Intro from Jay Allison: Those of you coming from McSweeney's are aware that John was once a Professional Literary Agent. He has also been on the radio, as you will discover, and the experience clearly marked him. John is willing to answer questions about all jobs he has held and many other topics. We urge you to ask them; otherwise things will get boring quickly. John wondered if he needed to put forward a provocative topic worth discussing, i.e. do we all agree that radio must be abolished? We felt we could rely on you for questions, but if you cant think of anything else, ask that. Johns bio will tell you something about who he is, if you don't know, and so will his manifesto, which follows. You will discover that he has a lovely critical affection for the radio. We at Transom are very pleased to have him here for a visit and are grateful to Sarah Vowell and Paul Tough for their encouragement of the idea.
The Promise Of Radio
In Western Massachusetts, there is a stretch of I-91 between Springfield and the Vermont border that is haunted by radio. Somewhere between the hills and the sky, especially if it is cloudy and dark and you are driving alone, something in the air gathers up AM signals from all over the east. They twist and spin around one another up there, bouncing off cloud and mountaintop, before being caught by car antennae heading northward, and suddenly, impossibly, you are hearing broadcasts from Louisville, Kentucky, from Baltimore, Maryland, Niagara Falls and the Great Lakes and Washington DC, our nation’s capital.
Some time ago, as I drove this road, I found myself listening to the Art Bell program. Of course you know that Art Bell is America’s greatest radio commentator on matters of UFOs, the paranormal, bigfootism, etc. And though he broadcasts, naturally, from Las Vegas, in this case the feed of his show was coming to me via a small AM talk station in, I believe, Ohio. On this night, the call-in lines were open and unscreened, as always, but Bell had set a few numbers aside for special callers. If you were an alien, you were asked to call number X. If you were a time traveler you were asked to call number Y. If you were a werewolf or a vampire, you were asked to call number Z.
I remember feeling that it was unfair to ask werewolves and vampires to share the same call-in line, given their long history of animosity. But at this time, I was no longer a famous radio personality. I had long before given up my show at WMFO in Medford, MA, and it would be years still before I would return to the air to discuss superpowers (thus making me America’s second greatest radio commentator on matters of the paranormal) on Ira Glass’s program “This American Life.” No, at this time I was merely a Professional Literary Agent. Who was I to tell Art Bell what to do with werewolves?
Naturally, several people called in claiming to be aliens. There is never any lack for call-in aliens, apparently: they are the baba booeys of the paranormal radio circuit. Many also called in claiming to be time travelers. And some called in confused, since they were time traveling aliens and they did not know which was the correct phone line to use. Only one called in on the vampire/werewolf line.
“I am a vampire,” he said.
“And have you fed on human blood today?” Art Bell asked, legitimately curious.
“No. I typically go up to someone on the street, and I feed off their aura.”
“Yes,” said the vampire. “You know: their energy. I steal their life energy.”
“Ah. So you are a psychic vampire,” Bell announced.
“OK, we’re not doing psychic vampires tonight,” Bell said. He explained that that was a very different kind of vampire. And they might do a show on that phenomenon soon, but for now, Bell said to the audibly disappointed psychic vampire, “we are just going to wait for a traditional vampire, the blood sucking kind, to call in.”
I don’t know what happened after I reached my destination and got out of the car, but by the time I turned off my radio at least, Art Bell was still waiting. The night felt darker and stranger.
I tell this story as a means of illustrating the power and promise of the radio arts. Where television luridly reveals everything, radio is coy; radio conceals its sources. It is a voice behind a curtain, and you must provide the face. Or, if you do not keep your radio behind a curtain, as I do, you can imagine it as voices in the next room. This is what makes radio so powerfully consoling to the lonely-it creates the illusion of company in a way that few other media can. Public radio is particularly adept at creating this illusion of companionship, in part because they do not advertise (pledge drives don’t spoil the illusion-while it would be unusual for a friend to suddenly start yelling at you from the next room about the low financing on this year’s Toyotas, it is almost expected that he will occasionally ask you for money over and over, for days on end), and because of the close and uncanny naturalness of its voices. After growing up on tinny, ratatat Boston all-news AM stations (punctuated, of course, by the ceaseless and somehow insidious sound of a simulated ticker tape), the deep, round, FM depth of the voices on All Things Considered sounded so lifelike to me, so nearby, that I was immediately unnerved, convinced it was some kind of special effect or a practical joke.
