Companion Of The Airwaves

We drove back to Columbus from Maine yesterday.  It’s about a 15-hour drive, down through Maine — which, like Florida, seems to go on forever after you cross the border and get all excited about finally being there — New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and finally into Ohio.  We hit some bad Thanksgiving weekend traffic in Massachusetts, and a little rain in western New York and northern Pennsylvania, but other than that it was clear sailing and a long day.

hermosa_3a1f3cda-8075-4d6b-b6be-9e716983c7eeOn the way, we listened to the radio on Sirius XM.  We listened to the Ohio State-Michigan game, as announced by the Michigan radio network announcers, who are pretty funny (and cliche-prone) if you’re an Ohio State fan, and when the Buckeyes pulled out a victory and the deflated announcers whispered the final few plays it helped to energize us for the rest of the drive.  We listened to some classical music.  We listened to the Beatles channel, which featured celebrities explaining and playing their “Fab Four” favorite Beatles tunes and got us talking about what would might pick as our “Fab Four” — a pretty impossible task, if you think about it.  We listened to some sports talk radio, and the Auburn-Alabama game, and some big band music on the Siriusly Sinatra channel.

I like long-distance driving and always have.  Part of the reason for that is I just like listening to the radio.  Imagine what long drives would be like if you were just driving in silence for hours!  But the radio is a good companion, a conversation-starter, and a reason to unlimber those vocal chords and sing “Here Comes The Sun” when some unfamiliar celebrity selects it as one of their Beatles favorites.

Radio is old technology by modern standards — popular radio is approaching its 100th birthday — and consequently we take radio for granted, but what would highway travel be without it?

Into The Radio Desert

We’ve all heard of urban food deserts.  That’s the clever name given to inner-city areas where it is difficult to find places that sell affordable, good quality fresh food, like milk, fruits and vegetables.  In urban food deserts, the only options are convenience stores that exclusively sell soft drinks, chips, and processed foods that are rich in preservatives.

It’s annoying where you enter an urban “radio desert.”  That’s an area where you search the radio dial, trying desperately to find something worth listening to — but you work your way through the entire dial, on both AM and FM, and come up with zilch.

South Florida seems to be an urban radio desert.  Hit the search button in your rental car, and you’re likely to hear talk radio in Spanish, Christian radio, investment advice shows, and generic electronica and plastic “adult contemporary” stations with annoying, phony high-energy, happy talk DJs.  They’re the orange soda and pork rinds of radio.  So far as my scanning indicates, there is no NPR, no classical station, no decent classic rock station, and not even a good sports talk radio option.  How can that be?

Being on the road for work is tough, but at least the radio can provide the illusion of having some company on your travels. When you enter an urban radio desert, even that solace is stripped away.  Still, I’d rather drive in silence than listen to some hopped-up morning show DJs, ads about how to get rid or debts for pennies on the dollar or warnings that I’m going to hell.

The Sports Voice On The Radio

We have a clock radio on the end table next to our bed.  It basically functions solely as a clock, because the radio is never turned on.  When was the last time any modern American sat in a room in their home and listened to the radio?

There was a time, though, when the radio was a regular night-time companion.  It was the early ’70s.  UJ and I rooted for the Tribe, even though they were not good.  In those days, the Indians were never on TV, and of course there weren’t personal computers or cellphone apps to give you constant score updates, so the radio was the way to follow the team.  We’d listen to the games Gaylord Perry pitched and hear easygoing Herb Score talk about the Indians’ woes and occasional triumphs.  And then, after the game, we’d listen to a show called Sportsline hosted by a guy named Pete Franklin.

pete-franklinjpg-d5c7b706a3af8778Pete Franklin was one of the pioneers among the call-in sports broadcasters.  Before there was Mike and Mike in the Morning, there was Pete Franklin at night.  He was knowledgeable, sure, and terrifically opinionated, but mostly he was the king of the dismissive insult.  Some guy would call in to argue with Pete about his pick on the next Browns game, and Pete would just cut him off, call him an idiot, and make some cutting remark about the guy’s intellect.  A kid would propose a ludicrous trade through which the Indians would somehow end up with Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter on their roster, and Pete would tell him it was past his bedtime and to quit calling the show or Pete would tell his mother.  Virtually every caller got a liberal dose of Pete’s caustic wit.  And yet, people couldn’t resist calling in to cross swords with him, which made the show all the more entertaining to its fans.

