A Radio Tour of American Culture
I recently spent sixteen hours driving alone through the American Midwest. I had my mp3 player all loaded up with my favorite music, Last Chance to See and Demon Haunted World which I then completely forgot to bring with me.
So instead of familiar and comfortable entertainment filling my lonely hours behind the wheel, I was stuck with surfing the radio waves of a foreign country for something palatable. The result, I thought, was worth sharing.
Radio is very different that TV or the internet. There are no guides or watermarks in the corners or “about” pages. Without anyone to advise me on what stations are worth my time, I just ran through them sequentially, hoping to come across something to which I could sing along or enjoy. When I found a station, it quickly faded into static as I flew through the long rural miles.
The result is that I was subjected to a machine gun of American culture. Much of it was familiar to me as a Canadian. The top 40 hits, the fast food ads, and the insipid radio phone-in contests were indistinguishable from what I get up north. The differences, though, shocked me, and then became discernible patterns.
The first thing I noticed were the medical ads.
“Do you or a loved one have occasional headaches? Drowsiness? Irritability? Runny nose? Yellow urine? Any and all of these could be symptoms of Sudden Screaming Death syndrome. Talk to your doctor today about SSD before its too late.”
The health related fear-mongering absolutely blew me away. Commercials obviously designed to get people to pay to see a doctor and then pay for whatever prescription drug would cure, or test for the supposed illness, were going out constantly. They made no claims about the cures or tests themselves, though. The ploy was obvious and transparent. This was just a campaign to instill hypochondria and get people to demand the drugs for diseases they don’t even have. I found it disgusting.
No less repugnant were the ads for casinos. I heard several that were advertising rewards programs for regular patronage, encouraging people to come every single day to better their odds in a lottery draw. These always ended with a high-speed, and I have to assume legally required, statement to play responsibly. The juxtaposition is absurd. A minute-long plea to be incredibly irresponsible with both your time and money followed by a five second reminder not to.
The odd thing about surfing stations is that I very rarely knew what I was listening to right away. Music has pretty recognizable traits, but talk shows take longer to sort out. I usually had to listen for nearly a minute before I could even discern the subject matter. Also, without knowing what I was getting into, I didn’t go in with my biases locked and loaded. I had a chance to make up my mind after listening instead of before, which is the current standard practice.
Let me say, NPR was consistently excellent. With shifting radio zones, I lost and rediscovered the station several times, and each time I thought “this is excellent broadcasting, I wonder what this is.” Their news was fact based and informative. Their interviewers asked intelligent and probing questions and let the guests, who were a broad range of relevant experts, speak. Their storytelling was accessible without being pandering. So well done NPR.
In stark contrast, Rush Limbaugh came off as violently angry, half-mad and immune to any sense of reason or logic. Recall that I didn’t know what I was listening to when I tuned in. In fact, I had to look up who he was after-the-fact. I listened to him ranting madly about Obamacare and how it was, in some way which he failed to explain, responsible for the employment situation and several other economic woes that I’m fairly certain predate the implementation of your new healthcare measures. I listened for ten minutes in confusion at his apparent disinterest in causality and his overt dismissal of statistics before the host station broke and told me that I was listening to Rush Limbaugh, “The Voice of the Right.”
To an outsider, the voice of the right comes off a bit lunatic.
There is Christian radio in Canada. For that matter there is probably rabid political commentary, too. I just don’t encounter it. I have my favorite local stations set and that’s the bubble in which I live. But there is a lot of Christian radio in the rural Midwest. At one point more than half of the available stations were overtly Christian. I came to be able to recognize it almost instantly and, counter to my instincts, I listened to it. A lot of it.
The music, in my opinion, is awful. It’s bland, repetitive, and blunt even in comparison to modern pop. Initially I wondered how a religion with such a long and rich artistic tradition could come to support such uninteresting drivel lacking in poetry or depth. I assumed that they just didn’t have much talent in the pool to work with, but it slowly became clear that it was no accident. They had chosen their style.
I have developed a hypothesis. They are not aiming to make nuanced and interesting music, they’re aiming for stuff that gets stuck in your head, stuff to sing along with. They’re not poems set to music, they’re mantras. A simple message is chosen and repeated over and over in a catchy rhythm. These are professions of some aspect of faith, meant to be sung and internalized. Complexity and nuance are enemies of this goal.
One thing I can say for Christian music, it was almost unfailingly positive. According to the lyrics I heard, we’re all going to heaven, Jesus loves us and God is awesome. Somebody needs to tell the preachers.
Along with the music, there was also constant access to somebody preaching about something and it was almost always horrible. I don’t mean horrible as in low-quality. Quite the opposite, these were nearly universally compelling speakers with good audio quality and well considered scripts. Their message, though, was mortifying. As near as I can figure, throughout America, there is someone on the radio twenty-four hours a day telling people that Satan is real and is coming to get you, all of us are sinners, none of us is worthy, and that the end-times are upon us. I heard all of these things repeatedly on a sunny Wednesday afternoon. All spouted with absolute conviction.
It left me longing for the days when fire and brimstone sermons were only delivered on Sundays and occasionally by street-corner prophets. Now the faithful have permanent access nonstop live-streaming terror.
That, then, is the impression I got of American culture as delivered by unfiltered radio. Your commercials are scary, your talk radio personalities are scary, your preachers are scary. Christian music is purposely banal. And NPR is pretty damned good.
In my stubborn refusal to remember that there are other countries in the world besides my own, I had completely overlooked the fact that NPR is a solely US station. Yes, it is the best. When I turn on my car radio, it’s the only thing I listen to.
Ryan, this is an excellent overview. Your outsider review of the medical commercials made me crack up. It hadn’t even occurred to me that these types of ads don’t exist in many other countries.
And I’m with both you and Smash regarding NPR. At work it’s either podcasts, varied co-worker iPod music or WNYC – our NPR station in New York.
A book you might enjoy: Radio On: A Listener’s Diary by Sarah Vowell.
She kept a diary of her radio listening for one year. Wherever she was, she had to have a radio on and document it. It’s thoughtful, nostalgic, and funny. And it’s Sarah Vowell, so that’s great.