Saturday, December 15, 2018

A December to Remember

I'll admit it: I've never been a big fan of December.  The weather is usually cold here, and it gets dark around 4 pm.  Traffic is brutal (everyone doing their last-minute holiday shopping), and the majority of the mail I get seems to be asking for donations (I had no idea there were so many worthy causes).  And yet, for the past few years, I find myself feeling a lot kinder towards December, because it was in that month that two memorable events occurred.

One of those memorable events occurred on a Tuesday afternoon, 11 December 2012. I was sitting in a faculty meeting, when suddenly my cellphone began to vibrate. Most of my friends know I'm at work during the day, so I rarely get calls. I remember thinking it must be an emergency of some kind, but when I stepped out of the room to see what was going on, it was a number of Rush fans, as well as radio and TV stations, letting me know the guys had finally been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The next day, I got interviewed by CTV in Toronto, and then several Boston stations, and the Boston Globe and the Quincy Patriot-Ledger... Rush's management called me... it was quite a week, to say the least. After the initial shock wore off (so many of us had worked for so long, lobbying the Rock Hall, and it took far too long for Rush to get the respect they deserved), I had time to rejoice with the world-wide community of Rush fans, culminating four months later, with the induction ceremony in Los Angeles. And though it's now been six years since that day when I got the news, it seems like only yesterday, and every year, I am reminded of it when December rolls around.

The other memorable event was quite different:  it took place on a Wednesday morning, 17 December 2014, the day I had surgery for cancer. In late November, I had received the phone call no-one wants to get; but once I knew what I had, the doctors wanted to attack it aggressively. Interestingly, I had an all-female medical team: the oncologist, anesthesiologist, and all the nurses were women.  And fortunately for me, the news was encouraging:  I had a type of cancer that, since it was caught early, would be very treatable.  Still, it was a scary time for me, as I'm sure you can understand.  After I had the surgery, it was followed by a month of out-patient radiation (no fun, but necessary).  During that period of time, I was greatly comforted by my faith, and by the kindness of my husband (who baked me wonderful pies to cheer me up); but what also meant a lot was my friends-- many of whom are members of that previously-mentioned world-wide community of Rush fans.  I'm about to be four years cancer-free now, and while I still have times when I worry, what comes up for me each December is a feeling of gratitude-- no matter how many frustrations and problems I may have, it's still good to be alive. I appreciate every day, and I try to use it for a positive purpose.

And if I have a message to share, it's this: you really can't predict what's going to happen. It might be a wonderful experience (like finding out my favorite band was finally inducted into the Rock Hall and I was invited to be there); or it might be a frightening experience (like finding out that I had cancer).  But the wheel turns, and things rarely stay the same. I say this because some people at this time of year are feeling depressed, or they miss someone they've lost; or perhaps they just don't like December. All I can say is, when you least expect it, things can, and do, get better. And when you think you are alone, you're really not-- there are people who care about you.  One of them wrote this blog post.  And however you spend this holiday season, may you find reasons to be cheerful... and reasons to be grateful.   

Friday, November 30, 2018

"Begin the Day with a Friendly Voice"

As some of you know, on November 19, 2018, I won the 9th Annual Collectors Prize from an organization called Historic New England, for my collection of memorabilia about the history of broadcasting (especially radio). 

In my acceptance speech, I spoke about why I collect such things as old playlists and top-40 surveys; old radio station postcards; magazines about the hit songs of different eras; and rare photos of some of broadcasting's earliest studios, announcers, and sportscasters.  No, I'm not just a pack rat, although most collectors (myself included) do seem to enjoy preserving lots of old artifacts. But there's a good reason for collecting: we're trying to keep important aspects of our past alive, so that future generations will better understand what life was like.  Yes, you can look at a lot of these items online; but being able to actually hold them in your hands, as people from that era did, is a very powerful experience.

For me, another thing I am trying to do is to say "thank you" to the men and women who came before me, the people who created the industry in which I spent nearly four decades. One of these pioneering broadcasters was Eunice Randall. In radio's earliest years, she was greater Boston's first female announcer (and one of the first in the USA), who also worked in a factory helping to assemble radio receivers and doing technical drawings. Since the late 1990s, it has been my privilege to research and tell Eunice's story, writing her and other forgotten women back into the history of broadcasting.  (I even wrote a book about it, "Invisible Stars: A Social History of Women in American Broadcasting," now in a 2nd edition.)  And yes, I've also found a number of interesting men, who may never have achieved national fame but who were popular at their local station. I tell their stories too.

