Intro from Jay Allison: I'm so happy Sarah is here. She gives me faith every time I hear her, because she's so much herself and not anyone else. In the sometimes droning world of public radio, this helps. Sarah wasn't sure what we wanted her to write here; I just looked back at my email in response to her question, and now it feels like an introduction, so here: "I read your book Radio On a long time ago, and I thought you were saying things that public radio needed to hear. You managed to say them in a way that was both wise-ass and authoritative. Then, Barrett told me about you on the radio in Montana and how you did great work even though you didn't sound at all like radio people were supposed to. Then I heard your work and loved it. You're exactly what Transom likes: a lover and critic of radio, and a practitioner. You're a happy enthusiast and you're crabby. You write well. I don't want to direct your "manifesto" at all, but it could talk about listening, what you like and don't like, the difference between critiquing and making, story structure, humor, vocal style, working on TAL, differences between writing for print and for radio (that would be interesting) and I don't know what else." Ladies and Gentlemen, Sarah Vowell's "Manifesto Thing."
The Manifesto Thing
I do a fair share of readings around the country and most of the people who show up to hear me are public radio listeners who know me from This American Life. Sometimes they come up to me afterwards and talk about how much they love public radio, how they can’t live without public radio, how public radio is like air to them. And then, if I’m selling books, those are the people who never buy my second book, the one of mostly This American Life stories, because they got that one from the pledge drive. So they buy my first book, called Radio On, a diary of listening to the radio in 1995, and I feel really sorry for them when I’m signing it because I know they’re going to get home and be so disappointed reading a practitioner of their beloved public radio calling their beloved public radio hosts words like “devil” or “vampire.” And not in a good way either.
Entry by Accident
I got into the public radio racket by accident. It never occurred to me to write for radio. I wanted to write about radio. I wanted to write about radio for two reasons. The first reason is that I’d grown up in Bozeman, Montana with a marvelous college station called KGLT that more or less formed my complete world view, a station where I learned about rock & roll, became a truly miserable excuse for a newscaster and a not too terrible DJ, and made lifelong radio-freak friends (including Barrett Golding, whom I like to think of as my radio Yoda.) The other reason I wanted to write about radio was the fact no one else was. After the Republicans took over the Congress in 1994 and the freshmen representatives started calling themselves the “dittohead caucus” in homage to their spiritual leader, talk show host Rush Limbaugh, I thought radio was exerting this enormous influence on American life. And unlike movies or books or music or television, there weren’t any critics writing about what was on it, which meant nobody was really holding radio responsible for its drivel or celebrating its greatness. Radio felt like a big secret.
Secrets, I soon found out, aren’t always interesting. Listening to the radio every day for an entire year was a prison sentence. It was the most depressing, annoying, debilitating project I have ever undertaken, and I have a master’s degree in art history. Besides the fact that radio in general is crap, 1995 in particular wasn’t the most upbeat year. That was the era of welfare mothers and the Oklahoma City bombing and the Million Man March and flying out of LAX on the day the Unabomber was threatening to blow it up. Basically, talk radio was evil, rock & roll was starting to take a dive from which it hasn’t recovered, and NPR was like a pompous old bore you’re seated next to at a 365-day dinner party.
A Human Host
The one nice thing about that project was that when there were bright spots, they were very bright indeed. And, except for the Neil Young songs, the great moments were almost always on public radio. I listened to the CBC’s Sunday Morning every week and I latched onto its host, Ian Brown. He was really smart and really funny and he had this touching habit of actually caring about his country. Unfortunately, that country was Canada, but still. He did all the hosting duties from interviewing farmers in Manitoba to grappling with a million other topics from books to Bosnia. But my favorite part was his weekly personal essay. I think that was the first time I really had a model for how to write a personal essay for the radio. Unlike the hosts of American public radio programs, who seemed like they just showed up for work in between the kind of Georgetown cocktail parties where all they talked about was what a hick Bill Clinton was, Brown seemed like a real human being, the kind of guy you’d want to have a beer with. (It’s true–the guy can really hold his liquor.) By real human being I mean a modern, all-over-the-place citizen of the world. He wrote about what he cared about. One week it was hockey, the next he might be asking since when did sweaters start costing so much?
My favorite Brown essay of all time was rendered on the eve of the Quebec referendum. Quebec was voting on whether or not to remain part of Canada. He made a heartfelt if desperate argument for sticking together, for being a nation. Recalling his childhood as an Anglo in francophone Montreal, he said, “I spoke English and French. I had English and French friends. I lived there. It was my home and my family. It is also the foundation, the distinct foundation of my memory. The countryside, the testicle-clenching winters with the electricity down, the odd, thrilling trip to the Forum to play in a peewee hockey championship, various people’ Those were some elements of ‘My Quebec’ if you’ll pardon the expression. Now, a group of people, the forty-six or forty-eight or fifty-two percent of the people of Quebec, want to take away that part of my history – But what can I do? Should I beg? Should I implore Quebeckers, my old neighbors, not to cut out of my head and my chest the idea and the ideal that for me is the essence of this country, a decent moral dream?”
Brown was talking to his countrymen. (No one down here was doing anything remotely like that on the radio. Just the opposite. That same year, I once flipped the On switch and the first thing I heard was an AM talk show host suggest that the government should hire all the welfare mothers to shoot down all the illegal immigrants at the border.) This only occurs to me now, years later, but I think hearing that Ian Brown commentary gave me permission to get cracking on my real life’s work–to talk to my country about what my country is like. It was my first inkling that patriotism didn’t have to be creepy, that it could be expressed with humor and ambiguity and include all the silly minor details by someone you would actually want to know.
