Intro from Jay Allison: Sometimes you hear a new radio writer and it's like a breeze coming through. Oh, that's nice. Jonathan Goldstein sounds like that. His work for the CBC and This American Life can be funny and moving all in one sentence. He has made pieces about Travel, Telemarketing, Voice Mail, Love... and now he's written about radio. Prepare to be strangely moved by an image of pre-chewed food. Jonathan can't think of a title for his manifesto, but he has some interesting questions stored up for you, in case you can't think of anything to ask.
I was going to start off by asking this: “Where does the person on the radio exist?” Then I was going to answer myself with this: “The person on the radio exists nowhere. He is already dead.” Next I was going to add: “The person on the radio has nothing to lose or gain in telling you the truth. When he enters the studio, he is entering the tomb. He encrypts himself, drinks from the water cup to cleanse his throat, and then steps to the mike as though presenting himself before the throne of God.” And finally: “The voices on the radio come to you as souls free of the body and, because of this, they are already closer to Heaven.” Then I thought, but what the hell do I know. Initially, my feeling was that such a series of statements would establish a tone of gravity, and I like gravity. But then I thought that if I were to simply start off by confiding to you, my radio confreres, that the preceding words were merely considered, then they could be imparted to you in quotes, as words that are as loaded with old-school pomposity as they are with my ambivalence about my role as any kind of authority. What I accomplish by doing so, at the risk of getting all Charlie Kaufman on your ass, is I let you in on my inner process and by doing that, I do two things: 1. I make what comes next feel more real; and 2. I create an intimacy between myself and the reader. My feeling is that this business of offering a glimpse behind the curtain can be used to create a more personal and intimate radio. Or not.
A Life Lived In Radio
My earliest experience in radio came when I was ten. I would spend whole afternoons taping songs off of CHOM FM, a hard rock station in Montreal who’s slogan was “We like to rock.” My big challenge was trying to press the stop button quickly enough at the end of songs so I wouldn’t end up with the DJ saying stuff like “that was Cheap Trick rocking you harder than a heavy metal rocking chair.” Getting close to the end of songs was a time of high anxiety. Also, I didn’t have one of those “boom boxes” that could record radio internally. All I had was my tape recorder so I’d press its microphone to the speaker of my parents’ hi-fi unit. This meant that at the same time that I was recording the radio, I was also, rather inevitably, recording whatever was going on in the background. Thus, mixed in with Pat Benatar’s Treat Me Right, were the sounds of my father screaming at my mother for “hiding” his underwear. The audience– which consisted of my sister and my friend Lenny who’d listen to the tapes as we all played board games– were given a glimpse into the psyche of the man with the mike. It was rock and roll heard through the proscenium arch of our household—the sounds of our family’s dysfunction “troubling” the text of the rock and roll. Instead of being impersonal, the tapes were personal and they said something about me and my family. Incidentally, to this day, whenever I hear the drum and bass solo during the Rolling Stone’s Miss You, I can also hear the phantom sound of my mother threatening to flush my dinner down the toilet if I didn’t come to the table. The next twenty-odd years were uneventful as well as virtually worthless. I completed my public school education and then did a ten-year stint in a telemarketing office. Then one day, my friend Joshua Karpati told me about a phone message that was circulated throughout Columbia University in the early nineties. The message essentially consisted of a Jewish mother telling her Jewish son to go fuck himself. He told me about all the various lives that were touched by this message. I decided to produce a story about it on TAL.
During the course of production, I began to feel that just as important as the story of the message’s circulation, was my friend Josh’s telling it to me, and so I decided that the story needed to begin with a portrait of Josh. That way, hopefully, in knowing a little about Josh, the audience would be able to delight in his story in the way that I did. Also, I would be able to get in Josh’s famous “diggy-doo” anecdote. It had little bearing to the message of the story, but I enjoyed saying diggy-doo, and it is my belief that people enjoyed hearing it spoken. My friendship with Josh, as well my trepidation in pursuing the story, all became as important as the story itself. All of these factors became frames through which the story would eventually be heard. It also helped to bring the listener closer to me. By allowing the audience to hear Josh verbally berate me (calling me, among other things, a stentorian-toned, public radio pussy-talking bitch-squealer), I was allowing the audience to hear the metaphorical “where’s my underwear” of my dysfunctional friendship with Josh mixed with the “rock and roll” of the actual story. For the first time in my life, I was humiliating myself in public for a reason. Stuff on the periphery can be exciting when it reveals something about personality. It’s nice to hear someone going to use the bathroom during an interview, or putting a pot of tea on because their throat is dry. It feels real and it can add to the drama and, at bottom, it says, in a lyrical way, that we are human. I would say that these are good things that can make for good radio. My intention in the Columbia message story was to create intimacy—not only in terms of the details that were revealed in the conversations with Josh, but the way that they were revealed. It just felt like there was more at stake that way, that there were more layers to the whole thing. I allowed myself to get involved—because I was involved. I am not some invisible, omniscient gas. I am Jonathan Arturo Goldstein. Okay, Jonathan Stuart Goldstein. But still…
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Wow. Those Are Some Balls.