In my opinion, history doesn't have to be dry and boring.  It's the story of real people-- how they lived, what they accomplished, why they still matter.  That's how I present the history of broadcasting when I give talks at libraries, museums, and schools. And I bring some of my rare memorabilia, so the audience can go back in time and see what people from that era saw. Sometimes, I meet living relatives of the people I've researched, which is always exciting for me. Sometimes, audience members tell me how fondly they remember some of the people I'm discussing. And as I tell these stories, my collection makes the anecdotes and the historical facts more real-- which is exactly what I want it to do.

Perhaps you have older relatives who might enjoy reminiscing about that "friendly voice" they enjoyed hearing each day.  Or perhaps you met someone who used to be on the air, and you can make sure their story lives on.  Today, radio may not be as dominant a medium as it once was, but for so many years, it made millions of people happy; and based on the reaction I get when I give my talks, there are still many people who grew up with radio, still many people who listen even now. So, I will keep doing my research, keep collecting, keep looking for stories I can tell, and do my part to make sure that the spirit of radio lives on.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Why Everyone Should Defend Jim Acosta (Even Folks Who Dislike Him)

Let's face it:  freedom of the press is not something most people think about.  In fact, in our polarized political universe, many people believe the folks on "the other side" don't really deserve to have it. Whether it's Sean Hannity on the right or Rachel Maddow on the left, social media is filled with mocking comments from people who dislike them and/or disagree with their views.

And that's okay.  They both understand that what they say will get some people upset. Since they are commentators, their job is to express their opinion; and as long as they continue to get lots of viewers, chances are their respective channels will keep them on the air, whether some folks like them or not.

But reporters are in a different situation.  Their job is to inform the public and seek out the facts. Not every reporter sees a story in the same way:  Bret Baier of Fox News and Andrea Mitchell of NBC/MSNBC might approach that story from different perspectives.  But neither will put partisan opinion into the reporting, and neither will intentionally distort what happened.

And then, there's the White House press briefings. Reporters have grumbled about them for years, saying not much news takes place during a typical briefing; but they all feel they ought to be there, just in case.  Every president has a press secretary, and his or her job seems to be giving as many vague non-answers as possible, while avoiding any awkward or embarrassing replies that would make the president look bad. Radio, TV, and print outlets select the reporters who will cover these press briefings: and if you're a TV reporter, your mission is to be seen on camera asking a question, even if the answer you're given isn't terribly exciting.

What does get exciting is when the president himself takes questions. It doesn't always happen-- in fact, you can find out at this website how many times modern presidents have held a press conference.  Last week, when President Trump spoke to the press, there was a heated interchange between him and his favorite foil, CNN's Jim Acosta.  It concluded with Mr. Trump berating the reporter, calling him names, and then ordering his press pass to be taken away.

Many conservatives on social media applauded. They've been told repeatedly that CNN is "fake news" and that Mr. Acosta is the worst, most biased reporter.  But whether folks like him or hate him, taking away his press pass sets a dangerous precedent. It's only in autocracies and third-world dictatorships that powerful leaders punish the reporters they dislike, or select which reporters have the right to cover the news.  In America, it's the networks and the newspapers that decide who's in the press conferences-- not the president.

And that's the way it should be. For those who hate Jim Acosta, you have a right to your opinion. But beware the slippery slope:  if it's okay for a Republican to ban a reporter, what happens when a Democrat takes over the White House? Will it be open season on reporters that president dislikes? Frankly, I like the system we currently have-- the one where all the TV and radio networks and all the print publications select who will represent them in the room, and the president stays out of it.

