What’s Annoying on Public Radio Now

On a Tuesday, this is Airbag Moments returning to air – or wifi anyway.

I notice with horror I made zero posts in 2014. I am tweeting a lot, though, so blame the siren song of social media and fear of the Riyadh Flogger for my lack of blogging. (@airbagmoments)

What has driven me beyond the 140 character restriction today, the first time in over a year? Only a brief list of weird/annoying micro-trends in Public Radio, especially NPR, that I feel need some publicity – so they can stop.

Let’s do the numbers!

1. The Daily Grind

Apparently Steve Inskeep feels our pain. (Well he doesn’t feel my particular pain, since he took to his fainting couch and blocked me on Twitter at some point – see below.) But apparently he feels the rest of you, because he has pioneered a new version of the useless day-of-the-week intro ritual (ie “on a Wednesday”) he and other hosts have adopted over the last couple of years. Now he’s taken to uttering pseudo-ominous inanities like “well, you’ve made it to Tuesday!” I think everyone out here in listener-land is pretty aware of what day of the week it is and whether or not surmounting the previous midnight is worthy of succor and sympathy.

I will go so far as to say I would not mind being calmly reminded of the date, Steve, which you never do for some reason.

2. Yay us!

NPR or its shows were mentioned in two nerdy inner sanctums in the past week, the game show “Jeopardy” and the NY Times crossword puzzle. Given the exuberant twit-storm about this from NPR staffers I can only deduce that it’s apparently everything they’ve been working towards for their entire lives. What will they do now for a second act?

This brings me to a more general annoyance, which is the self-aggrandizing vanity retweets many hosts and official public radio program feeds indulge in. I guess I’m glad that @doctormom420 cried in her driveway during the segment when Scott Simon sang “Danny Boy” to Draggy, GoryCorps creator and aptonym David Isay’s 2-legged Golden Retriever, but I don’t need to know about it.

Let’s make a deal: if you are going to retweet the effulgent praise then I expect you to retweet the trenchant critiques also, which you can find more easily if you unblock me on twitter.

Which brings me to…

3. Throwing a block

I try to be a resource for people by following every public radio personality and show I can find on Twitter, unfollowing them only when their feeds become choked with baby pics and vanity retweets.

Those of you who are familiar with the effete and grammatical pokes I take at public radio must marvel at Steve Inskeep’s (and EXCITING UPDATE “Vocal Fry Guy” Raz!) precious sensitivity. This is unbecoming in one who makes a living ostensibly asking tough questions in interviews. If Twitter actually notified users at the time when other users blocked them I could know which comment of mine tweaked Inskeep’s and Raz’s hair-trigger peevishness.

Then we come to On The Media, a show I myself have praised effulgently in this space. Yeah, they blocked me for some reason. Really, OTM? You are the show that hates censorship so much you have produced entire episodes about it. What could I, who have called OTM the best show on radio, have said to offend them so much that they would block me from their official Twitter feed? What does that even accomplish other than tainting the purity of my love for them? At least Brooke and Bob, the hosts, have yet to block me from their little-used personal feeds.

I admit that I do sometimes say things that don’t follow the public relations guidelines for human society known as “political correctness.” But I am not one of these ignorant, racist, sexist, conspiracist or wing-nut (left or right) knee-jerk public radio trollers you find in the comment sections dangling under so many segments’ web pages.

To those who block me I have this to say: no matter what you claim, vous n’êtes pas Charlie.

4. Same old pundits vs. Sarah Chayes

I have written before about how outrageous it is that Chayes, one of the most valuable voices about Afghanistan we have and a former NPR correspondent, has been ignored ever since she left her radio job to actually do something instead of just “getting a sense.” I have also written about how weird it is that smart voices only seem to appear on radio shows like Diane Rehm when they are coincidentally on a book tour.

Well the second phenomenon has, at least for a brief period, solved the first because Sarah Chayes is on a book tour, which is the golden ticket to get back on the radio. Yay!

Meanwhile most of the regular pundit slots remain filled with people whose responses are entirely predictable: either political talking points or conventional wisdom.

I’m out of time, but not out of bile, so stay tuned!

Chayes Lounge

(With apologies for the title.)

When I first heard the heroic Sarah Chayes on NPR, heroic was not a word that leapt to mind.  I used to make jokes about her tough assignment: Paris, France.  Her uniquely pronounced tagline, “this is Sarah Chayes in Parizz,” always caused my wife and I to try to guess to whom she was related to land such a cushy and sought-after post.  But Karma must be bad at NPR, because suddenly she was datelining from war-torn regions of Afghanistan.

