—“Past midnight. Never knew such silence. The earth might be uninhabited.”
—Are there haptics on the radio?
My apologies to Samuel Beckett for swiping most of his title.
At the moment I don’t know whether I will continue broadcasting anywhere. It is possible that I will relocate or even that KPFA will somehow be miraculously saved. I’m neither a lawyer nor a left-leaning billionaire able to gift the station with a cool 1.8 million dollars.
If this is my last show, I thought it might be interesting to talk about my experience here.
I began broadcasting in 1988, so 2018 would mark my 30th anniversary at KPFA.
Thirty years, I wrote—stealing now from Dylan Thomas—remind the tears of my eyes.
Born in 1940, I was part of the last generation that actually listened to what has been called The Golden Age of Radio: the classic shows, available now on the internet, were fresh and new when I heard them. Names like Fred Allen, Jack Benny, Gerald Mohr, Eliot and Cathy Lewis, Phil Harris, Fanny Brice, Gracie Allen, André Baruch, Hy Averback, Bud Collier, Freeman Gosdon and Charles Correll, Everett Sloane, Brace Beemer, Wyllis Cooper, Eve Arden, Ernest Chappell, William Spier, Howard Duff, Harry Van Zell, Larry Thor, many others, were as familiar to me as the names of film stars are to the young people of today. I have maintained an interest in these people throughout my life. It’s always of interest to hear them again—though I am not one of those people who will tell you how much better radio programs were than film or television. They were what they were—sometimes wonderful, sometimes anything but wonderful. Joan of Arc heard voices; so did I, though I didn’t think of them as exactly divine.
Indeed, people who like old radio programs are not necessarily fond of new radio programs—even when those programs are attempts to recreate the conditions of the old. (The CBS Radio Mystery Theater, for instance—though by this point that show has itself become an instance of “old radio.”) Old radio programs did not exist in a vacuum but in a total context in which the rituals of radio listening were only one part of a fabric which included many other things as well. That context is now gone. Yet the radio shows, which were a part of the context, remain. New radio programs, however skillfully they may be done, do not provide us with a doorway to that vanished world—with the deep (and no doubt egocentric) pleasures of self-awareness, self-consciousness. Wordsworth:
Five years have past: five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear….
For someone who grew up with old radio, the ancient programs are in effect the equivalent to Wordsworth’s landscape: listening to Suspense, Escape, Captain Midnight, or The Jack Benny Program, one is at once aware of the child-self listening and of the abyss which exists between that child-self and one’s presence; aware of the intense spiraling out of the bitter-sweet, nostalgia (by etymology, “home-sickness”).
Yet of course such “homesickness” was not a part of one’s original condition when the broadcasts were first heard. One was not homesick; one was—at home. But before dismissing homesickness as entirely irrelevant, we might consider the matter a little more. For after all what is homesickness but the intense awareness of an absence? And what, finally, was “the golden age of radio” but the continual assertion of an absence?
I happen to own a wonderful recorded adaptation of James Hilton’s Lost Horizon—bought when I was a child. It begins, “You are deep in the mountains of Tibet….” Radio could place the listener as easily as that, could shift scenes in a sentence. And yet such placement was itself a recognition that one was not “deep in the mountains of Tibet,” that one was in one’s living room, hoping to escape for a few moments from the conditions of living in that living room. Not for nothing did the Lights Out broadcasts begin with the command to “Turn out your lights.” If the objects of the living room were seen less clearly, one could concentrate better on the deep pretense that the broadcast was asking you to initiate. The opening words of Escape almost admit the duplicity involved. As richly enunciated by William Conrad, they name the living room (“the four walls of today”) but also whisk you away from it:
Tired of the everyday grind? Ever dream of a life of romantic adventure? Want to get away from it all? We offer you…Escape! Escape!…designed to free you from the four walls of today for a half-hour of high adventure.
Radio drama was in a certain sense the continual assertion of a lie, and like all lies (or fictions) it remained fundamentally ungrounded, constantly skating on the thin ice of its insubstantiality. The voices we heard were “real,” but they didn’t exist “deep in the mountains of Tibet”: they were arising out of the nowhere of a broadcasting studio. Even the power of the radio announcer’s voice—its appeal to intimacy—is a kind of lie.
And of course radio had very little besides the voice to draw you to it, to engage your interest. Its introductions were necessarily dramatic, poetic. Often the voice we heard was world weary, knowing, frequently bespeaking loneliness, an invitation to its lonely listeners to identify themselves with it:
BROADWAY’S MY BEAT. FROM TIMES SQUARE TO COLUMBUS CIRCLE. THE GAUDIEST, THE MOST VIOLENT, THE LONESOMEST MILE IN THE WORLD.
A FIERY HORSE WITH THE SPEED OF LIGHT, A CLOUD OF DUST AND A HEARTY HI YO SILVER…RETURN WITH US NOW TO THE THRILLING DAYS OF YESTERYEAR. OUT OF THE PAST COME THE THUNDERING HOOFBEATS OF THE GREAT HORSE SILVER. THE LONE RANGER RIDES AGAIN!
GUNSMOKE THE STORY OF THE VIOLENCE THAT MOVED WEST AND OF A MAN WHO MOVED WITH IT. I’M THAT MAN, MATT DILLON, US MARSHALL. THE FIRST MAN THEY LOOK FOR AND THE LAST THEY WANT TO MEET. IT’S A CHANCY JOB BUT IT MAKES A MAN WATCHFUL. AND A LITTLE LONELY.
AH AH AH DON’T TOUCH THAT DIAL. IT’S TIME FOR…BLONDIE!
WHO KNOWS WHAT EVIL LURKS IN THE HEARTS OF MEN? THE SHADOW KNOWS.
A TALE WELL CALCULATED TO KEEP YOU IN…SUSPENSE.
(Sound of creaking door.) WELCOME, FRIENDS OF THE INNER SANCTUM. THIS IS RAYMOND, YOUR HOST…
LOOK! UP IN THE SKY! IS IT A BIRD? IS IT A PLANE? IT’S SUPERMAN!
And all of this was addressed, we knew, to ourselves, to our minds, to our capacity for understanding. Thus, from radio’s vast store of vulgarity came the precious, life-enhancing sense that our minds were jewels, that consciousness was the greatest thing in the world. And, hearing such things day in and day out, it was hard to escape the conclusion that—like the radio—one’s head was a box full of voices.
It was with this history that I began to broadcast on KPFA.