Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Sarah Vowell's "Radio On": a book review, in pieces

I am in the process of reading Sarah Vowell's 1996 book Radio On, and I'll be reviewing it as I continue to read it (I'm on page 69). For starters, what this book is - a year-long diary of radio-listening, with commentaries on different stations and shows heard from across the country - is very very close to what I'd like to blog to be like. Plus this, from her intro:

"While American magazines and newspapers employ armies of critics to dissect the content and influence of television, movies, art, and music, radio is rarely covered. Its presence is intimated with skeletal listings that can't begin to hint at the medium's diversity. Glancing at the 'Radio Highlights' section of any metropolitan daily, you'd think that all we hear is Puccini or public policy - Rush Limbaugh was never born and Kurt Cobain never died."

(Note: Sarah talks about Kurt Cobain in this book. A lot. Too much, actually. Yeah, it was written the year after he died, and he was talented and important and his suicide was a shame, but she quotes him, mourns him, idolizes him, tries to be his Lester Bangs. Unfortunately, I've read far too much about poor ol' Kurdt so far, and I fear there's lots more about him to come.)

But I also very much like this pull quote that Sarah got from Susan Douglas's* Where The Girls Are:

"If enough people think studying the media is a waste of time, then the media themselves can seem less influential than they really are. Then they get off the hook for doing what they do best: promoting a white, upper-middle-class, male view of the world that urges the rest of us to sit passively on our sofas and fantasize about consumer goods while they handle the important stuff, like the economy, the ernvironment, or child care."

Umm. I think she's got a point - does that make me a feminazi? (uh oh) - especially in regards to the dangers of under-thinking about the media, especially radio, a medium so influential yet barely thought about, a medium that works on its listeners is such a semi-conscious, under-the-skin, poorly understood way.

So far, I have to say that I'm finding much of Sarah's commentary underwhelming and adolescent, although she has a healthy mistrust of NPR (funny that she's beome such a goddess of public radio since the book's publication). I can definitely say this: this book would work MUCH better as a blog. Still, I'm very glad she wrote it - there's much about it I find fascinating and valuable, especially as a wanna-be radio critic.

* author of the indispensible Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination

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