Intro from Jay Allison: It may seem an odd time to focus on craft, but craft is often what gets you through. The ability to do the job well is always important, and especially in a crisis. Further, our chosen work -- radio -- is essential in any modern crisis. Much depends on our skill, more than we sometimes know. Certainly radio is important as a lifeline, a communication link, but also... for conversation, for connection. If you live within earshot of Boston -- or anywhere else "The Connection" aired under Christopher Lydon's hostship -- you know he is one of the finest practitioners of the radio talk show craft, ever. There were days listening to that program where the primary response was a feeling of gratitude. Here, we'd like to focus on what Chris can tell us about the nature of this line of work, the power and usefulness of the medium of radio and the genre of the talk show. Radio can be used to spew venom and propaganda or encourage violence and breed mindless mobs, even nationalistic ones. Public radio call-in shows have a responsibility to counter that -- both nationally and locally -- to act as steam vents and barometers, classrooms and town meetings. America's action will be a function of its political will. Radio, and the radio talk show, have an undeniable link to that will. We are among the moderators of the dialogue. We can frame the debate. We can write the captions to the pictures. It is a mistake to think that public radio is some backwater in these times. At our local stations, we know that our audience has increased enormously. There is a yearning for sensible, trustworthy, inspiring words. That's us -- armed with the purpose of public service, an ear for stories and hymns and poems, and the careful practice of craft.
Aren’t we all struck in post-Apocalyptic America by the gaps between official speak (“We’re at war…”) and the media discourse (“America Attacked.. New York responds..”) and the infinitely various sound of people’s conversations?
Speak for your own family kitchen table, your own phone calls, your own beauty shop, your classroom, your street corner, your church parking lot, your answers to your own kids’ questions. It seems commonplace to observe that in my own pretty commonplace experience, including one funeral for a software engineer (and French horn player) on Flight 11, it’s the ordinary off-line encounters that pulse with the fathomless depths of this experience. The plain talk is unembarrassed by pain, sorrow, infinite sadness. It assumes a fundamental connectedness here in a diabolical crime story that is also a political crisis at the edge of a financial/industrial crisis enfolded in a spiritual crisis, inseparable from the crisis of the crass jiggle-show culture that our satellites rain down on the world. Yet the common talk I’ve heard is not resigned, much less despairing. It doesn’t sound vengeful either. The dread, such as it is, for the end of the American Century arises not from their attack but from the question of our collective response. And nobody’s giving up.
I’m a talk-show host feeling distraught to be off the air in this moment. I’m reading The New York Times for hours every day, listening to the media discourse, and straining to hear also the American conversation.
Of course I’d bet on that conversation, not the media discourse, to save us. It’s what we’d want to listen to, in any event.
Let’s Talk, Not Rant
The commercial “talk” is mostly locker-room gab of unfunny old men too feeble to snap a real towel. The public-radio alternative has been vastly better. Sober and safe, it’s had brilliant moments–like John Burnett’s report on NPR yesterday morning on the multi-national staff of the late Windows on the World restaurant. And still public radio has seemed to me far short of what we are going to need to recover citizen voices in a bomb-shattered public square. Most days and nights, and notably when political figures are onstage, public radio has been sounding like CNN without pictures: just the facts, ma’am, and more facts, and the same hand-me-around security veterans and terrorism experts (whatever the titles are worth) with much the same propaganda barrage from the war room.
The cancellation of product commercials and underwriting credits in the first day or two after the Trade Center went down was a relief. Then you began to realize that it was all one commercial: “Brought to you by: World War Three!” The phrase has always meant nuclear Armageddon. The subliminal extra in the new context is: it’s all-out war with the Third World.
For this Transom forum I would plead with all comers to pursue the question: what might radio do to give coherence and weight to an open, popular reflection on ourselves and our country in what is no longer an abstraction–an Age of Terrorism that could go on for the rest of our lives.
The prejudice coming out of my own experience is that talk radio is a well-nigh perfect medium for an inquiry that’s got to be broad and deep, substantive and as unpredictably emotional as Dan Rather’s tears, inexpensive and reasonably independent, accessibly democratic, non-commercial, open to digression and dissent, open to thousands of voices, credentialed and not.
The Web can be a lot of those things and more, but it’s damnably diffuse at a time like this, and lacking in continuity. Worse, it’s completely without the many-layered magic, the grit, variety, dynamic range, accent and authenticity of Studs Terkel’s beloved “vox humana.” A large part of what we need right now is to hear more of that fabulous instrument.
