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Radio acts on only one human sense, but it stirs the rest into frustration and fantasy. It is a most intimate medium, inviting the listener into aural congress with someone he knows only by voice. But he’d know that voice anywhere we can’t help filling in the sketchy, intangible portraits that sound leaves hanging in the air. Depending on our interest in a particular program or personality, the relationship can be casual hi, Linda Wertheimer! or unduly close I can save you, Brooke Stevens. Depending on the level of mastery on the other side of the mike, a consummate radio hand can manipulate this relationship to his own ends.
MUSICAL STARS AT NPR
The so-called crisis in public radio is probably too complex and certainly too tedious to investigate they say it’s underfunding, but it sounds like lousy programming. As an escape from the liberal maunderings and surprisingly bad-behaviored callers on the local shows of WAMU and WETA, there’s the sweet music of the (locally produced, nationally syndicated) National Public Radio shows. Not the programs, the anchors.
They’re correspondents, not “personalities,” but there are so many euphonious evocations in their names alone, the simplest sign-off acts like a clue, encrypting all the relevant information we need to feel friendly toward them. Even the usually irrelevant Bill Griffith drew his creation, Zippy the Pinhead, in thrall to the beauty of “Mara Liasson, Mara Liasson, Mara Liasson.” Yes, but what about the thorny charms of Chitra Ragavan, whose unduplicatable accent slides from Irish to sub-continentalish, or suave Ray Suarez, winking toward Nabokov’s “suave John Ray”? The sultry Silvia Poggioli, otherwise unaccented, imbues her signoff with brisk Italian emphasis (She must have clouds of black hair and flour on her arms.)
The pageant of monikers and the sounds they make are more evocative for being so brief, like that of Noah Adams, burdened by a genteel glottal stop. We greet the Anglo-Saxon names as they permit us a hearty yee-haw for Miss Liane Hansen, a heartfelt “I do declare” for Vertamae Grosvenor. Carl Kasell, bristling with velar consonants as he is, deserves a firm handshake. You can see their faces on the NPR Web site, www.npr.org, but why would you want to? (Well, you might want to get a gander at Chitra Ragavan.) That would spoil the concrete visual fantasy, more stubborn than truth, created from tuning in daily.
THE INEFFABLE TRAGEDY OF BROOKE STEVENS
On-air “personalities,” as their disembodied job description runs, purportedly reveal more of themselves they’re hired to be someone, or at least to act like someone. These personalities may be total fabrications; we don’t know how much cheery banter on drive-time news/talk is genuine, how much is teeth-gritted goldbricking. So many masks, so few clues. Thus when a mask slips, the clues are all the stalker um, fan has to go on. Constructing a fantasized being out of a mere voice is exhausting work.
In the thick of the usually bland drive-time programming lurks an alluring odalisque: Brooke Stevens of WMAL’s Stevens and Core in the afternoon. I don’t know anything about Brooke, but I know what I’ve invented. The facts are these: Her voice is crystalline, and she negotiates the strictures of the news/talk format with ease, handling callers and chatting with her older, more conservative partner, Chris Core. Her persona is purest Lucite, populist but impermeable, and it sets off with a sparkle the wild woman’s heart beating beneath. (We may be out of the “facts” section now; bear with me.)
“Brooke Stevens” may be perfectly happy with her job, but the Brooke I hear is a tragic heroine of radio, trapped like a butterfly in the box from which her resonant voice pleads in code. She is too good for this work, for the democratic goodwill and facile cultural conventions that are the currency of the show’s target milieu. She’s just as deft when fielding glib notions such as “a guy thing” as she is interviewing a politician or running the presidential tie drive Stevens and Core have decided that Clinton’s problem is that he needs accessories not because she’s a consummate AM professional (although she is), but because she doesn’t care.
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That self-knowledge must be torture it’s one thing to be an idiot, another to understand you’re being paid to ply the rush-hour crowd with happy talk that means nothing to you. Radio host is no less an absurd occupation than contortionist or ice-cream taster or entomologist. Brooke may snicker at the conventions of commercial programming for all to hear, but the sound coming out of my speakers is a cry for help from a most elusive damsel.
