Listening to the Unholy Trinity of Limbaugh, Liddy, and imminent bio-pic hero Howard Stern, it's clear that strange currents are coursing through America's airwaves. Into this prickly breach of modern broadcasting steps critic (and occasional City Pages contributor) Sarah Vowell, who courageously dial scanned the country's radio stations for a full year and gathered her impressions in Radio On: A Listener's Diary.
Radio On is an elegy of sorts for the medium, and a meditation on the debased state of public discourse it currently represents. Vowell is a believer in radio's cathartic power, it's ability to capture events in a way that no other medium can--which is why she can only bemoan "that dreary, intelligence-insulting, ugly, half-assed, audio compromise lorded over by the stultifying FCC" she hears today. Moving back and forth across the country, Vowell unearths (and quotes at length) a vituperative sub-culture of hucksters, unctuous DJ's, and left-of-the-dial mavericks. No one is spared her critique, not even National Public Radio, that staid repository of high-minded journalism which Vowell finds "so tasteful, so reassuring, so mature, so dull."
What Vowell is searching for has little to do with NPR's glossy veneer. She feels estranged from these alien voices and desperately seeks communion: the shock of the new, emotional frisson, anything but the mindlessness she encounters. It's a noble quest but ultimately a futile one. Not even Kurt Cobain's raw passion is immune from radio's capacious maw, and Vowell uses his suicide as a metaphor for the way pop culture trivializes it's most vital figures at the same time that it canonizes them. Still, she takes solace in what little she can find: In Neil Young's "Rockin In The Free World", a David Sedaris commentary, or the independent-minded regional programming that she regards as the medium's salvation.
Vowell's disjunctive and frequently elliptical diary format perfectly mirrors radio's landscape, an environment where white supremacists can sit cheek by jowl with faith healers and Nina Totenberg. Radio On's impassioned defense for a more humane, thoughtful, and ultimately pluralistic approach to radio is admirable, but in a perfect world, broadcasters would embrace both Hootie and The Mekons, Rush Limbaugh and Noam Chomsky.