One minute, after putting to bed her report on the adopt-a-tree program at Versailles, she’s at the charming boulangerie on the corner selecting fresh baguettes to feed to what I presume was an endless stream of visiting friends and family.  The next minute she’s dodging mortars and IEDs on her way to interview a warlord.  I imagine dealing with guests became less of an issue after that.

Then her story gets even more amazing.  I’ll let her website tell the rest:

In 2002 she decided to leave journalism to help rebuild the shattered country, whose fate will help determine the shape of the 21st century.  Currently she runs a cooperative in the former Taliban stronghold, producing fine skin-care products from local fruits, nuts, and botanicals. (www.arghand.org) The aim is to discourage opium production by helping farmers earn a living from licit crops, as well as to encourage collective decision-making. From this position, deeply embedded in Kandahar’s everyday life, Ms. Chayes has gained unparalleled insights into a troubled region. Her book about Afghanistan since the Taliban is The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban (New York: Penguin, 2006)

I bring this all up because after Obama’s can’t-please-any-of-the-people-any-of-the-time speech there’s a (destined to be short-lived) surge in coverage of Aghanistan on NPR.  I’ve heard a lot of repetitive and insipid takes on the situation, but there’s one thing I haven’t heard: Sarah Chayes.  Why would this be?  Why wouldn’t they interview someone who is not only unusually knowledgeable about the situation but also clearly in the NPR address book?  Did she not give two weeks notice?  Did she talk about fight club?

The reason is not that she’s hard to find.  She’s back in the states.  Things in Kandahar have gotten too dicey for her business to continue operating in the open.  In fact I just attended a rather brilliant lecture she gave about the war in Afghanistan.  One of the aims of the lecture was to explode a number of myths about the situation, a mission she accomplished thoroughly.  Is that the problem?  Is it that her narrative goes against the conventional wisdom too much and would therefore take too long to explain?

So come one, NPR, get on the stick.  Get Sarah Chayes back on the air as an expert this time.  Give her knowledge and ideas some play while the topic is hot, because if recent history is any guide we’ll all forget about Bush War 2.0 in a couple of days. While she was on in November 2008, and while her book did get a little coverage when it was released, she’s had nothing like the week of long segments you aired and still prominently feature on your home page based on Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s strychnine in print.  Is Hagerty’s personal journey into neodeism really that much more important?

I’m looking at you, Morning Edition, Diane Rehm, ATC, etc etc etc.

And while I’m on the subject I’m going to recommend (again) that you look at some other important and novel recent takes on Afghanistan from William Lind.  Maybe you’ll even interview him.

Hagerty Inanity Ubiquity

This I believe.

I believe Barbara Bradley Hagerty is a shill for religion and shouldn’t be a reporter in the legitimate news media.

The public radio echo chamber is unbearably loud this week with vapid discussions of NPR religious correspondent Hagerty’s new book “The Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality.”  Incredibly, they’re giving her a five part series that amounts, of course, to a national book-tour of inestimable value.  Maybe NPR’s got a piece of the book sales proceeds, or maybe they’re so accustomed to lavishing attention on every page ejected from Cokie Robert’s laser printer their brains have changed and they don’t realize this is inappropriate.

Meanwhile she appeared today for an hour on Diane Rehm (further expanding Diane’s reputation for gullibility I’m afraid).  I’m guessing these aren’t the last.

Hagerty is a sometimes-admitted supposedly former Christian Scientist, which is sickeningly appropriate given the book’s title.  Although she has many connections with more fundamentalist people and organizations (brilliantly exposed by Better Angels and Eschaton), she soft pedals it here suspiciously in line with the latest gratuitous anti-atheist pushback from the likes of Terry Eagleton and Stanley Fish.

The theist argument can be split into two questions, “is there a god?” and “if there is a god, what things must follow from that fact?”  The second question is much harder because you have to start making a lot of extremely questionable truth claims about things like the age of the universe, virgin births, Roe vs. Wade, and, of course, whether zippers are okay.

The easy road is to start with the whole divine existence question.  You have to appear to approach it very timidly and humbly.  The tricky part is to first define god with such sweeping generality that the definition conflicts with no faith.  It’s “something larger than ourselves”, a “spiritual feeling”, or (straight from the book) “the unearthly wine of transcendence”.  Then you interview some scientists and ask them unanswerable leading questions like (again from the book) “When people pray, do they connect to God or tap into a dimension outside of their bodies?”

When you ask a question like that a lot of scientists will try to avoid seeming arrogant or hurting your feelings.  Often they are religious themselves.  So they’ll respond as the scientist in the book did :

Even if I do a brain scan of somebody who tells me that they’ve seen God, that scan only tells me what their brain was doing when they had that experience, and it doesn’t tell me whether or not they actually did see God.