As I write this, CNN has just won the first round of a law suit to get Mr. Acosta's press pass back. (The judge was appointed by President Trump, by the way; but his ruling to return it, temporarily, was because Mr. Acosta was never given due process.)  And whether the case is ultimately won or lost in court, I'm hoping sanity will prevail and the president will stop being vengeful towards the media who cover him.  It's not their job to be nice to him; it's their job to ask him tough questions. As far back as Thomas Jefferson, presidents have expressed dislike for the press; but they've also acknowledged how important a free press is to our democracy. Mr. Trump seems to have forgotten that. Someone really needs to remind him.    

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

If You Choose Not to Decide, You Still Have Made a Choice

For as long as I've been blogging (which I began doing in early 2015), I always get the most page views if I write about Rush.  But while the title of this post comes from their song "Freewill," the post itself is not really about their music; and that might mean some of you won't read it.  However, I'm  hoping you will, and I can even promise a Geddy Lee mention-- although this time, it won't be about which Rush tunes I like best.  Rather, the topic is about something Geddy and I have in common: we're both Jewish, and we're both living in a time when antisemitism is on the rise.

Of course, I am well aware that our current era is nowhere nearly as bad as what Geddy's mom lived through:  Manya (later Mary) was a Polish Holocaust survivor, who eventually settled in Canada. As for my relatives, many of them came to the US in an earlier era-- 1905-1910, when Russian Jews were enduring brutal persecution.  But knowing how bad things were for Jews in previous times doesn't make what we're seeing in this one any easier to accept.

I've spoken before about how when I was growing up, casual antisemitism was still part of the popular culture. Even people who considered themselves good Christians would make antisemitic remarks now and then, expressing common stereotypes about "the Jews," as if we were all alike.  Supposedly, we were all greedy, or rich, or cheap, or clannish; and of course, we couldn't be trusted. Individual Jews were okay, but they were consider the exception (a colleague actually told me once that I wasn't like all those other Jews... she seemed to think she was giving me a compliment).

But even when things improved for American Jews, and overt antisemitism declined, I never believed it was entirely gone.  I always knew that in certain corners of the world, the haters still existed.  However, at that time, they were isolated, able to perhaps buy time on a local cable-access channel and not much else.  But then, along came the internet and social media; and suddenly, the haters had new ways to congregate and reinforce each other's beliefs; and that is exactly what they have done.

Certain politicians didn't help, nor did certain talk show hosts. And sad to say, neither did some otherwise kind and compassionate people who saw no problem with re-tweeting a meme with anti-Jewish content, as long as its political message was one they liked.  For example, Jewish philanthropist George Soros (himself a Holocaust survivor) has become the favorite whipping post of many conservatives.  I have no problem with people who disagree with the organizations or candidates to whom he donates. I have a big problem with people who speak of him as some diabolical puppet-master trying to control the world with his money (blatantly and demonstrably false, but a common antisemitic stereotype); or who accuse Mr. Soros, along with other people who are Jewish, of being sinister and malevolent figures who must be stopped.

There are internet websites that relentlessly spread hateful myths about Mr. Soros (some even use Jewish symbols, like the star of David, juxtaposed with dollar signs).  These sites have multiplied, and they have some loyal fans, who believe what they're reading on them-- Cesar Sayoc, the guy who sent him a pipe bomb last week, was convinced George Soros deserved to die; and only the fact that the bomb didn't explode prevented a tragedy from occurring.  Robert Bowers, the guy who murdered 11 innocent Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue, also believed Mr. Soros and other Jews were dangerous, since they were allegedly bringing illegal immigrants into the US as part of the much-maligned "caravan."  Again, this is a complete lie, but on anti-Jewish websites and chat rooms, it's widely believed, and it contributed to the deaths of 11 people whose only "crime" was being Jewish.  

There was a reason why I titled this post "If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice." Some people will choose to ignore what I've written; or think that anti-Jewish political rhetoric is just something to laugh at; or say that George Soros deserves all the hate being rained down upon him by certain politicians.  Those are certainly choices, but not the ones I'd agree with.  Whatever your religion, whatever your politics, nothing will improve in our society until more of us say "no" to prejudice, and speak out when we encounter it, even if someone from "our side" is expressing it.

