Sensational

NPR interviewers are actually mutating the English language into a new dialect I call “Commentatorese”.

Liane Hansen asked the following question today of Joe Sharkey:

Do you have a sense of how many flights were delayed?

Sharkey’s response was that about 10,000 fights were delayed.  But that isn’t at all what Liane asked, at least not in English.  She posed the question in Commentatorese.

Either Sharkey speaks this dialect, or the full, unedited interview must have sounded more like this:

LH: Do you have a sense of how many flights were delayed?

JS: Yes, I think so.

(silence)

LH: Okay, what is your sense?

JS: Uhmm, I guess it’s a numerical sense.  Maybe like the numerical equivalent of literacy?  I’m not sure what you –

LH: Fine. What’s your numerical sense of how many flights were delayed?

JS: Well, I guess it’s what you’d call an “estimate” or maybe “estimation.”

LH: And what is the sense of your estimation?

JS: A numerical one.

(silence)

LH: Do you have a sense of the number?

JS: Yes.

(silence)

LJ: Is it a big one?

JS: The sense?

LH: (thinks) Uhmm, I guess I mean the number.

JS: Yes, I guess it’s a pretty big one, at least in the context of flight delays.  In the context of, let’s say, cosmology, it’s actually really, really small.

(silence)

LH: What is the size of it?

JS: A lot of zeroes.

LH: Can you give us a sense of how many zeroes?

JS: Yes.

(audible sighs from both)

LH: What is the sense of how many zeroes?

JS: Hmm.  Are you asking about the way we scale a number by powers of ten so you can tell how big it is?  Is this a show about math?  I thought we were talking about weather-related travel delays.

LH: We are.  You don’t get what I’m asking.

JS: What are you asking?

(silence)

JS: Do you want my estimate of how many flights were delayed?

LH: Yes, I guess that’s it.

JS: Then why don’t you just ask me that?

LH: Okay, do you have a sense of how many flights were delayed?

JS: Yes, I do have a sense, but that’s not what I said.  Ask me for an estimate of how many flights were delayed.  Or better yet just ask me how many flights were delayed like my wife did when I told her I’d figured out how many flights were delayed.

LH: Uhmm.  Do you have a sense –

JS: STOP!  Just repeat after me: “How”

LH: Is your sense –

JS: I’m going to walk out of this studio right now if you don’t repeat after me. “How”

LH: How

JS: “Many”

LH: Many

JS: “Flights were delayed”

LH: Flights were delayed?

JS: Much better.  About 10,000 flights were delayed.

(silence)

LH: And do you have a sense that –

Sharkey throws off his headphones and exits studio.

Impossible Things Before Breakfast

Scott Simon is a genuine NPR personality.  He lets you know who he is, where he’s coming from.  It’s not just some reporter covering a story, it’s the avuncular, sentimental, self-described “luckiest SOB in the world” giving us his take on things.  Sometimes, from his tone alone, we can tell when he likes something (baseball) or when he’s not happy with something (genocide).  This affect-laden delivery can be helpful and enjoyable.

I contend that one reason people love Stewart and Colbert is that their reactions to the nightly outrages in our world are expressed with the dismay and passion, through humor, that such events provoke in normal people.  Simon practices this not through humor, but simply via his honest, folksy demeanor.  Scott, and I’m guessing he never allows anyone to call him “Mr. Simon” (that’s his dad!), is clearly a genuinely great guy almost any NPR listener would love to have a beer with – including me so long as the drinking doesn’t take place in a sports bar and we can stay off the subject of sports.

Plus can anyone resist those puppy-dog eyes?!?  Does he not perfectly resemble someone who’d think Obama’s use of the phrase “ass to kick” still qualifies as “locker room talk” from which children need to be protected in the year 2010?

But there are risks when a journalist/host wears his heart on his sleeve. The abandonment of the comforting myth of journalistic objectivity puts him in a foggy area along with Fox News.  Are we hearing truth or spin?  Another problem is that he risks alienating listeners who disagree with him.  (Helen Thomas ring a bell?)  He can avoid these pitfalls as long as he offers only studiously apolitical personal opinions.  Scott has proved himself remarkably nimble in this regard, even with his dangerously prolific tweeting.

