Saturday, June 27, 2020

The Deejay Who Changed My Life

Last night, Arnie Ginsburg passed away. He was 93, and had been in poor health for a while. You probably didn't know Arnie Ginsburg, unless you grew up in Boston, or unless you listened to the "Cruisin'" series-- which re-created some of the shows from the biggest top-40 deejays of the 50s and 60s. (Arnie re-created a show from 1961.) But when I think of the people who have influenced my life the most, Arnie is high up on that list.

To know why Arnie meant so much to me, and why his death saddens me so much, let me take you back to the 1950s. It was a very conservative time: boys were generally expected to either join the military or go to work right after high school, and girls were expected to marry young and stay home with the kids. It was also a very formal culture, with lots of rules:  boys were expected to have short hair, girls were expected to wear makeup, and nobody went to school dressed casually.  Antisemitism was more subtle than during the 1940s, but it was still there. (I was one of only a few Jewish kids in the high school I attended, and the names I was called by other kids would not be acceptable today; but back then, you were told to just tough it out and not whine about it.)

I won't give you Arnie's life story-- it's easily found online-- but suffice it to say he was unique. Most deejays back then were guys with big, deep, booming voices. Arnie had a high-pitched voice-- he even mocked it, calling himself "old aching adenoids" or "old leather lungs." He also became known for using lots of sound effects-- a train whistle (his show was called the "Night Train"), bells, horns... He sounded like he was having so much fun on the radio, and nobody on the air at that time sounded anything like him.  He also kept his name-- which was a big deal back then. Nobody was supposed to have an "ethnic" last name. If your last name was Italian or Greek or European Jewish, you were expected to change it to something neutral, for reasons I never understood. Arnie wouldn't do it. He remained Arnie Ginsburg, ever himself, throughout his career.

Kids growing up today probably don't understand what the top-40 deejays meant to us in the 50s and 60s. They not only entertained us by playing the hits; they seemed to be speaking directly to us, and they seemed to understand what it was like being a teenager. Those teen years were often difficult and awkward, but deejays like Arnie could improve anyone's mood. And despite being beloved by thousands of young people in Boston, he was so unassuming, so unconcerned about whether he had the "right" voice or did his show like one was supposed to. He wasn't afraid to be himself, and that was such an inspiration to me.

In large part, because of him, I decided that I wanted to be on the radio too-- the common excuse for why girls couldn't be deejays was that they didn't have big, deep voices. But Arnie didn't have one either, and he was the most popular deejay in Boston. Eventually, I was able to have that radio career.  And years later, I was able to (finally) meet him and tell him what a role model he was for me. He seemed surprised. He never thought of himself as a role model, I guess. But for a lonely kid growing up in Roslindale, Massachusetts, he was that friendly, upbeat voice on the air, and I loved to listen to him.   

I never knew he was gay. In fact, I never thought about what he did or who he hung around with when he wasn't on the radio. Few deejays ever said anything about their personal lives, and given all the prejudice against gay people back then, I can understand why they kept their private life from becoming a topic of discussion.  But when I read Arnie's obit and found out he had been with his life partner for 44 years, it made me think about how difficult it must have been for him, loving someone but not allowed to mention it in public. I'm glad we live in a different time.  I'm glad he had love in his private life, to equal the love millions of his fans had for him. He was a best friend to so many of us. That's why when I wrote a book about Boston radio, I made sure to put him on the cover-- he exemplified personality radio at its best. 

When the news about Arnie's death was made public on various radio message boards, there was an outpouring of sadness, and many positive memories from a large number of Baby Boomers who grew up listening to him.  I felt something very similar when Neil Peart of Rush died earlier this year: a very important part of my life is gone now, someone who helped me to get to where I am today. I will never forget, and I will always be grateful. Rest in peace, Arnie. And thank you.              

Monday, June 15, 2020

The Spirit of Radio--The Rest of the Story

In late April, a nice guy named David reached out to me on Facebook. He introduced himself as the owner of Fantoons. I was very familiar with his company's work, and was delighted to chat, but I couldn't imagine why he'd be contacting me. Then he told me: Fantoons had been tasked with doing the official video for the Rush song "Spirit of Radio," on the 40th anniversary of Permanent Waves. It was envisioned as a tribute to radio, which had been so important to the guys in Rush when they were growing up; and of course, radio had played an essential role for the band later on, when I introduced "Working Man" to the WMMS audience in Cleveland in the spring of 1974.

But what surprised me was when he said he wanted to include me in the video, in cartoon form. I must admit I've never been in a cartoon before, nor did I ever expect to be. But the story of radio, the story of Rush, and the story of how various American radio personalities fell in love with their music, all told in animation, sounded like a fascinating project. And that is how I came to be in the video, along with some other wonderful folks who were also important to Rush's success. David told me he was worried that I wouldn't like how they drew my character, but I wasn't at all concerned. I figured that the folks at Fantoons were professionals; and however it looked, it was still an amazing opportunity. I mean, how many of us get to be in a music video-- as real people or as cartoons?      

