Saturday, October 22, 2011

On The Radio (POP!Best!)

POP!Best! is a weekly look at pop culture from the 7 days prior. Usually it's a little more upbeat than this.

Today finds me in a meditative mood of sorts; I've been thinking all week about Norman Colwin, a guy I'd never heard of before who died this week at 101.

I heard about Norman Colwin dying on the radio, which is fitting, because Colwin was called the 'poet laureate of radio' when he wasn't being called a 'citizen of the world.' I don't know what the latter means, but I do know what the former should sound like, and the brief (radio) broadcast I heard about Colwin's death made me miss someone I'd never even known existed until just that moment, and want to know more about him.

Radio, I think, gets kind of a bum rap these days, and maybe rightfully so, provided that you narrowly define radio. But I've always liked radio, in all its incarnations as I think of them, including things that aren't really radio.

I once wrote a post called "Football On The Radio, The Importance of Being Close To Canada, and a Quick Latin Lesson" (I'll link to it below.) In that post, I reflected on how I used to listen to football games on the radio, waxing poetic:

I first started listening to football on the radio back when Sweetie and I began dating. She lived about 60 miles from me, and sometimes I'd go drive my Ford Festiva up to visit her on Sundays. We'd hang out, maybe watch the Packers, maybe eat dinner, and then I'd have to drive home ... I would tune in to the NFL game, whichever game was being played, and listen to that,

...As I drove past sleeping farms and dark houses with warm glows flowing out of their windows, I'd focus on the road as the announcer told me someone was back to pass, it's up, and I'd drive and wait for it's caught or dropped or picked off and he's heading the other way.

The invisible men playing football in my mind ("kicking off, my right to my left..." announcers would say, and I'd picture them on the dashboard of the car) have always been larger and stronger and more enjoyable than the life-sized men playing on the football fields in real life
The radio has always been a big feature of my life. When I lived in Milwaukee, as a college student, I worked in the admissions office of the University. This was in the early 90s, before the Internet and iPods and even CDs were still pretty new. So we listened to the radio in the office. Every city had an assortment of music stations back then: there was the Oldies station and the Classic Rock station and the Top40 station and, if you were lucky like we were because we had two major colleges in Milwaukee, you had a "New Rock" station that played bands like Belly:

I remember listening to New Rock 102.1 when Belly, a group I loved, came out with their new album: the DJ said "Belly's just released a new album that sounds great. Here's their hit song "Feed The Tree," which was off their old album, and I didn't get how New Rock could get away without playing new rock.

I know now: Years later I read an article that talked about why radio stations don't put new music on more often, or more challenging music, and do you know why? It's because of us, and also because of how easy it is to change the radio station when you're in the car, which is where most of us listen to the radio, always. Most people, if they hear something unfamiliar, change the radio station. So radio stations play mostly familiar stuff, even the ones that promise new rock. The new rock they play is the same old stuff new rock fans want to hear.

I'm still that way, a lot. My radio now is my iPod, filled with songs that I download sight-unheard, and podcasts, and sometimes I'll put my 11,000 songs on shuffle and then click until I hear something familiar, if I'm in the mood for something familiar, although these days I'm at least slightly more adventurous in my music listening, which is how I got to hear new music that I downloaded based on its description, music like Regina Spektor, whose song Fidelity I downloaded without ever hearing it, and then loved it, and then went and got all of Regina Spektor's albums, which, fittingly enough for this post, includes "On The Radio":

A song that talks about ascribing some significance to listening to the radio so late at night that the DJ is asleep and plays the song November Rain twice, making the moments even more memorable.

Back in the 90s, we'd listen to music at the office, but we also listened to talk radio, which then was in its infancy and hadn't become nothing-but-conservatives. I recall a show called "That Jay Marvin" who tried to be kind of moderate, but moderation has no place on talk radio. I also recall listening to The Mark Belling Show and being goaded into calling and arguing with him by my boss, who would wander in, hear Belling saying something, and say "Call him up and argue with him" and so I'd do that because it beat filing, and the other office workers would go listen on the radio in the other room and laugh as I tried to argue a proposition I knew nothing about.

