Intro from Jay Allison: Radio, compared to film, music, literature or even TV, has little history of criticism. For one thing, our erratic advance scheduling and the difficulty of appointment listening discourage the critic because their usefulness to the audience is limited. That's too bad, because we could use the feedback. Now, in the age of the Internet, when radio is increasingly archived and downloadable, criticism may have a more useful function for the listener too. Rick Moody, author of The Ice Storm, Demonology, The Black Veil, et. al., is a radio aficionado and sometime practitioner. As our Guest on Transom, he is offering a two-part Manifesto, laying out the ways he thinks public radio is wandering into cliché, sometimes without even knowing it and sometimes out of laziness... and sometimes, perhaps, from lack of thoughtful criticism.
The Construction of Humanism in Documentary Radio
Forgive me if I employ a literary analogy, in order to talk at greater length about radio. Literature is what I know best, and I think there’s some overlap between what’s happening there, in literary fiction, and what’s happening in radio these days. So I’ll start first with books.
What’s happening in literary fiction, the way I see it, is the hegemony of the formulaic.
I’m not going to name names-it doesn’t do any good—but even a casual familiarity with the fiction in The New Yorker over the course of a few months, or a glance at the work of some of the writers who have come out of the eminent Iowa Writer’s Workshop in the last ten years will indicate the presence of a rather profound homogenizing force in fiction. While the writers in question know very well how to construct a perfectly calibrated story, the fact that their work often sounds the same would lead one naturally to wonder if there isn’t, by reason of homogeny, something missing from the literature of the times.
And what’s missing? Without getting too technical (and I swear I’m going to talk about radio before long), the problem arguably lies with an overreliance on the trope of the epiphany. The word “epiphany,” as you probably know, comes from the Greek, epiphanios, for “manifest.” “Epiphany” names a feast day in the Western Church, the day on which the Magi were supposed to have appeared, the day, that is, when Christ first made himself apparent to humankind. That’s the legend. And so epiphany is about revelation, understanding. The light of recognition.
So far, so good.
James Joyce was likely the first writer to turn this trope of the epiphany into a kind of a reliable literary device. There were epiphanies in fiction and poetry before, as there were epiphanies in Western culture generally. There was Saul of Tarsus become Paul the Apostle on the road to Damascus. Or: Dante first encountering Beatrice in the afterlife, somewhere near the end of the Purgatorio . But for Joyce it was the flash of insight into self and civilization that was the strategy. (Think about Gabriel Conroy’s famous speech about snow being “general in Ireland” at the end of “The Dead.”) And while everyone else in Western literature didn’t immediately set out to imitate Joyce (who himself went on to think quite differently about narrative and consciousness in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake ) you can see how thoroughly the epiphanic moment begins to take hold: Nick Carraway realizing that Gatsby never actually reads his books. Franny Glass keeling over at the lunch table with her collegiate boyfriend. By the end of the twentieth century, it’s possible to find the epiphanic structure almost anywhere you look for it, at least in contemporary American fiction.
Herein lies the problem. The epiphany, as literary gesture, has become predictable. You can even hear when the epiphany comes to pass at readings by literary writers. A sort of moo, a softly murmured lowing of assent, sweeps through the audience. The moo, you see, indicates that esteem for our fellow humans has been approved.
Humanist approval is well and good, but is it a genuine response, one freely entered into, if it’s utterly predictable? If literary fiction too has come to refer to one thing, a kind of a story that delivers a predictable humanist epiphany in a likeable, uncontroversial character, at a predictable point in the story, then, philosophically speaking, it is no different from genre fiction. In fact, at least in terms of its strategy and its trajectory, it’s not significantly different from pornography, which of course means to do one thing economically and without fail. The themes are different, but the structure (rising action, epiphany, denouement) is the same.
