Radiohead

On Thursday, November 30, American Public Media (APM) emailed all subscribers that today was the final newsletter edition of “The Writer’s Almanac” – the program would no longer be distributed by APM, which was terminating all contracts with Garrison Keillor and his private media companies after allegations of inappropriate behavior.

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I miss radio. I miss radio in the United States. I miss radio in Canada; when I lived in Vermont I could tune in signals from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and CHOM-FM. Here in France I could stream the broadcast over the internet, but with a time difference of six to nine hours, it’s doesn’t feel right: unlike other electronic media, you want to be near where the broadcast is: it’s too strange hearing the traffic report from WAMU in Washington, D.C, or the weather in San Francisco via KQED.

Of all the broadcast mediums, radio is the one that makes us the least stupid. It feeds only your ears, leaving your brain to do the necessary and important working of imaging. Radio’s electronic sibling, the screen and its variants – television and the web – are first and foremost mediums of images. The screen leaves little to the imagination, no brain required. The screen entertains and perhaps informs, yet too often also distracts and distorts (or course radio can distort, too, but at least it is done without the emotional appeal of images, say a politician making a speech in front of a battery of American flags). Indeed, so strong and entertaining is the imagery that one can watch a television without sound, but radio has no comparable option. Radio is a medium of only sound – words and music. It leaves much to the imagination. The broadcaster does not have to be well choiffed or have nice tits to keep you watching. Radio is the exception to the myth of multi-tasking in that you really can do something else while you listen – often it’s driving. But it’s better when you can just sit and listen: start the day at the kitchen table with a cup of black coffee, listening to the weather or the news of the world to the East which has already been awake for a number of hours coffee. Finish the day in your favorite chair listening to news or late night jazz, a whiskey to lubricate against all that bad news.

Consider this and try to imagine something similar with television: in his review of Harvey Sach’s biography of Arturo Toscanini, Tim Page writes in a recent New York Review of Books1See here.:

In 1934, some nine million people—over 7 percent of all American men, women, and children—tuned in to his [Toscanini’s] New York Philharmonic concerts on Saturday nights.

I hope radio is with us forever.

Around the Washington, D.C. area in the late sixties and through out the seventies, I had to listen to WMAL, because that’s what my mother listened to. On WMAL the morning hosts were Harden and Weaver, low key and civilized, the antithesis of future shock jocks. Evenings on WMAL was the appropriately named jazz music host, Felix Grant – I was too young to appreciate him then, but again, my mother listened to him. Later when I got my own radio, I listened to the spectrum of 1970’s music, from “Kung-fu Fighting” on the pop station WPGC to “Stairway to Heaven” on the more rock and roll WWDC (where the adolescent Howard Stern hosted a show for a short time). Sometimes I tuned in to the station that cool older brothers who had been to college and smoked a lot of weed listened to: WHFS.

At the University of Vermont I listened to the college radio station, WRUV, the ‘voice of the University of Vermont, but this period also marked the beginning of listening to public radio. In particular there was one program from the station in Windsor, which broadcast a classical music morning show out of Boston by the peculiar Robert J. Lurtsema, whose show began every morning with chirping birds. And you can hear it here.

As I drove across country after graduation, mid-80’s, following Route 50, most of the time I could string together NPR stations: as one radio station signal faded out as I drove west, a little fiddling on the dial brought in the same show on another NPR station, obviously in the direction I was driving. In a curious bit of timing or serendipity, somewhere in Ohio or Kansas, I tuned in “A Prairie Home Companion”, a Sunday morning rebroadcast of the previous’s night’s show; one of the songs, by Greg Brown, was about that part of the country:

Flat stuff, flat stuff
Way out to the way out to the setting sun

When them old boys come through
Sometimes I think it would have been best
If they’d said, “Jesus, it’s too flat here”
And just kept going West

Out of the flat stuff, flat stuff
Way out to the setting sun

It sure was flat stuff.

The Bay Area, no flat stuff there, was a cornucopia of radio stations: white rock, Latin, black rhythm and blues, pseudo-country, weird. And given how much time you spend in your car around there, you need a lot of radio.

For rock in the morning was Dave Morey on KFOG. Elsewhere on the dial, at KUFX (taking over the spot formerly occupied by KOME), former rock star Greg Kihn who would talk about the chord progression on the guitar at the end of The Knack’s “My Sharona”, or during the morning rush hour, play Boz Scagg’s “Somebody Loan Me A Dime”, over twelve minutes long, again this on morning radio, with Duane Allman on the guitar.

KDFC was the classical music station, KCSM was San Mateo’s jazz station, and KKSF the smooth jazz station, perhaps the station that’s the sound track for the Bay Area: Kenny G, Sade, and tamed versions of songs by the Art of Noise. All of these stations are gone, online only, or have new homogenizing formats under the likes of Clear Channel.