Once, Mark Belling told me an argument I'd made was the stupidest argument he'd ever heard. I kind of take that as a badge of pride, and also, I've heard that exact phrase repeated to me twice in my life. (The other one was a judge. Long story. But it was a stupid argument.)

Later on, a few years later, when I came back to Milwaukee after living in Washington D.C. and Morocco for 3/4 of a year, I moved into an apartment but couldn't afford a TV right away, so all I had was my stereo and a radio to listen to. At night, I'd listen to talk radio again, conservative talk-hosts slowly giving way to Art Bell Coast-To-Coast, and Art would talk about aliens and demon possessions as I laid there in the dark, the radio echoing off the bare walls and hardwood floors of my apartment.

Radio's been a big part of my life in part because I'm always doing something else: I'm driving somewhere or typing something or playing with the twins or working in the yard, and I can listen but I can't watch because I've got to watch what I'm doing. But, truth be told, I've always been somewhat impatient with visual media anyway.

I grew up reading books, graduating from comic books to book-books, and a book is like a mental radio: Someone feeds words into your mind and you build them into a world. I read almost every single book in the Hartland Public Library, and I'm not kidding about that. When my brothers and friends were watching TV (movies being a rare thing back before VCRs and cable) I'd be reading.

I've always liked the images I get in my mind, actually, more than the images that life actually throws at me. I've got a wonderful imagination; it's in overdrive, all the time. I fall asleep imagining stories and literally dream them up to begin writing them. It's really hard to compete with the special effects my mind can create.

I remember when they made The Lord Of The Rings into movies. I was concerned because in my experience, the movies never looked the way they should. I liked my Middle-Earth, my Frodo and Sam and Sauron. I didn't want to see someone else's versions of them, and was relieved that Peter Jackson actually made things look, more or less, right.

In that Football On The Radio essay, I noted that having listened to a portion of a football game on the radio once, I came home to find the game was being taped by The Boy, and watched the plays I'd just heard, and found the actual real plays to be less exciting than the plays I'd imagined, listening. Radio is like that: It can broaden the scope of what you're hearing by making your mind work.

Which brings me, temporarily, back to Norman Corwin. Here's what he's most famous for, in a world where, really, he wasn't famous at all anymore: The broadcast "On A Note Of Triumph." You can hear it at that link, which goes through NPR, or you can do what I'm doing and listen to it as you read this:

That's Corwin's broadcast on V-E Day, an hourlong celebration of the winning of the first half of the war. It's worth listening to, for lots of reasons, not just because you cannot imagine any radio (or TV) announcer these days talking like this:

"The superman of tomorrow lies at the feet of the common men of this afternoon."

Corwin was in part, lucky: he was a radio broadcaster when only radio was broadcast, and he was a radio broadcaster when the U.S. achieved the greatest victory in its history -- but luck isn't just there for the picking; it has to be taken and run with. Lots of people get lucky and blow it. Corwin got lucky and didn't.

His career, if you read about it, was more than celebrating "far flung ordinary men, unspectacular but free" (seriously, go listen to it! Just put it on in the background while you read this). His biography notes that he published books of prose and poetry, got an Oscar nomination for his script about Van Gogh ("Lust for Life") and then, at the age of 80, came back to NPR and recorded a series of programs including "Good Can Be As Communicable As Evil", again speaking in words that almost nobody would dare to use, talking about how even if simply being kind won't cure all evil, it's still worth doing... now:

So long as conscionable and caring people are around, so long as they are not muted or exiled, so long as they remain alert in thought and action, there is a chance for contagions of the right stuff, whereby democracy becomes no longer a choice of lesser evils, whereby the right to vote is not betrayed by staying away from the polls, whereby the freedoms of speech, assembly, religion, and dissent are never forsaken
(People in Wisconsin, and other areas, who stayed away from the polls now realize how foolish it is to forsake the freedoms of speech and vote as they exercise those freedoms to exorcise the people who rushed into the gap left open by those who didn't vote. But that's for another day and another blog.)

