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.  

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Where Do We Go From Here?

This is my fifth anniversary as a blogger; I tend to post on a bi-weekly basis, and my readership varies-- typically, it's about 100-150 readers (now and then, as many as 300), but any number is okay with me. I know I'm not a celebrity, and I've never expected millions of page views. In fact, I'm grateful there are some folks who find my posts worth reading.

But the past several weeks were anything but typical, as any Rush fan knows; and nearly 13,000 folks kindly stopped by to read my previous blog post-- a tribute to drummer par excellence Neil Peart, who died way too young, after a courageous three year battle with cancer. 

Since Neil died, I still find myself feeling somewhat disoriented at times; I mean, I know he's gone, but it still just doesn't feel right.  Many fans have reached out to me online and we all shared our emotions and our recollections.  I also spoke to Neil's dad, and his sister, and his closest friend, and I sent along my condolences to Alex, Geddy, and their families.  I wrote a newspaper article about his career, and I was invited to talk about him on several podcasts and radio interviews. Fans told me they appreciated what I said, but to be honest, I kept wishing I didn't have to do it. I kept wishing Neil were still here.

If you're anything like me, perhaps you find some comfort in the day to day routine.  The new semester has begun at the university where I work; I'm teaching three courses and I advise the school newspaper. And I continue to research and write free-lance articles about media history.  (I like to keep busy, especially in difficult times.)  Meanwhile, I'm about to have another birthday on Valentine's Day; God willing, I'll be 73. 

Sometimes, something will happen in politics and I remember a conversation I had with Neil: he used to get really annoyed at politicians who only cared about money and power, or who acted in ways he considered heartless. I couldn't agree more. He also wasn't a fan of the endless arguments some people keep having on social media. But speaking of Twitter and Facebook, I think he'd be proud of the Rush fan base-- just as during his life, Rush had fans from all over the world who came from just about every political point of view, after he died, fans united around the sense of loss they felt, and debates about political issues seemed far less important than honoring someone whose music had changed so many lives.

And here we are, still trying to make sense of what happened, still trying to cope with something that seems so unfair.  As for me, I am making donations to some of my favorite charities in his name (check out DonorsChoose.org if you haven't already). And while it's difficult to get used to his not being with us, the friendships he helped to create and the love he inspired from the fans lives on.  At times like these, I am so grateful to be part of the extended Rush family, and to join with them in celebrating Neil's life.  

Sunday, January 12, 2020

This Wasn't Supposed to Happen: Some Thoughts About the Death of Neil Peart

The first time I met Neil Peart, it was mid-1974. I was working at WMMS in Cleveland, where I had helped to launch the band's career in the US by getting "Working Man" on the air. I had first been sent the Canadian import version of their album by a record promoter friend of mine named Bob Roper, and that song resonated with the WMMS audience immediately.  John Rutsey was the drummer at that time, but he had health problems, and the other members (and their management) realized they needed to make a change. Neil was chosen because he was not only an excellent drummer but a talented lyricist. The next time Rush came to Cleveland, Neil was with them.

Back then, I was still sort of the "big sister" to the band; I helped them to get signed to a US record label, I called other stations to encourage them to play "Working Man" too (it was one of our most requested songs), and when they first performed in Cleveland, I was there to cheer them on. Naturally, because Neil was the "new guy," he wanted to meet me-- not because I was in any way influential, but because I already had established a relationship with Alex and Geddy, and he wanted to know more about me. So, I invited him to visit me and he did.  He came to my apartment and we talked for several hours. As it turned out, we had a love of literature in common-- in fact, I lent him my copy of Shakespeare's "King Lear," which had special meaning for both of us. 

We kept in touch sporadically. In April 1975, he sent me a postcard (which I still have) to let me know he was alive and well, touring was going great, and the band's new album was "pretty well written and will be recorded in July." Neil was always a very private person, and I did not expect that we would keep in touch with any regularity. In fact, as time passed, we only saw each other now and then, usually when I want backstage at a Rush concert. And because he never liked doing the endless "meet and greet" events where band-members shook hands with fans, I ended up seeing Geddy and Alex much more than I did Neil. But whenever I saw them, I always made sure they sent Neil my love.

Whether I saw him in person or not, Neil remained a presence in my life-- through his amazing lyrics, and through the privilege of watching him play. He was such a gifted drummer, and widely admired by his fellow musicians in other bands.  And I kept up with his life-- the tragic loss of his wife and daughter, his time away from the band, his eventual return... And then, one night in September 2010, when I had come to see the band perform in Boston, out of nowhere, he asked to see me. We hugged, like two old friends, and then we chatted about politics, about philosophy, about family, and yes, about "King Lear"-- he still had the copy of the play he had borrowed from me, and as I posted to social media at the time, I was very moved to find he still had it, and it still meant something to him.

And as he and I were saying goodbye, we were standing out in the hall and he remarked upon the lesson he took from "King Lear"-- that it's not enough to say you love someone; you have to show it. And he remarked upon second chances-- that he hadn't been there enough for his daughter Selena (he loved her, but by his own admission, he was on the road a lot); but he absolutely was going to be there for his daughter Olivia. It was a promise he kept.

I was not surprised when Neil decided to retire. I knew he had tendonitis. I knew he was in more pain than he let on. And while fans were, of course, disappointed, being a "retired drummer" gave him the chance to spend more time with his wife and daughter.  I kept in contact with him through his closest friend Craig, and I was so glad to hear he was content and enjoying his life.

And then it changed. A private person till the end, Neil shared with very few people that he had cancer. Even many reporters who had covered Rush over the years had no idea. When we all found out he had died, it was such a shock that few of us knew what to say. I am still finding it difficult to put into words what I feel about this tragic loss, but let me try:

Neil Peart was an honorable, ethical human being. Despite being one of the music industry's greatest drummers, he was never arrogant. He treated drumming, and song-writing, as art forms, and he elevated both. He loved being a musician, and his lyrics resonated with so many fans.  Neil was also a charitable person-- but when he gave (which he often did), he never wanted to call attention to himself.  He lived his life his way, never afraid to be himself, encouraging others to be themselves too. He left a large body of incredible music, that will live on. And he left years of wonderful memories that his millions of fans will never forget.  To think of a world without Neil in it breaks my heart. But I consider myself fortunate to have known him. May he rest in peace.