While I've used George Soros as an example, he is not the only one being subjected to anti-Jewish rhetoric.  I find it painful to see how many people world-wide are espousing these views (some more subtle, but some right out in the open).  History has already shown us where those kinds of attitudes can lead. I dread to think of a world where what Geddy's mom and my ancestors endured becomes the new normal.  I don't want a world where intolerance is okay, as long as "our side" benefits politically.  But right now, that seems like the direction we are heading.  I hope I'm wrong. I hope more people will decide to work together to create a more tolerant society.  In memory of those who were murdered in Pittsburgh, I pray we'll decide to do it soon.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

The Twenty Rush Songs That Mean the Most to Me-- Eddie Trunk Edition

Several weeks ago, I was surprised to receive an email from a nice guy who is the producer for Eddie Trunk's satellite radio show.  The reason I was surprised?  In August 2017, I blogged about an internet rumor that started on Eddie's show, about Alex and Geddy (allegedly) reuniting; it wasn't true, as I confirmed when I contacted Alex to make sure.  After that, I noted in my blog the importance of fact-checking and not just sending out rumors to everyone you know, even when it's a rumor you like. 

So, yes, I was surprised when Eddie's producer contacted me, asking if I would submit my top-20 favorite Rush songs for a show about Rush that Eddie was going to do; and he asked if I'd be part of the show, calling in to read my list.  As I've done with other interviewers, I explained that I don't think in terms of "favorite" Rush songs-- these are my friends, and I love them dearly. Asking me to pick favorites is like asking a mom "who's your favorite kid?" Obviously, there are days when one kid or other can be annoying, but over all, most moms love all their kids-- although, perhaps, in different ways.  I'm like that about Rush songs. Yes, there are some that resonate with me more than others.  But "favorites"? Not really.  I love all their songs, although in different ways; and I'm so proud of what Rush accomplished during their long career.

With that said, I agreed to compile a list of twenty songs that have special meaning for me, and I did call in to read the list. (I also was glad I could give a shout-out to female Rush fans, of which there are many.)  Eddie was courteous and it was fun to be on his show. After it was over, several fans who had heard it (or heard part of it) contacted me to ask if I'd publish my list. So, for anyone who is a Rush fan, I'm happy to share what I read to Eddie.  And of course, feel free to let me know some Rush songs that would be on your list.  

1.  (as you might expect) Working Man -- the song that started it all, back in the spring of 1974, and resulted in a more-than-four decade friendship with the band (and members of their families)

2.  Finding My Way (part of the same time frame-- the other song we got a lot of requests for at WMMS... to this day, hearing the opening chords, I get reminds me of those early days when Rush first were becoming popular in Cleveland)

3.  The Spirit of Radio (as a long-time deejay, as well as someone who has seen radio change-- and not always for the better-- this song has always brought up mixed emotions & nostalgia for me)

4.  Freewill (I often quote the lyrics about "if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.")

5.  Limelight (more lyrics I love; it's a window into Neil's view of celebrity, and what many fans expect from their favorite rock stars-- "I can't pretend the stranger is a long-awaited friend.")

6.  Driven (my interpretation may be different from some people's, but I hear this song as being about taking control of one's life: "It's my turn to drive.")

7.  The Garden (I often recommend this to anyone who stereotypes Rush as just another hard rock band; this song is a very moving piece of music)

8.  Tom Sawyer (more great lyrics that I often quote, about thinking for yourself -- "his mind is not for rent to any god or government...")

9.  The Big Money (I read this as a song about the excesses of capitalism and the down-side of globalization-- "Big money got a heavy hand, Big money take control, Big money got a mean streak, Big money got no soul.")

10. Closer to the Heart (more lyrics that could apply as much to current events as to the era when they were originally written... "And the men who hold high places, Must be the ones who start, To mold a new reality, Closer to the heart...")

11. Distant Early Warning (I always loved hearing this performed live...the music video was cool too...)

12. Fly By Night (again, this just brings back great memories-- the first studio album with Neil on drums and writing lyrics... I was so excited to hear the guys growing and expanding their musical style)

13. Time Stand Still (some insightful advice about appreciating this present moment, being grateful for what you've got, before it's gone:   "Freeze this moment, A little bit longer, Make each sensation, A little bit stronger, Experience slips away..."

14.  Entre Nous (some absolutely amazing lyrics about love and relationship and being afraid to trust... "We are secrets to each other, Each one's life a novel, No-one else has read, Even joined in bonds of love, We're linked to one another, By such slender threads...")