I've been listening to Corwin's broadcast as I type this -- hearing the crowds in Piccadilly and Times Square, and Corwin's words: ("This is it, kid. This is the day. This is what we were waiting for... but through the din and clamor we can hear a voice... listen: a flash across the dark Atlantic.. listen closely..." and he teases you until you can't wait to see what it is you're supposed to be listening for.

(I'm not going to tell you what you're to be listening for. Listen to it.)

I wouldn't have listened to Corwin's broadcast if he hadn't died; I didn't even know he lived, and I wouldn't have probably cared about Corwin's death if I wasn't one of those people who loves radio and even loves what radio has become and thinks it should become more.

Radio isn't dead, even if you don't like listening to nothing but conservative talk-show hosts on AM Radio; sure, they've taken over but that's just temporary, just like the rightward swing in politics is temporary, and we have to hope that no permanent damage is done under the fever-throes of fervor, to either the body politic or radio.

Radio these days isn't a wasteland, after all; every city still has their same stations: Madison, where I live now, has a "Classic Rock" station on which I listen to Alice Cooper's musical choices on Sunday nights, and they have a Top 40 station, and they have a New rock station that doesn't just play new rock and they have a hard rock station, and they even have one of those automated "We Play Everything" stations that, frankly, I like, because that's the closest radio comes to my iPod, playing Escape (The Pina Colada Song):

and then immediately following it with Macarena:

And I'm not going to apologize for liking either one of those, even if I sometimes do make up my own words to macarena and they go something like this:

Come on now a say a macarena
Why did you say that word the macarena?
I said the word cause you said say the macarena
Hey, macarena!

But we also have NPR, and we have the local talk radio station that has local hosts who talk about interesting things like local fetish shops (Hi, Forward With Kurt!) and, of course, sports radio -- we have two of those.

And then I have podcasts, which let me listen to radio when I want: Planet Money and Freakonomics Radio and Stuff You Missed In History Class and This American Life and the Savage Love podcast and more (I subscribe to about 10 of them), all of which I can listen to during what is otherwise dead time.

Dead time like when I was driving to court yesterday morning, leaving at 6:45 a.m. and driving until 8:15 a.m. and then driving back from 9:30 to 11 -- three hours in the car, time I would, absent radio, have spent just staring at the scenery.

I love the radio. I love listening to the more-sophisticated-than-me people on NPR's pop culture podcast -- a podcast is just radio, after all -- talk about X-Men: First Class or the Royal Wedding, and I like hearing Dan Savage alternately rant and laugh and offer sound advice, and sometimes, as I began noting in that earlier post I wrote, I just want to hear another human voice; sometimes, driving around in deserted landscapes at night, worn-out, it's nice to just listen to people talk, and to talk back to them, even if they can't hear me.

"That's crazy," I'll say, or "Well, right," listening to someone saying something and having a one-sided conversation.

I never got much into music videos, and a lot of the time, I treat TV as a radio -- I'll put on a TV show I like (usually one I've seen before) and listen to that without watching it, cleaning up the kitchen while Arrested Development plays over the computer speakers.

Most people are visual people, I know. But not me, not that way. I don't want to be told what to see, which is one reason I stopped reading comic books and found them, ultimately, unsatisfying. I want to imagine my worlds.

And I think that radio, using that term loosely to include podcasts and music and iPods, entertainment that is audio only, can be more than it presently is. I wonder, sometimes, why we have 24-hours sports-talk radio but no pop culture talk radio, and at those times I think "I should make a The Best Of Everything podcast and create pop culture talk radio," which is egotistic, I know, because if you look at podcasts for even a second you'll see that there's a plethora of pop culture talk radio, but there could be more, right?