One of the many non-controversial opinions he has made pretty clear of late is his support for organized religion.  This is not going to get him in much trouble in the USA, the most religious (by far) of all developed nations.

But it does have a tendency to annoy your humble, though easily annoyed, servant.

Take last Saturday’s Weekend Edition.  Scott interviewed Christopher Hitchens, noted dipsophile, atheist and author of “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

One of the ways Scott injects his personality into the show is by including his personal opinions in introductions of interview subjects, which could otherwise be very dry Curriculum Vitae excerpts.

His introduction of Mr. Hitchens (who I’m guessing allows the honorific) proceeded thusly:

He’s been a socialist who found Margaret Thatcher sexy; defender of the war in Iraq among leftists, a supporter of gay rights among rightists, an eloquent atheist who devoutly believes in ideals, not just skepticism.

That last bit bears repeating: “an eloquent atheist who devoutly believes in ideals, not just skepticism.”  There’s quite a lot of subtext buried in that seemingly innocuous aside, especially in the context of Simon’s previous utterances (or silences) on the subject of religion.  Simon employs the word “devout” in conjunction with atheism. This is a lazy and intentionally obnoxious category error frequently indulged in by irrationalists; kissing cousins with the meaningless expression “atheist fundamentalist”. The attempted  juxtaposition of opposites pretends that skepticism is not, in and of itself, a laudable ideal but is instead a flaw of character whose redemption requires the leavening of ideals.  Exactly which ideals are, as usual, not specified, and the stochastic menagerie of worldviews Mr. Hitchens has adopted, from sexy Cuban Communism to bellicose neocon paranoia, is too peculiar to be endorsed by anyone else. No, this is naked belief in belief, which I have mentioned before.  To be a good person it doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you believe in six impossible things before breakfast.  It doesn’t matter which designer’s clothes you think the nude emperor is wearing, as long as you believe him to be gloriously arrayed.

But I have some news for you, Scott, delivered in my own inimitable style:  skepticism is an ideal.

It may be the best of all ideals because it guards against any of the others, including  baseball and genocide, gaining too much power over the mind of man.

Sucking Up To Faith

The moderate success of Speaking of Faith has stimulated the New York Times religion section to emit a sticky-icky paean to our Krista, midwifed by Columbia  journalism professor and web domain eponym Samuel Freedman.  (Even Krista Tippett doesn’t yet use her own vanity web domain, and Krista Tippett barely allows people to use pronouns when referring to Krista Tippett.)

The short review: Get a room, you two!

The headline should have read “Self-Promoting Journalist Enjoys Time With Self-Promoting Journalist, Seeks Dinner, Movie.

So that you can get the gist without actually subjecting yourself to the article, I’ve turned excerpts into a found Mad-Lib.

Please submit your best efforts.  If it comes out porn it’s really not my fault.  I promise this is really from the R-rated profile and is not the opening to a Harlequin Romance novel:

…all of which made her wonder why, with a fulsome __(noun)__ and a social __(noun)__ to match, she felt “really __(adj)__ in ways I couldn’t acknowledge or even explain.”

So it was odder still, as she moved onto __(noun)__ , to __(verb)__ with an old, unbidden sensation.  She told herself at first that she just wanted to __(verb)__ . Then she admitted that what she was doing was __(gerund)__, returning not to the fierce __(noun)__ of her Southern Baptist upbringing but surely to the way it taught her how to __(verb)__ __(preposition)__ God.

“Religion is a touchy subject. You’re really getting at the core of people’s __(noun)__, an intimate place. This religious sphere in our public life is very charged, and I want to __(verb)__ that.”

Then she won admission to Brown and recast herself as an __(noun)__, taking up the study of German literature and history, and __(gerund)__ in the same __(noun)__ as John F. Kennedy Jr.