Paraphrasing Studs in his Transom interview with Sydney Lewis in June, we need to hear women in the laundromat, and the little old tramp, and something like the conversation Studs grew up hearing in the lobby of his parents’ Wells Grand Hotel. We need to hear the working-class boy who wants to be an intellectual and says, “Stately minds. We need stately minds.” And we know they are out there.
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The Route to Radio
I wasn’t always a radio nut, incidentally. I fell into radio from political reporting from The New York Times‘ Washington bureau in the Seventies, and public-television with the Ten O’Clock News in with WGBH, Boston through the Eighties. Radio for a lot of us who back into it is supposed to be “the twilight of a mediocre career,” as Mark Shields says. But radio for me felt more like the start of my adult education, as well as the best work I’d ever done, with an incomparably smart, aggressive colleague Mary McGrath, in a medium that could be all intensity, no clutter. I was out from under the institutional voice of The New York Times, and free of the visuals on TV news that are mostly distraction even now. (Television anchors discover at some point: your audience is not really listening to what you’re saying. No, on a normal night, viewers are looking at your hair! They’re trying to decide if it’s a wig, or whether you need a trim or a dye job. It’s not a pretty thought, but consider for a moment how much you know about Barbara Walters’ hair. (Peter Jennings’, too.)
On the radio, of course I was only relearning what I’d known all along. Tony Schwartz, the advertising genius who has been recording the street sounds of his Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood in Manhattan for 50 years, used to show me 60-second TV spots he made for political candidates in the 1970s. In a Schwartz ad, the video might show only the face of an industrial clock with its second-hand sweeping the full circle: nothing to watch, in short, while the voice-over extolled Bob Abrams, as I recall, for Attorney General. The trick, Tony Schwartz explained, was to neutralize the eye to get to the ear–that is, to land the audio message under the video radar, precisely because the ear, not the eye, was the route to both heart and mind.
And in practice, it turned out, radio worked exactly that way.
For most of seven years from WBUR, Boston, we did a different sort of public-radio talk program, “The Connection,” which we also called “Rush Limbaugh for Grown-Ups.” We touched all the familiar bases of politics, books, work, and music. But we defined ourselves by our unfamiliar subjects and approaches. We used to say: we’re the program where Robert Pinsky, later the Poet Laureate, read his new translation of Dante for an hour, and where the pianist Robert Levin was buried in calls on Unfinished Mozart, which he’d thought only he cared about. We asked listeners to write short stories and verse, and to describe their experience of the sublime. With the help of NPR, the BBC and the New York Times, we covered the Kosovo war relentlessly.
Radio meets the Henry David Thoreau test: it’s a job that doesn’t require a new set of clothes. Equally for callers: radio doesn’t require you to look your best or feel tip-top either, but just to think and speak with a certain authenticity. Focus helps. Humor, excitement, some learning all help. The breathtaking news to me, I confess, was the many multitudes of individuals who handled it all brilliantly. Like the man who called into our write-the-coming-headlines game on a New Year’s Eve, and referred to the mumbling malaprop Mayor of Boston. He said: “Chris, here’s your headline: Surgeons Liberate Small Gerbil from Tom Menino’s Tongue.” Star callers came often to outshine star guests. Our favorite was “Amber in Boston,” a Barbadian immigrant with a high-school education who stalked the big game on our show, and out-talked the best of them: Camille Paglia, Harold Bloom and Gore Vidal. It was Amber who put her finger on what was different about our program. Her line was:
“the great unwashed hear a lot of the same stiffs on your program that we hear on all the other programs. The premise of the other shows, she said, was that we’re so lucky to hear their guests; the premise of your shows is that those talking heads are so lucky to meet us!”
What We Could Use
We want precisely what Ralph Waldo Emerson was looking for when he founded his magazine, The Dial, in 1840. It should be non-conformist, “a little bad,” Emerson said, anticipating Black English. He told his editor, Margaret Fuller, that “we might court some of the good fanatics,” but all in all he said The Dial should speak as “one cheerful rational voice amidst the din of mourners and polemics.” Emerson’s “mourners and polemics” are more than ever dominant among the bullies, sycophants and profiteers in the American media of the 21st Century. But Emerson would challenge us to make the vital space our own.
I nominate radio as the device that can diversify and extend and sustain and weave the current of our best private questions and insights into a public conversation. It might actually redeem what feels like a long engagement of our superpower democracy with reaction and fear.
Could we talk under the Transom here for the next month or so about exactly how to make it work?