Another Host Beckons
Lucky for me, during my year of radio hell, I met this guy in Chicago who co-hosted my favorite local show The Wild Room on WBEZ. He was starting a new public radio show featuring writing and documentaries focused on a theme. And that man was Ira Glass. And that show became This American Life. I wrote about Ira a couple times, bumped into him around town. Once, at a dinner five years ago, I started telling him a story about this letter I got from a fan of the punk band the Fastbacks thanking me for mentioning the band in a book review I had written for a local paper and how the fan had enclosed a complicated book he’d compiled of statistics about the band, my favorite being the page labeled “Fastbacks Drummer Pie Chart.” After I stopped talking all Ira said was, “I can loan you a tape recorder.” What he meant was: Hey, do a story for the radio. And that’s how that began. Since then, Ira has hired me to write stories or make documentaries about everything from the legacy of Jacksonian Indian removal policy to the overwhelming number of Christmas songs in which Santa Claus is a slut. Now that I think about it, I now get paid to be Ian Brown, only shorter and without all the hockey.
Looking at Brown’s thoughts on Quebec again right now, on the page, I think they still resonate. But there was something about hearing that on the radio, hearing it in his voice, that made it all the cliche’d but true things they say about radio-that it’s more intimate, more personal, the closest thing to ESP. And the only place on the radio you’re allowed to talk like that is public radio. (Of course, you get paid in public radio money, which I have come to believe is a dwindling pile of Confederate cash they keep in a vault at Peach State Public Radio.)
A Host Who Intrigues
So as a listener myself, I can understand how listeners get so attached to the people on public radio. I guess my favorite person on public radio — aside from Ira of course, of course — is Terry Gross. I listen to Fresh Air every day, and I find myself noticing these weird little things about her. Unlike a self-absorbed first person storyteller like me, Terry Gross is a more opaque, more mysterious person. But just as change falls into sofa cushions, these little biographical tidbits do slip out. I think she might be worried about Alzheimer’s, because she mentions forgetfulness a lot. Or I know that when she cooks chicken, she’s very mindful of salmonella. Anyway, she’s this beloved part of my life and I like how her mind works. And when I meet a public radio listener who wants to talk about public radio, I always find that a good save is to ask, “Did you hear Terry Gross interview XYZ the other day? Remember that part when he revealed blah-blah-blah?”
In between this line and the one above it you can please insert 36 hours where I tried to figure out why Fresh Air and This American Life are the only shows on American public radio I truly love. But it’s like defining jazz or something–all the words to describe it describe the other kinds of music too. I have a hunch that it has something to do with the emotional tenor of those shows–not too square but not too hip, irreverent and reverent all at once, brainy while not dismissing the importance of dumb fun. Or maybe Ira and Terry just sound like they give a damn. The driving force behind their best interviews is simply, “Wow, I really like that thing you did.”
You like this thing she's done? Well, then...
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Or maybe it’s that they’re both inherently democratic, speaking in the same tone of voice to everyone, be they relief workers or comedians. They don’t segue from the serious interview to the frivolous commentator by screwing their voices into that condescending tone that means, “And now, folks, I’d like to introduce our little freak.”
The Beat of Life
If I step back from everything I’ve just written I can see it as an argument for personality over substance, the kind of shallow thing that’s supposed to turn Edward R. Murrow over in his grave. But as I understand it, the mission of public broadcasting is to cover the beat of life itself. And life can be tough to take. When Terry Gross is talking to someone about breast cancer or genital mutilation or some other horrific thing I might turn off on any other show, I’ll go along with her. Or, like every other notable male practitioner of public radio (someone should look into this peculiar trend), Ira is obsessed with prisons and prisoners. Me, I’m not in love with lockup, but I will stick with Ira and his prison shows because I know I’ll find out something that’s surprising or moving or funny or all three.
Because as Dante before us knew, when you go to hell, the only way to stand it is if that nice chap Virgil’s showing you around. Then again, if the Inferno were written now, I think the fifth circle would be called “Pledge Drive.”
My question(s) to the discussion group, as makers or consumers of public radio, is this – does public radio coast on its reputation? Clearly, the people who like it like it because it is not dumb. But is that enough? I’m not talking about content per se. For example, the other day, one NPR news program covered the ramifications of Senator Jeffords’s defection as well as an Alaskan couple struggling with their small birch syrup business. Those are good parameters for the kind of stories that should be included. But I don’t remember being moved or surprised or entertained. Something’s missing. Am I alone in thinking this? Is this a Human Resources problem that would simply go away if smarter, funnier, more interesting people started applying for jobs? And if that’s the case, is it just about money? At the risk of sounding like a Republican, is it Washington syndrome? While I believe in the wisdom of a strong central government, I think where journalism’s concerned I prefer states’ rights. How else do you explain that the sparkier programs are produced elsewhere–Marketplace in LA, TAL in Chicago, Fresh Air in Philadelphia, the Next Big Thing in New York? Is it structural? Can we make a moratorium on beginning every damn report with three seconds of ambient sound? And what other public broadcasting cliches’ need tossing out?
Would I be asking these questions about newspapers, about magazines, about TV? No, because I don’t expect much out of those genres anymore. I’ve settled in to just enjoying being pleasantly surprised when a TV show is good, when a magazine runs a lovely article. But I still believe in public radio’s potential. Because it’s the one mass medium that’s still crafted almost entirely by true believers.