Saturday, August 20, 2016

Radio: Still a Magical Medium (Some Thoughts on National Radio Day)

The other night, I attended an anniversary party-- hundreds of enthusiastic fans, along with local sports celebrities and sportswriters, gathered to celebrate the 10th anniversary of "Toucher and Rich," a popular morning show on Boston sports-talk radio station 98.5 The Sports Hub. As a former deejay, I know how difficult it is to get and maintain that kind of popularity, and in our modern world, where people have so many media choices, it's nice to see that radio still has plenty of supporters. 

A few days earlier, with far less fanfare, another happy event occurred-- former Boston top-40 legend Arnie Ginsburg turned 90 years old.  Arnie is retired and lives up in Maine, and I do hope someone threw a party for him; he was among the most popular disc jockeys during the era when AM radio was still king; you may have heard him reenact his "Night Train" radio show on the "Cruisin'" series of recordings-- he represented what top-40 sounded like in 1961, and you can read the liner notes from that CD here: 

And then there was the recent news story about a young man named Adnan Syed: convicted in 2000 of murdering his ex-girlfriend, his case became the topic of Serial, a highly-acclaimed podcast produced by Chicago's public radio station WBEZ in 2014. Syed has long claimed he was innocent, and thanks in large part to evidence presented during the podcast, a judge has now agreed that Syed deserves a new trial.

Once upon a time, radio was unique. It was powerful. It was dominant.  When it came onto the scene in mid-1920, it quickly began to make a difference in how people lived.  Radio was the first mass medium to bring the audience to an event in real time, as it was happening. Radio transcended race (anyone who had access to a receiver could listen, and no matter what color you were, if you had talent, you had a chance to become a radio star); it also transcended social class (people who lived on the farm or in poor parts of town had the same opportunity to hear the biggest names and most popular shows as people who were rich and powerful).

And while radio was initially a source for music, it also became a source for news:  back in early February 1922, then-President Warren G. Harding installed what was undoubtedly the first radio set in the White House (he was a big fan of the new mass medium), and reporters covered it like a news story.  By 1924, political candidates realized they could not ignore radio if they wanted to run a successful campaign:  increasingly, politicians (from local mayors to presidential candidates) took to the airwaves to reach out to voters; and while today we take this for granted, in the 1920s-1930s, it was something quite new.  To this day, students learn about how President Franklin Delano Roosevelt became a "radio president," using his Fireside Chats to speak to, and comfort, the nation during the Great Depression.

Radio created national hits and it created national stars-- both performers and announcers.  It helped blind people to gain access to everything from baseball games to music concerts; it helped homemakers to learn new techniques for cooking great meals; and it helped the elderly to continue to hear religious services.  There were even educational programs, providing college-level courses to anyone who wanted to listen and learn.  In that golden age, there were amazing radio dramas and comedies, as well as cleverly produced programs for kids.  Radio's ability to entertain provided a very effective escape from the Depression, as well as source of encouragement during World War II; and the gradual rise of news networks enhanced the public's ability to stay informed. 

When TV came along, the common wisdom was that radio was finished-- but that proved to be untrue. Radio reinvented itself, and thanks in large part to the rise of rock-and-roll, top-40 radio ruled.  Many of us Baby Boomers grew up idolizing our favorite deejays and dreaming of being on the air at our favorite station someday.  And when FM radio finally took hold and weakened the influence of AM top-40, many Boomers migrated to FM, where we could hear album-rock, and later other new formats like urban/dance or modern country.

These days, radio is no longer unique, and it is no longer dominant.  Few young people listen to it passionately (or even listen to it at all), the way we Boomers did-- in fact, when I ask the students at the university where I teach, only a handful have a favorite station or can name a deejay they like.  In our internet and social media world, most of them get their music from Spotify or Pandora or YouTube, rather than waiting for their favorite on-air personality to introduce them to new music.

I find that disappointing.  While it's nice to download a song, I still like that human interaction. At its best, radio can still be a friend, a companion, a source of information and entertainment.  And yes, at its worst, it can be a lot of noise-- with deejays who talk too much, the same few songs over and over, too many commercials, or formats like political talk that focus on everything that's wrong and provide endless examples of anger and outrage.  It's a far cry from when radio used to be live and local and reach out to the community; a time when it tried to provide a balance of opinions, and stations of all formats focused on making their listeners feel they were part of a welcoming community of fans.

And yet, despite endless predictions of its demise, radio lives.  Today, on National Radio Day, I want to salute the stations which remain live and local, the ones that remain active in their community. I salute the stations that work tirelessly for charitable causes, and I especially salute every deejay who  makes time to talk to the listeners in a way that makes them feel appreciated.  Whether your station plays the hits or talks sports or reports the news, radio still matters.  It can still unite people and make them feel more connected; those radio voices can still reach out and make people feel a little less lonely.  I found this to be true when I was a deejay in the 1970s and 1980s, and it's still true today.

While I no longer broadcast full-time (and I miss it every day), I am sometimes a guest on talk shows, on stations like WBZ Radio in Boston (a station whose night-time signal reaches more than 30 states and parts of Canada).  It's still amazing to be part of a conversation with callers from so many distant locations; these are people I might never have the chance to talk to, if it weren't for radio.  And while I understand that most of today's young people don't have radio dreams the way I did, that doesn't mean radio has stopped being important, and that doesn't mean radio is no longer relevant.  When done right, radio can have a positive impact on a community; it can introduce new music, or new ideas; it can help solve problems, or just provide some harmless escape for a while.  And for some of us, with fond memories of meeting our favorite deejay, winning a contest on our favorite station, or attending a great station event (remember record hops?), radio is a part of who we are.  So, on National Radio Day, here's my wish:  long may radio survive and long may it continue to thrive.  To me, radio is still a magical medium, and it's one that changed my life for the better.    