I could do it, too. I don't just listen to radio; I've been a DJ, on a college radio station that for some reason broadcast only over cable, so you had to have cable radio to listen to us and I'm pretty sure nobody ever listened, but that didn't stop me from going on the air twice a week and playing indie rock and reading public service announcements for a whole semester, talking to people who might not have even been there.

I bet I'd have liked Norman Corwin. He seems like he was the kind of person I imagine myself to be: focusing mainly on one thing but doing lots of things and doing them well, back in the era when people did do lots of things. As we've become a more-visual, more-focused, culture, sometimes, I think, we've narrowed our scope. Look at the Founding Fathers. They did a zillion things. I read biographies of people in the 1700s and 1800s and they did everything. They were scientists and doctors and writers and politicians and farmers and then in their spare time they developed a theory of gravity:

Sir Isaac Newton PRS (25 December 1642 – 20 March 1727 ...was an English physicist, mathematician, astronomer, natural philosopher, alchemist, and theologian, has been "considered by many to be the greatest and most influential scientist who ever lived."

That's the first sentence of Newton's page on Wikipedia. Norman Colwin's begins:

Norman Lewis Corwin (May 3, 1910 – October 18, 2011) was an American writer, screenwriter, producer, essayist and teacher of journalism and writing.

My own Twitter tagline is "Lawyer... writer... and also... um..." and when people these days ask what I do, what anyone does, would any of us reel off a string of things we do? We wouldn't.

When celebrities these days, for good or bad, do more than one thing, we mostly try to push them back into that one thing. I'm as guilty as anyone; I laugh at Keanu Reaves writing poetry and discount the political opinions of Gwyneth Paltrow (the latter probably being more likely the right move than the former, maybe) and DJs make fun of Billy Bob Thornton or Russell Crowe being rock stars as well as movie stars.

Actors and directors, we get. Actors and writers? We say no way.

And maybe that's a result of the increasing visualization of the world. Maybe video really did kill the radio star -- maybe, as we got more and more used to being told what to see, we learned to only see one thing -- there couldn't be more than one way for Harry Potter to look after we saw how Harry Potter looked, and maybe that has slowly conditioned us to be only one thing, our minds narrowing in ways we can't even comprehend until after it's already occurred, a world that can only be one thing because our minds no longer know how to do anything but replay the image we were given.

That's what I fight against, sometimes: the feeling that we can only do one thing, or even one thing at a time. Why must I only be a lawyer? Or a writer? Or, worse, why must I only write one kind of thing? Why can't I be all these things at once?

I'll put it this way: If you did listen to Corwin's description, taking you from the celebration in Times Square across the Atlantic to Europe, how did you picture that passage as he described it. (Again, if you didn't listen to it, why not? Just put it in the background. It won't take any of your time.) Did you fly, disembodied, across dark waters to an England that was celebrating wildly? Did you travel on an airplane? Did you whiz low over the waves of the Atlantic or soar above the clouds, seeing both North America and Europe on either side of that cold ocean?

As Corwin talked, you could do any of those things, but if he'd shown you, using CGI or live-action, you'd have only done one thing.

Norman Corwin was a radio pioneer, but more than that, he was a way of thinking. There is a world where any thing is possible, and there is a world where only this thing is possible. I worry, sometimes, that we're moving from the first to the second, or that we've already done it, and Norman Corwin's life ending seems to me to be proof of that happening.

And maybe I'm stuck in that world. But if I have to live in that world, nothing keeps me from keeping on driving down dark roads, listening to voices from far away, giving me the building blocks of football games and wars and relationship problems and more, building my own worlds in my mind, and making sure that I can be everything I imagine I am, and the world can be everything I imagine it to be, even if only for a little while.

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