Radio On: A Listener's Diary

Radio On: A Listener's Diary

by Sarah Vowell


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There are approximately 502 million radios in America. For this savvy, far-reaching diary, celebrated journalist and author Sarah Vowell turned hers on and listened—closely, critically, creatively—for an entire year.

As a series of impressions and reflections regarding contemporary American culture, and as an extended meditation on both our media and our society, this keenly focused book is as insightful as it is refreshing.

Throughout Radio On, "Vowell's touch is about as delicate as Teddy Kennedy's after a pitcher of martinis" (Richard Roeper, Chicago Sun-Times).

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

A cranky stylist with talent to burn.” —Newsweek

“A sparky, ferociously intelligent examination of a medium that people forget about from one of the most promising young journalists I've come across recently.” —Nick Hornby

“The magic really begins when you sense Vowell is absorbing radio as much as listening to it.” —The Toronto Star

“She's very aware of how radio can divide and conquer” —Charles Taylor, the Boston Phoenix

“Her diary is more the coming-of-age story of a young critic, soundtrack included.” —Chicago Tribune

Radio On escapes its own insularity through its insistence on the language of desire: the wish for a country where every citizen isn't bent on seceding into his or her own Private Idaho, where it is still possible to speak and be heard.” —Howard Hampton, the Village Voice

“Her comments on what she heard are illuminating and smart.” —Gina Arnold, East Bay Express

“Vowell's touch is about as delicate as Teddy Kennedy's after a pitcher of martinis.” —Richard Roeper, Chicago Sun-Times

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312183011
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 12/15/1997
Edition description: REV
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 970,090
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.56(d)

Read an Excerpt

Radio On

A Listener's Diary

By Sarah Vowell

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 1996 Sarah Vowell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-5727-8



Radio crept up on us under cover of silence. It belongs today to the inventory of a household like a fancy wardrobe and potted plants. Seemingly uninvolved, obscured by spools, wires, and hard rubber disks, the magical boxes sit in their corners. You adjust the steel ring, and charming melodies resound. A violin hums, an older gentleman sings "In the Month of May," a farmer speaks of synthetic manure. The world is vast and its tones are manifold.

Otto Alfred Palitzsch

San Francisco

January 1, 1995.

2:29 p.m. National Public Radio.

I took back the night. And it's all mine until I get stabbed, raped, mugged, shot. I've walked alone the darkened streets of tough towns from Palermo to New York, but the congenial Midwest makes me tremble. I know for a fact that the steam rises from the gates of hell in downtown Fargo and the Antichrist, laying low, shovels snow off the sidewalks of Dubuque for extra cash.

Forget the Big Bad Wolf, the fear of God, the hands of time — they can't stand up to Minnesota Nice.

The Prince of Darkness, tied up stirring the fiery cauldrons of Prairie Home Companion, has dispatched his demon helpers to do his dirty work with a good-humored twang. Michael Feldman, dark angel / host of the heartland's Whad'Ya Know?, queries a farmer from Superior who reveals his voodoo: "Usually, we have the radio on and it calms the chickens." On their way to the chopping block, that is.

January 2.

8:55 a.m. KSFO-AM.

"Out: political correctness, liberal media, the Democratic party. In: KSFO Hot Talk 560." Today, this San Francisco AM station gives the people what they want, chucking its formerly liberal talk format in favor of an all-right-wing lineup, beating Congress to the flip-flop by a full two days.

I turn it on just as J. Paul Emerson, recently fired from another Bay Area station for making allegedly anti-Asian remarks, orates his sign-off with a version of the Pledge of Allegiance that's more "Try me" than salute.

A few minutes later, Ray Charles' fine version of "America the Beautiful" is replaced by strip-club music hailing the voice of former cop Tom Kamb. In the nine-to-noon spot, Kamb is up against his maker, trying to emphasize his hometown agenda in opposition to Rush Limbaugh's national focus on a competing station. "We like to think of it as our Contract with the Bay Area," claims an ad that winks at the Republican platform which plans to change the world.

"Whatever it is that's got you hot in the Bay Area, let's talk about it!" Kamb barks. "But let's not just talk! Let's fight back!" (He only speaks in exclamations.)