Friday, August 12, 2016

The Show Must Go On

Sometimes, I feel as if life has turned into a giant reality TV show.  Of course, this feeling is not new-- way back in the early 1600s, a character in Shakespeare's play "As You Like It" mused that "All the world’s a stage/ And all the men and women merely players." (Rush fans know these lines too, since they are quoted in the song "Limelight.")   

As many of you know, I used to be an English teacher, and to this day, I still love books.  And while buying online is convenient, I also still enjoy wandering through a local bookstore and seeing what I can find to read.  Because I love words and appreciate good writing, I sometimes quote from great great works of literature, past and present, since they often express exactly what I'm feeling far more succinctly than I can.

One of my favorite quotes comes from chapter 6 of Lewis Carroll's "Through the Looking-Glass." Alice is talking to Humpty Dumpty, and this is the dialogue: “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

Becoming the master of words-- changing their meaning to suit your particular perspective and then persuading others to use those words your way-- is a technique we often see in politics, where words that were once neutral are given a partisan connotation (and yes, both sides do it).  Consider the word "liberal," which to my friends on the right is the ultimate insult, a synonym for everything that's wrong in America (according to them, fact-checkers are liberal, the media-- except for Fox News-- are liberal, anyone who is pro-choice is liberal, etc).  Conversely, consider the word "conservative," which my friends on the left associate with bigotry, closed-mindedness, indifference to the poor, adulation for the rich, and the worship of the past.  And of course, each side has its own provocateurs telling them that their interpretation is correct, so why even bother talking to the other side, given how wrong and deluded "those people" are?

There are also times when the meaning of a word is altered in order to make a rhetorical point... and the point is not a good one. Consider the NBC sports analyst who decided to weigh in on the family of gold-medal gymnast Simone Biles, offering the comment that her grandfather and step-grandmother-- who adopted her as a kid-- are not her "real" parents.  Needless to say, Ms. Biles (along with many of us on social media) was not amused. I mean, Ron and Nellie Biles took her in and it was they who raised her.  So, how are they not her "real" parents?  Maybe they didn't give birth to her, but so what?  They're her parents. End of story.  (The commentator later apologized, as he should have.)

Or how about Donald Trump's bizarre assertion that Barack Obama (or as he cleverly put it in some versions of his claim, Barack HUSSEIN Obama) "founded" ISIS.  Okay fine, we can debate whether the president's policies in that region of the world are working.  But it's revisionist history to ignore the fact that the invasion of Iraq occurred under President George W. Bush, and that what became ISIS (or ISIL or Daesh) emerged as a result of the mismanagement of that invasion after Saddam was deposed.  Barack Obama was not the president in 2001-2006, nor did he have any authority in the matter (and he was opposed to the invasion of Iraq).  But focusing on the name President Obama inherited from his biological father-- a man he barely knew, and only saw once after Barack Senior abandoned him and his mom when young Barack was two years old-- is a way to remind anti-Obama partisans that the president is "foreign," and might be a secret Muslim.  (Poll after poll shows that among Republicans, disappointingly large percentages still believe President Obama was not born in the United States and is not really a Christian.)  But even if you dislike him, it's quite inaccurate to say Mr. Obama founded a terrorist group.

And once again, a quote comes to mind-- Inigo from the movie The Princess Bride, saying "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." Far too often, words get thrown around that do not mean what the speaker is implying.  Like, what does it mean to be "patriotic"?  During the Olympics, one of the Americans who won a medal did not place her hand on her heart during the playing of the National Anthem.  I've talked about this before:  placing the hand on the heart has long been a custom associated with saluting the flag.  When we pledge allegiance, we place our hand on our heart, to show love of country, as I was taught in elementary school.  But it was only after 9/11 that other symbols began to proliferate-- like expecting politicians to wear a flag pin on their lapel (and then criticizing them if they didn't), or expecting everyone to place their hand on their heart during the National Anthem.  I fail to see how wearing a pin or placing your hand on your heart during a song tells me anything about your patriotism.  Mostly it tells me you have agreed to conform to some new custom, rather than risking getting mocked by people who ought to mind their own business.

Meanwhile, we have candidates who live for the applause, and a media that loves to hone in on one gaffe or one time the candidate said something outrageous (intentionally or not), and then replay it over and over and over, to the exclusion of anything else that's going on.  It's a world where critics on social media seem eager to catch someone doing something wrong, giving them permission to send out rude or sarcastic comments about it.  And it's a world where rumor, innuendo, myth, conspiracy theory, and total fabrication can be believed by millions of people because they read it online or someone famous said it.  And, sadly, it's a world where demonizing the other side is more important than doing or saying the courteous thing-- witness the Egyptian judo competitor who lost an Olympic match to his Israeli opponent yesterday. Respect for the sport dictates that once your match is over, you shake hands, but the Egyptian refused to shake the Israeli's hand.  I am not sure what such rudeness proves, but there are all too many times where this sort of attitude can be seen:  in political campaigns, at awards ceremonies, and of course, on the playground, where at least you might expect it.

So, here we are, in our reality show life, where everything seems to be about the performance; where the focus of the media is on who is getting praised versus who is getting blamed, and where all too often, confrontation is preferable to conversation, even if that means manipulating words to make your rhetorical point and get the attention you seek.  This week, my conservative friends are furious that the mainstream media aren't covering some internet gossip about Malia Obama, who was allegedly caught smoking marijuana and (gasp) twerking.  My liberal friends are equally upset that information about Donald Trump's taxes and when his third wife actually got her green card hasn't been made public.  And even if both sides got what they wanted, soon there's be some other pseudo-controversy for each side to get upset about.  So much to criticize, so little time, and the show must go on.