THE KING OF ONE MEDIUM
Any medium that frets about its own obsolescence should welcome innovation, even iconoclasm. “Television will replace radio for all time!” previous Chicken Littles have shrieked; modern ones point to the Internet to newspapers and back with similarly misplaced horror. To hear Howard Stern tell it, he upended the sensibilities of his colleagues just by thinking up stuff they didn’t. But his bigger sin, crafted while he was a DJ at Washington’s DC 101, was subverting the medium entirely. The resulting product The Howard Stern Show now syndicated nationally and heard here on WJFK implacably pretends it is not a radio program. This, needless to say, drives radio people crazy.
His ambition to become “King of All Media” doesn’t mean he cares about the others, as his stumbling forays into television have proved. His cheap cable show on E! suffers from a cheese factor not seen since the $1.98 Beauty Pageant. Now Howard has the unenthusiastic backing of CBS for a marginally classier television effort, confusingly called The Howard Stern Radio Show (WB 50, Saturdays at 11 p.m.) even with cool credits and a budget, it’s a disaster.
The title is accurate The Howard Stern Radio Show on TV is a filmed broadcast of The Howard Stern Show (radio) in action. Because Howard’s a consummate radio hand, there’s nothing wrong with the ideas, writing, or execution of the bits. But what must be hysterically funny on radio drags on TV; the segments go on forever and offer too much information. It’s funny to see the “world’s largest female bodybuilder” insisting she was not born a man, but it would be funnier to hear the interlude in which sidekick Robin Quivers traumatically tries to verify the guest’s gender in the studio bathroom. Showing us the ladies who strip down for Howard in the broadcast booth undercuts the point of his most outrageous innovation the writhing oxymoron of naked women on radio. Despite strategically located “blur bars,” naked women on TV aren’t tantalizing, and they sure aren’t funny.
Because he understands so well what works on radio, he must understand what doesn’t work in other media. The only explanation for Howard’s inconclusive TV forays is sheer ambition. He is the only radio host who could get away with so much multimedia exposure, augmenting his celebrity while not detracting from his mystery, because he masterfully controls his relationship to the listener. Between the segments, guests, and games on WJFK’s Howard Stern Show, he orchestrates a multilayered system of faux disclosure (precluding listeners’ fantasies) and real obfuscation (replacing them with a fully constructed fantasy).
The show offers a peek into what is designed to feel like the heart of his creative process. In the studio, Howard is surrounded by his staff comedian Jackie Martling, spots and sound-effects coordinator Fred Norris, producer Baba Booey (Gary Dell’Abate). They must be sharp guys, because their work helps make the show what it is. But they sound like a bunch of layabouts and toadies, interrupting Howard only to be mocked or dismissed. (Only Robin Quivers is allowed to come off as smart; Howard never makes fun of her without incorporating a strong element of fearful respect such as the “When Robin Attacks” spots that highlight her most ferocious outbursts.) Whole hours of the show are taken up with intramural horseplay, like the crew’s razzing Jackie for his weird housing arrangement it’s not a crack media team but a dysfunctional family. The effect is one of overhearing the put-upon host as he’s dragged down by pitiful morons he’s too soft to lock out of the studio.
Howard spends a lot of time on the radio talking about being on television, making and marketing his movie, or writing his books. He’ll happily bond with callers about the unfairness of his shifting time slot among local CBS carriers or that night’s E! lineup. Howard knows this is the business most celebrities dispatch a handler for, but doing (or pretending to do) his own grunt work casts him as a long-suffering wage slave forced to haggle with clueless suits. It also distracts the curious audience from speculating on the millionaire host’s plush off-air life.
He doesn’t even acknowledge that he’s on the radio when he is. He carps about transmission and microphone levels, about how the ads are going over. His creative acumen is constantly in focus; he frets about his status as a trailblazer (not necessarily now), complaining about everyone from little-known local radio hosts to Jay Leno ripping him off. Every so often, Baba Booey interrupts to talk booking who wants to be on the show, who’s waiting outside and the staffers openly discuss the structure of future shows.
But what about the present show? All this self-reference takes up more time than “the show” does, whatever it’s supposed to be. But Howard knows what he’s doing: This is the show, continually undercutting its own status as public entertainment by letting us in on its private workings. The deepest stratum is his real privacy he doesn’t like to talk about his daughters, although a version of wife Allison is on display, and he’s extremely coy about money. His own persona the pencil-dick guy with no sex life is just that; when the guys got hold of a book that laid out the proper method for a man to measure his penis, Howard came in second-largest, at 6 inches. That’s Howard Stern’s genius: confessing to a normal penis size is one way of disappointing his listeners. The other is by appearing on TV.—Arion Berger