“Won admission?!?”  “WON admission??!”  Seriously?  Did she have to defeat someone in mortal combat?  Who the hell says that?!  More importantly, who says that about Brown?!  Shouldn’t the phrase be “weathered admission to Brown”, “covered up admission to Brown”, or just “settled for admission to Brown”?  And what is it with the triumphalist verbs relating Krista Tippett to higher education?  Avid readers of this blog will recall that she “emerged” from Yale Div.  I guess it’s just my hyper-sensitivity to language.  After all, I studied English Literature after wresting an Ivy League admission myself.

Can anyone enlighten me as to the relevance of her sharing a dorm with John F. Kennedy Jr?  Is that some kind of euphemism?  And, oh, while we’re non sequitur name dropping a K-Bomb, there’s another dweller in imaginary English castles, Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter movies, who “won admission” to Brown.  I’ll expect them to mention that in the name-dropping errata section usually monopolized by glittery omissions from “Weddings of the Times.”

According to the article, Tippett claims “parsing” familiarity with ancient Greek.  Is this hyperbole or does she prefer to secrete her polymathematics deep inside pop-theology books so as not to overawe her guests and listeners.  Perhaps she publishes her New Testament exegeses pseudonymously with, of course, the Yale University Press…the same press that wouldn’t publish the Dutch cartoons of Mo- Mu- uhmm Mohu – wait – Muhammed in a book written exclusively on the subject of the Dutch cartoons of Mohammad. That’s the kind of bravery to which Speaking of Faith should dedicate an episode!

Or maybe she simply attended, excuse me, won admission to, one of Yale Div’s summer language classes.  By that yardstick I’m a Catullus scholar.  My pathetic seventh and eighth grade Latin teacher who was killing time until she won admission to Pharmacy school will be so proud to hear it.

Much is also made of her work as a “diplomat” during the cold war.  I’d love to know the details of those adventures given that her mastery of statecraft evidently informs her career as self-appointed ecumenical referee.

And finally Krista’s boyfriend – I mean interviewer – gets in a little dig at, I have to believe, your humble servant.

He states:

…she has been criticized at times on the blogosphere for a perceived timidity.

Guilty as charged, Professor!

Of course in the long run she wins because, as noted Catholic Sunday School Teacher St. Stephen Colbertius so often reminds us, the market has spoken.

On the other hand since she produces a radio show designed to pander to the religious among us, i.e. pretty much everyone on earth, 600,000 listeners is only a drop in the bucket.  She’s got a long way to go if she wants to placate and fail to challenge all 6 billion religious folks on Earth, many of whom can’t find a Minnesota Public Radio affiliate on their dials.

She’d better hurry, British Petroleum seems to be trying to set her a time limit.

“Personal Miracles” My Behind

Scott “There Goes Cryin’ ” Simon, NPR Nation’s reliably lachrymose Saturday morning sentimentalist, spent a tellingly lengthy, as well as tellingly mild, chunk of the show today conducting the full range of what public radio recognizes as religious discussion.  On the one hand, in a segment entitled with gratuitous obsequiousness “Oral Roberts Leaves Personal Miracles Behind,” there were the red state red meat Oral Roberts adherents, who happen to be true believers in some rather specific and rather extreme doctrines. One of them claimed he was, as a child, on the receiving end of an actual healing miracle. (WTF?  Is this NPR or CBN!?)  And in this corner, representing the blue states, there was Mitch Albom, who declared his admiration for a more Krista Tippett sort of faith, where it’s the faith journey that’s good in and of itself, pretty much regardless of what the beliefs are or how sincerely they are ultimately accepted by their professors.

And that’s really the problem.  The latter makes it impossible to robustly interrogate the former.  A lack of confidence in one’s own belief system, something of which I’ve accused the public radio upper middlebrow intellectual ecosystem many times before, makes it impossible to offer thoroughgoing coverage of a subject.

An interview subject on a news program needs to be challenged, or what’s the point of having the interview? I admit, Scott soft-balled a question along the lines of “what if your miracle was just a coincidental recovery from an allergic reaction,” but that’s really, really not good enough.  A leisurely 30 second googling of the Oral Roberts empire of Elmer Gantry charlatanism will yield untold treasures for the journalist wanting to talk about something of importance.

