Friday, May 15, 2020

Politics and Pandemics, or When Selfishness Isn't a Virtue

As a professor who teaches Political Communication, and as a former broadcaster, I understand that lots of stuff politicians say is tailored to their core supporters, and meant to rally them to the politician's side in difficult times. Politicians from both sides have used this technique. But what has me concerned about our current president is not his constant dog-whistles to his base. It's that he seems to feel no loyalty to the rest of us, even in a time of crisis. And that really worries me, not because I disagree with his politics; but rather, because I see no evidence that he is committed to what used to be called the "common good"-- even in a time of great peril for our country.  

I'm sure you remember hearing the 1961 quote from John F. Kennedy, "Ask not what you what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country." Of course, the idea of sacrificing for the benefit of the country was not new. Previous presidents had spoken to us in times of crisis about putting aside our own personal needs to do what was best for our nation. Previous presidents had reminded us that we are all Americans and while we may sometimes see certain issues differently, we have more that unites us than divides us. Previous presidents called upon us to rise to the occasion, as Abraham Lincoln did in March 1861, only a few weeks before the Civil War began, when he said, "We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field and patriot grave to every living heart and hearth-stone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."  

But I'm not hearing that kind of rhetoric from our current president. Nor am I hearing about self-sacrifice, or unity, or working together for the same goal. And as for the "better angels of our nature," this president sends out relentless verbal attacks directed at Democratic governors (who are trying their best to keep their citizens safe), and encourages people to abandon social distancing, not wear face coverings, and take to the streets to protest against... public health.   And as more than 85,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, I'm not hearing anything that resembles compassion or consolation.  Rather, I'm hearing a demand to "open the economy now," as he praises his supporters who come out to express their anger at the ongoing stay-at-home orders -- even those supporters who are carrying assault-style weapons or threatening reporters.

Don't get me wrong: I'm tired of this pandemic too. I desperately miss the autistic adult who has been in my life for 35 years; he isn't allowed to have visitors, other than his care-givers, and I haven't been allowed to see him since mid-March. My husband has a ruptured disk in his back and can hardly walk; he needs surgery but nobody could schedule it for over a month (not till next week, in fact). I have students who are struggling, due to a lack of good internet access or a chaotic home situation. And yes, I totally understand that many people are in dire financial straits.  But I'm not blaming my governor, whose stay-at-home orders reflect the fact that thousands of people are still getting this virus, and opening up the state will assure further outbreaks. Most of us here aren't happy about it, but we understand what the governor is trying to do. 

Meanwhile, I wish this president had a plan for solving our current problems. Using social media to insult his perceived enemies is not an example of showing leadership.  (And contrary to what he claims, the impending scope of the pandemic was known in January, but he downplayed it and avoided taking any action for more than a month). It would be nice if the president had a national strategy for more testing, more tracing, more personal protective equipment, reducing the spread of the virus in nursing homes or meat packing plants... instead of blaming the previous president, instead of putting out rude tweets at his perceived enemies, or launching verbal attacks on reporters, and instead of standing on the sidelines while some states get what they need and others don't. And above all, it would be nice if the president acted like a president and put the country first, instead of promoting more partisanship.

I never thought the concept of "public health" would be such a partisan issue. I never thought that some folks in red states would be saying the virus isn't that big a deal, no we won't wear masks, you can't make us practice social distancing, it's time to liberate our state from the tyranny of our governor. We can certainly debate whether the policies in some states are too restrictive; but is it really tyranny to try to prevent more outbreaks of disease? To have the president telling his followers to take to the streets and direct their outrage at Democratic governors is something I've never seen before. I can't imagine Lincoln or Kennedy or even George W. Bush doing anything so blatantly partisan during a major crisis.

And so, here we are, debating individual liberty ("I have a right to carry an AR-15 to the state house") versus the common good-- you may have the right to do it, but is it right to do it?  How does demonizing scientists like Dr. Fauci or spreading various conspiracy theories on social media make this pandemic go away? How does insulting your governor or insulting folks you disagree with make anything better?  At times like these, we need someone who can act like a leader, someone who can call upon us to work together to find solutions. Sad to say, all I see is a president who wants to keep us divided. And in such a circumstance, only the virus wins.  