Oddly, the reaction in literary circles to this turn of events-the refining of story structure into something like a formula—has been muted. You would expect a little discontent by reason of frustration. But most of the discontent has been from the die-hard realists themselves. Any vestigial modernism, these days, occasions an onslaught of Bush-era anti-intellectual witch hunting that intends to wipe out anything that remains of the old disorderly speculative impulse, as in, e.g., a recent review of Jonathan Safron Foer’s work that appeared in the Atlantic Monthly :
“Pomo readers work with their writers only in the sense that volunteers from an audience work with the stage hypnotist: emptying their minds from the start, smiling through one humiliation after another, and even working up a tear or two should this abruptly be demanded of them. The hoariest plot, the tritest message-these become acceptably highbrow as long as everything is tossed out in shreds that the reader, mentally falling on hands and knees, must piece together. Older fans of prizewinning fiction have been at the game for so long that their discernment has atrophied. Perhaps the younger ones never had much to begin with. Either way, the guilelessness that once had to be willed is now reflexive.”
The situation with contemporary literature, therefore, the situation that I would have you keep in the back of your mind during the discussion that follows, is this: literary fiction becomes more and more formulaic, more resistant to heterogeneity, in pursuit of a quantifiable “humanist effect,” and the critical community becomes ever more vocal and ever more hysterical about kinds of work that deviate from a normative idea about what literature is and must be.
Now let me see if I can’t make a rough analogy with what’s happening in contemporary radio.
Radio, these days, does, more or less, three things. It features music programming, talk radio, and a kind of documentary/news format that we generally associate with National Public Radio and its affiliates. Music seems like a natural use for radio, an unassailable use for radio, since music encourages the act of listening, and what else is radio for but listening? (You won’t be surprised to hear that the kind of music radio I like to listen to on the radio is free-form, independent, or college radio, where there are no rigid playlists to speak of.) Talk radio, meanwhile, seems like an unavoidable use for radio, a natural and reductive but wholly explicable use for the medium. Though I don’t listen to much talk radio, I do feel like Howard Stern (likewise his legion of imitators) does, actually, use the medium in a compelling and savvy way. Howard Stern is all about the transmitter and the wattage and the cars stuck in rush-hour traffic. And the fact that much of the program is improvised gives it a very American flavor. If a largely improvised radio program devoted to commuters mostly concerns breasts, pornography, celebrity, sex, flatulence, and like topics, is this surprising? Not to me it isn’t. It’s pitched at the basest demographic: men in their twenties and thirties. No one ever went broke betting low on the tastes of the audience in question. This Stern variety of talk radio makes a bewildering and complicated world, a world in which traditional masculinity is manifestly less infallible than it was a generation or two ago, seem smaller and more explicable. Yes, tits and ass will make your life better. Yes, your life will improve if you accept the Christ or kick some Iraqi butt. I may revile the political message of much talk radio, but I am not surprised by it.
However, I mean to concern myself mainly with the third variety of radio, the documentary news part. Let’s leave aside that portion of public radio programming that is merely variations on music and talk radio, i.e., “Car Talk,” or “Fresh Air,” or even “A Prairie Home Companion,” the last of which does something radio really ought to be doing (variety) and manages to dress it up in enough nostalgia that it suddenly becomes palatable to a nation suspicious of all things new. These shows I’ve just mentioned are genuinely interesting. “Car Talk,” especially is very interesting, although the only parts I like unstintingly are the parts that do not have to do with cars.
You hear a lot of documentary radio on NPR. It’s big in the second half hour of “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered.” It’s often a strategy on “Marketplace.” It’s popular on the weekend programs. It makes up a lot of the less well-known public radio programs, such as “Living on Earth,” “Studio 360,” “On the Media.” It’s perhaps even more ubiquitous on adventurous programs like “Soundprint” or “Radio Lab.”
What do I mean when I talk about documentary radio? I mean bits of programming composed of investigative pieces, where producers go out into the field, record in exotic locales (anywhere that is not a studio), meet people, and combine narrative reportage with field recordings and the voices of others. The documentary impulse means not only to describe events, but also to represent particular milieus, a windswept tundra you’ve never visited, or a housing project that you, middle American audience member, might shy away from venturing into.