Here are a few suggested topics that are immediately relevant to Robert’s death:

  • What is the prosperity gospel?  Is it uniquely American?  What does it say about us as a country?  Did it contribute to our recent economic downturn?
  • There is a spectrum of prosperity gospel purveyors.  On one extreme you have Nigerian mountebank “pastors” who are so evil they cause little boys to be murdered in order to increase their own notoriety as witch hunters and thereby raise more money from their gullible flocks.  On the other extreme, I assume, you may find sincerely misguided leaders who honestly think god will improve your material circumstances to reward faith and, of course, tithing.  Where on this spectrum did Oral Roberts sit?  (By the way NPR never covered the “little boy witches” story even though it’s perfect for Gwen Thompkins.)
  • Pentecostalism is growing rapidly all over the world.  What is it?  Why is it becoming so popular?
  • And so much more…

But instead of taking on these kinds of questions we get the standard kid glove treatment.  Barbara Bradley Hagerty‘s not going to ask them.  All she could bring herself to do in her unenlightening and pointless obituary was give him credit for reinventing televangelism and mention briefly his too-notorious-to-ignore-even-for-Barbara claim that god would kill him if he didn’t raise $8 million.

Krista Tippet’s not going to ask them. “Prosperity gospel” is barely mentioned on the Speaking of Faith website.  You’d think they’d get around to that a few episodes before Ambian-outmoding esoterica like “Re imagining Sitting Bull“.  (Or maybe “Sitting Bull” is a yoga posture?  That would explain it.)

Why are they doing such a piss-poor job of this?  There are two reasons.  First, there is the aforementioned dearth of cojones as either journalists or philosophers that results in an inability to really take on these subjects.  Second, they think discussions of religion that are anything other than “nice” are dangerous and unpleasant so they simply choose to pretend that religious activities and ideas that aren’t nice don’t exist.

For an alternative treatment of Oral Robert’s death I strongly recommend Karen Spears Zacharias‘ take on it.  She, herself a faithful believer in a teleology a bit more specific and full throated than Karen Armstrongian Neo/Pseudo/Crypto deism, has absolutely no problem calling it like it is. But I don’t think you’ll hear anything like this on public radio, especially not on Speaking of Faaaaaith.

Come on Scott, I know you’d love to interview her.  After all, she’s been mentioned in the same log roll with Fanny Flagg, one of your favorites I’m certain.

As a side note I’d like to thank “Entertainment Weekly” reviewer Jennifer Reese for describing Albom as setting “tough new standards for sticky sentimentality [and] insipid moralizing” in “The Five People You Meet in Heaven”.  That’s right, a glossy excuse for movie and cosmetics ads puts Weekend Edition to shame, even at the risk of alienating an advertiser.

Public Radio could really use a bit more of this kind of attitude, which is only found on “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” and “On The Media,” and then all too infrequently and inconsistently.  I mean I understand the semi-ironic impetus for having on Andy Williams at Christmas time, but come on.  The guy said Obama’s a Marxist who wants our country to fail.  Now those are fightin’ words which, and this is the point, invite the same, not misty memories of watching Christmas specials last century.

Krista Tippett’s Agenda: Kum Ba Yuck

Oh lord, kum bia yuck...
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A commenter who somehow managed to overcome the recent technical problems this blog has been having with too many people trying to comment at the same time posed the following question this morning:

What is Krista Tippett’s agenda?

This is an intriguing query.  Since I can’t hear the vocal inflection of the person who asked it I can’t tell if it’s sarcastic or serious, but it deserves exploration.  It spurred me to think and research more about the whole problem with much religious “journalism” in general and Speaking of Faith in particular.

It turns out that the agenda of SoF is a bit hard to tie down because they don’t seem to have an official mission statement on the SoF website.  Their stated priciples are, unsurprisingly, couched in a warm miasma of platitudes:

When she [Tippett] emerged [like Venus from the sea!] with a Master of Divinity from Yale in 1994, she saw a black hole where intelligent coverage of religion should be.

