July 16, 2004

The Startling Music of Public Radio

My wife is leaving for Japan this morning, so our alarm was set for 5:40 AM which, coincidentally, was the precise instant WAMU, the public radio station in DC, started running a promo for Latino USA. So instead of being rustled awake by subdued, overeducated murmuring, we got Tito Puente's brass section as loud as a dorm room prank.

But this has happened before. The gentle piano intros to NPR's Weekend Edition that practically brought your first Diet Coke of the day to your bedside are too-old school. Public radio is now trending loud.

WNYC runs the BBC World Service at 9 AM (thank you, I'm up by then), which used to start with no music at all, just the world-synching clock from Greenwhich to cue us and the news reader: "beep beep beeeeeep. 1300 hours, Greenwich Mean Time. BBC World Service. The news, read by Fiona Somebody." Now, there's a rousing brass intro with a rapid crescendo.

[I'm linking to these shows in the hope that you'll know what the hell I'm talking about. This invisible-to-them music isn't mentioned or credited, and who knows if it's in the archived streams of the show? My head is full of untraceable music whose existence is not even acknowledged. Where did you go, BJ Liederman?]

But the most consistently startling so far ("We're public radio. We don't shock, we startle.") while mercifully temporary, couldn't have come at a worse time. WNYC ran promos ad nauseum for its May 7 broadcast of Bernstein's Candide, which was being given a rare performance at Lincoln Center. As I commented impulsively on TMFTML's review of the review, "#&^* Candide. The promos on WNYC for that thing blare the oh-so-famous prelude so suddenly, it scares our 2-mo. old and starts her crying every damn time it comes on." What can I say, it made me feel better.

Like many people, I suspect, I don't Listen To The Radio; I use it as a kind of aural carpet, the ambient track to my day. Encountering these Startling Themes is like stepping on a toy in the dark. Or it's like (NPR People, now I'm talking to you) rearranging the furniture in a blind man's house. A cranky, old, blind man, who lives next door and is always barking, "Turn down that music, you lousy punks!" Damn kids these days.

Since 2001 here at greg.org, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting greg.org that time.

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first published: July 16, 2004.

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