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Reading: Sarah Vowell
05/31/1998 Sarah Vowell: Radio On

Thinking more about Sarah Vowell's "Radio on: A Listener's Diary", I'm curious about some of her grudges, particularly against NPR reporters and hosts, although I can understand the source of one of her disappointments--the gradual slickification of NPR. The first NPR broadcast--nearly live coverage of an antiwar demonstration in 1970--has the wild flavor of unedited slices of reality. Listening to it, you have no idea what's going to happen next, and compared to these tapes (and if you haven't heard them, you should) most contemporary NPR pieces seem premasticated and overnarratized, with foreshadowing introductions, explanatory commentary, ending with neat little wrapups and off-the-shelf banter. The old stuff is like swallowing life whole.

But does it make sense to have something against NPR for becoming slicker? I guess the answer is to create a forum for more raw, less narrative radio, which is what This American Life is trying to do, and Vowell's an associate editor there (if I remember the position correctly). At the time she wrote the book, though, she wasn't there yet, although she describes visiting the new WBEZ studios as one of the first This American Life broadcasts was being put together.

05/22/1998 Sarah Vowell: Radio On

Just picked up (and read) Sarah Vowell's excellent "Radio on: A Listener's Diary" which, like the best writing, feels like what it's writer was listening to. It's a diary of a year's worth of radio listening, and I can't put it down. Among the gems:

This four-way conversation between the young male caller, the two male critics, and he female artist, draws and quarters me: as a woman, as a critic, as a radio listener, as a fan. On the one hand, [Courtney] Love is indicting her female fans for participating in violating behavior. On the other hand, Love makes a lot of remarks throughout the interview that aren't exactly drenched in girl power, especially her newfound insistence on avoiding interviews with female writers; as a female writer I find that reprehensible--just plain lame. Also, while the two critics present seem sympathetic to the female struggle, I seem to have spent my entire life listening to boys talk about music.

Reading music criticism was a cultural lifeline for me when I was in my adolescence, and reading rock and jazz writers was like having long conversations full of essential meaning.

The project of this book is the diary of someone listening to the radio--what she hears, and her reactions to what she hears. It's wide-ranging, thought-provoking, and highly readable. You won't hear the radio in quite the same way again.