Coast side in Santa Cruz there was KPIG (watch the dj on the ham cam, give them a call on the swine line), and a long gone new age station out of Monterey, call letters forgotten, playing all those crunchy Windham artists.

Public radio in the Bay Area was on KQED, KPFA, and KALW. There was no shortage of all those NPR shows, never mind the news: “Car Talk”, “Wait Wait”, “Forum” with Michael Krasny, other talk and game shows, the best of which by far was the obscure and wonderful “Says You”. It was around that time, maybe a bit later, that it dawned on me that, to paraphrase Mark Twain, NPR had hired a bunch of female reporters with awful German names: Susan Stamberg, Lori Waffenschmidt, Nina Totenberg, and Linda Wertheimer.

There were also two shows by Garrison Keillor: “A Prairie Home Companion” and “The Writer’s Almanac.”

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Keillor was and is a writer. He wrote some books, and also for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and other publications. I don’t think he was a great writer, but his subject matter was different, sometimes offbeat, and sadly funny. Like a Stephen King story or a blurry picture of something interesting – the subject remains interesting despite the imperfect execution.

But Keillor was more effective as a writer-performer, a cross between a poet and a playwright, rather than a writer of prose. A poet’s works can be read silently or out loud, but Keillor’s words are to be performed. Of course there’s overlap between poets and singers, and maybe the best bridge between the two are rappers, where the music is subordinated to and only in support of the lyrics. Indeed, long before Eminem or Vanilla Ice, or really before any others, Keillor was the first white rapper, maybe the first rapper. And given both his temperament and his voice, radio was his medium.

I listened to “A Prairie Home Companion” either when I lived alone or was back East visiting my family. None of the women I lived with liked the show. Like a good story, the Saturday night radio show created another world one could escape into: the guest musicians, the skits, Cafe Buerf, Raw Bits and Powder Milk Biscuits, the reading of letters, the Lake Woebegone monologue. The quality varied, of course, but no artist over so long a stretch can consistently produce top material. The radio play that best stands out is when the rapture comes2The event forever awaited by ...continue: Keillor comes across a child who is distraught because the child can’t find his parents. Keillor, wondering if the child has been left behind (a nice dig at the book series but the same name), makes a series of phone calls to investigate. After calling George Bush, Billy Graham, and the pope – all of whom answer the phone and aren’t aware of what’s going on – Keillor calls the Unitarians, but no one answers the call because they aren’t there anymore.

Bay Area mornings, probably somewhere on the dreary highway 101, mid-peninsula, driving to work I’d catch Garrison Keillor reading a bit of poetry for the “Writer’s Almanac” – a welcome, civilized respite, you felt like it was a good use of the airwaves. His deep voice summarized a few events of that happened on this particular day in some past year: November 14th was the birthday of Claude Monet or June 15th the birthday of Kobayashi Issa. After a bit of history, Keillor might read a poem by Slyvia Plath, Billy Collins, Emily Dickinson, or maybe this by Rolf Jacobsen:

Colors are words’ little sister. They can’t become soldiers.
I’ve loved them secretly for a long time.
They have to stay home and hang up the sheer curtains
in our ordinary bedroom, kitchen and alcove.

I’m very close to young Crimson, and brown Sienna
but even closer to thoughtful Cobalt with her distant eyes and
untrampled spirit.3“Cobalt”, translated from the ...continue

Somewhere along the way, while still in the Bay Area, I signed up for the daily email from “The Writer’s Almanac.” I got an email version of the radio show almost every day, until November 30th.

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The details of Keillor’s offense are unclear, but do not seem to be on the scale of the porcine Harvey Weinstein, the orange marionette in the White House, and certainly are a far cry from the likes of Bill Cosby. Yet in these cases there are no shades of grey, one punishment fits all, be it one inappropriate incident or one hundred.

The timing is especially unfortunate because for the first time I had been saving the emails from the Writer’s Almanac for the month of November, to record what famous person was born during the month. So far on the list: Robert Louis Stevenson, Margaret Atwood, Will Rogers, Astrid Lindgren, Monet, William Blake, Benedict Spinoza, Stefan Zweig, Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot), and Stephen Crane. Of course I could so a search on November birthdays, but it was more enjoyable waiting for each morning’s email and reading through that.

It’s bad enough missing radio. Now there’s no more “Writer’s Almanacs” – never thought I’d be missing getting an email.

The last Writer’s Almanac captured at the Internet Archive Wayback machine is, fittingly, from Thanksgiving, November 23, 2017. It’s here.

References   [ + ]

1. See here.
2. The event forever awaited by evangelical Christians, not the feeling exclaimed by the Scarecrow after he gets a brain.
3. “Cobalt”, translated from the Norwegian by Roger Greenwald, A Book of Luminous Things, ed. Czeslaw Milosz (New York: Harcourt Publishing, 1996), p. 63.

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