The original concept of documentary radio is unassailable, just as the idea of mapping the globe was once unassailable, or the project of rural electrification. But like many unassailable ideas, the ascendance of the documentary, in the era of public radio, carries with it a hidden cost, and for me the hidden cost is unignorable. The cost I’m describing finds it first expression in the fact that a lot of this documentary work sounds exactly like every other radio doc you’ve ever heard. That is, in a medium that is largely devoted to how things sound, a medium whose vocabulary is comprised of sound, who very language is sound, the vast majority of documentary radio pieces are nonetheless identical, featuring entirely predictable effects and entirely stylized strategies of narrating and storytelling.
Probably some people would have arrived at this conclusion a lot sooner than I have. Theorists of the history of broadcast, for example. I am, however, slow to dissatisfaction, and especially with a resource like public radio, programming that is so much what I do want to hear on the radio, programming that is largely politically astute, smart, and which does try to give voice to the voiceless.
And yet at a certain point in the last few years I began to feel like the way the music worked (and still works) on “All Things Considered” was beginning to drive me crazy. I started to feel like the music served as a little ornamental tic in a lot of the stories. Oh, here come the exotic sitars , to indicate that the story is from another part of the world. Music was and is abused by “All Things Considered,” notwithstanding their attempt to draw attention to the music on the web site and in their anthologies of music featured on the show. And if the regional condescension of the music (i.e., even though Bollywood films are more popular and more profitable than Hollywood films, Bollywood music is still “other” to that middle American NPR audience) is not enough, a piece of music is often boiled down to ten second or twenty seconds on a news program, whereupon it is no longer a representation of the piece from which it comes. Often a piece of music is chosen simply because it has a timely rest or a silence that will be useful for purposes of editing. Moreover, this little crumb of music is often being asked to do emotional work, to provide emotional freight, after some documentary piece, and it is thus contextually wrenched out of its setting too.
Even in shows I admire, like This American Life, I have come to feel that the music is used in a way that was somewhat in bad faith. Even here, music that has quite different ambitions (One Ring Zero, say, or the Tin Hat Trio, or the perennially public radio-abused Penguin Café Orchestra), is being made to ratify the wry, antic humor of some of the program’s pieces. In some cases, without giving credit to the composers at all.
Soon after I began to feel that the music excerption in public radio programming was suspect, I started to feel like the sound effects, too, were heinously predictable. These field recordings occurred in spots just where they were always to be expected, and they were always what was expected. If it were a story about hurricanes, you would hear the wind howling by a shoreline, if the story were about construction, you would hear construction vehicles, some of them perhaps backing up and beeping in that backing up kind of way. If the setting was a housing project, you would hear the kids in the playground underneath the narrator at the opening of the piece.
Finally, even the talking heads on these documentary pieces ultimately came to seem to me just as hackneyed as the field recordings and the music. Foreordained, predictable, these sound bites remarked in just the way the reporter or producer expects them to remark. And that’s without even mentioning the reporters themselves. Even the locutions of these voices is similar, with cadences that rise and fall in familiar ways, tailing up at the ends of sentences. The NPR voice is not unlike the “poetry voice” that has come to dominate all readings by American poets under forty. With the result that the reporters of public radio now largely resemble one another, such that if you do not know the number of an NPR affiliate in a strange town, all you need to do is flip around, on the left of the dial, until you hear that tone of voice.
While I admire what public radio is and has been trying to do for twenty-five years or more, I find that I have also come to disbelieve it somehow, for the simple reason that I cannot believe that all of human life and psychology, all of human events, all of human history (not to mention the lives and environment of our animal friends), can always be rendered in exactly the same way . Suddenly, a medium that I love, that is, because I love thinking with my ears, begins to seem deeply suspect to me.