15.  Show Don't Tell (another song I always enjoyed hearing in concert, and another with very practical down-to-earth lyrics about thinking for yourself and not being swayed by others: "You can twist perceptions, Reality won't budge, You can raise objections, I will be the judge, And the jury...")

16.  Roll the Bones (I just think this is a very creative and catchy song to listen to... something a little different... but a good message about being willing to take risks..."We go out in the world and take our chances, Fate is just the weight of circumstances, That's the way that lady luck dances, Roll the bones...")

17.  New World Man (I was glad this song got some top 40 airplay, back at a time when pop radio was totally resistant to playing any Rush songs at all, and even many album rockers avoided them-- for reasons I never understood...)

18. Anthem (a song from back when Neil was still influenced by Ayn Rand; he ultimately walked away from those beliefs, but some fans still refuse to believe he changed...I felt this song was another example of the progress Rush had made since Neil joined the band... and it sounded good in concert when they played it)

19.  Red Barchetta (I liked the science-fiction influences in the lyrics, plus the song sounded really good on the radio... it still does)

20.  Subdivisions (some people tell me they find the video a bit disconcerting; but the lyrics are insightful, warning us about the dangers of conformity, and what happens when one does not obey society's expectations... "conform or be cast out..." another fine example of Neil's songwriting prowess...)

SO, that is what I read to Eddie Trunk when I was on his show last Friday.  As I said, I have more than four decades of great memories and a deep appreciation for Rush, as musicians and as human beings; but these songs are the ones that have stood the test of time for me.  What do you think of my list?  

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Brett Kavanaugh's Anger-- And Mine

I admit that the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings the other day were compelling television.  And I'm sure that folks on each side saw exactly what they expected to see:  if you were in favor of Judge Kavanaugh before, his performance probably reinforced your belief that he was a good and decent man who had been wronged; he had every right to be outraged and to defend himself from partisan smears.  If you were opposed to Judge Kavanaugh before, you probably came away questioning his judicial temperament, wondering why he was so belligerent (he even used a number of Donald Trump talking points as he lashed out at every Democrat in the room), and wishing he'd tell the truth about his past drinking problems.

On the other hand, if you were female, your views of the proceedings may have been somewhat more complicated, no matter which political party you were from. As many of you know from my past posts, years ago, I endured two very difficult experiences of sexual assault:  one during my first year as a teacher, in the early 1970s; and the other during my time in broadcasting, later in the decade.  I'll spare you the details, but in the one case, the man who assaulted me was a principal; in the other case, he was a record company executive.

In both cases, I was warned not to say anything; I was told nobody would believe me even if I did say something; I was asked what I had been wearing or if I had led the man on in any way; and in the end, I was advised to just get over it-- after all, if a guy behaved inappropriately, that meant the woman hadn't done enough to keep him under control. Guys couldn't help themselves, I was told. Boys will be boys, I was told. And for several decades, I didn't talk about it. I just lived with my memories:  feeling helpless, feeling angry, and knowing that in neither case would the men who tried to force themselves upon me suffer any consequences at all. (And both probably did the same thing to other women, something tells me.)

Flashback to my sophomore year in college: I go into in the ladies room and I see a girl standing by the mirror, sobbing. I ask her what's wrong. She tells me she just found out she is pregnant. Her boyfriend, a star athlete and an influential member of his fraternity, wants no part of it. He basically blames her for it, tells her it probably isn't his, and says she'd better not try to ruin his reputation on campus. Instead of being upset with him, she blames herself.  

Flashback to when I was working at a radio station in Washington DC and a drunken rock star grabbed me and tried to put his hand up my shirt. I pushed him away, but what stays with me even today is how all the guys who were watching thought this was hilariously funny.  I did not. And I was told I needed to develop a sense of humor.

Watching Dr. Ford testify, I had a profound sense of deja vu. My experiences occurred in the 1970s and early 1980s, yet here we are in 2018, and what has changed?  These days, the mantra is "believe the women," but in the wider world, many men did not believe Dr. Ford. Some of it was partisan, yes; but as with Harvey Weinstein or Donald Trump or other powerful men, there are guys who will not accept any responsibility for their own behavior.  There's always a "yes, but," always an exception.  These guys always want to blame the woman ("But she was drinking" is one I heard about Dr. Ford--  although NOT about Judge Kavanaugh). When she says "no," they hear that as a potential "yes." And whenever a woman is upset with their behavior, they become indignant, or enraged. I've seen it before. And so have many of you.