Thursday, April 30, 2020

In the Days of the War: A Journey Back to May 1970

A journalist friend of mine, whom I've known for many years, was working on a segment for his radio program, and he wanted my recollections about a certain classic rock song from June 1970: "Ohio," by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.  It brought back a lot of memories for me: I was in college radio at the time it came out, a deejay and the music director at WNEU, Northeastern University in Boston.  We played the song immediately, but many AM Top-40 stations did not; they saw it as too controversial, and avoided it.  Back in 1970, there were a growing number of college and FM "underground" stations, and we were all playing album tracks; increasingly, those songs were about current events.

If you remember the late 1960s and early 1970s, you know that the music reflected the turbulent times we were in, when the Vietnam War was still dominating the headlines and polarizing the nation. On many college campuses, students were participating in anti-war protests, and there were numerous artists who recorded anti-war songs-- some, like Jefferson Airplane's "Volunteers" album, mainly got played on FM; but a few protest songs managed to get some AM airplay, like "Fortunate Son" by Creedence Clearwater Revival.  Protest songs in general were a problem for top-40 program directors:  their goal was to play songs that were short, fun to listen to, and not offensive to anyone.

Fortunately, there were still plenty of great pop songs that sounded good on a car radio.  A look at the Billboard charts for the first week in May saw the Jackson Five's "ABC" at number one, with the Beatles' "Let it Be" at number two, and Norman Greenbaum's catchy hit "Spirit in the Sky" at number three.  Of course, there were some "message" songs on the charts-- the Guess Who's "American Woman" was at number four, and John Lennon's "Instant Karma" rounded out the top five. (My personal favorite song from that week was a ballad by the Scottish band Marmalade, "Reflections of My Life." It was number thirteen and moving up. The song's lyrics really spoke to me. But that's a story for another day.)

"Ohio" was especially problematic for AM top-40, because it was critical of President Nixon, and it spoke out, eloquently and emotionally, about the tragic incident that occurred on May 4th at Kent State University, when National Guard troops opened fire on student anti-war protesters, killing four of them. (You have undoubtedly seen the iconic photo taken at the scene, showing a young woman screaming and crying out, as she kneels by the body of one of the dead students. Neil Young has said that when he saw the photo in a magazine, it influenced him to write the lyrics to "Ohio.")  On college campuses, and at FM album rock stations, the song received heavy airplay:  it reinforced for many of us the anger we felt about the war, as the number of American troops who were dying in Vietnam continued to increase.

Looking back, it seems strange to think that "Ohio," along with the events that inspired it, happened fifty years ago. So much has changed in society since then, and while some of the changes have been positive, the one change that affected me was what happened to radio.  Broadcasting gradually became more corporate, on both AM and FM; and the freedom we had back then to break news songs and give artists we believed in a chance was replaced by chain owners who tightly controlled the playlists.  Eventually, many of the live and local deejays were replaced by voice-tracking or satellite or syndication. Many college radio stations have gone dark, and while radio still has many fans, it is no longer the cultural force it used to be.  

But in May and June of 1970, the country was in turmoil, and radio reflected those divisions. People turned to top-40 music for comfort, and there were plenty of songs about peace and love-- by the end of May, the number one song was "Everything Is Beautiful" by Ray Stevens. Of course, everything wasn't beautiful.  Over on FM radio, the songs reflected a very different world, where President Nixon was a polarizing figure, anti-war protests were intensifying, and the future looked very uncertain to many of us.  I had graduated, and despite being one of the better-known college music directors and a popular deejay, I was about to confront a radio industry that still didn't hire women.  Compared to male friends of mine who were getting shipped off to Vietnam, I supposed not being able to find a job wasn't nearly as bad.  But it was another frustration, in a difficult time, when music (and radio) were what helped me get through it, in the days of the war, fifty years ago this week.   