What, I therefore ask, is documentary radio trying to do? In a way, it’s trying to do exactly what contemporary fiction trying to do. It is trying to do something Aristotelian. It is trying to provoke in, the listener, you the fabled epiphany. It is trying to enact a revelation, a manifestation of the truth. It is trying to make you aware of your surroundings, by exposing you to new environments, and new subcultures, especially those you might not know about, from off in your middle American redoubt. In short, it is trying to create in you the impulse of humanism.
Humanism is a worthy goal for the literature and arts of the period. Of course. It’s indisputable. The assertion of the essential dignity and value of humankind, who can argue with it? Certainly not I. The question, however, is if the goal of humanism, the assertion thereof, can survive the problem of its representation in the medium of audio. As with contemporary literature, contemporary radio has apparently found that it has to construct a certain rigid notion of humanism, in order to effect this humanist epiphany in you and me. And yet as soon as the construction becomes predictable, homogenized, devoid of surprise, I for one no longer hear the humanism at all. In fact, it starts to sound manipulative, controlling, condescending, perhaps even a little sinister. It’s like piece of music that has been so compressed in the studio that the dynamic variation has been entirely squeezed out of it.
I dream of a new age of curiosity. We have the technical means for it; the desire is there; the things to be known are infinite; the people who can employ themselves at this task exist. Why do we suffer? From too little: from channels that are too narrow, skimpy, quasi-monopolistic, insufficient. There is no point in adopting a protectionist attitude, to prevent “bad” information from invading and suffocating the “good.” Rather, we must multiply the paths and the possibility of comings and goings.
–Michel Foucault, “The Masked Philosopher”
What is to be done?
One rejoinder to my earlier remarks would of course be to say that the documentary form in contemporary radio adheres to a certain syntax . That is, a certain deployment of field recording and spot music and talking heads is the very syntax that documentary requires to do its job. Literature requires nouns and verbs and modifiers to do its job, radio requires talking heads and field recordings. This may be true, up to a point. However, when you listen to earlier periods of radio, you find a much greater tolerance for discontinuous elements, for longer quotations from the speaking subjects in the pieces, a triumph of languor over brevity, a willingness to let field recordings be field recordings. Genuine sound effects, wonder, fiction, all of these things had their essential roles in radio, in contrast to what we find now.
Which is to say that if, arguably, there are syntactical elements to a documentary approach, then these syntactical elements are not fixed in nature, but rather fluctuate according to the fashion of a moment. This is especially true, it seems to me, in the blind adherence to brevity. When I was at the Third Coast Audio Festival last year, I heard more than one producer say that one of the great dangers of radio is that someone might turn the dial . Every documentary program needs to be alert to this possibility that an A.D.D.-afflicted listener might, in the end, give this dial a spin. In this way do we give away our the whole notion of pacing to the most impatient among us. The remarks of speakers in various documentary pieces are made ever shorter, until there is no complexity of character constructed in the piece, and no room for any idea that takes longer than a few seconds to argue. Of course, you do this long enough and the listener will no longer know that there is another way of rendering the human voice in the act of speaking.
A second rejoinder might be to point out that print journalism, too, has its clichés (the New York Times , for example, just ran its annual or biennial summer photograph of children frolicking in the spume of an open hydrant). It has its hackneyed stylings, as does television news (the bastard child of the documentary arts), as does documentary cinema. Why pick on radio? The answer to this question is simply that I pick on radio because I care . And it is no rationale to say that because other media want for imagination and creativity that radio should somehow be exempted or be held to the same low standard that we might use to judge the nightly news on network television.
Having attempted to dispense with some of the criticisms, therefore, I would like to move onto some suggestions.
My first idea about how to improve radio programming is therefore to stop worrying so much about people turning the dial. If you are intending to represent humanism, if you are trying to depict people as they talk and think, these abbreviations are doing a disservice to your intention, because human life is not lived in minute-and-a-half segments. In human life, changes can arise dramatically, but they can also take place imperceptibly, over years.
