Sunday, July 31, 2022

To Boldly Go Where No-One Has Gone Before

I was still a teenager when the original "Star Trek" made its debut in 1966. It was on NBC, and although I watched some of the episodes, I admit that I wasn't a big fan of the show. To be honest, I much preferred "Star Trek--The Next Generation," which debuted almost twenty years later. But there was something I did like about the original "Star Trek"-- it had what we today would call a multicultural cast.  I also liked the fact that the cast members were not all stuck in stereotypical roles. In many TV shows of the 50s and 60s, minority characters were either depicted as not very smart or unable to speak good English.  And women were still either secretaries or housewives; and especially in comedies, they were frequently depicted as somewhat scatterbrained.

But "Star Trek" was unique for its time. Yes, the main character was a white male (Captain Kirk), but the crew of the Enterprise included a Vulcan, a Russian, an Asian, a Scot, and a Black woman. And it was the Black woman who was unlike any other characters on TV in the mid-60s. Her character's name was Lieutenant Uhura, and the woman playing her was Nichelle Nichols. She was born Grace Dell Nichols, and most viewers were probably unaware of the fact that she was a talented singer, stage actress, and model. But I'm sure they noticed that on "Star Trek," she was not anyone's servant (one of the few roles given to Black actors and actresses). Nor was her character written in a patronizing way. Rather, Uhura was the ship's communications officer, someone well-versed in science, who was also capable of taking control of the helm when needed. 

Perhaps she was not aware how much her presence meant to young Black viewers-- Whoopi Goldberg recalls watching her and being delighted to see a Black character in an important role. And Dr. Martin Luther King was aware of Nichelle Nichols too-- when she wanted to leave the series for a role in a Broadway play, Dr. King personally encouraged her to stay with "Star Trek," because, he said, it was so important for Black kids to learn that they could be anything in life-- even someone on a star ship, or a doctor, a professor, anything. And so, she continued on as Lieutenant Uhura.

Of course, not everyone was happy she was there: America was still in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, and some southern affiliates of NBC were uncomfortable with any show that had an interracial cast; one scene from 1968 evoked some controversy, when the plot called for her and Captain Kirk to share a brief kiss. But for the most part, her role was well-received, and greatly appreciated. It even led to her doing some work for NASA, helping to recruit Black and female employees, some of whom became astronauts. She also appeared in other film and TV roles over the next several decades.

Nichelle Nichols died on July 30, 2022, at age 89. Agreed, she wasn't a real science officer nor an astronaut, but her presence in the cast of "Star Trek" did what Dr. King hoped-- it created new possibilities. At the beginning of the original show, it talked about how the voyages of the Enterprise were about seeking out new worlds: to "boldly go where no man has gone before." I prefer the revised version from "The Next Generation"-- to boldly go where no-one has gone before. The way I see it, having a dream, creating a possibility, embarking on your life's latest adventure...this is something anyone can do. For many years, women and people of color were told those dreams and possibilities didn't apply to them. Today, they do, and characters like Lieutenant Uhura paved the way. Rest in peace, Nichelle. And thank you.     

Friday, July 15, 2022

Can AM Radio Be Saved?

When I was a kid, I dreamed of owning my own radio station. I had no idea what it cost to buy one, but it seemed like the best of all possible things to acquire-- after all, radio was a central part of my life, and I knew lots of other kids who felt the same way. We all loved rock and roll, we all loved listening to the deejays, and many of us enjoyed going to record hops and hearing the local bands perform. Owning a station seemed like such a cool thing to do, something that would make a lot of people happy.

In the 1950s and 1960s, top-40 ruled, and AM radio was king. Every city had live and local stations, and the deejays often made appearances at local businesses. I remember getting my first car and driving to Paragon Park, about a half-hour from my home. Paragon was a popular amusement park back then, but more importantly, WBZ Radio sometimes did live broadcasts, direct from their "Sundeck Studio." I was so excited to watch my favorite deejays in person; and as a college radio deejay, I did a couple of remotes too, from the quadrangle at Northeastern University in Boston. FM hadn't taken over yet. Many people didn't even own an FM radio, and most cars only had AM.  Perhaps the audio quality wasn't the best, but the signals carried a long distance, and whether you were listening with your portable radio or listening with your transistor, AM radio could accompany you everywhere, kind of like a best friend. 

These days, it's all different. If you turn on a station on the AM band (something few young people ever do), all you hear is angry political talk shows, foreign language programs, religious broadcasts, and lots of news and sports. Some AM stations do still play music, but increasingly, it's songs for people over 60, since research says they are the only ones who still listen. Everyone else long ago migrated to FM, or to the internet, streaming audio, and YouTube. Many AM stations have gone dark-- owners have just given up and pulled the plug.

But does it have to be that way? Maybe I'm naive, and maybe I'm a dreamer, but I want to believe that AM could still make a difference. For example, if you put a live and local station on the air, play interesting music, have strong ties with your community, and give the listeners something worth listening to, they might just give you a chance--even if you're on the AM band.  Anecdotally, I'm told some AM community stations are doing that-- entertaining the public, giving local bands a chance, providing something unique for their community. And people seem to like that.

I understand the media environment in 2022 is not the same as in the 1960s. I understand that most young adults haven't listened to AM in years. But what if we gave them a good reason to? What if we brought back radio that had entertaining personalities and was fun to listen to? It might not work everywhere, but somewhere, in some city, there's a signal going to waste, and some good people who want to make that signal mean something. I still want to own a radio station, because radio changed my life; and I don't want to give up on AM just yet, even if all the experts say the odds are against anyone succeeding. So, what do you think? Is it too late for AM radio? Or can AM radio be saved? I welcome your opinions. I've already told you mine!