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

How to Save a Life (COVID-19 Edition)

On Tuesday evening, Republican Senator John N. Kennedy of Louisiana went on Fox News to advocate in favor of reopening the economy very soon, despite the fact that the coronavirus continues to spread nationwide (including in his own state, where over 21,000 cases have been diagnosed and more than 1,000 people have died from it).  But ending stay-at-home orders and quickly reopening the economy is something President Trump wants; and his supporters in congress are going on friendly talk shows to agree with him and say it's a great idea. I'm not surprised by that: as a professor of Political Communication, I fully expect politicians to go on a friendly program to agree with the president of their party. But it was what Mr. Kennedy said that was somewhat jarring to me.

He first asserted that the stay-at-home orders (which were only ordered in some-- not all states) had not worked, because they had not stopped the spread of the virus. And while acknowledging that those states with stay-at-home orders probably slowed the spread, he still said these orders were not worth continuing, given the cost to the economy. And then he said, "When we end the shutdown, the virus is going to spread faster. That’s just a fact. And the American people understand that."

So, in other words, reopening the economy and sending people back to work (as well as telling them that it's okay to once again go to public events) may lead to more cases of the virus, and that, potentially, may lead to more deaths. But evidently, that's a small price to pay, because it's time to get the economy moving again.

Except it's not. And it should never have come to such a drastic choice. Please don't get me wrong: like many Americans, I am tired of being stuck at home.  And I know so many people, including some of my students (and their parents) who are out of work, struggling to pay bills, desperate for some income.  But consider what else is happening: all over the country, doctors and nurses and first responders are exhausted, personal protective equipment is still in short supply in many places, nursing homes and hospitals are understaffed as caregivers come down with the virus, and there is still no national policy-- it varies on a state-by-state basis how much social distancing or staying away from crowds is taking place.

In short, this crisis is far from over; and for the senator to be okay about the virus spreading again, as long as the economy is humming, seems like a very tone-deaf response.  Yes, social distancing is annoying and frustrating, but the states where it is being done have seen the amount of new cases diminish. The senator is wrong to say this policy hasn't made a difference. I only wish that ALL states had agreed to do it.    

And at the risk of seeming partisan, it's worth remembering that several months ago, the president stated that anyone who wanted a coronavirus test could get one. That wasn't true then, and it's not true now. Many good newspapers are doing commendable work talking about what is actually happening, and the sad reality is only 1% of Americans have been able to get tested. Thus, we still don't know who is carrying it. And as the virus spreads to smaller towns with fewer resources, local hospitals will become overwhelmed, making a bad situation even worse.

The answer is not to prematurely end the current quarantine. The answer is not to tell everyone that things are fine now. And the answer is not to make claims that are demonstrably false on partisan talk shows, just to make the president happy. Until there is a vaccine (by all accounts, at least a year away); until there is a reliable medicine (no, studies of hydroxychloroquine in Europe did NOT show amazing success: one study even had to be stopped because people were dying); and until we have a sane national policy for addressing a pandemic like this one--including helping small businesses to get through it... the one effective way to prevent the further spread of the virus is to continue staying home. I don't like it, but it's necessary, in order to save more lives. It's a shame that certain politicians no longer treat public health as their first priority.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

So, How's Everybody Doing?

Since last I blogged on March 15th, I've been spending a lot of time at home-- and so have many other people I know.  As the coronavirus continues to cause life as we know it to come to a standstill, social distancing has become the norm.  In downtown Boston, the streets are strangely quiet:  restaurants, clubs, libraries, museums, theaters, and schools are all closed. Speaking of schools, I taught my first college classes online this past week, and as I figured, the Journalism class was easier to adapt to an online mode than the Public Speaking class was.  I hope I did okay-- I have some wonderful students, and I want this to be a positive experience for them. (Many of my friends are teachers or professors, and we're all trying to find the most effective ways to help our students learn. But I think the majority of us wish we could be back in the classroom.)

