RadioTen years ago I got a C-Band satellite receiver and started listening to the Canadian Broadcasting System network. Now that's radio. Great classical and ethnic music. Wonderful jazz --- a jazz program in which the producer actually went out and did some serious homework on the masters, mixed voice and biography and music: Bix Beiderbecke, Miles Davis, Fats Waller, Artie Shaw, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie. Talks --- serious talks --- on politics and science and art and poets and writers: Shakespeare, Chaucer, Keats, Yeats, T. S. Eliot. Instead of one-minute reviews of books, a full half-hour of serious interviews with authors. And O yes, radio dramas, commissioned by the CBC, performed as high art.One of them came in to my bedroom on a Saturday afternoon, sometime back in 1991 or 1992. It was called "Grasshopper Hill." I was lying in bed reading and, at the same time, listening idly to their drama-of-the-week. Then I stopped reading. He had been caught by the Nazis, put in a concentration camp. At the end of the war, he emigrated to Vancouver, ended up teaching in a college there. He was describing to her --- another teacher, his lover --- what it was like.He didn't want to tell her everything but she insisted so one day he told her what about being in the camp, working during the day in the storehouse for eye-glasses and hair and jewels they called "Canada," Canada was the paradise for working prisoners, the one place where you could have everything, especially food, taken from the new victims. Food which, sometimes, you had to kill for.
As he talked, his anger, his bitter mocking anger, his jeering tone, all came clear. He had seen too much. No matter how hard she tried, there would always be that between them. He had seen too much there, in that other Canada. Love, any love, could never ever reach him.
In slightly less than an hour, I learned more than I could ever want to about what it was like to be in Auschwitz --- what it did to the soul, and the heart, and the ability to be touched. It was a radio drama which could and did change one's view of the world, change one's vision of what we laughingly call "western civilization."
I made contact with the CBC and finally found someone who had helped make the program. I talked her into making a copy for me (highly illegal). I made several copies --- sent two to NPR, one to the President, another to Susan Stamberg (who I had met a couple of times). I also sent a copy to my local PBS station. I asked them to listen to the tapes, try to figure out a way to get them broadcast. I thought "Grasshopper Hill" that important.
I don't have to tell you what came of it all. I was the innocent. I was still thinking of the NPR we had back there in the beginning --- the National Public Radio that had been set up to give voices to those who had been voiceless for so long. At least, I was thinking, they would respond to my request; thank me, at least, for trying.
You might try it some day. Go your local "public" station (or NPR) and tell them you've found something beautiful or interesting that you think should be broadcast. Or tell them that you would like to help them put together a program on something of importance to the world, or to your community. Something outside the local traffic and police reports, something besides the five minutes news of rapes or robberies or accidents or mayhem. Tell them you would like to see them program something beyond "Only a Game" and "Marketplace" and "Says You!" Just try.
It's very simple, really. All you have to remember is that early on, public radio was just that --- for the public. But then, somehow, while we weren't looking, they privatized it --- gave it to those who had far more say-so than you or me; turned it over to people who had and have a bitter distaste for controversy, and challenge, and complicated issues.
Public radio has suddenly become very very private. National Private Radio --- owned, lock, stock and barrel by those who have all the chips.
Until those times, twice a year, when they crank up the money-beg machine and tell us that we're listening to Public Radio. National Public Radio. Yours and mine. To support. Until the goal is met.
During the course of this, you will notice that I have jumbled National Public Radio and its programs and Public Radio International and its programs along with local public radio stations. They pretend to be discrete, but in truth they all come out of the same pot --- a pot-full of fear and trembling.
Note: This article appeared, in revised form, at salon.com
Go back to Part I