The black-hole-generating religion reporters who worked before 1994 have got to feel good about that one!

…she began to imagine radio conversations about the spiritual and intellectual content of faith that would enliven and open imaginations and public discussion.

She draws out the intersection of theology and human experience, of grand religious ideas and real life.

Evidently Krista didn’t study a lot of geometry at Yale Div, as I’m not sure how you “draw out an intersection.”  I just can’t tell if she means “clearly delineate” or “smudge beyond recognition.”

So an outright mission statement from SoF seems a bit elusive, maybe ineffable or even transcendent.  Sound familiar?  Maybe you can only have a poetic way of knowing the agenda of Speaking of Faith.  Maybe you have to look at it sideways.

Or maybe you need to look at their sponsor.

A primary sponsor of SoF appears to be, from the prevalence of their ads on the SoF website, the Fetzer Insitute. Luckily for my purpose they aren’t shy about articulating their mission statement:

The Fetzer Institute advances love and forgiveness as powerful forces that can transform the human condition.

Wow, who could be against that?  “Advancing” is a weak, vague verb to use in the context of love and forgiveness, however, so let’s take a closer look what they actually do.  Their programs range from extremely laudable sounding, if quixotic, world peace initiatives to less universally approved-of claptrap consisting of new age healing and spiritualism mixed with junk science some of which reads exactly like jacket copy for Barbara Bradley Hagerty.

So what we’ve discovered is nothing less than a teeming nest of modern Theosophers.  These folks find the hardscrabble wonders of rationalist secular knowledge to be unfulfilling, uninspriring unless they are spiced with heaping helpings of tired, intellectually empty and dishonest but highly decorated teleologies.

These sentiments have a corrupting influence on public discourse and encourage what atheists call “woo.”  Woo is a helpful category that refers holistically to irrational beliefs, especially in the realm of health care.  The problem with woo is that it can kill.  When Christian Scientists or Jehovah’s Witnesses or New Age cult members refuse modern medical help for their children, and the children die, that’s the dark side of all this spiritual role-playing.  What if deluded, costumed, Klingon-speaking Star Trek fans refused actual medicine in favor of a spray painted salt shaker they claim is a treatment from the 23rd century?  What really makes that different?  And should we really be spending money on trying to detect souls with fMRI machines when, for example, vaccine production is so slow and antiquated?

The real “black hole” in religious journalism, at least since the “emergence” of Tippett, Barbara Bradley Hagerty, Karen Armstrong and the rest of the weak teleologists, is the inability of such people to be objective.  They see a noble heart in, as far as I can tell, every religious or spiritual idea they’ve ever covered.

Isn’t it frighteningly easy to imagine a friendly hour-long interview between Krista and, say, Jim Jones, or Charles Manson?

Ultimately what fails to satisfy about Speaking of Faith is the extreme ecumenicism Tippett’s “agenda” requires.  It’s intellectually crippling, akin to a restaurant which tries to delight both big game bush-meat lovers and vegan PETA activists.  Everyone likes to eat, right?  They have that much in common, so it’ll be great!

Imagine if “On the Media” had a similar mission?  The whole point of the show would disappear.  No malefactor would be thoroughly investigated or subjected to cleansing, well-deserved ridicule.  So when an agenda like that of Krista’s Theosophical Sunday School infects public radio for two hours every weekend, taking up space where a superior program might thrive, it annoys me.  And I’m not alone.

You may not be surprised to learn that one of the most common google search queries leading people to this blog is as follows:

Krista Tippett Annoying

She’s Still Krista Tippett

Krista “I’m Krista Tippett” Tippett’s latest cliff- standing- safely- away- from- the- edger, a shameless, sponge-brained, narcissistic infomercial for Yoga, is playing right now. Never have I been so close to sawing my own ears off with a plastic spoon. Toxics. Body Prayer. “I immediately have the sense that…every movement becomes a part of my devotion…” etc, et nauseating cetera.