Some of the comments on social media were depressingly familiar: the guys who claimed that most women regularly make false accusations against men; the guys who claimed she was promiscuous, or called her a liar, or said she was crazy.  It took great courage for Dr. Ford to tell her story to an entire nation, not knowing if anyone would believe a word she said, not knowing if the man who did this would ever be held accountable. For those who insist she identified the wrong guy, I don't think that's the case. I believed her. And I believe she's telling the truth. But whether our country can handle the truth is something that still remains to be seen.     

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Showing Teachers No Respect

On the cover of this week's Time magazine, there is a story I know about from first-hand experience: how little most teachers are paid. As the teacher on the cover says, "I work 3 jobs, and donate blood plasma to pay the bills."  She's not alone, and she's not exaggerating. In lots of cities, teachers (many with Master's degrees) are paid such low wages that they can barely make ends meet.  And it's not because these teachers are spendthrifts with expensive tastes-- far from it. Many are not only barely getting by-- they are forced to pay for school supplies out of their own pockets, as budget cuts affect some of the most vulnerable in our society... the kids who are trying to get a good education. 

While certain politicians boast about our great economy, they're omitting an important fact: wages in many industries have remained flat.  And nowhere is that more true than for teachers.  Reports from the non-partisan Department of Education show that teachers are one group of workers whose wages have stagnated the most.  In fact, when we adjust for inflation, teachers are earning less today than they did in 1990.  In some fields, educated professionals are seeing their wages rise.  But teachers in all too many cities are seeing theirs decline.  Worse yet, per-pupil spending has also declined, leaving all too many students stuck in dilapidated buildings, using old books. (And as I mentioned before, I know for a fact that many teachers have to pay for supplies themselves, or their students will go without.)  You can read more about the situation here:

I am a big fan of a charitable organization called Donors Choose, which allows people to donate money for school supplies and books.  I donate often, and I'm happy to do so; I'm glad I can help some hardworking teachers to get materials they need for their classrooms.  But I have often wondered why adequately funding our schools, and paying teachers a respectable wage, is something many states have decided is not a priority.  In some states, it's political: there are many conservative politicians who oppose teachers' unions and dislike the idea of public schools, and as a result, they have waged a war on public school teachers. But in other states, it's simply the result of wrongheaded decisions that waste money on some areas while depriving others of much-needed funds.

I understand that it has become customary for some folks to criticize public education. I wish they wouldn't.  Public schools have long been a part of American life (we have one in Boston that goes back to 1635), and many of us have benefited from attending them.  I wouldn't be where I am today if it weren't for the public schools, and I don't think I'm the only one who would say that.  And yes, I know there are some poorly-run schools, and yes I know there are some bad teachers-- but they are NOT the majority. All over the country, devoted and hardworking educators work tirelessly to make a difference for our kids. They are often not just teachers but mentors, counselors, and even mom or dad surrogates.  Teachers not only receive inadequate pay, but as a society, we rarely express our appreciation for what they are doing.   

Frankly, I think our priorities are somewhat skewed. We will spend money on building a big stadium for the local pro football team; and we will pay a college football coach triple what the average teacher (or professor) makes.  But when it comes to education, somehow there's just not enough money; and when it comes to new books or school supplies, some districts provide them, but others don't. And caught in the middle are the kids who want to learn, and the teachers who want to teach them.

This shouldn't be about politics, and it shouldn't be about public schools versus charter schools. While policy-makers debate where the money should go, the first priority should be improving all the schools, and giving all students the opportunity to learn.  But in too many places, educating our kids is treated like a burden or an expense. It shouldn't be either; it's an investment in our future as a society.  Few teachers get into education expecting to become rich; but a living wage would be nice, as would enough school supplies.  I can't think of a more important calling than being a teacher; if only our policy-makers agreed, because if they did, they'd show teachers a lot more respect.