Issue number one concerns a man named Raphael Joseph, convicted for murdering eight people in the Virgin Islands and soon to be pardoned by the territory's governor. Here's the rub: Joseph plans to settle in Santa Cruz to study to become a counselor, of all things, at the University of California.

"You should be outraged! We've got to scare this guy off! And by the way, Congress, our beautiful friends in the Congress [remember the Democrats are, for a few more hours, still in control], are the ones who gave the Virgin Islands governor the power to free this loser! God bless America!"

The first caller, Joe from Santa Cruz, claims that the answer lies in the Santa Cruz Armed Militia, a vigilante group. Kamb likes what he hears: "Is that not the power of the people coming back? If they decide to grab this guy, beat the crap out of him in an alleyway, so be it!"

Impressed by this awesome display of peace-officer guidance, of problem-solving and community outreach, I turn up the volume. The callers are almost exclusively male, indulging themselves in a little locker-room bull session. When Kamb asks Brad from Campbell what he would do if Joseph came to his town, Brad responds, point-blank, "It's called a Remington 870."

"Are you a good shot?" snickers Kamb.

"I don't have to be," Brad answers, riding off into the sunset with the other boys in the Gym Shorts Gang.

And into the swirl of idealism that distinguishes male adolescent bravura walks a small boy. Patrick, no more than eight or nine, hasn't had the chance to turn into a stooge. Yet. He's been to school; he suggests writing to his congressman to influence the situation, speak his mind.

"What if that doesn't work?" probes Kamb, bored.

"You could protest," is Patrick's cheerful reply.

"Where are you going to protest?"

"I don't know," Patrick utters, growing frustrated. Then he gives up. "I don't know. My brother says to just get out a shotgun."

"Well, whatever it takes," insists the voice of wisdom conducting this impromptu Civics 101.

Interstate 5, near Albany, Oregon

January 4.

10:33 a.m. KXPC-AM.

Hungover and getting over a fight, my friend Katie and I leave San Francisco for Seattle. En route, we scan the AM, settling down for a while here at "Pure Country" just in time for this morning's segment of "Strange Question." Today's quiz: "Other than agricultural or business concerns, what is the one thing that Iowa leads the nation in, hands down?" The caller with the correct response will win a "family pack" of tickets to a movie called House Guest.

"Is it auto manufacturing?" guesses the first caller, a good listener. Sorry, business concern.

"Is it beauty pageants?"

"Can I give you a creepy one? Is it small little towns?" suggests a woman who's watched Blue Velvet too many times.

"Is it teen pregnancy?"

Earlier this morning, on NPR in Eugene, a BBC journalist reported that the Thai electorate just lowered the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen, expanding the suffraged population by 2.25 million young people. CBS News attended a press conference for ascending Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who gushed that he is proud to be involved in "such a romantic, mythic part of America" and can only describe the way he feels as "overwhelmed."

My lips are chapped from the winds of change. What will it mean? What's romantic about Gingrich's unmerciful scorn for teenage women? What's mythic about the fact that Jesse Helms, ambassador of fear, will chair the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and represent America to the United Nations, and thus the world? I, too, am overwhelmed. One country confides in the future, trusting its youth, while another slams down its fists and demands an old package in a different wrapping.

Is a little Oregonian trivia supposed to ease your mind, save your soul? Can a family pack of House Guest tickets really cheer you up when your son will die invading Cuba, museums you loved will close their doors, and your grandmother perishes of hypothermia when the Social Security checks dry up? I think not. My head is jammed with meaningless data. Oh sure, I can wow my friends with my in-depth knowledge of Archie comics characters and the Happy Days television program, but what good is that?

And the answer to the question "Other than agricultural or business concerns, what is the one thing that Iowa leads the nation in, hands down?" We drove out of range before I could find out.


January 5.

Yesterday, Portland made me nervous and the radio didn't help. I spent a few pointless months there when I was nineteen, and hadn't been back since. The town looked shabby and sad in the sunlight, as I tuned in an AM sermon hosted by a singsongy preacher with an ironic bent.