While I don't mind getting on social media sometimes, or writing a blog post, or watching some videos on YouTube, I'm not accustomed to living so much of my life online.  Our faculty meetings are now online, conferences with the students we advise are online, and if I want to chat with friends of mine, we're doing that online too (although I do notice an increase in telephone calls, and a few folks are even sending cards-- some old-school customs still work!).  There are some other changes I've noticed:  I went to the pharmacy (one of the few businesses allowed to stay open), and there are now lines on the floor, reminding us to stand six feet from other customers as we wait for our prescription. Radio and TV shows are still having guests appear, but most no longer come to the studio-- they either call in or they appear via Zoom or Skype. (Even news anchor teams are sitting six feet from each other.)    

I feel bad for friends of mine who are performers:  all sorts of events have had to be postponed. That includes the May 16th celebration of Rush drummer Neil Peart's life (it has been re-scheduled for October 17th, by which time, we hope thing will be back to some semblance of normal). And I also feel bad for students who are graduating (including my step-daughter, who is getting a Master's Degree):  this year, thousands of students will have a virtual-- rather than an actual-- graduation. (Fortunately, at least the diplomas will be real.)  Above all, I feel bad for older people who are living alone and can't go out to eat or attend an event; many don't have access to Skype or Zoom (nor do they know how to use these platforms). This is also an issue for folks in nursing homes and hospitals: these facilities have had to restrict all visitors, and loneliness is becoming a real problem.

As for me, other than some sleepless nights, I know I'm actually very lucky.  And I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels worried and uneasy-- I mean, I'm 73, and while I try to take care of my health, this virus can strike almost anyone, almost anywhere, and especially folks over 65.  But I'm well aware that many other people are confronting a far more immediate danger: I'm thinking of the doctors and nurses and paramedics and hospital staff and ambulance drivers, who put their own health at risk, as they try to save lives.  And I'm also grateful for the journalists who are covering the news and keeping the public informed, as well as the letter carriers, the truck drivers, and the folks at the pharmacies and banks and grocery stores.  In these dangerous and difficult times, there are a lot of everyday heroes who deserve our thanks.

On Wednesday night, the Jewish holiday of Passover, the Festival of Freedom, begins; this year, many Jews will be having virtual seders (I've never done one before, but I guess there's a first time for everything); and many of my Christian friends won't be able to invite people over for Easter. This terrible illness has changed us in many ways, but one thing hasn't changed: I still notice people reaching out to others and expressing their concern; I still see people doing good deeds or random acts of kindness to help those who are less fortunate. Charities like Donors Choose are still collecting funds for kids who are studying at home but lack school supplies. And while some folks insist on going online to argue politics, I sense that a large number of people would just like to see an end to the petty griping, the grievances, and the partisan bickering. I don't know how long we'll be fighting this virus. I don't know when there will be a cure. But I do know that love and faith and compassion are needed now more than ever. Wherever you are, I'm thinking of you, and sending my love. And please, let me know how you're doing!     

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Adapting to the New Normal

These are some of the strangest days of my lifetime. We are all living through a global outbreak of the Coronavirus, and in state after state, governors are ordering closures of schools and colleges, restaurants, local sporting events, museums, and most other places where people gather in large groups. Suddenly, I'll be teaching all my courses online, and my students are being told to stay away from campus. My husband and I have a wedding anniversary coming up (#33), but we won't be able to celebrate by going out to eat-- in fact, many folks are finding that events they were looking forward to are being postponed, including the St. Patrick's Day Parade and the Boston Marathon (even the upcoming commemoration of Neil Peart's life, scheduled for mid-May, might have to be put on hold).

The good news about working from home is I don't have to spend an hour in traffic every day, and the number of meetings I have to attend at work has been eliminated. Without a long commute, I have more available time for catching up on reading, working on some unfinished articles, listening to the radio, or enjoying some music videos. On the other hand, I've never taught online, and I have one week to learn how to do it. I'm accustomed to face-to-face classes, where I can interact with my students directly.  I'm still wondering how my Public Speaking students will adapt to this... part of the coursework included going out and evaluating some professional speakers, but with so many public events cancelled, they'll have to do it via TED talks or other online videos-- not the same as attending a live speech, but it will have to do.

