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Once upon a time, I wanted to work in radio...back when it wasn't the overwhelmingly corporate-controlled, playlisted-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life entity that passes for "traditional" radio today (as opposed to internet or satellite radio, and with apologies to those who are still in the trenches). When I was a teenager, there were still a few indie stations kicking around, and some truly wonderful college radio going on, as well as remnants of the older radio culture still lurking in the hinterlands: locally famous DJs spinning vinyl, nightly or weekly shows featuring regional faves or call-ins, a locally produced lineup that might be interrupted once a week to let Casey Kasem deliver his American Top 40 (in the days before digital downloads and a splintered, highly compartmentalized music-buying public rendered such a thing pointless).
There were even a few clear channel stations you could hear across vast regions of the country that didn't consist of pre-taped "comedy" bits, robo-announcers, endless, repetitive ads, vile shock jocks, or a creepy, not-quite-unspoken political agenda. We used to be able to hear programming from far-away, glamorous Boston and New York, even waaaaay up in the Maine woods. In a world not yet connected by the internet or watching the same cable and satellite channel lineups, radio was one of the ways you could get the "feel" of a region; and it was a bit of a game to find the next "good" station as you traveled from one place to another.
I'd grown up with older relatives who still preferred radio to TV (my Nana refused to watch baseball on TV to the end, preferring the radio announcer's call of every Red Sox game), and they spoke fondly of listening to radio serials in the days before TV took over. My Grandmother liked soaps and comedies like Jack Benny's show; my Dad, as a kid, loved the adventure stories and pulpy noir ones like The Shadow. When I was little, he had a shortwave set and used to look for English-language radio broadcasts on that...we found everything from pirate radio broadcasts to traditional BBC-style radio dramas.
But by the time I hit college (where I was initially a broadcast journalism major), radio as we used to know it was fading fast, and even my short stint in college radio and hands-on study in London's radio industry left me wondering what my career would look like in even five or ten years, given the [then-recent] rise of music video on cable channels like MTV. Technology and radio ownership was changing; playlists were shrinking, music was growing increasingly generic and it was harder to envision a future in the field (even in the UK, where there is still a thriving tradition of radio drama). I shifted gears and left that particular career possibility behind.
But I always carried a soft spot for old school radio, both the transitional form I grew up listening to, and the Golden Age variety my elders pined for. For some reason, I've never been all that fond of a few modern-day recreations of the medium (Prairie Home Companion, for example, has always been a kind of "meh" experience for me, outside of the music), but I've always liked depictions of it in popular culture, and can easily get sucked in to a modern radio play of the type the BBC still produces.
I got a little taste of that this weekend, when I went to see The Thrilling Adventure Hour in Brooklyn. It really was like an old-fashioned radio broadcast: three different serial-style stories (one a western set on Mars, one featuring a millionaire posing as a hobo, and the third a Nick and Nora Charles-style tale of the supernatural).
The writing was sharp and the skits were broken up by commercials for "Work Juice Coffee" and "Patriot Cigarettes" (the latter brought to you by "Big Tobacco" - LOL!), and the live music and Foley work was excellent, too. The acting was hilarious, by company regulars like John Hodgman, Paul F. Tompkins, & Paget Brewster, as well as guest actors/musicials like Samm Levine, Dave "Gruber" Allen and Busy Phillips (all from Freaks & Geeks, one of my all-time favorite TV shows), Paul and Storm, and even Colin Hanks (Tom's son, and he sounds just like his Dad).
After seeing that, having to listen to NPR serve up spin on the OH primary and tonight's debate by letting John Kasich yell incoherently into the mic for five minutes straight this morning really bummed me out (and, since it's pledge week, made me LESS inclined to want to support them), and it also made me wish for a little more old school substance on my radio. Ah well...there's always Pandora. Or podcasts!
Who's your little buddy?
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