"Why, if man is basically good ...?" he begins the next twenty-three sentences. "Why, if man is basically good ...?" did a man in the choir get mugged last night, did a woman he knows get raped, did thieves break in and steal a family's belongings, did he hear on the news that two teenagers killed their parents, and so on. Man is basically evil, he cries, that's why. He didn't convince me, but Johnny Cash tried.

This morning before everyone else woke up, I went through my friend Chris's records and played a really rise-and-shine, high-voltage album by sunshine chanteuse Nico before I switched to the Man in Black's last effort, American Recordings. A dreary little ballad, by Mr. Pure Pop for Now People, Nick Lowe, called "The Beast in Me" stopped me cold.

It's slow; though it's not the tempo but rather Cash's bleak and painful voice that forced me to face my own ugliness. "God help the beast in me," he moans.

That Portland preacher bought a ticket on the wrong guilt trip, relying on examples of commandments broken, of killing and headline crime. By drilling his congregation with dramatic case histories, he neglects the smaller, infinitely more suitable acts against goodness and decency. Most likely, his average listener had never mugged another pedestrian, shot her husband, or robbed from the poor, but what if, like the beast in me, she had just abandoned her best friend in a time of crisis to ward off her own paranoia by getting drunk alone?

January 7.

9:51 a.m. KKDZ 1250-AM "Kidstar Radio".

"That was the Supremes, from — now this is scary — way back in 1964," bellows the condescending voice of "Kidstar" DJ Great Scott. The station's ads sum up its mission: "Radio just for kids and kids are great people."

If kids are great people, then Kidstar aims to keep them great, or at least well-behaved, balancing its intermittent fun facts with brainwashing tolerance-building songs that claim "my mother's Jewish, my father's a Buddhist" or even Robert Palmer's yawner, "Every Kind of People."

Yesterday, I heard a silly little song about a huge sandwich and this morning I enjoyed an old Steve Martin routine about his cat who embezzled $3,000 to buy cat toys, but most of the programming falls flat, Paula Abdul's version of "Zippity Doo Dah" being a good example.

My friend Lucy listens with me. She teaches first grade at an inner Seattle elementary school. I ask her if her students listen to this station and she replies, "They listen to KUBE 93," which has a Top 40–rap format. "They want to listen to what they see on TV," she continues.

I can't imagine anyone over the age of four becoming halfway engaged with this perkiness, with sugary readings of school lunch menus and the lame hawking of Kidstar merchandise as "Absolutely Hot!"

Great Scott reads a tidbit that the universe is so vast and empty that it resembles a building twenty miles high, twenty miles wide, and twenty miles deep, which contains only a single grain of sand. "Wow!" he hollers. "Does that make you bamboozled or what?" That depends — is "bamboozled" a synonym for nauseous? Or what?

3:45 p.m. KUOW-FM 94.9 NPR.

Sometimes the only way to be surprised by National Public Radio is to miss the long-winded, topic sentence–laden introductions to their stories. Driving through town, Lucy turned on the radio as a female NPR news voice (somehow they all seem to sound alike in their sober nasal condescension) finishes a sentence. "... one of the city's trendiest neighborhoods. The espresso bars and cafes are thriving even by Seattle standards." As she goes on to describe high-rent Capitol Hill shops with art deco furniture, I'm thinking it's another "gentrification of Seattle" story. This morning I read in Rolling Stone that Sub Pop — standard-bearer of American independent record labels, Nirvana's first home, and fountainhead of the Seattle Sound — just sold 49 percent of its holdings to the Elektra corporation. While it's unclear if the move is a sale or a sellout, on a symbolic level it's the signal of an era's end. Thus, art deco fails to shock. Then suddenly the reporter, Beth Fertig, swiftly crosses the street. Good-bye boutique, hello junkies. The first two boys she meets, unemployed and wearing various forms of facial piercing, "say heroin, or dope, as they call it, is all over Capitol Hill."

After citing a recent Seattle public-school survey which reported that 6 percent of local eighth-graders claim to have tried the drug, Fertig drops in on three user/dealers. Bob, Evelyn, and Steve, now in their midtwenties, began shooting up as teenagers. Evelyn came from an abusive home and explains the root of her addiction: "Oh, and it's, it's marvelous. When I, first time I did it, I was just so excited ... you lay on your ass, and you sleep and you dream. It's an escape. It's oblivion. It's the easiest way in the world to avoid all those big emotional problems that you've been expending all your emotional energy to keep in the back of your mind." When I heard Fertig's response — "This may be part of the reason why heroin is so popular" — I was thinking, "Well, duh."