All of this said, I still wrestle with the same thing that Scott Carrier writes about in his Transom discussion — that nagging feeling that tells you that to narrate — to put in too much of yourself and your world– is to have failed. For one of my first radio stories, I interviewed my parents about the kind of music they listened to. My father loves Bread (“the music of Bread is timeless!”); my mother loves Paul Anka (“I saw him in ’77 on a revolving stage. He had some ass.”) I wrote in the piece, “The sound of music emanating out of our hi-fi unit in the basement on Sunday mornings, rising up into my bedroom, was akin to the mounting anxiety that only a clogged and over-flowing toilet can inspire.” The thing is, that initially, I didn’t want to come in and say anything. I just felt that my parents were so great and so funny and warm, and that for me to have to come out like a circus barker and point a megaphone at them seemed like cheap carnie tricks. Though I was resistant to the idea of over-narrating, what I eventually learnt from the experience was that the listener might be able to hear my parents and find them funny, but in order for the listener to find them funny in the way that I find them funny, I had to provide the listener with a frame. Anyway, it’s still something I wrestle with, and I often feel like the guy with the pointer who directs the amphitheatre’s attention to the size of the elephant man’s testicles.
[Audio No Longer Available] I talk with my parents about the music they love.
Another thing we use on TAL to create a frame through which to hear voices is music. Music creates an emotional frame which more or less tells you, like the autocratic fascist that music is, how to hear something. If the music is telling you something that you mostly agree with (“yes this is a haunting little story and I suppose I do find myself a bit weepy”) then your listening experience will be a good one; if the music is telling you something that you believe in your heart to be fundamentally untrue, (“Is that Philip Glass’s excruciatingly beautiful DancePieces playing under that carpet salesman’s lamentation of the demise of the wall-to-wall shag?”) you will feel exploited. Anyway, there is an excellent way that a hard swallow in someone’s voice, mixed with some swell of just the right music that can be very much like a throat punch to the heart. I think the right combination of music and story can be that powerful. I wasn’t going to say this, but I will, and I’m not even going to say it in quotes: The right music can free the heart to love. What I also learnt at TAL is that everything you do as a producer is in the interest of getting meaning across. The beauty of this is that you decide, at every turn, what that most important meaning in a story is. The hard thing is that every little thing that’s there that isn’t about that meaning is just a distraction. So each breath, choice in level, word, silence and bit of music works towards the refinement of your chosen meaning. Producing a radio story is like writing a book, reading it to an audience and conducting a symphony all at the same time. By this I mean to say that radio is for control freaks.
The eyes are not the window to the soul. The radio is. On the radio there are no mullet cuts or rat tails, no toreador pants, no neon make-up, halitosis, sweaty hands, or dandruff. Just the soul. The listener becomes like the blind man in those old Greek tragedies who, despite his lack of sight, possesses true vision. There’s always something troubling about meeting someone who you have only known from the radio. There’s this discord that you face. On the radio they are superheroes, capable of non-stop wisdom and emotional greatness. It makes no sense that that voice would emanate from this mouth. The two have become separated in your mind. No matter how much “sense” the match between their face and their voice might make, you have created a greater sense. A sense that makes no sense. I thought that Ira Glass was going to look like Guy Smiley from Sesame Street. I thought Sarah Vowell was going to be in black and white. Oddly though, I thought Scott Carrier was going to look exactly like Scott Carrier. He did, and that was cool. In the time since the Columbia message story aired, Josh has lost 140 pounds. He has lost a whole person. But on the radio, this does not matter. His soul is just “husky” as it always was. Likewise, on the radio I have a beautiful mane of hair, as opposed to the Ed Asner ‘do I sport here in “reality.” There’s this Jack Kerouac tape I used to listen to when I was a young man. It was something that he and his friends recorded themselves in someone’s kitchen. Among other things, they would recite Proust, sing, and get progressively drunker and drunker. At one point Kerouac said, quoting a Frank Sinatra song, “unrequited love’s a bore.” Unfamiliar with Sinatra at the time, I heard the words as “unrecorded life’s a bore.” I think my confusion was prescient. Recording life, out there with a mike and goofy head phones, is like trying to love life back a little—by noticing it, by slowing it down, by performing the absurd act of presenting your favorite parts of it to the world, to simply share it with people the way you would a meal—a meal you have chewed up like an Eskimo mother for her papoose.
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