Thursday, June 26, 2008

Radio On, Sarah Vowell

Radio On
Sarah Vowell

I've liked other work by Sarah Vowell, and I enjoy her pieces on NPR, but this book hits all kinds of hot buttons for me.

Let's start with the premise. The author spends a year listening to the radio - a lot - and keeping a journal about the experience. Those journal entries are the contents of the book, listed by date, station frequency and call letters. There are a few other things scattered in there too, but mostly it's journal entries. As such, it's not all that coherent. There isn't a story line, plot, history, or even a guiding theme to hold them together.

Actually, I suppose it could be argued there is a theme of sorts: Vowell's hatred of just about everything she mentions. But if vitriol is all that's supposed to hold this collection of paragraphs together, it didn't work for me.

Vowell's not shy about letting her opinions out. She has nothing but scorn for Rush Limbaugh. (That, at least, I can agree with.) Her taste in music is critical to her existence, and those who disagree with her are entirely in the wrong. With the exception of a few bits of ancient history (Elvis, for example) she mentions almost exclusively bands and artists that I've never heard of or never listen to. (For the record, I don't listen to Elvis either, but at least I've heard of him.) Kurt Cobain figures heavily into her rock god pantheon, as does Courtney Love. You're clearly a waste of skin if you can't name every song these people have been involved with.

Sadly I can see myself in her rant to a degree. My own musical preferences were completely different, but there was a time when I thought the "right" music was all important. Thankfully I got over that phase shortly after leaving college. Vowell is (or was) still stuck there over ten years after she graduated. Looking back, I was an ass about things like this on far too many occasions, but at this point I can admit it and move on. It's not clear that Vowell can do so.

Yet more things are wrong with this diatribe. Vowell has absolutely nothing good to say about any radio station except KGLT, the college station she worked for. She does like Ira Glass - famous for his NPR program This American Life - but everything on WBEZ except his show is terrible. The DJs on the myriad of other stations she mentions are all held up as examples of stupidity, or - at the very least - cluelessness. You can get a sense of the depth of her disgust from this quote, taken from the back cover, where you'd normally expect to find some blurb recommending the book in question:
"Vowell's touch is about as delicate as Teddy Kennedy's after a pitcher of martinis."
-- Richard Roeper, Chicago Sun-Times
In reality, though, I could set all of those issues aside. At some level I can even relate to it, as I have my own inner grouch who wants to complain about everything and everyone. Admittedly I don't usually let him out long enough to write a 230 page trade paperback, but I can identify with at least some of what she's whining, grousing, and bitching about. But what bothered me most is that Vowell holds everyone up to a higher standard than herself, fails to admit the purpose of things, or both.

By way of example, she excoriates NPR (National Public Radio) in many, many places. As far as I can tell, only Ira Glass's work there has any value. She calls out the various programs by name, trashing them repeatedly, and does the same for the various people who work there. It matters not what your race, gender, or vocal characteristics are, if you work on All Things Considered or Morning Edition it is quite obvious that Vowell finds you repulsive. Not quite as repulsive as Rush Limbaugh, but damn close.

With that as a background, it comes as no surprise that she complains bitterly - and mentions it again later - that one of the NPR announcers working on Morning Edition or All Things Considered (sorry, I didn't mark the pages where I saw this, and I can't bring myself to read it all again just to find the exact quotes) worries about screwing things up. She complains that this is an attitude she never saw back in the good old days working at KGLT. They were happy to screw up. They clowned around all the time.

Excuse me? You're trying to compare some Podunk college radio station staff with those of a major national news program, and because they differ in how much they worry about screwing things up you're bothered? To the point of rage?

But it doesn't end there. Elsewhere in these pages Vowell admits to being a teacher at an art school. Guess what? She found herself nervous early on because people were listening to her and writing down what she said.

Surely I'm not the only one to see the irony there? She rants that the people at NPR are afraid of screwing up, but can't see that she, herself, has the same issue in front of her class? To be afraid of making an error in public is only natural. Surely she knows that. And yet she can't acknowledge the difference between Bob Edwards messing up on Morning Edition and Tom the two-bit DJ doing so on the local college station. Given her other writings, I honestly thought she was smarter than that.

And then, as mentioned above, there's her unwillingness to acknowledge the purpose of things. The NPR programs she hates with so much passion for their their "boring" presentation and "snooty" announcers are actually doing the right thing. They're serious news programs. They tell people about the important events of the day; they do not air artsy, experimental radio pieces that no one will understand. They address a much larger audience - millions, not hundreds - and while a few whoopee cushions and some rambling, selected news headlines for college kids might be amusing, it doesn't (and cannot) do the same job as All Things Considered. Vowell can't see this, and aims a huge barrage of insults at quite a few excellent programs and people as a result. They do not deserve such treatment.

I can be an opinionated SOB, and I'd guess that some things I've written have or will offend some. But I hope I'm a bit less hysterical in my presentation than Vowell, and more willing to see others in the light of reason.

Radio On was published in 1996, and Vowell suffered through some nasty political times given her particular views on the world - Newt Gingrich, for example. Perhaps that added to her misery and lead her to be more harsh than she should have been. And obviously she was younger then, about 28, I believe. Maybe she has (or will) mellow with age. But none of those things excuses the gross mistreatment of others I found in this book. I'd skip it.