Then you come to the safe conclusion, as Hagerty does in her book and on the air, that belief in this extremely nonspecific God has the same validity as non belief, that it’s all just a matter of opinion and everybody is equal and everybody wins.

Never mind the fact that this conclusion is nothing more than a hazy tautology, that making this statement after putting a bunch of people in fMRIs is no different than making the statement without the fMRIs.  Never mind the fact that this sloppy sentiment contributes not one iota to the eons old debate about god.

The real problem is that Hagerty has, quite intentionally,  just made it easier for dogmatists of all stripes to peddle their pernicious claims.

Fish Tale

I have to take a brief minute to give props to the fake story about whale farming aired on April 1st.  The story, though pretty obviously fake, apparently fooled many listeners appealing as it does to their environmentalist achilles heels.

The following day the ATC hosts mentioned that they had tricked some folks within public radio but wouldn’t name names.  Luckily I will.

One listener who bought it hook, line, and sinker was, hilariousy, no other than the becoming questioner herself, Diane Rehm.  In her show with Jack Horner the next day she was getting a bit upset over the ethics of tampering with bird genes to ressurect dinosaurs, and she actually brought up whale farming as an example of just how far people were willing to take things like this.  Perfect.

Necrophiliac Public Radio

Ghouls, those vile creatures of myth who make graveyards their home and feast on the dead, can’t compare to journalists in the area of necrophilia. It’s unseemly.

Yes, it’s important to know that Ted Kennedy has a very serious illness. Perhaps, because he is a senator during a time of frequent close votes, it’s even valuable to know something of his prognosis. But the news media treats this sort of situation as an occasion to obsess and, worse, speculate about symptoms, treatments and anything else they can think of to drag out the coverage. It’s as if the moment someone with any fame becomes ill or dies the entire world has the same right and obligation to know every gruesome detail as consulting physicians or anguished members of the patient’s immediate family.

Today NPR spent many more minutes on what should be private details of Kennedy’s disease than on the situation’s actual political consequences. And, if that weren’t enough, Carl Kasel’s news update during Morning Edition about Hamilton Jordan’s death told many details about his years fighting illness to the exclusion of all other information. Was that really the right focus? The update should obviously have focused instead on what made him a public figure, not his personal medical history.

I first started noticing the extremity of this instinct on the part of the news media in general and NPR in particular with the death of a somewhat famous classical musician last year. I say “somewhat” because, while a large number of classical music fans knew of his talent, few others did. Yet every twenty minutes we received a detailed description of his lengthy battle with illness. Why is it necessary for people who have barely or never heard of this man to be privy to the saddest and grimmest details of his end?

Whatever happened to “natural causes?” Is that seen as some kind of journalistic failure? I presume so given the disappointment and humiliation I often detect in the voices of newsreaders forced to report that posthumous details aren’t available.

This practice is odder still in a country so paranoid about the privacy of individual health records. After all, one of the roadblocks to a national health ID card connected to a computerized patient record system is fear of loss of privacy. We’re so concerned about our health records that even our doctors have a hard time getting them and often have to employ paper filing systems from the 19th century. Yet the news media shouts detailed health information like a gossipy aunt to anyone who’ll listen every single time someone of fame dies or becomes ill – and the very same society acts like it’s normal, even required behavior.

This bad habit plagues public radio interview shows as much as it does magazine and news shows. Diane Rehm demonstrates a particular fascination with the diseases of her guests, the more horrifying the better. I’ve heard her force actors who are just trying to promote a movie to discuss their traumatic health problems at great length. At least she holds the same standard for herself. But is it really necessary that we be informed every time she’s on leave for her voice treatments and not a vacation? And if she must tell us, shouldn’t we have some input in designing her treatment plan? Why not?

I realize that the gruesome and gory have always been mainstays of journalism, but the more ingrained a practice is in a field of endeavor the more it’s usually overdue for scrutiny.

I challenge all NPR producers to reconsider how much medical detail is really necessary and appropriate for broadcast.

Since that clearly won’t happen, I also challenge Bob Garfield or Brooke Gladstone of On The Media to address this issue directly.

Theme Music Omnibus, part 1

Ahh, the theme music of public radio. I’m not talking about actual songs with lyrics like the exhausted one that opens Prairie Home Companion, I’m talking about the music that begins each show and plays behind the front end teasers.

Through repetition they become quite ingrained.

Can you identify which theme this is?


Da da, da da

Da da, da da

Da da, da da

Dum dum DUM!!