And speaking of getting used to doing things differently, some folks will find themselves more isolated than before.  This is especially true for the elderly. I have a friend who is 96, and she is worried about going out at all, since older people are supposed to the most vulnerable; in her area, most of the places she goes to socialize have closed, and activities have been canceled too. (If you have older relatives you might want to call them. Not everyone has a computer, and getting a friendly phone call can really brighten someone's day.)  I'm also concerned about all the kids whose schools have closed down-- for lots of children, school is not just a place to learn; it's a place see their friends. That daily routine is something kids look forward to. And now, it won't be available for a while. (More importantly: I hope local governments develop a plan to help kids living in poverty-- they rely on those school lunches.) 

Meanwhile, all over the country, nurses and doctors and other healthcare workers are facing the same uncertainty as the rest of us, as they try to contain the spread of the virus and help keep the population healthy.  As a cancer survivor, I am eternally grateful for the good medical care I've received, and I'm well aware of the stress these folks are often under as they try to save lives. Working during a pandemic is certainly stressful, and I applaud the people on the front lines, who are fighting this virus; I also applaud the scientists trying to find a vaccine for it. But please beware of the online scam artists who claim to have magical cures.  Every time there's a new disease, these fraudsters come along, insisting they have a cure for it. Don't be fooled. 

There will be numerous inconveniences in the days ahead, but I am certain we will find a way to cope. I must admit I'm going to miss live sports and live music.  And I'll be glad when I can take my students out for an ice cream again.  But for now, it's a good time to take care of your health (don't forget: social distancing, thorough hand-washing!), and it's a good time to reach out to your friends, in real life and on social media.  We've gotten through difficult times before, and as disconcerting as things are right now, we'll get through this too.  

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Our Vanishing Local Media

Several weeks ago, some friends of mine lost their jobs, and based on what I've been told, none of them saw it coming. In fact, none of them did anything wrong. They were all talented and hardworking (and popular). They were all team players. But it wasn't good enough. They worked for Boston album rock station WAAF, owned by Entercom (which also owns more than 200 stations nationwide).  Entercom sold WAAF for $10.75 million to a contemporary Christian radio network from California, thus ending a live and local station that had played rock music (and local artists) for decades.

I have nothing against religious radio networks, nor do I object to satellite programming (I often listen to Sirius/XM); and as a former consultant, I understand there are some circumstances when syndicated shows can save a station money.  But I do object to the loss of live and local programming, especially when a station was doing well, making money, and keeping the community happy, as WAAF was. In so many cities, including the one where I live, local radio stations have either been sold to a national syndication company, or shut down entirely.

And it's not just local radio stations that are disappearing. Local newspapers are also in trouble, including some big names: in Sacramento, the McClatchy family owned the Sacramento Bee since the late 1850s; the family was an integral part of the community, not just reporting on the news but advocating for causes like improving local roads or building public colleges.  But the transition from print to digital has been problematic in many cities, as newspapers have struggled to make the same amount of money online that they were able to make in print. In mid-February, McClatchy filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy: the paper (and the others formerly owned by the company) will survive, but the new owners are a hedge fund from New Jersey, rather than anyone from the McClatchy family.

Some newspapers haven't been so lucky: they have gone out of business, leaving their community with no local coverage at all: by the end of 2018, more than 1,300 US communities no longer had a newspaper, creating so-called "news deserts" where the public is no longer kept informed (and local politicians are no longer kept accountable).  And while in some cities, online publications have sprung up, many are poorly funded and thus, they lack the resources to cover the area as thoroughly as it needs to be covered.

With fewer newspapers, there are fewer experienced reporters, and less fact-checking. With fewer local radio stations, there are fewer announcers who live in and know the community, and one less way to find out what is happening around town (plus local musicians have a harder time getting exposure and becoming better known).  Meanwhile, a lack of local media often leads to less civic engagement-- folks have no idea what the big issues are, or how their tax dollars are being spent.

