Friday, May 18, 2007

Video Did Not Kill the Radio Star

Our Town downtown
April 23, 2007

Most of the massive commentary the past two weeks on Don Imus’s screw-up was made by people who had been more-than-occasional guests on his show (exchanging and grinning the whole time, by the way; I heard them all over and over enjoying the hell out of being on with Imus and his pals) claiming that they sensed all along his potential to do/say what he did. Blahblahblah. It was ass-covering all the way, as you’d expect among the hyper image-conscious.

If the I-man could get behind the mic for a minute he’d call them all ‘a bunch of lying weasels’. And he’d be right. Here’s what I used to hear, and it fascinated me: The caller could be Tim Russert or Doris Kearns Goodwin or Jeff Greenfield or Brian Williams or Jon Meacham. To a person they’d almost always allude to some comment made maybe an hour earlier or the day before on the show by Charles or Imus or Bernie. And they’d call each of the guys by name. It at first surprised me. They were listening to Imus first thing in the morning? I guess I figured they’d be watching CNN or some such thing. But on the mornings when they were on, they definitely had been listening to the show way before they were scheduled to appear. They were regular listeners. They of course didn’t say that last week.

Radio—and not just Imus and Stern—has a lot of regular listeners, an engaged audience, in a way that TV doesn’t. Sure, television will hook you with a few shows. In the six or so hours it’s on in most homes every night with its hundred-plus channels, it would have to grab you occasionally. Friends rave about ‘The Office’. My oldest daughter, who wouldn’t know Brady Quinn from Anthony Quinn, says ‘Friday Night Lights’ is the best show that’s EVER been on. She and her sisters wouldn’t miss ‘Grey’s Anatomy’. They’ve got TiVo of course. People, for certain, love ‘The Sopranos’. I’m sure there are other shows with a big following. Maybe six others for all I know. But viewers don’t seem as deeply hooked on them as radio folks are hooked.

Radio folks are proud of their listening schedule. They love ‘This American Life’. They’ve loved Garrison Keillor like people loved Will Rogers. The Car Guys; what’s not to like, after all these years, still? Howard Stern. Do you think Matt and Katie and Charles Gibson matter to people like Stern matters to people? Do you think Chris Matthews matters like Imus mattered? Does CNN have the fervent following that NPR has? No way. Radio people are proud of their habit. TV people aren’t quite. They know it involves popcorn.

Radio by its nature is better. Bill Moyers and Charlie Rose would do better on radio than they do on TV. Oprah might too. Larry King was great years ago on late-night talk radio. His vanity was easier to listen to than to watch. Maybe Oprah is getting a little harder to look at the more she tries harder to look good. Radio would take care of that. Radio is good for you, like Guinness.
If video killed the radio star, it’s not how you think. Take Ray Suarez. He was about the best voice on NPR. TV seemed like a step up to him and now he’s a regular on the Jim Lehrer News Hour, which is so good it’s almost radio-good. But only almost, and Ray Suarez isn’t the guy he was on the radio.

Imus wasn’t much on TV either. I never watched him if I could help it; I always listened unless I was somewhere that didn’t carry his radio show. Then I’d watch occasionally. It was different, in more than the obvious ways. When I listened on the radio, I didn’t have to do anything but turn it on and set the volume. I could go do what I wanted then. Stir protein powder in my orange juice, look at my teeth in the bathroom mirror, read the easy parts of the morning paper. Yeah, you say, but you could still do those things with the television going, listen to Imus on the TV like it was radio, just don’t look at it. But I really couldn’t. TV doesn’t work that way. You know that. I’d have to go in to see what the I-man was doing every now and then, see what hat he was wearing that day, my spoon left standing in the juice glass.

-- Bill Gunlocke

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