Since the video came out a few days ago, the response has been overwhelming and totally positive-- as I knew it would be. I've said on more than one occasion that Rush fans are like a big, extended family. The members of that family may differ in their politics, or their religious beliefs, or their hobbies, but the one thing that unites them is their love of the music of Rush. Since the band retired, and since the tragic passing of drummer Neil Peart, any new opportunity to discuss all things Rush is especially welcome. Thus, this video could not have come at a better time.  Fans loved the song, they loved the animation, but above all, they loved getting together online to reminisce.

I've probably talked about the video with several hundred fans, thanks to social media; everyone seemed so grateful for that video, and it evoked a lot of memories.  We remembered the times we saw the band live, the times we watched or listened to them being interviewed, the Rush-themed events we attended... And for a little while, in this very chaotic and uncertain time, there was nothing but kindness and friendship.  And yes, there was "the freedom of music."

Sad to say, the great radio stations like the ones the members of Rush grew up with, and the ones where I introduced their music for the first time, are (for the most part) not what they used to be. Many are gone, victims of media consolidation. Many have changed formats and no longer play any music. Some do still play it, but only a very restricted playlist. And a few still keep that spirit alive, still broadcasting radio that is live and local, radio that is a companion for the audience.  I miss being on the air. I miss breaking new artists. But I remain profoundly grateful that the Canadian band whose music I debuted in 1974 became my friends, and that the fans they inspired with their songs are still inspired (and inspiring a new generation of fans). I never expected any of it to happen. And yet, it did. And even now, the spirit of radio, and the love of Rush, live on.  

Sunday, May 31, 2020

When Nothing Seems to Change: Some Thoughts About Minneapolis

I've always found it amusing to read "let's predict the future" articles-- newspaper and magazine editors throughout history have looked into their proverbial crystal ball to tell readers what the world of tomorrow had in store. Often, their predictions didn't quite pan out-- I recall a 1900 newspaper article that predicted flying cars within the next fifty years; and the ability to make contact with other planets by telephone was supposed to be coming along very soon.  But I also recall a 1921 article that predicted by the late 1970s, there would be a small, radio-like device that would fit in your pocket and be able to read stories to you (an audacious prediction at the time-- radios back then were large, cumbersome to operate, and the technology for listening to a recorded program hadn't been invented).

I recently found my copy of the January 2000 copy of Emerge, a news magazine aimed at the black community. This was their futurist edition, where they predicted what life would be like 20 years from now, in society in general and in the black community in particular. They got it right when predicting the technology 20 years into the future: they predicted the "smart home," where you could get appliances to work just by giving a command, and they said by 2020, your computer and your TV and your phone would all have merged into one unit (the word "device" was not yet in common use in late 1999). Emerge also predicted a black president (although they didn't name anyone in particular-- Barack Obama was not well-known yet). And the writers predicted that the Black middle class would continue to grow.  In fact, the articles were generally positive and optimistic, with lots of practical suggestions for preparing the next generation of young Black leaders.

Unfortunately, there would be no follow-up issue in January 2020 to assess how accurate those earlier articles had been:  Emerge suddenly, and unexpectedly, went out of business a few months after the January 2000 issue came out-- something that, evidently, nobody at the magazine predicted.  And sad to say, the optimistic vision in the magazine was only partially accurate: while the black middle class has continued to grow, a huge wealth gap between white and minority families persists. This is especially true in Minneapolis, the scene of ongoing protests the past few nights, as anger intensified over the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who was killed by police.  I am not going to comment on the protests-- many others have done so already. But I'd like to discuss what life is like for minorities in Minneapolis, where the wealth gap is one of the biggest in the nation:  The median income for African-Americans there is $36,000, compared to about $70,000 for the average white family.  And only 19.8% of African-Americans in Minneapolis own their own home, while as many as 70% of whites do.

Over all, Minneapolis is a beautiful city; I've been there many times, and still have friends there. But Minneapolis has a problem I've seen all too often: like many cities (including Boston), its Black residents have generally been relegated to some of the worst neighborhoods, with below-average schools and less access to transportation or new technologies.  They were often blamed for their own poverty, as if public policies and systemic racism had not contributed to their situation: it is well-documented, for example, that even in elementary school, Black kids are suspended for behaviors that are excused in white kids; and later on, Black young people who get in trouble are more likely to be sent to jail than their white counterparts. (Mr. Floyd was accused of passing a counterfeit $20 bill; four officers went to the scene to arrest him-- a reaction that I doubt would occur if someone from a "nice" neighborhood had been similarly accused.)  Yes, on some levels, we've come a long way from what life was like in the era of segregation: there are more minority members of congress, more minority mayors, doctors, business executives, and college graduates.

And yet, the future for the average African-American kid in 2020 is still not what it should be.  For far too long, many people (especially certain politicians around election time) have given lip service to promoting equality and combating racism; but when it came time for finding and implementing actual solutions, it was just more of the same.  I hope that doesn't happen again this time. I hope that even amid the chaos and the anger, there will be the will to create something better.  I'd like to see that optimistic vision the writers in Emerge offered finally become a reality.  And while I can't predict the future, I know if we keep doing the same thing that we've done before, we'll get the same result; and innocent people will once again pay the price for our society's unwillingness to change.

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!