Of conversation caché and tin foil pajamas

The benefits of a stint in community radio

radio_interviewThe waning years of my pre-kid life were spent fundraising for a professional outdoor repertory theater.

The job came with a tiny salary even for a nonprofit. There was no sick leave, vacation, or benefits. We worked regular hours, plus evenings and weekends all summer. We used office furniture I suspect was pulled from a dumpster, and antiquated computer equipment. I worked with creative, temperamental people who threw every bit of themselves into their work.

It was the most fun job I ever had.

No one else outside of our little company had seen Twelfth Night enough to memorize the entire first act or socialized with some of the most interesting on and off-stage talent in the country. Work attire was a short sundress. I was in my 20s, so that was a perk.

Another benefit was having an interesting job to talk about at social gatherings. There’s nothing that spurs conversation like saying you work with a theater company with a fair amount of regional acclaim.

Since then, I’ve worked with similarly amazing organizations, but few with the same cocktail party conversation caché .

Until recently. Three years ago a little community radio station went on the air thanks to the efforts of a great group of people I’ve been privileged to know.

My involvement started with a little fundraising training. I joined a committee and eventually the board. Along the way I suggested a public affairs program. In community radio that’s how one finds herself producing a public affairs program.

Eleanor Roosevelt once said we should each do something that scares us every day.

The little radio show I produce with my mom takes care of two or three of those Eleanor Roosevelt moments every week.

There’s a certain amount of faith in believing my guest will show up on time, that no one will develop a spontaneous case of Tourettes on air, and that the sound of my stomach growling will be inaudible to the seven people listening to the show.

There are a few other insights this stint in radio has given me:

I can learn new things, or at least chill when I mess up – I had a guest once tell me he’d guest hosted a show on our local NPR affiliate. Then he sat down in the control room with me and stared, wide-eyed at the board spread out like the controls on the Starship Enterprise.

“Oh,” he said, “I never had to do my own engineering.”

Yeah. Every week my teensy brain has to keep track of about a million buttons and lights. Every week I mess up, forgetting to turn on someone’s mic or hanging up on a telephone interview.

I tell myself that the seven people listening will forgive, and that any hiccup in my show is like the deliberate imperfection in an Indian blanket, letting the bad spirits out.

I’m not too old to be cool – No matter how often I’m told by people around here that I’m too old to ask about the ‘haps’ while flashing my made-up gangsta signs, in radioland, I’m a youngster. The station has furniture older than I am. Many musicians (if not furniture) age really well – not something you’re going to notice if your head’s stuck in the pop culture scene. Beiber is most decidedly not aging well.

Profanity is confusing – The FCC and the Supreme Court have some very specific things to say about what kinds of language I can use on the air. Basically, if it has to do with excretory or sexual function, it’s off limits, unless it’s in a medical context. That includes a whole lot more than George Carlin’s list of seven dirty words.

My show features interviews on environmental public policy, and we only obliquely address what bears do in the woods, so obscene language is rare.

The subject of profanity generates some interesting conversations at our volunteer meetings, however. Nobody wants to bring an FCC fine down on the station, so we have in-depth conversations about the semantic differences between “pissing off” versus “being pissed off,” or “pissed on.”

Rather like conversation at our family dinners.

Someone once asked about posting a sign in the studio with the list of words we can’t use. I thought about the last time a 70 year-old legislator was a guest on my show and put the kybosh on the idea in what I hope was a considerate manner, but which may have involved a facial expression I usually reserve for my kids.

All these rules about profanity and broadcasting are interesting, and I’m not sure why I can’t talk about what a bear might do in the woods, per se, but any time my kids want to look up a video online of someone shoving SpaghettiOs into her crotch and calling it performance art, they can.

I’ve tried looking into why this is, but couldn’t find an easy answer in the twenty-seven seconds I researching the subject. It must be complicated.

There is more awesome stuff being produced every day than I will ever have time to consume. This somehow feels as comforting to me as a fully stocked pantry to a Mormon, or an airtight bunker to a survivalist. Sure, I moan about how people no longer read, and how they fill their brains with whatever crap that’s thrown at them. But while there are still people out there passionate about producing great stuff, and there are people passionate about sharing that great stuff with other people, it feels like there is hope for humanity.

Most of what we see, hear and read is actually controlled by a very few people. And it turns out I’m not okay with that.

I had a communication professor in college who was paranoid about grocery stores using customer loyalty cards and UPC code scanners. He thought if someone had access to a list of all the groceries he ever bought, total mind control couldn’t be far behind.

We all wondered if he retired every evening in tinfoil pajamas after barring the windows from alien invaders.

But, here’s the thing: chances are the station you listen to, the paper you read and the channel you watch are all owned by one of a handful of companies worldwide. This consolidation of the media and its potential ramifications for democracy and creativity stirs something deeply paranoid in me not nearly funny enough for this blog.

Who is controlling the conversation out there? What does big brother want me to think this week? It makes me want to don tin foil pajamas and bar the windows.

Almost.

The cool thing is that community radio raises local voices and talent above the fray. It shoves new opportunities and fresh ideas to the forefront of the conversation.

I’ve been honored to be a part of something so completely unlike anything else I have going on.

And I have fresh conversation material, for sure. Now I just need to find a cocktail party to go to, maybe a 40-something version of a cute sundress for nostalgia’s sake, and I’m happy.

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Your vote for me is a vote for tin foil pajamas and sundresses. Not really. But it keeps me writing about stupid stuff like that.

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4 thoughts on “Of conversation caché and tin foil pajamas

  1. It must have been amazing. I’d love to work in radio but my voice sounds like a goat with a cleft palate and terrible sinus infection.

    PS: Tin foil as pajamas might cause some unfortunate chafing but I’m all for sundresses!


    1. Oh, I hate the way I sound on air. I always imagined I’d sound something like Kathleen Turner. Instead I think I sound like a Teletubbie. It’s very disappointing. Sundresses are a consolation.


  2. Let me know if the urge for certain words overwhelms you and I can come talk with you about health policy usinf interesting medical conditions … Such as spaghettiovaginitis! 🙂



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