Her elaboration is even more frightening. I can understand the desire for oblivion, but to hear that overdose deaths have risen by 60 percent in the last three years as a fashion statement becomes an unspeakable horror. Bob, Evelyn, and Steve claim that most of the younger users are middle-class kids from the suburbs who "just show up on weekends, trying to look cool." "They say heroin is almost as trendy as cocaine was in the eighties," Fertig continues, "only heroin is the antipower drug, the choice of outsiders and grunge rockers, like Kurt Cobain." Evelyn concurs. Calling them "puppy junkies," she maintains, "They obviously come to Seattle hoping to see rock stars. They want to know where the rock stars buy their dope so they can buy it from the same dealer, you know what I mean? 'I go to so-and-so, and that's who sold, you know, Kurt his last shot.'"

Cobain's considerable contribution to art will always be shadowed by this other legacy. While his music led so many young people to freedom, his habit has induced others into the prison of addiction. But Sasha, a young user, doesn't see it like that. If it's not one prison, it's another: "I don't have to listen to somebody's authoritarian rule. I've gotten rid of the car loan, the rental payments, the insurance payment. I've gotten rid of the credit card. I've gotten rid of, you know, the electric bill, and it's like, surprising how little you need to actually live and be happy. And today if I get spun or junked, or drunk or high, or stoned or whatever, great, and if I don't, I don't."

Bozeman, Montana

January 9.

9:30 a.m.

I leap up the familiar granite steps to KGLT, polished for the new semester. The first time I climbed them, I was seventeen, invited to read my eleventh-grade odes to angst on a short-lived poetry program called Bards Anew. "I am the tree that grows amidst the rocks," I read, with all the teenage torment I could summon, "twisted, but strong, admired but not loved." I was thrilled to be imposing my pain on the world that caused it.

A few days later, the program aired and I sneaked out of the underage section of a Steel Pole Bath Tub show to listen, for the first time, to my own voice coming out of a friend's car radio in the Sundance Saloon parking lot. I went back into the bar, once again, just some kid, a threat to somebody's liquor license, another unstamped hand. I was used to being in the way. But that night, things were different. I had been ON THE AIR.

Plus, I had seen it, that day at the station — Utopia, Shangri-La, El Dorado — the KGLT record library. Albums I had only imagined, from reading John Rockwell's All American Music, checked out from the public library the previous summer: John Cage, Harry Partch, Ornette Coleman. If it was noisy, I cared.

I finished high school a semester early, tree that grows amidst the rocks and all, in January of 1988. I started college at Montana State two months later, signing up for the KGLT apprentice class before I got around to registering for my courses. Three months after that, I was FCC-licensed, hosting my own show, The Twentieth Century, at age eighteen. My slogan: "Tune in to the twentieth century. After all, it's almost over."

I took over the Wednesday-afternoon "classical" slot, home for ten years to midday Mozart. I made enemies fast, playing mostly American composers from Elliot Carter to Jimi Hendrix. To sandwich Bartók's String Quartet No. 5 between the Velvet Underground's "Black Angel's Death Song" and the Shangri-Las' "I Can Never Go Home Anymore" seems silly, cute even. But as sound, as an appreciation for the violence of which violins are capable, it worked.

I had the religion called "art of our time." As an orchestral composer then myself, I took on each complaining caller (and there were several every show) with a zealot's tirade against the long-dead. "Don't you want to hear out your compatriots?" I would plea. "Not really," was their inevitable reply. My radio philosophy was terribly simplistic; I played the music I wanted to hear. I soon learned that afternoon office workers would rather type to Schubert or Cheap Trick than Partch's Delusion of the Fury. My most common request was not for a particular piece of music but this: "Make it stop." And after a year of needling bassoons and cracking clarinets, I was worn out. Besides, I had figured out once and for all rock 'n' roll was a lot more fun.


Excerpted from Radio On by Sarah Vowell. Copyright © 1996 Sarah Vowell. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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