This intimacy is also what makes radio at the same time always a little spooky, even when it does not involve aliens. Receiving a radio broadcast can be like getting an unsigned letter slipped under your door, the origin unknown, its author obscure. Anyone who has ever explored the ends of the dial, picking up the sound of a woman’s voice, slightly robotic, endlessly reading long strings of numbers without explanation, understands this. This is heightened by the comparative democracy of the medium-its openness to anyone with a short wave or even just a phone line. The air is haunted by voices-countless and unknowable, searching for someone to pull them down and listen.
And so it seems to me that the great power of radio is not so much its ability to disseminate news from far continents near-instantly, or to join us in national conversation, or to reveal to us the stories of our neighbors that they cannot tell us but will happily tell to a microphone. Instead, the promise of radio is that vampires might be calling in at any moment. This is an exciting prospect, and so it is smart to do as I do, and keep your radio on all the time. I also advise keeping it behind a heavy velvet curtain, for reasons I should not have to explain.
My Career in the Air
There was much talk in the last century about the “world wide web” and how it would make available a national platform to anyone with something to say. And with the proliferation of weblogs and personal sites and bulletin boards, we may indeed soon become a nation of individual broadcaster-listeners, each sending out a highly individual program to a small audience, or just to ourselves.
The radio and the web are alike in this way, and sympathetic to each other-they share a primary emphasis on words over image, an abundance of channels all passively waiting for an audience, a vibrancy and idiosyncrasy, and both encourage instant feedback and conversation. That is perhaps part of the reason that transom.org, a website about radio, seems instantly, metaphysically appropriate.
Speaking of appropriate...
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In many ways, my now-very-occasional column on McSweeney’s “Ask A Former Professional Literary Agent,” is the radio program I always wanted to have-a kind of “Car Talk” for aspiring writers-and would still like to do were it not for the various controversies that chased me off the Boston airwaves forever.
But before the advent of the web, there was only one way to become a broadcaster, and that was by
1) convincing your high school’s French department substitute teacher that you should fill in for his two hour weekly radio program on the local college station,
2) quickly learning that the summer management of WMFO was either too busy or too sleepy to care who went on the air,
3) proving yourself by playing the same Billy Bragg and Tom Waits albums week after week, and
4) because you were not patently insane, being trusted with your own weekly two hour show at the tenderly pompous age of 17 for the benefit of a single repeat listener, whose name was Chris, and who was very depressed and would call every week pleading for something other than Billy Bragg.
I am happy to say that, if you follow these four simple steps, you too will be able host the famous radio program “Radio Consuelo” on Fridays, from four to six, from Studio A in Curtis Hall on the Tufts University Campus in Medford, MA from 1988-1989. I recently came across two recordings of this program, to my knowledge the only ones that exist. Jay Allison has very kindly agreed to make portions of these available to you via streaming audio. A guide to what you can hear there can be found via this link: Radio Consuelo Audio [See “Radio Consuelo” below].
It is a unique kind of torture to hear the 18-year old version of yourself talking about why compact discs will never replace vinyl, and I understand what I am doing when I give you these tapes. Unlike radio, the web does not dissolve into the air the moment it is created, and what you put out into it exists perpetually in the digital silt, searchable and trade-able and peer to peer file sharable. And while I doubt anyone will be interested in doing this, I now make it possible for three reasons:
1) Because even though WMFO is not an NPR affiliate, it was and is a great public radio station, a place of such openness to its listener-ship that they would give even me a show. And though it was sometimes shaggy and strange, its devotion to the community was never in question. One great program was hosted for years by Mikey Dee, who invited local bands into the studio each week to play in the cramped, damp quarters of Curtis Hall.
2) Because while recently visiting the WMFO website, I learned that not long ago Mikey Dee suffered a debilitating stroke. He is slowly recovering with the help of a lot of loving friends, but for now he cannot speak, either on-air or off. And this reminds me that the lives we leave in our past are not frozen on tape or in time, as we are sometimes tempted to believe. They go on, and if you would like to say something nice to Mikey Dee you may do so here: rockopera.com/mikeydee
3) Because as improvisatory and ephemeral as radio may seem, it also goes on, traveling into space, and you never know when a time traveling alien might hear it. Thus, it is important to make all of your work something you can be proud of forever, lest it come back to bite you on the ass like a psychic vampire.