The good works of the guest are admirable, but the discussion is excruciating.

If you’re a fan of public radio’s death obsession you’ll want to be sure to go to the website to find out about the guest’s father’s struggle with cancer. Yoga + cancer + Krista. What could be better!

Window Moments

Call this “Who’s riding my coat-tails now?”

Gretchen Woods, a caller to Weekend Edition Sunday last week, whined (with what sounded like good cause) about some story she’d heard.  So far so good.  Sounds like she and I would get along just fine.

But my ears pricked up when she suggested that the unsatisfactory piece was a “window moment,” as in making her want to throw her radio out of her car window.

Not bad, lady, but I did it first, I did it better, and, most important, I did it bloggier.

If you’re so fired up about criticizing NPR with labored but apt plays on words I invite you to become a co-contributor here.

Dis American Life

Have you ever heard the expression “there’s nothing so boring as other people’s dreams?”

Chicago Public Radio’s “This American Life” works hard to prove the saying wrong on a semi-regular basis.

Alex Blumberg’s 25 minute piece from episode 351 about tracking down his childhood babysitter is a good case in point. There’s a moment when Blumberg says his former sitter, after hours of telephone conversation, was waiting for the other shoe to drop, worried she’d somehow been a negative influence on little Alex.

Turns out she wasn’t.

And that’s precisely what’s wrong with misbegotten TAL segments. We, the audience, endure dramatic pause after dramatic pause, same old music interval after same old music interval, for that crazy twist you never saw coming that will redeem the murdered 20-40 minutes of airtime. Too often it just never arrives.

It’s the old radio memoir bait-and-switch: a strip club where the clothes stay on, a seventies television magic show with all the cheese but no actual tricks, an extended joke with a lot of spittle and no discernible punchline.

But how can you know before the end that you are in the midst of one of these hour wasters?

Fear not, loyal reader(s)! As a public service provided entirely without pledge drive we have created a survey to help you determine when a TAL segment is slowly going nowhere so you can turn off the radio and perhaps ask a loved one to entertain you for 20-40 minutes instead.

Instructions: for each criterion below that is true add the number of points specified.

  1. The story is about the childhood of an official contributing editor (1 point)
  2. Ira Glass keeps sounding amazed, but you can’t figure out why (1 point)
  3. A musical interlude occurs within the story so you can have a moment to let what was just revealed really sink in. Instead you start wondering how many times you’ve heard the music before and if they’re trying to save royalty money (2 points)
  4. There seem to be more music intervals than actual narration (1 point)
  5. The narrator has a speaking voice made for novel-writing (1 point)
  6. The events of the tale could only ever transpire in crazy old New York City! (1 point)
  7. You realize you wandered out of hearing range of the radio five minutes ago and didn’t notice (1 point)
  8. You thought you were listening to TAL, but you suddenly realize it’s Studio 360 (2 points)
  9. You hear a pitiful sound, turn to listen, and discover it’s your own voice intoning “Oh my god, this is so boring!!” (4 points)

    If the story you are listening to scores 3 or more total points, TURN OFF YOUR RADIO IMMEDIATELY and leave it off for at least one hour.

    To be sure, This American Life is also responsible for some astonishing, wonderful pieces. It is the momentum from these that keeps people listening through the chaff. Some of the personal stories are beautiful, even haunting. Others are hilarious and diverting.

    Most often the segments which qualify more as actual journalism than as essay are really excellent and serve to fill in the gaping holes found in other media. What is the day to day experience of the war in Iraq actually like for American soldiers and Iraqis? That question deserves innumerable TAL tales, and the ones they have produced are unique and reveal a poignant level of detail not available anywhere else.

    The best stories are like little worlds in poetic miniature that capture the beauty and absurdity of life the way every piece of a broken glass hologram contains the entire image. Each story beat can take the whole set-up in an entirely unexpected direction. Jack Hitt, one of the most artful and consistent TAL contributors, produced a shining example of this about the island of Nauru. If you haven’t heard it make it the next thing you listen to.

