A funny thing happened on the way to Terry Gross’s taking her Fresh Air forum national: WHYY-FM listeners are up in arms about the glitzing up and snippeting down of the 12-year-old jewel in our public radio station’s crown.
One of the most civilized traditions that All Things Considered inventor and station manager Bill Siemering has devised at 91 FM is a call-in program at the beginning of each month during which listeners can confront the brass about changes in programming.
The Monday before Fresh Air took its redesigned format national on May 11, Siemering was blitzed by a squadron of listeners who didn’t like what they were hearing. One gently irate woman said the old format was like an Amish quilt; the new one, a machine-made-orlon jobbie.
Siemering riposted with a metaphor of his own: The local show was like a dittoed bulletin board message; the national version had to be a well-printed job, easy to “read.” The loyal fans of hour-long interviews were having none of it. One man sneered that the new format was threatening to resemble People magazine. (I’d hazard a guess that Entertainment Today a radio clone of the TV syndie, is closer to the mark.)
A dignified sounding elderly lady pleaded with Bill to cut out the All Things Considered billboarding of upcoming stories. She argued that 91 FM listeners didn’t need to be told how good ATC is. She has my vote as well: That day, the advance teases included a Gross palaver with Renee Montaigne on a double Cagney & Lacey episode airing that night on CBS-TV, a promise that listeners would get an Irangate score card to follow the players at the hearings: a hint of Hart hanky panky, and a feature on an Alcatraz prisoner revisiting the island. Like the lady who pooh-poohed billboarding, “I’m willing to wait.”
And it’s not just a question of billboarding ATC either; John Barth billboards “91 Report”; Paul Danilefsy billboards the evening music and next day’s Morning Edition. I remember the good old days when Terry did all three hours of interviews and music herself; now there’s a staff of eight, and a million-plus budget to fill an hour. Those senior and associate producers have got to produce something. I guess.
To be fair, Gross can elicit more out of a good subject in a half-hour today than she did in an entire hour in the Golden Age of Gross. Her recent deft jabbing at Sam Donaldson (Don’t you showboat? Don’t you get Reagan off the hook with your adversarial style?) was a superb bite of radio. And her 11-minute interview with Chilean exile and novelist Elizabeth Allende was luminous—although lamely billboarded as a “poet” coming up. Maybe we need an editor of billboarders.
What I find ominous is the new “arts” format is its virtual depoliticizing of the old contents. We’ve got a rock and video critic (Ken Tucker, whose May 1 gloss on the new Prince was his usual anti-family, rockers-can-do-no-wrong hagiography): a history-of-rock critic from Texas (who was billboarded as about to cover a swamp rocker); a jazz critic (Francis Davis’s review of composer/alto saxophonist Henry Threadgill’s new LP was replete with dazzingly irrelevant similes, justifying Nels Nelson’s putdown of Davis’s recent book on jazz in the ‘80s as polysyllabic nonsense); a book critic; a language authority unknown to me but, with luck, worthy of the shade of John Ciardi; a critic at large from Vanity Fair whose work I don’t know (but the glitz of whose magazine makes me nervous); a classical music critic; and, luckily, a TV critic of real stature.
The last, David Bianculli, delivered a mini-editorial on Channel 12’s tactical postponing of Frontline’s “The Bombing of West Philly” until after the May 19th primary, the kind of tough politics I fear will be mostly missing with the Culture slant of the new format—if you call overrepresentation of rock music Culture. How about an architecture critic?
My advice is to slow down and do fewer things well. Siemering tried to justify the choppiness of the format as being mandated by network affiliates popping in and out of the show, slotting their own billboardery as well as local weather and traffic reports (some of the 40 stations signed up so far even play FA / NPR the next morning). Which confirmed one irate phoner’s gripe that going national was killing the very golden goose whose delectable eggs had made it estimable in the first place.
Will success spoil Terry Gross? I doubt it. I’ve touted her skill and savvy all over the world, from London (where I described it to Third Programme isolates as just as good and far more demotic than their best magazines) to Tokyo (where news executives return from USA trips appalled at the media malarkey of the radio their ears stumble over when they tour America’s airways.)
But I’ve been a Gross dropout I must confess since last fall when, returning from a trip, I heard her give very unprepared and unilluminating interviews on two lone, difficult, and exceedingly important books I had just finished, David Halberstam’s The Reckoning and Ralph Nader’s The Big Boys.
Now granted, I had read those tomes because I had just Greyhounded to San Francisco and back. But maybe Terry should be allowed more time to read and think and be less hassled over what Siemering pretentiously calls “aesthetic” issues of formatting.
Either that, or, when conducting an interview on a hard, long book she has just skimmed, give it a billboard: “This interview may be hazardous to your mental health.” Having fondly watched her mature since 1975, I think she has the character to not only endure but prevail against the Glitz Blitz.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, May 27, 1987
To the Editor:
Has Patrick D. Hazard any idea how repellently patronizing he came across in his review of the new edition of Terry Gross’s “Fresh Air” (May 27)? Not to mention ignorant and reactionary.
First he tells us that Ken Tucker’s review of the new Prince was “his usual anti-family, rockers-can-do-no-wrong hagiography,” that he hasn’t listened since he heard her do “very unprepared and unilluminating interviews on two long, difficult and exceedingly important books I had just read.” (Congratulations, Pat! You’re very well-read! It’s well known!)
He has “fondly watched her mature since 1975” and advises that “Terry should be given more time to read and think.”
I too wish that we could hear more to Terry Gross, but I don’t think she needs to hear Hazard’s self-serving, condescending (and sexist?) commentary. I know I don’t.
Editor’s comment: For my money, Tucker and Gross both belong to a very small and select group of Philadelphians who really know what the hell they’re doing. But if a guy like Hazard wants to keep them on their toes, what’s the harm?
Reprinted from Welcomat: Letters to the Editor, June 3, 1987