Questions For Discussion
Since those days, I have had the pleasure of contributing three stories to “This American Life,” a program that understands as few others do all the intimacy and spookiness of the radio, and the fact that everyone is telling stories all the time-sometimes in a single sentence, sometimes over the course of an entire life-and that finding them requires only careful listening, good editing, moving their words around on a computer to make them say what you want, plus music. Many people like this show, and I am one of them, and I would be happy to talk to you about it if you want.
As well, I have been taking something of a hiatus from my duties as a Former Professional Literary Agent. As a result, I have accumulated many questions from good people on the subject of publishing, writing, and The Lord of the Rings that have gone, heretofore, unanswered. I have encouraged, therefore, http://www.mcsweeneys.net to direct those patient souls here, where I will help to advise them on these subjects or any others. You should also feel free to ask me questions of this kind.
As well, I would be pleased to read your opinions and contribute my own thoughts on the following issues…
1) What was your spookiest moment listening to the radio?
2) Would you prefer to be invisible or to have the power of flight?
3) Are any of you vampires?
4) Have you ever called into a talk radio program, and what was it like?
5) Is the web a satisfactory substitute for radio?
6) Which one of you people is going to buy me a Grundig Sattelit 800 SW/AM/FM radio, not long ago described as “the most anticipated radio in the past few decades?” For I do not feel I can go on for much longer without it.
HINT: it costs 500 dollars.
Thank you. I have taken up too much of your time. For now, at least…
That is all.
John Hodgman’s “Radio Consuelo”
Originally Broadcast on WMFO-Medford, MA, 1988-1989
TAPE 1: “MFO” air date 10/88:
End of Tom Waits’s “Putnam County;” 17 year old Hodgman starts talking. Sounds as though a lump of phlegm is stuck in his throat. Note first use of meaningless phrase “gimcrack radio for the plaid continent” and self-produced cart drop-in stolen from an album of old radio serials.
Captain Midnight drop-in, then Hodgman, sounding like Pauly Shore via Truman Capote, criticizing the studio for being untidy. What a rock and roll character is this Hodgman. Threatens to actually play more Tom Waits.
“Popsicle Pete” the strangest old radio drop-in ever. Plus, a seamless segue into a song by the Lounge Lizards, during the brief period that Hodgman was almost cool. He later manages to pronounce the word “lounge” with nine syllables. What a boob he is.
Old radio drop-in: “THE ELECTRO HYPNO MENTALOPHONE” (!!!) The one saving grace of this evil recording.
David Byrne song ends, thus confirming Hodgman’s absolutely typical and unsurprising phony-hip “taste.” Then an old radio drop in about Nazi spies before he starts talking again. Here he discusses everything he played as if anyone is listening, mentions a Robert Wilson production at the ART as though he had seen it, then plays Eddie Cochran, that strange song of material dreams achieved: “Something Else.” Otherwise, this whole show is composed of very typical late-eighties NYC downtown music: Laurie Anderson, Waits, Byrne, John Lurie, and on and onÉ Please make him stop talking… It is only later, after more fucking Tom Waits, Hodgman begins the proccess of shutting up.
TAPE 2: “Radio Consuelo 18 August 1989”:
Some time later and a little bit smarter. One of H’s last regular shows, and well into “the jazz period of the program,” a term that is meaningless to all but him.
After spacey jazz music, Charlie Christian music starts (hi-hat cymbal), and Hodgman does his intro by commenting on the weather. This is a time-honored radio convention that has never failed. “This is my second to last show.”
After World Saxophone Quartet, Hodgman talks more. Historical curiosity: note “our relatively new CD player.” Hodgman, with peerless foresight, announces that these newfangled CDs will never catch on. Then some maudlin talk again about how the last program is next week. Then Carmen McRae singing “We’re Having A Heat Wave.” I wish we could conclude that Hodgman has matured as a deejay, that he has begun outlining some sort of a proto-lounge esthetic. But the fact is, at 18 years old, Hodgman has the taste of a 40 year old from the 1960s. It has only gotten worse.
Found at the end of the tape by an anonymous Transom staff member. We are ever so curious to know why it didn’t make Mr. Hodgman’s list of recommended cuts.