There was something about listening to the show on the radio, too, that made it even more enjoyable.  Sportsline was carried on a 50,000-watt, clear channel station, but it was still AM radio.  You’d have to precisely tune your cheap transistor radio to land on just the right broadcast band to get the station, and even then there would be crackles of static and hisses and Pete Franklin’s brashness would fade in and fade out.  You couldn’t listen to the show without realizing that it was coming from somewhere far away, which added to the exotic element of the experience.  And there was something fun, too, about sitting quietly and listening carefully, hoping that Pete would come up with a really good insult for the next loudmouth know-it-all that you could share with your friends the next day, before you finally turned off the show and went to bed.

TV is great, but radio, with voices floating over the airwaves, is wonderful, too.  When I’m in the car at night, I’ll try to find one of those local Cleveland sports talk shows, listen for a bit, and reconnect with that inner teenager chuckling at Pete Franklin’s latest putdown.

Tom Magliozzi, You Will Be Missed

Today Tom Magliozzi, one of the co-hosts of the National Public Radio program Car Talk, died of complications from Alzheimer’s Disease.  For all fans of the show, it’s a sad day.

Tom Magliozzi and his brother, Ray — who described themselves as “Click and Clack the Tappet Brothers” — were made for radio.  Even though I don’t know beans about cars or engines, and couldn’t distinguish a crankshaft from a flywheel if you held a gun to my head, I really enjoyed their show.  It was silly, and corny, and funny; the two brothers had an easy affinity with each other, treated callers with a perfect combination of humor and caring, and mixed in puzzles and riddles, self-deprecating jokes and comments, and lots of laughs.

Tom and Ray Magliozzi’s obvious humanity radiated across the airwaves and reached non-gearheads and grease monkeys alike.  The show was always good for a chuckle and some useful car-related information.  And underneath it all, it was obvious that they were experts who knew everything there was to know about cars and could diagnose just about any problem.  Car Talk was a great thing to listen to on Saturday morning — and it still is.

Ray Magliozzi hopes that NPR continues to broadcast reruns of the show, which ceased new shows about two years ago.  I can think of no better tribute to his brother, a great radio personality who brought smiles to many.

Sad About Pops

Recently SiriuxXM cancelled its over-the-air Pops channel that I listened to in my car.  That channel played a steady, commercial-free selection of terrific popular classical music selections.  That decision sucks in more ways than one.

I listened to the Pops channel regularly.  In fact, it was my favorite SiriusXM channel, and part of the crucial classical music rotation that I could quickly shift through to find something I really liked.  That included SiriusXM 74 (Met Opera Radio), 75 (Pops), and 76 (Symphony Hall), as well as WOSU-FM, the local classical music outlet.  Sure, the Pops channel self-promotions were kind of mindless and irritating (“Bassoons and oboes and cymbals, oh my!”), but it was a reliable refuge that could be counted on to play some baroque or Strauss when Symphony Hall was playing an interminable Brahms piece or Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue when I felt like listening to something other than the theme music for a United Air Lines commercial.

It’s pathetic that SiriusXM has only one real classical music channel, as well as the Met channel.  After all, this is a satellite radio service that has dozens of pop and rock stations, each specifically devoted to a particular kind of music — say, music from the ’60s, or acoustic stuff, or heavy metal.  They’ve even had a station devoted to Billy Joel.  Billy Joel!  I think Piano Man is a perfectly good pop song, but how about some actual piano music from Beethoven or Mozart?

Can it really be that there are so few classical music fans out there that classical music is less in demand than Billy Joel?  My God!  What does that tell you about the state of our country?

Prank No More

They said it was just a prank.

The pregnant Duchess of Cambridge was taken to King Edward VII Hospital in London with a severe form of morning sickness.  Two Australian radio show hosts decided, as a prank, to call the hospital and pose as members of the royal family trying to get information about the Duchess’ condition.

They spoke to a nurse, Jacintha Saldanha, who believed they were members of the royal family and put them through to another nurse, who described the Duchess’ condition in detail.  The call was later shown to be a hoax, and the hospital apologized for the breach of patient confidentiality.  The DJs said they were “very surprised that our call was put through, we thought we’d be hung up on as soon as they heard our terrible accents.”

And then Jacintha Saldanha, the nurse who fell for the “terrible accents,” apparently committed suicide.  She leaves behind a husband and children.  An inquest will be held to try to determine the cause of her death and whether it is, as many suspect, related to the hoax.

Suddenly, the stupid joke isn’t funny anymore — if it ever was.  The Australian radio hosts say they are “heartbroken” by the suicide.  They say their motivations were innocent and they expected to be hung up on within 30 seconds.  The implication is clear:  it’s not their fault that a harried nurse taking a telephone call at a busy metropolitan hospital didn’t see through their little jest.

