the red light would go on and there we were, live on the air. Each show had four 15-minute segments and sometimes we had as many as six guests on a show. We also took live call-ins, so you had to be prepared for anything. It was great training.” When it all ended, somewhat abruptly, Levine began his own show, “Straight Talk,” a few months later.
The format of “Straight Talk” differs from “We the People” in a number of ways. The show is taped, not live, is 30 minutes in length, not an hour, and each show plays for two weeks rather than one. “These are all advantageous changes,” pointed out Levine. “The show is not interrupted by telephone calls, moves much faster, and has more time to be seen by the audience.”
Over the last 20 years, Levine has done more than 450 shows and conducted interviews with more than 1,400 guests including Alexander, former California Gov. George Deukmejian, former California First Lady Sharon Davis, U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, former U.S. Rep. Sonny Bono, State Senator Alan Lowenthal, Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe, Orange County Supervisor John Moorlach, Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster, Long Beach City Auditor Laura Doud, Port of Long Beach Executive Director Richard Steinke, California Highway Patrol Commissioner “Spike” Helmick, CSU Chancellor Charles Reed, former presidential speechwriter and director of CSULB’s Center of First Amendment Rights Craig Smith, CSULB women’s volleyball head coach Brian Gimmillaro, Temple Israel Senior Rabbi Steven Moskowitz, former CBS Sports President Neal Pilson, Anti-Defamation League National Director Abe Foxman, Orange County Superior Court Judge James Gray, and entertainers/actors Carol Lawrence, Sally Struthers, Carol Dennis, Lesley Gore, Nell Carter and DeeDee Rescher.
“I think ‘Straight Talk’ has come to play an important role in the community dialogue,” said Levine. “For many years I had to support it mainly with my own funds, which I was happy to do as a public service. It was and is a labor of love. But as the show expanded, it became necessary to bring in additional outside funding. Fortunately we were able to develop a sponsorship base of quality businesses who believe in what we’re doing and value the exposure they get on the show. Of critical importance has been the support of Edison International, which has been our title sponsor for the past seven years.”
“Art loves Long Beach and that love shows through on all of his shows,” said CSULB’s Smith, who has been a frequent guest on “Straight Talk.” “He wants the viewer to love Long Beach as much as he does.”
Levine also credits the success of the show to the support of Charter Communications and to its first-rate crew.
“Some of our team have been with us almost since the show’s inception, such as producer/director Ron Petke, make-up artist CJ Eastman and crew members Dave Chapman and John Gean,” he said. “Week after week they make that special effort which results in a quality show. I deeply appreciate their contribution.
“Half of being successful in life is just showing up,” reflected Levine. “After 25 years I’ve learned how to do this. Maybe I wasn’t so good in the beginning, but now we are the most watched and respected cable talk show in the greater Long Beach area. I am very grateful to our viewers, our guests and our sponsors. I view the show as a public trust, and my goal is to continually advance the community dialogue.”
To view current and archived shows, visit the Straight Talk website.