The Golden Age of Radio – by Bill McKibben

February 10th, 2011

Bill McKibben was instrumental in Transom’s founding. His Sidebar commemorates our tenth anniversary, which we’re celebrating this week.


Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben

It’s hard now to remember but ten years ago the Internet was still pretty new; I think some of us still thought of it as a thing that existed alongside the rest of reality, not something that was going to swallow all that reality up. That is, I didn’t understand that my computer was going to become my radio and my newspaper and my library; I thought the web would be a place where you could reflect on the radio or the news or literature before you went back to the real things.

I knew nothing about radio except the fact that it was to me the most magical of the electronic mediums precisely because you weren’t limited to things you could take a picture of. I had no interest in TV, the great repetition machine, and I lived far enough out in the wilderness that during daylight hours I only got one radio station. Happily, it was a great one: North Country Public Radio, run by the irreplaceable Ellen Rocco. And so my hours were filled with Ira Glass and Jay Allison and the few other Old Masters of this particular genre.

But—greedily—I wanted more, and slightly less greedily I assumed there must be more out there, or at least artists who wanted to make more. The original kernel of the idea that became Transom was a contest—a monthly prize for the best piece of this new, somewhat undefined, kind of radio sound. It wasn’t much of a kernel; happily, I managed to track down Jay, who turned it into something far better, and I managed to track down enough money to let it run for a year. And ever since then, preoccupied with saving the world in different ways (see I’ve done not a damned thing, except sit back and listen.

I try to listen critically—occasionally I even try to write a little about this stuff. But what always amazes me, every time I come to Transom or every time I flick through my long list of podcast downloads or surf my radio app or hear the work flowing from Transom’s progeny the
Public Radio Exchange, is simply what an astonishing amount of great work there is—a cascade, an avalanche, a Metaphor Implying Torrent. I know that the business model for it all is impossible, I know that an immense amount of good stuff never gets heard by as many people as it should, I know that program directors at public radio stations across the country have somehow been hypnotized into thinking Car Talk represents ground-breaking radio.

But probably it was ever thus in great art scenes—there must have been hundreds of great abstract impressionists painting in relative obscurity, but feeling and feeding the energy of that moment. For those of you engaged in this enterprise, just know that there are some of us out there making dinner, listening in, and dropping our jaws. This I believe: we’re in the golden age of radio.

Bill McKibben is the author of a dozen books about the environment, including The End of Nature (1989), which is generally regarded as the first book about global warming. The Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, he is the founder of, a global campaign to fight climate change which in the last two years has organized 15,000 rallies in 188 countries, including what CNN called ‘the most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history.”

3 Comments on “The Golden Age of Radio – by Bill McKibben”

  • “I thought the web would be a place where you could reflect on the radio or the news or literature before you went back to the real things.”
    Don’t be so hard on yourself Bill, not even the inverters of the webs various multimedia components (HTML, streaming media, MP3, flash, RSS) had ANY idea that it would converge traditional media as much as it has.
    Golden age… As much as this hurts, we need to acknowledge September 11 as being a major turning point for documentary. It was documentary (on film and radio) that questioned American identity, power, vulnerability… This happened at a time when web 2.0 technologies (blogging) were coming out… It happened at a time when webcast/mp3 downloads were coming out… Internet speeds were picking up – and more people were thinking about creating their own media.

  • that should be ‘inventors’ – bad auto-spellcheck!

  • Ellen Rocco says:

    What my dear friend Bill McKibben left out of his (very kind) piece is that he has prodded and pushed and, yeah, nagged us all to keep at it. Thank goodness for him. Now, our eye is on the prize, the prize that matters more than anything else: the next generation. Across our public media system, network, whatever you call us, we must help open minds, and ears, and eyes and doors to bring new people into our work. If we fail at this, we fail.
    Peace and love, Bill, peace and love.

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