Another prejudice at the Third Coast Festival had to do with fidelity to the truth. The documentarians had, in my experience, an almost cult-like belief that there is such a thing as objective truth in documentary radio, that a tape recording can be identical with an event or narrative or out there in the world, when in fact a recording, objectively speaking, is just some ones and zeroes on a memory chip. It can’t be otherwise. And since perfect fidelity is impossible in this medium, since an apple is an apple and an orange is an orange, why is not subjectivity just as good? At least on occasion? This was part of the idea, it seems to me, in the early incarnations of This American Life . That a powerful personality, and a strong idea about the tragicomedy of the world can be just as “true” as the hard news.
Furthermore, if perfect fidelity is impossible, then why can’t a mix of a straight-ahead documentary approach and art be a part of public radio. The public radio world certainly tolerates documentary work about art and artists and writers (these profiles being among the more formulaic spots in public radio programming), but it certainly isn’t very good at collaborating with art. For example, one of the best programs out of WNYC in New York, The Next Big Thing , perennial winner of awards, and a show that younger producers have looked to with reverence and awe, had its wings clipped this year by its parent station, ostensibly for budgetary reasons. The Next Big Thing (for which I contributed a number of pieces), had a big, voracious appetite for the non-linear, the unusual, the artful. It embraced recordings of people skating in Wollman Rink without voice over at all, or long memoirs about Allen Ginsberg that seemed non-critical of his unusual romantic life, it embraced Jonathan Ames playing cards with his great aunt, etc. This seemed to me just the direction to go in.
Avoid brevity, celebrate fiction. These are two of my morsels of advice, and my third bit of advice is deliberately reverse foreground and background. The way a news story always sits on some mulch of background information. Why does it have to be like this? There’s not an objective reason, beyond syntactical fashion, when oftentimes the background is the information that people need to hear. It’s the mediation of the reporter’s voice that is often the big lie. Accordingly, the humans in the piece can’t be human, can’t prompt the humanist epiphany, unless they’re allowed to appear without editorial intercession.
A fourth suggestion, along similar lines, would be to make the music central to the work, perhaps even “diegetic,” to use the cinematic term. Let the music endanger or preclude the narration. Because the narration, ideally, is really just a kind of music, seen in the correct light, and its privileged position is, as I’ve said, arbitrary. If the privileged position of content-oriented language is disturbed, new kinds of ideas are generated, and new possibilities for meaning.
Which leads me to venture a suggestion about language itself. Language, words, the music of language are what documentary news is made of (in part), the same language that makes poetry or excellent prose, or drama, etc. Why so dull and flat? And here we are obliged to recall the original section of this manifesto, the section about literature. It’s hard not to conclude that just as there is a resistance to musical prose in contemporary writing there is a resistance in radio to an artful or even marginally creative use of language, as well. In addition to the humanist epiphany, which radio tries to summon in just the way the apocryphal monkey taps on the button in the corner in cage in order that he might procure his opiates, radio and literature both, in their mainstream evocations, rely on a diminished idea of language.
My suggestion is to think against the content-oriented language that is used for most documentary radio, and to try to think a little bit about how a more encyclopedic, kaleidoscopic language mirrors the more encyclopedic and kaleidoscopic world. A language of celebration and mutability is more about the human spirit than an ostensibly objective news language that is not, in fact, objective at all. And, of course, the narrower the vocabulary, the narrower the horizons ahead of us in the landscape, for all of us. The fewer words we use, the simpler sentences, the more difficult it becomes later to call up the complex means to render a more complicated world.
So, as regards documentaries: avoid brevity, celebrate fiction, abbreviate the role of the narrator, play with foreground and background, make music central, utilize the spirit of the arts, make the language sing. Play in general . At one time, radio was noted for drama and serial narrative. At one time, people gathered around the radio to hear the weekly updates of serial fiction programs. It’s unlikely this will ever happen in the same way again, but does that mean that radio must abdicate its former glory entirely?