I don’t listen to shock jock radio because I don’t think these kinds of pranks are funny.  They’re mean and cheap.  The smug caller always has the upper hand and the audience is already in on the joke; the person answering the phone is usually just doing their job the best they can, and their good intentions cause them to be the object of ridicule.  Even if you can’t predict that a successful prank call might lead to a suicide, how can you possible describe this call as “innocent”?  The Duchess of Cambridge is a public figure, of course, but doesn’t simple human decency suggest you not try to get personal medical information about a newly pregnant young woman trying to deal with a scary condition?  And didn’t the DJs stop to think that, if their call was successful, the innocent staffer who treated their call at face value might at least lose her job?

I hope this terrible story causes the many shock DJs out there to stop their stupid pranks — but given the crassness of most of those shows, I doubt it.

Starting The Season With The Worst Christmas Song Ever

Just my luck!  I do some channel surfing on the radio, hit one of those all-Christmas-music-all-the-time-stations, and my first exposure to holiday music is the worst Christmas song ever.

That’s right:  I started my festive holiday music season by having to endure another annoying and dispiriting rendition of Do You Hear What I Hear?  Setting aside “novelty” songs like Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer, Do You Hear What I Hear? is unquestionably the worst “mainstream” — that is, recorded by the likes of Bing Crosby — Christmas song in the book.  When I hear the predictable annual news reports about how many Americans experience depression during the Christmas season, I secretly attribute much of the rise in despondency and dejection to having to listen to this awful song played over and over again.

What makes Do You Hear What I Hear? so awesomely abominable?  Well, the forgettable melody is both uninspired and grating — but the real fingernails on a chalkboard impact comes from the lyrics.  Any song that begins with a “night wind” that can both see and speak talking to a “little lamb” about a star with “a tail as big as a kite” obviously is going to score high on both the cloying and inexplicable meters.  And when the little lamb then has a conversation with a “shepherd boy,” who in turn visits a “mighty king,”  the song crosses the line into irretrievable sappiness.  Apparently aiming for the mystical, the song instead come across like the cheesy plot line for a particularly bad Christmas cartoon.

It’s almost impossible to regain the proper Christmas spirit after having an initial exposure to Do You Hear What I Hear?  Fortunately, I resisted the temptation to kick over a Salvation Army bell ringer’s kettle and immersed myself in We Three Kings Of Orient Are and Jingle Bell Rock to regain my jovial holiday bearings.

A Sirius Fan

When we bought our Acura SUV, we got a complimentary subscription to SiriusXM.  We accepted it, of course — it was a freebie — but I was skeptical that I’d ever pay for radio.  After all, why pay for something you can get for free?

I’ve since become a convert.  I like the variety of the news, comedy, sports, and music stations, and I like the commercial-free music stations.  I particularly appreciate the service when I’m driving from city to city, because I don’t need to worry about losing a signal and searching for a new one.

I’ve programmed the car with my favorite Sirius stations, so I can find them with the push of a button, and I’ve experimented with some of the other stations, too.  I tuned in to the Sirius POTUS station before the election, because I thought it was a pretty well-balanced presentation of the election-related news, and since the election I’ve been listening faithfully to the three Sirius classical music stations — the Metropolitan Opera station, Pops, and Symphony Hall, where they play longer pieces.  I also like the fact that the display screen tells me what’s playing, so if I like a piece that I haven’t heard before I can find it at the library.

From my perspective, there’s a lot to like about SiriusXM.  I never thought I’d pay for radio, but it’s worth it.

Listening To The Veep Debate On The Radio

Yesterday, on our drive home, we listened to the C-SPAN rebroadcast of the vice presidential debate.  Being up north and out of TV broadcast range, we hadn’t seen the debate live or heard any of the post-debate spin.

It was odd to hear a political debate rather than to see it, as if we had been hurled 50 years back in time to 1960.  And, as legend says was the case for the first Kennedy-Nixon debate that year, the visual TV medium apparently created a different perception of the Biden-Ryan debate than did the aural radio experience.  Because we were just listening, we didn’t see Vice President Biden’s facial expressions and physical gestures that have been the subject of so much talk.

We could, however, hear the Vice President’s chuckles, ejaculations, and interruptions.  At times the cross-talk made it impossible to understand what anyone was saying.  I’m not sure politicians fully appreciate how annoying it is when they try to talk over each other, whether it’s during a debate or on a Sunday morning talk show.  It’s not persuasive, either; instead, the interjections make it seem like you believe you can’t afford to let your opponent finish his point.  That seems more like weakness than vigorous advocacy.  When lawyers present an oral argument, they argue their case, listen to their opponent’s position, and then present a rebuttal — without interruptions or attempts to monopolize the microphone.  Why can’t politicians show the same courtesy?