    One final small critique: Their attempts to shoehorn the segments they pick for a given week into a single theme are often laughably unsuccessful. Guys, just give it up when no theme is appropriate and call it a smörgåsbord episode or something.

    Okay, reader(s), your job is to post about the best stories you have ever heard on TAL or the least apt TAL attempted themes of the week. You may also want to try adding to the list of warning signs that the TAL story you’re listening to should be abandoned.

    Don’t all post at the same time, by the way, last time you crashed the wordpress servers.

    The Best Show On Public Radio Is…

    Just in time for Oscar night!

    Okay, my favorite NPR program is “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me“, but I feel the need to give the award to something with redeeming social value.

    The best serious show is clearly NPR’s “On The Media“, hosted by Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield.

    Let me count the whys.

    • The piquant bouquet of truth, unexpected from an advertising industry guy (host Bob Garfield), that cuts right through the more outlandish inanities of mediated consensual reality. On second thought it makes complete sense that an ad guy would have the most sensitive “lie-dar”(c )2008 Airbag Moments(tm).
    • The pointed interviews are the most probing in American public radio. The questions are usually genuinely challenging without the strident partisan sneer indulged in by the modern BBC.
    • The wry attitudes of Brooke and Bob. It’s not so much one of liberal bias as it is a refreshing and healthy amazement/incredulity at the news of the day. Isn’t that how everyone who pays attention to current events and trends feels? Isn’t it odd when newsreaders and correspondents lack that tone?
    • It’s actually funny on purpose. Most public radio attempts at humor (“Wait, Wait” excepted of course) fall flat due to rigorously enforced harmlessness. Witness the many recent attempts to explore political humor during the writers’ strike. OTM manages to make it work more often than not, which is saying a lot for public radio.
    • Keeping the “sense” questions to a minimum. Enough said.
    • Consistency. Of course not every story is as gripping as every other, but in the main they pursue consequential topics with admirable clarity and thoroughness.
    • The cute little pause after “Edited…” and before “…by Brooke.” This weekly touch implies a warm but healthily competitive relationship between the hosts.

    What’s not to like? The most tedious stories tend to involve Baby Boomer preoccupations. How long was that piece on the Beatles & the Maharishi last weekend? 20 minutes? I love the Beatles, but suddenly the show felt a bit like an overstaying dinner guest who keeps failing to notice the hosts loudly doing the dishes. How must it have seemed to people who share no interest in Beatlesiana? (I’ll explore in a future post how 20-minute segments featuring esoteric and/or ancient musicians is Kryptonite to way too many public radio programs.)

    But these problems are nothing in the face of years of important stories which are often ignored by the rest of the media.

    So congratulations, Brooke & Bob, you win this year’s “baggie”. You’ll be receiving your little statuette soon.

    She’s Krista Tippett

    Sometimes it’s like the rain.

    “I’m Krista Tippett.”

    “I’m Krista Tippett.”

    “I’m Krista Tippett.”

    “And this is…” <pause> “…Speaking of Faaaaiiiiith.”

    How does she always manage to say it exactly the same way? And is it just me or does she say her name a lot more than other public radio hosts? Oh well, she’s Krista Tippett.

    A probing, clear eyed analysis of religion in modern life is a great idea for a show, but SoF’s editorial stance, which seems to me to be something along the lines of “isn’t it just so nice that people are religious!” (what Daniel Dennett calls “Belief in belief“), leaves me a little cold. The episodes I’ve heard tend to sound like commercials for the ideas/dogmas the guests espouse. Krista rarely challenges them.

    A laudable but all-too-brief exception occurred in a recent interview with a Mormon scholar. There is a Thanksgiving cornucopia of refutations to bring against Mormon historical and theological claims, but Krista chose only one. It was a good one, though. Mormon founder Joseph Smith miraculously “translated” some actual hieroglyphic scrolls (before anyone knew how to!) which were subsequently lost and then rediscovered in the 1960s, by which time humankind had mastered non-miraculous hieroglyphic translation. Inconveniently for Tippett’s guest it turns out Smith’s version was the very worst kind of bullshit. Krista actually brought this situation up with the scholar (go Krista!!) and received an amusingly meaningless response. (Imagine how entertaining and socially beneficial an hour of that kind of hot seat would be!)

