Twenty years ago, Robin Kall Homonoff sat in front of a microphone and introduced her new radio show, “Reading With Robin.” A lifelong bibliophile and people-person, Kall had devised a simple formula: she invited authors to talk about their lives and work.
Originally aired on WHJJ 920 AM, the show has transformed over time: in 2012, Kall stopped the radio show and started her transition to podcasting.
With the help of her daughter, Emily, and marketing advice from her son, David, Kall also produced live author events, first called the “Point Street Reading Series” and later “The Cardigan Connection” (a reference to Kall’s love for dogs, particularly her Cardigan Welsh Corgi, Benny Irving).
Through it all, the format of “Reading With Robin” has remained consistent: an upbeat, informal dialogue with authors. Kall, 59, has hosted an astonishing range of scribes, from blockbuster novelists to self-published rookies.
On her show and in person, Kall speaks in the animated, confident tone of a native New Yorker; she grew up on Long Island and earned a B.S. in sociology from Binghamton University in 1985.
Kall moved to Providence in her early twenties, and she has now spent most of her life – 37 years – in the Ocean State.
Over the last decade, Kall has shifted most of her operations to social media; she has used live streaming through Facebook (www.facebook.com/ReadingWithRobin) since 2016, and “Reading With Robin” now appears Thursdays from 3 to 4 p.m. on Instagram Live (www.instagram.com/robinkallink), under the moniker “Tell Me About Your Book.”
With the arrival of COVID in early 2020, Kall kicked her show into high gear, inviting more guests than ever to chat about their latest releases. With most Americans stuck at home, her audience expanded far beyond the borders of Rhode Island.
“Reading With Robin” and its spinoffs have also raised money for a range of charities, from Pink Aid and the RISPCA to No Kid Hungry and the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.
During a recent interview in her East Greenwich home, Kall talked about “Reading With Robin,” her love of literature and her involvement in Rhode Island’s Jewish community.
The following Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Q. How would you describe your relationship with books?
A. I was one of those precocious readers. We spent a lot of time reading. My mother read to us, and books just were magical to me.
With a book, you’re just always engaged. There’s nothing as exciting, as a kid especially, as staying up reading. We were allowed to stay up. We had a bedtime, but if you were reading, you could stay up. So I didn’t have to hide with the flashlight.
I think [it was] also because of my mother and my aunt – big, big readers. You emulate the people that you love, and my mother always had a book by the bedside, always had a book in the car if we were going to a dental appointment. There was always a book, and that’s one of my rules: Never be caught without a book.
Q. So how did “Reading With Robin” get started?
A. I started listening to talk radio, which in and of itself was a funny thing, because I could not stand the sound of scratchy AM noise on the radio, and that’s where talk radio was. But at a certain point, I guess in the early 2000s, I was working at home with my sister, doing work that kept me at a desk. So I had the radio on for company, and I was listening to this talk show. And as I found myself talking to the radio, sometimes yelling at the radio, eventually I … called to give an answer.
The host was trying to come up with somebody that was in a movie; “City Slickers” was the answer. I called and I spoke to the producer. Apparently the producer was laughing, and the host said, “Who is that? Put them on!” And I started calling into the show, and it got to be a bit of an addiction. I got very comfortable on-air. And I was very encouraged by the feedback I was getting.
Q. How did you go from a regular caller to an actual host?
A. Eventually I went into the studio and wrote some bits. And then I thought, “I can do this.” I pitched an idea to do a show, and the manager at the station said, “We think you can do a show. We’d love that. What do you want to talk about?” So I said, “I like the alliteration of ‘Reading With Robin.’ ” The first thing I thought of was: Authors are interesting. They’re well-traveled. They’re the best eavesdroppers. That’s who I’m going to talk to. And [the station manager] said, “Well, are you going to read on air? Are you reading to children?” They did not get it. And I was like, “Just don’t worry about it. This is gonna be great.” And that’s how the show started.
Q. When did they start to get the concept?
A. People were listening. People were asking about the show. People were trying to get on the show. People were calling up to ask how they could get their book on the show. So they got that.
But “Reading With Robin” always sort of stood out on its own little shelf, if you will. It just never fit in anywhere. Which is kind of how I am. I don’t think you could shelve me in fiction or nonfiction or memoir or sci-fi. I’d be the book that would be traveling all over: “I don’t know what to do with this one! Where are we gonna put her?”
Q. Did you have a background in media?
A. Nah. It’s cute, because people will ask me, “Were you a literature major?” I think I was just born talking. I find people fascinating. Believe it or not, I am also a good listener, and I would be so overprepared for a radio show, with notes and notes. And then I would quickly realize: one question, [then] just listen. You can’t believe some of the conversations that would come from just listening. But yeah, no formal training.
Q. How do you decide on which books to feature?
A. Originally, it would really be what I was reading. Also, a lot of my kids’ favorite books, like Steve Chbosky’s “Perks of Being a Wallflower.” And then mine: Jennifer Weiner was one of my first authors. Jodi Picoult was one of my first authors. I was a reader, so I’d be in the bookstores and the libraries. It’s not like now, where it’s more when the book comes out, that’s when authors want to be on.
Q. How has your selection process changed?
A. There’s more books. There are so many books. And I get email pitches, books come, I get solicited books, unsolicited books. And I look through them. My heart is in every piece of “Reading With Robin.” It has to be a well-told story, keep my attention, all of that. It’s something I’ve connected to.
I’ve also prioritized voice, certainly authors of color, LGBTQ, and give more of a priority to authors who have been more marginalized. And publishing is stepping up as well, which is why there are more books to choose from.
I read books six to nine months ahead, so sometimes I don’t remember what I’m reading, and people are like, “Ah, gotcha!” And I’m like, “No, it’s just I read it a long time ago.” I don’t forget when I love a really great book. But it’s hard. It’s hard to pick.
Q. How has the show evolved over time?
A. I was 10 years on the radio, and then, one day in 2012, I thought: “I’ve done 10 years.” I wasn’t sure where things were going to go, and I just decided that was it. I think I posted on Facebook, “Show’s over,” or something like that.
Truth be told, of course, the kids are always the ones with the ideas. They said, “Everything’s a podcast. You could be doing this differently.”
So I started a podcast. There was more flexibility, because there were no commercials and there was really no time limit – which you could probably imagine would be an issue, but I did have a little timer. I did that for years and slowly started incorporating more author events. And then, I did some more Facebook Lives, and the past couple of years, I added an Instagram Live [series].
Q. How would you describe your relationship with Judaism?
A. It’s something, growing up on Long Island, that I probably didn’t think about a whole lot. And not that I came from the most Jewish town, but I also went to college in Upstate New York, in Binghamton. Very Jewish. It was just sort of, “that’s who we were.”
But moving to Rhode Island and marrying somebody whose family was very entrenched in the Jewish community, there was that start.
When I first moved here, I was 22, and I joined Hadassah [the Women’s Zionist Organization of America]. I wanted friends, and I was trying to find my way. We joined Temple Beth-El [in Providence]. I liked Beth-El immediately – met Rabbi [Leslie] Gutterman, and that was it. It was always an incredibly special place and continues to be for us.
I’m very social, if you couldn’t tell. There is a real sense of pride [in the R.I. Jewish community], and people are very open with who they are and what’s important.
ROBERT ISENBERG (email@example.com) is the multimedia producer for the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island and a writer for Jewish Rhode Island.