Other than the irksome disruptions, incidentally, I thought the debate seemed evenly matched.  Biden showed more passion, Ryan showed more precision, but each side got through their talking points and sounded their themes.  My radio review would score the vice-presidential debate a toss-up.

No Alien Answer — Yet

The search for extraterrestrial intelligence has made huge strides in recent years.

Using new techniques, scientists have identified many apparently habitable planets, thereby suggesting that the first ingredient of extraterrestrial intelligence — a planet where a sophisticated alien race might develop — is much more common than people once thought.  Studies have shown that life has developed and thrived in the most inhospitable climates on Earth, from superhot underseas vents to the coldest ice caves at our poles.  And now, astronomers are targeting specific stars with radio frequency searches designed to hear any radio wave activity.

The astronomers examined Gliese 581, a red dwarf 20 light years away that is orbited by six planets, including two jumbo-sized Earth-like planets.  If Gliese 581 were aiming a similar array at Earth, it would hear countless radio broadcasts from 20 years ago — lots of the music of Nirvana, and reports on the upcoming Bush-Clinton presidential election, no doubt.  But from Gliese 581, the astronomers heard . . . nothing.  If there is life on the planets in the Gliese 581 system, it either hasn’t progressed to the point of using radio technology or uses some other form of communication we haven’t discovered.

The fact that we haven’t heard an answer yet doesn’t mean life isn’t out there somewhere.  The technique used on Gliese 581 was targeted at a small dot in a universe that has countless such dots.  The astronomers could experience years of radio silence from their targets, but the world would change immediately if the radio astronomers heard alien communications from just one target — as was the case in Maria Doria Russell’s excellent novel The Sparrow.

We don’t know if we’re unique, and whether Earth is the only planet in the vast universe where intelligent creatures capable of extraterrestrial communications have developed.  Being something of a skeptic, I’m not willing to accept that proposition.  Time, and some more efforts to listen in on alien radio, will tell.

I Question The “Question Of The Day”

One of our local NPR stations, WOSU-FM, has introduced a new feature that gets hyped every morning during my commute. The new feature is “Question Of The Day.”  During the morning drive, the announcer mentions the feature, gives you the “question of the day,” and then asks you to go to the WOSU website and type in your response.  The responses then are supposed to be read during the afternoon news shows, although I haven’t heard that done yet.

Today the “Question Of The Day” was actually two questions:  “When does life begin” and “When do we become ‘persons'”?  Pretty weighty questions, eh?  You could really get into a serious philosophical/religious/ethical/legal discussion about such questions.  So far as I can tell, however, the questions haven’t provoked that kind of debate.  The “Question Of The Day” appears to have received a handful of brief comments after 10 hours.  Other recent “Questions Of The Day” — questions like “Are you worried about the growing population?” — look to have gotten similarly skimpy responses.

I’m not sure what the point of the feature is — I suspect the real hope is to drive traffic to the WOSU website — but I think the “Question Of The Day” concept is a dud.  In my view, the media already spends way too much time “surveying” and “sampling” the shifting, often uninformed tides of public opinion, and I particularly don’t care what a handful of self-selected people have to say about whatever intentionally provocative questions WOSU might decide to ask.  How about just reporting actual news, instead?

Obscure Bands And Great Songs: Hocus Pocus And Focus

It was the early 1970s.  It was a time when you could hear just about anything on the radio.  Playlists hadn’t yet hardened into the genre-specific, focus group-driven, audience-targeted sameness of today, where you know exactly what you are going to get.  For perhaps the last time, American popular radio could be full of surprises.  And one day, when I was about 16, one of the surprises was the extraordinary song Hocus Pocus by a Dutch group called Focus.

Hocus Pocus is unquestionably one of the greatest air guitar songs of all time.  The intro, with its great guitar riffs and drumming, sucks you in — and then you begin to realize that the song is seriously weirdHocus Pocus is a technically an instrumental, even though the human voice is heard throughout and is, in fact, one of the most important instruments being played.  Rather than lyrics, however, the singer is alternately yodeling, straining to perform some kind of musical scales, sounding like a cartoon character that has been at the helium tank, and finally insanely cackling.  And the unique vocal gymnastics lead perfectly into the stunning guitar solos and manic drumming.  What a great song!

Hocus Pocus reached number 9 on the U.S. charts, but the single version really didn’t do the song justice.  I went out and bought the album, Moving Waves, because the extended version of Hocus Pocus — which comes in at close to 7 minutes and is the version in the Youtube clip below — is as close to perfection as music gets.  I played that album in my bedroom until the grooves begged for mercy.