    You see, the scholar explained, that whole translation gotcha isn’t irrefutable evidence for Smith’s brazen charlatanism, rather it is simply one of the solemn mysteries of the Mormon faith!

    Wow.  Maybe in 150 years people will consider the whole Enron thing as a solemn mystery of some future faith which some future version of Krista “I’m Krista Tippett” Tippett can ask a believer politely about.

    One other thing bugs me about SoF. In an oft-played promo for the show Krista states “you won’t hear many religious authorities” on the show.

    I have two problems with this.

    First of all, Krista has a Masters from Yale Divinity School. Doesn’t that qualify her as an authority?

    Secondly, what the hell is wrong with authority?

    Putting the Zero in “Studio 360”

    Weekend public radio is astonishingly hit-or-miss: the cacophonous cackles of “Car Talk”, the funereal earnestness of “Speaking of Faith”, and yes, the creepily ubiquitous harmlessness of “Prairie Home Companion.”

    Surely there is no one person who enjoys every bit of programming public radio networks find to pass the Judeo-Christian Sabbaths. Of course, as I was once chastised by a local public radio reporter whose story on regional mortarless stone bridges I found so dull as to consider it a public health risk, “the great thing about radio is that if you wait long enough something you do like will come on.”

    If what’s on next is PRI’s “Studio 360″ I can pretty much guarantee that my wait will be at least an hour.

    The show is hosted and created by Kurt “if he co-founded Spy Magazine shouldn’t he be funny?” Andersen, and his choices of topic and style of execution have a lot in common with many other tragically failed treatments for narcolepsy.

    The show’s token humorist, Iris Bahr, plays the character of a flibbertigibbet British reporter named Fiona Chutney in what I have to believe is some kind of post-post-post-modern attempt to make fun of making fun of making fun of things. The humor gets hopelessly lost somewhere along the way in most of her sketches, but in today’s episode it becomes clear why.

    She makes the classic mistake of trying to parody the fashion world, which is a humor black-hole so dense that not even light comedy can escape.

    Think about it. What’s Sasha (Borat/Ali G) Cohen’s only consistently unfunny character? Bruno, the gay fashion world reporter. Which of Ben Stiller’s many bad movies is the worst? “Zoolander” the unhilarious send-up of that zany world we call “fashion.”

    The fashion world is already a parody of itself in both unintentional and intentional ways, and parodizing parody just doesn’t work very well. It is to humor what trying to divide by zero is to math.

    To make matters less pleasant she employs an accent that is an exact female version of chronic self-amuser Cash Peters of “Marketplace” and “Savvy Traveler” public radio fame.

    Bahr’s personal website flaunts an impressively diverse CV that includes service in the Israeli army and Neuropsychology training at Brown, so it’s comforting to know that if she “keeps her day job” she’ll have a lot to fall back on.

    Fun fact about Kurt Andersen: he has claimed that Lynne “Aww shucks me and Dick are just folks, what’s all this Darth Vader stuff?” Cheney has pursued a long term “extravagant” flirtation with an unidentified “friend” of his. “Friend”, Kurt? Really? Is it the same anonymous “friend” on whose behalf you solicited free psycho-pharmacological advice from a guest at your last cocktail party?

    Whatever.

    My personal advice to your “friend” would be to go for it! Join the mile high club on “Marine One”! Personally inspect the endowments of the former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities! Head out on a cougar hunt with the second lady, but beware of accidental discharge…I think Dick taught her everything she knows.

    Okay, I’ll stop.

    To be fair, given the show’s sterling list of contributors and Andersen’s intelligence and Rolodex, I’m certain they’ve produced many great segments and will produce more in the future. I just haven’t heard any yet. (If you have, post links here!)

    Sounds like a piece of, I mean on, Lynne Cheney would be a hoot…

    I’m just sayin’.