There are many glimmers of hope, I think.
There is, on the one hand, the hegemony of the formulaic in public radio. There is the wiping out of shows that feature alternatives, like The Next Big Thing . Obviously, I find these developments dispiriting. But there are glimmers of hope.
The revolution has to come from out of the mainstream. The mainstream is controlled by money, power, and politics, and as such is suspect. At one point, “Morning Edition,” was the revolution, but as with many revolutions, it got soft, and it began accepting a repetition of tried and true programming ideas, instead of looking to the margins of radio for the possibility of ongoing innovation. Of course, the industry leader has no reason to change, no matter what the field, unless there is genuine pressure from another direction.
And maybe there is pressure. I’m thinking not only of the Web, where sites like Kenny Goldsmith’s UbuWeb (and of course Transom) serve as repository for new sounds and new ways of thinking about audio. And there is Internet radio in general. And there is satellite radio, which, at least for the moment, is willing to investigate niche-programming opportunities long forsaken for by the dinosaurs of Infinity, Clear Channel, and National Public Radio. But I’m also thinking of podcasting, which is used regularly on the Transom site, and elsewhere. The iPod makes inevitable, or at least very likely, certain new ways of listening. For one, the iPod listener is in control of the when and where of the broadcast, with the result that the listening can take place when the audience is maximally equipped for concentration and receptivity. Second, the iPod listener in most cases is extremely tolerant of collage-oriented programming, since he or she probably makes regular use of the shuffle capability on his or her device. Certain commercial radio formats are already said to be catering to this temperament of the iPod habitué. How would a public radio programmer think like an iPod user?
Well, first, this programmer, this documentarian, might be thinking more creatively about collage and about non-linearity. The iPod arrives at a moment when sampling, in Hip Hop and electronica, have become regular parts of culture. Culture, in this era, is recombinant, and it is probably recombinant because (in a time of global interdependence) there is no difference between the cultures of the developing world and the industrialized world. Culture is all thrown together now, and as with the stew of subatomic particles that makes up matter and the fundamental forces, little bits of things are always annihilating their opposites, existing only briefly enough to leave traces and allusions behind. This collage-oriented and non-linear way of viewing the world, therefore, is the humanism of this moment, it’s how the people live and breathe, and if documentary radio would harness the spirit of humanism, it would capture it in the style in which this humanism is lived.
These are hopeful developments, developments that put radio back in the hands of the user, that empower the listener with respect to the medium of radio, instead of leaving this listener passive at the apprehension of an increasingly successful, but increasingly detached public radio, one that is, in fact, estranged from the lives of its listeners. The collage-oriented nature of The Next Big Thing , Radio Lab , and Soundprint suggests what’s going to happen next, but if radio outlets on the Web can make themselves felt to a larger public, the results in the future are even more potentially interesting. For documentary makers on the ground the possibilities ahead may well be far more exciting than they are now.
Rick Moody Audio
From the album Rick Moody and One Ring Zero
The backing band is One Ring Zero. I played the theremin myself. We recorded the vocal first, and the music is was improvised to live playback. I originally wrote the piece for a literary magazine that was putting together an issue of responses to heavy metal.
The written part is from the opening of my novel, PURPLE AMERICA. Also improvised by One Ring Zero, but the opening musical theme, which comes back at the end, I composed myself.
From WNYC’s The Next Big Thing
All of my pieces for The Next Big Thing were collaborations. Meredith Monk provided some old and some new music for “Boys.” The reader is Julia Slavin. “Canon” was made with my fellow Wingdale Community Singer, Hannah Marcus. “Pirate Station” features the voice of John Lurie and production/engineering by Sherre DeLys. “Alamo” was a rather gigantic project, mostly directed and produced by myself and Bruce Odland. There are many different voices included therein, among them Miranda July and Ethan Hawke. None of these pieces would have been made without the aid and counsel of Dean Olsher and Emily Botein.