If you are a true public radio-head like I am I’m sure you pegged that as the spritely and lovable opening music of All Things Considered, composed originally by Don “even NPR can’t spell my name right” Voegeli. (Apparently they have now corrected his name on that page, surely as a result of this post. You’re welcome, Mr. Voegeli, Planet Earth, and the concept of truth in general!)

That theme has become jazzier and a bit more flatulent over the years, and every time they tinker with it I initially despise the new version, then I get used to it, and finally I begin to enjoy it. I’ve realized something: it’s not that I like the music qua music, it’s that over time I simply develop a positive Pavlovian association between the music and the content of the show.

There, see, I said something nice. Read it again, it’s in there, I promise.

Morning Edition, meanwhile, has an opening tune by the prolific giant of public radio music BJ Leiderman that sails dangerously close to the shoals of elevator music, especially when the guitar takes over the melody, but again it’s saved by sentimental attachment.

My favorite Leiderman work is another slightly muzak-ish one he created for Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me. I’m not sure why, but I think it has something to do with the super-human tightness of the final section, heard at the end of each episode. Dah-dahh, dah da-da da-daaaahhhhhhh *bleeng*.

The Diane Rehm show has quite a theme, heavy on astonishingly athletic piano. It’s bombastic as all heck. The left hand does this constant “bing-bong, bing bong” as if a town crier is calling everyone to the square to announce the eminent arrival of the sovereign or the black plague. Listen for it next time you turn on the show. It finishes with a show-off complex run up the entire keyboard. I always picture the musician falling off the bench unconscious after the effort. I once heard Diane say as an aside that she’d never change the theme, and I agree.

Finally, in honor of their recent win of a coveted “baggie” award, I’d like to bring up the creepy and disturbing ditty that begins each edition of On The Media, written by “bassist/composer” Ben Alison.

But first I have a question. Why are they always so careful to say “bassist/composer Ben Allison” at the end of every episode? Which is it? Bassist or Composer? Pick a side, sir, we’re at war!

He must have instructed them to credit him just this way, which implies he’s ashamed of being a composer and just wants to play bass all the time. His parents must love that. “It’s not enough you want to try to make a living in music, son, but you want to be a bassist? Don’t tell your mother!”

Or maybe he just thinks chicks dig instrumentalists. But if he’s going to force the show to list non-composing traits and abilities in his composing credit, why stop with bassist? Why not “our theme was written by bassist/composer/dog lover/morning person Ben Allison.”

Sorry, I’ll now return to the topic at hand, the music itself. What are they trying to say? What atmosphere are they trying to create? I really want to know what they asked for from Ben and how they felt about the results.

Maybe they said “Give us something like All Things Considered, only, you know, for media. A tune that ‘All Media Considered’ would have. Or ‘All Things Media.’ See what I mean?” If they said that then it clearly didn’t work out. In fact, if that’s what they said I hope that Ben’s “bassist/composer” credit is all he got in return.

But maybe it was more like this:

“Okay, Ben, what we want…uhmm, Ben, maybe you could put down the bass for one minute while I’m talking to you…thank you…anyway, what we want, and I think I can safely say “we” – though I haven’t actually spoken to Brooke about this yet – what we want is a kind of slow, melodically disturbing horn section that makes you feel the way you do when you see someone you recognize striding purposefully toward you, but then you realize they aren’t who you thought they were, and in fact they’re kind of scary looking, and they’re coming right over to you and you suddenly realize there’s no one else around and you start to try to come up with some kind of an escape plan, and then they’re right up on you and it’s too late, and you’re feeling light-headed with panic, but then they just walk right by you, and you just stand there wondering what happened and why you got so freaked out. You know that feeling, right? What’s that? Yes, you can play bass in it.”

If they said that then it worked out perfectly, and I hope Ben was remunerated well enough to get his parents off his case and purchase whatever the Bass equivalent of a Stradivarius is.

I am now suspicious of and disoriented by the popular media, and for that I guess I’m grateful to OTM, and, more specifically, grateful to the music of bassist/composer/cavity fighter Ben Allison.

The Rehminator vs. The Hitman

Diane Rehm and many of her callers had unusually sparky exchanges today with obnoxious and shameless author Stephen Marks (“Confessions of a Political Hit Man”).

The guy debates like a dysfunctional 10 year old arguing with his little sister, wielding such master-class forensic stratagems as “I know you are, but what am I?” and “Nyah nyah na nyah nyah.”

He frequently leveled ad hominem attacks against inquisitors rather than address their questions. Diane was forced to ask him to be civil to her callers on several occasions, although her famous couth prevented her from really keeping him in line.

Least surprising moment: when he mentioned having discovered that one of his relatives was a mobster.