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Eric Nuzum, NPR programming executive tells rocky life story in Giving up the Ghost

Kevin Ferguson/KPCC

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Eric Nuzum works for NPR as the Vice President of Programming. He oversees shows like Wait Wait Don't Tell me, worked with Car Talk, Fresh Air, Marketplace. Before all that, though, Nuzum's early life was nothing short of chaos: he lost friends, lost money, took too many drugs, and almost took his own life. He ended up in a mental ward before finally turning his life around.

In his new memoir, Giving Up the Ghost, Nuzum reconciles his rocky past with his stable present--with a healthy dose of ghost hunting worked in for good measure. It also tells how music--specifically, 80s rock--became the soundtrack to those tumultuous years.

Nuzum talked to KPCC's Kevin Ferguson about how some of those songs helped him tell his life's story.

Talking Heads - Once in a Lifetime
Once In A Lifetime by Talking Heads on Grooveshark

"I was at a party one night when I was at the height of my mental instability. And whenever I was in social situations with people when I felt really kind of out of touch, I would look for something to get enraged by. And this song was playing and I was watching kids dance to it, jump around in place. And I got angry--I had been listening to the Talking Heads for a couple years at that point. I felt a sense of propriety at that point.

"I looked across the kitchen, and there's a box of Captain Crunch cereal on the shelf. I started to go on about how much I hated Captain Crunch. And the more I talked, the more people started to stare at me. I started to feel desperate. I started screaming and grabbed the box and started smashing it on the counter--cereal is flying everywhere as I'm just kind of crying and sobbing and screaming about captain crunch. And this song, 'Once in a Lifetime,' is playing in the background."

Laurie Anderson - Gravity's Angel
Gravity's Angel by Laurie Anderson on Grooveshark

Laurie Anderson is a performance artist, composer and violinist who's spoken word and signing albums have caught the attention of crate diggers and brat pack fans alike. "Gravity's Angel" is off of her second album, Mister Heartbreak.

"When I was in high school, the way we discovered punk and new wave music was on a little FM station at the University of Akron called WAUP. And at night they would play all sorts of stuff, and it was a discovery and delight every night. There's two songs, the Smiths' "How Soon is Now" and that song, "Gravity's Angel," that I knew within the first 20 seconds of hearing them that they would become one of the greatest songs I ever heard.

"I think that people who are music fans have moments in their lives when something just blows their minds, and it seems like when I would listen to WAUP I would discover something every night like that. It was an indication to me, that song, there was a bigger world for me to discover than what I was experiencing in this rust belt town in Ohio."

KISS - God of Thunder
God of Thunder by KISS on Grooveshark

"When I was a young boy, I thought KISS was the bee's knees. I was kind of weird, and kind of strange and looked funny and acted funny. And KISS was not only tolerated for this but was encouraged to do it.

My friends and I started a KISS tribute band that we called KISS Junior. I had a little electric organ, my friend Terri had an electric guitar which she never learned how to play, and her sister had a beat up old tambourine. We had this massive hi-fi, and we would put the album side on--and the crowd sounds would start and then the band would start. We would just kind of bang along and sing along with them. I've been in dozens of band in my life when I was playing music and I was never able to have as much fun in any band as I did in KISS Junior. It was great."

Here's the entirety of Eric's Playlist:

Giving Up The Ghost by Eric Nuzum on Grooveshark