When she sat down for her first episode of “The Drexel InterView,” Paula Marantz Cohen hoped she could help show the world just how big Drexel’s intellectual tent was, that it was a place for humanities scholars as well as scientists and engineers.
Some 10 years and 135 interviews later, that message is going out across the United States, to more than 400 TV stations from coast to coast.
“The University has become far more comprehensive,” Cohen said. “This helps get that word out.”
The half-hour interview show has also given Cohen, a distinguished professor of English, a thrilling ride during her 10 seasons and counting as its host. From her chair in the Anthony J. Drexel Picture Gallery (and some other locations in recent years), Cohen has interviewed nationally famous names, Pulitzer Prize winners and dozens of other varied and eclectic figures from literature, art, the sciences and elsewhere.
Her guests have varied from former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani to columnist Molly Ivins to cult film director John Waters. (Waters recommended a brand of eyeliner he said he’d used for years to outline his trademark pencil-thin mustache, and Cohen still uses it.)
Her sit-downs with writer and intellectual Christopher Hitchens and screenwriter Nora Ephron were the final formal interviews conducted before their respective deaths.
“We try to bring in people who have some degree of seriousness to them, who have a national or international reputation,” Cohen said.
And there’s one other important qualification: Cohen’s guests must be people in whom she’s interested.
But that’s not a selfish desire, she says. “If I can feel interested, the interview will be better,” Cohen said.
That’s partly because for every interview, Cohen prepares herself in full. Every book, film or piece of music her guest has released—she reads, watches or listens to them all.
“I find that to be part of what I like about the job, is that I can totally immerse myself in someone’s output,” Cohen said.
In her talk with Hitchens—one of her favorite interviews—she didn’t just ask him to tell her what he wrote about in his memoir. She asked him question after question about specific details: his feelings toward his father, his mother’s decision to hide the fact that she was Jewish from her children, his tendency to make constant literary references.
“I’m certainly not a confrontational interviewer,” Cohen said, “but I like to probe, in a nice way, to find out what makes people tick.”
Cohen and the Pennoni Honors College staff who produce the show will begin work on its 11th season in October, when they’ll travel to Washington, D.C., for a four-episode series on the Smithsonian Institution. The show has hit the road occasionally in recent years, visiting museums in Philadelphia and elsewhere.
Since her first interview in the 2003-04 academic year, with iconic Philadelphia chef Georges Perrier (she was quite nervous, she says), she has interviewed about 12 to 14 people per year.
The show began with an idea from Phil Terranova, the former vice president for University Relations, and Provost Mark Greenberg, who was then dean of the Pennoni Honors College. The college oversees “The Drexel InterView” today, with Dean Dave Jones serving as executive producer.
Since that first episode, the show’s reach has expanded from one television station—Drexel’s DUTV—to 401, including about 150 PBS stations around the country. Producer Eric Mondgock calculates a potential viewing population of more than 240 million people. (Many of its episodes can also be viewed online on the show’s YouTube page.)
For the show’s success, Cohen credits the work of Mondgock, former producer Lynn Levin, assistant producer Brian Kantorek, Jones and others who have helped put it together.
Together, she says, they’ve helped create a venture unlike perhaps any other project sponsored by a U.S. university. And with stations requesting to air more and more episodes, it promises to spread the word about Drexel further and further.