We're living in a time where many people don't support local journalism; they seem to think that good reporting ought to be free, or that partisan blogs are just as useful. But they're not. I enjoy reading blogs (and I enjoy writing my own); but blogs are no substitute for the professional and thorough reporting of the Boston Globe, nor the local perspectives of my hometown paper, the Quincy Patriot-Ledger.  I also understand that many folks aren't as attached to radio as they were in previous eras. But as I've said many times, local stations provide another good way to stay in touch with your community.

I'm sorry that fans of WAAF no longer have the station they so loyally supported. I'm sorry that too many cities no longer have a local newspaper. Call me old-fashioned, but I truly believe that live and local media still matter. They are one more tie to the place you call home; and they keep you connected to it in a more personal way, which is something that social media cannot do.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

My Story in Four Photographs

Friday was my birthday, and I'm pleased to say that hundreds of folks reached out to me on social media. Most were Rush fans, but some were folks who have heard me on the radio or read some of the books and articles I've written; and a few were colleagues and close friends. It still amazes me that so many people want to send me birthday wishes, and believe me, I appreciate it because it wasn't always that way.

Valentine's Day is an interesting day to have a birthday: when I was in high school, I didn't have many friends and it would always depress me that other kids got Valentines, while I seldom did (except from members of my family). I remember that I had a crush on a guy who lived up the street from me, but he barely knew I was alive.  And it seemed that everyone went to the prom except me. I knew I wanted a career in broadcasting, but I was told that wasn't "normal" for girls.  It wasn't an easy time for me, and if you look for photographs from back then, you'll find very few: convinced that I was not attractive (the other kids said I was ugly), I refused to let people take my picture. Years later, I still cringe when I look at my high school yearbook photo, but in a way, I'm glad it survived, since it's a reminder of a very different era.

It was in 1968 when I finally got to be on the radio, at my college station, after nearly four years of trying to persuade station management to give me a chance.  The school newspaper found my on-air debut a noteworthy event-- I had become the first female deejay in the history of the station, and a photographer took a picture of me in the studio to accompany the story. You may have seen the photo online-- there I am, with long hair, surrounded by turntables (we played only vinyl back then) and I'm holding a record. It was actually one of the happiest times of my life: at last, I was doing what I loved. 

I had no way of predicting that it would take nearly five years before I got my chance to be on a professional station (women announcers were still rare, and not always welcome, even in the early 1970s). It has been well-reported how I was hired by WMMS in Cleveland, after the station's program director heard me on the air at a small station in Cambridge, MA, where I had a part-time show playing folk and folk-rock.  I had never lived away from home, but I left Boston (and a full-time teaching job) in the autumn of 1973 to follow my heart and pursue a radio career.

And it was at WMMS, probably in the summer of 1974, that the other photo of me was taken: the one where I'm holding a copy of the newly-released US pressing of the first Rush album. I'm standing with Neil, Geddy, and Alex, along with Matt the Cat (one of the WMMS deejays), John Gorman (the program director), and Don George (the promotion representative of Mercury Records). I had no way of knowing that my life was about to change, thanks to my role in launching Rush's career. And for obvious reasons, this photo is one of my favorites.

There are many photographs of me that were taken since then-- of course I love my wedding photos, and I've also been photographed with a number of famous people over the years. But the one other photo that has a special meaning was taken in May 2011, when I got my PhD at the age of 64. Few people believed I could do it, plus I had a bunch of health problems; but I kept going and finally got it done. Sometimes, I still can't believe I did it. But it's a real photo, and no, it wasn't photoshopped!

If you had asked me back in high school what I'd be doing when I was 73, I doubt I could have thought that far ahead. But I do know the fact that I'm still here, still alive, still blogging, still working, and still trying to make a difference, is in large part due to my love of music and my love of radio and an unlikely friendship with three rock musicians from Toronto. To everyone who reached out on my birthday, thank you. I never imagined five decades ago that I'd get to do some of the stuff I've done or meet some of the folks I've met. And the best part is there's still time to do more. And that's what I hope to be doing in the year ahead.