Confessions of a Listener

Why I still love radio

| September-October 2005

  • keillor

    Sean Tubridy /

  • keillor

I am old enough to be nostalgic about radio, having grown up when it was a stately medium and we listened to Journeys in Musicland with Professor E.B. “Pop” Gordon teaching us the musical scale, and the guest on The Poetry Corner was Anna Hempstead Branch, who read her sonnet cycle, “Ere the Golden Bowl Is Broken,” and the gospel station brought us Gleanings from the Word, with the whispery Reverend Riley trudging patiently through the second chapter of Leviticus, and at night there were Fibber and Molly and Amos and Andy and the Sunset Valley Barn Dance with Pop Wiggins (“Says here that radio’s gonna take the place of newspapers. I doubt it. Y’can’t swat a fly with a radio.”), but I don’t feel a hankering to hear any of it ever again. I am rather fond of radio as it is today, full of oddities and exceptions. It is an unmanageable medium. Management is at work trying to format things, but reality keeps breaking through the bars. You twiddle the dial, and in the midst of the clamor and blare and rackety commercials you find a human being speaking to you in a way that intrigues you and lifts your spirits, such as a few weeks ago when a man spoke about his mother, in Houston, who as she was dying of lung cancer made a video for her severely retarded daughter to watch in years to come, which the daughter does not watch, being too retarded to comprehend death, which in itself is a mercy. It was very graceful, a fellow American telling a story unlike all the other stories. Pretty amazing. And all the more so for showing up on a dial full of blathering idiots and jackhammer music.

My taste is catholic; I don’t go looking for people like me (earnest liberal English majors). I am a fan of the preachers on little AM stations in early morning and late at night who sit in a tiny studio in Alabama or Tennessee and patiently explain the imminence of the Second Coming—I grew up with good preaching, and it is an art that, unlike anything I find in theaters, has the power to shake me to my toes. And gospel music is glorious beyond words. I love the mavericks and freethinkers and obsessives who inhabit the low-power FM stations—the feminist bluegrass show, the all-Sinatra show, the Yiddish vaudeville show. Once, on the Merritt Parkway heading for New York, I came upon The American Atheist Hour, the sheer tedium of which was wildly entertaining—there’s nobody so humorless as a devout atheist.

I love the great artists of public radio who simulate spontaneity so beautifully they almost fool me—Terry Gross, Ira Glass, the Car Talk brothers—all carefully edited and shaped, but big as life on the radio, smarter than hell, cooler than cucumbers. I love the good-neighbor small-town radio of bake sales and Rotary meetings and Krazy Daze and livestock reports and Barb calling in to report that Pookie was found and thanks to everybody who was on the lookout for her. Good-neighbor radio used to be everywhere and was especially big in big cities—WGN in Chicago, WCCO in Minneapolis-St. Paul, WOR in New York, KOA in Denver, KMOX in St. Louis, KSL in Salt Lake City—where avuncular men chatted about fishing and home repair and other everyday things and Library Week was observed and there was live coverage of a tornado or a plane crash and on summer nights you heard the ball game. Meanwhile lawn mowers were sold, and skin cream and dairy goods and flights to Acapulco.

The deregulation of radio was tough on good-neighbor radio because Clear Channel and other conglomerates were anxious to vacuum up every station in sight for fabulous sums of cash and turn them into robot repeaters. I dropped in to a broadcasting school last fall and saw kids being trained for radio careers as if radio were a branch of computer processing. They had no conception of the possibility of talking into a microphone to an audience that wants to hear what you have to say. I tried to suggest what a cheat this was, but the instructor was standing next to me. Clear Channel’s brand of robotics is not the future of broadcasting. With a whole generation turning to iPod and another generation discovering satellite radio and Internet radio, the robotic formatted-music station looks like a very marginal operation indeed. Training kids to do that is like teaching typewriter repair.

After the iPod takes half the radio audience and satellite radio subtracts half of the remainder and Internet radio gets a third of the rest and Clear Channel has to start cutting its losses and selling off frequencies, good-neighbor radio will come back. People do enjoy being spoken to by other people who are alive and who live within a few miles of them.

People like Tommy Mischke, a nighttime guy on a right-wing station in St. Paul and a free spirit who gets into wonderful stream-of-consciousness harangues and meditations that are a joy to listen to compared with the teeth-grinding that goes on around him. Not that teeth-grinders are to be disparaged: I enjoy, in small doses, the over-the-top right-wingers who have leaked into AM radio on all sides in the past 20 years. They are evil, lying, cynical bastards who are out to destroy the country I love and turn it into a banana republic, but hey, nobody’s perfect. And now that their man is re-elected and they have nice majorities in the House and Senate, they are hunters in search of diminishing prey. There just aren’t many of us liberals worth banging away at, but God bless them, they keep on coming. Recently, I heard one foaming and raging about the right to life and about liberals preying on the helpless—I realized he was talking about Terri Schiavo—and then he launched into the judiciary and how they had stood by and done nothing. He held their feet to the fire for a while and then he tore into George McGovern for about five minutes. George McGovern is a kindly, grandfatherly man who lives in Mitchell, South Dakota, and winters in Florida and every year attends his World War II bomber squadron reunion. He ran for president in 1972. His connection to the Florida case is tenuous at best. When you go ballistic over 1972, you are truly desperate to fill time.

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