Transcript

100:

Radio
Transcript

Originally aired 04.24.1998

Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Full audio: http://tal.fm/100

Prologue.

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. And let me do something that I've never done before. Let me just reach out and retune your radio for you.

[RADIO TUNING]

Radio Host

You're on the air at WPLP.

Man

Good evening, Bob.

[RADIO TUNING]

[MUSIC PLAYING]

[RADIO TUNING]

Man

I'm going to write more than one letter. I'm going to write the station. I'm going to write the chamber of commerce.

[RADIO TUNING]

Woman

--basketball team. I always wanted to go to Miami High--

Ira Glass

You ever flip through the dial, past the stations that you listen to all the time, just skim up the dial, slowly, from station to station, waiting for something? You don't even know what. Something. Anything.

[RADIO TUNING]

Man

[SPEAKING INUIT]

Ira Glass

Something like this, a radio signal whose source is impossible to figure out and the intimacy of one voice. What could be more personal, even in another language?

Man

[SPEAKING INUIT] Hello to you, Barney and Rosie. Hello to you, Rose. I'm happy to you-- OK, I'm singing to you Ayatollah Khomeini [SPEAKING INUIT] [BEGINS SINGING]

Ira Glass

This recording off the radio is one of those things that got recorded and then was passed from person to person to person. Finally, it ended up on a compilation tape of radio moments put together by radio station WFMU in New Jersey. And that's how we got it. By anybody's best guess, it's a radio station in northern Canada. The speaker is Inuit.

And here's where it gets a little hazier. Because they're talking about a strike over and over on this tape, it's possible that this is a situation where the regular radio staff is on strike, and these are the replacement workers. Or it's possible that these are the regular workers who are about to go on strike, fed up, at the end of their rope. Or maybe that's not the story at all.

That's actually one of the things that I like about this. Like a lot of good radio, part of what is so appealing about it is what it leaves you wondering and thinking about when it's over.

Man

[SPEAKING INUIT]

Ira Glass

Can you imagine tuning your radio and stumbling upon this? You know, just stumbling on this? It's so ephemeral, this moment just happening and passing and about to actually evaporate into nothing forever. And that's part of what makes radio different from other media, I think, that quality where it can seem so small and so fleeting.

Man

[SPEAKING INUIT]

[RADIO TUNING]

Ira Glass

Ian Brown used to host the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation show Sunday Morning, and he was very great to listen to. He was smart and unpretentious and this great interviewer and writer. And when the show was revamped and he was taken off the air as host, he read this little radio essay on his last day about the intimacy of radio-- the false intimacy of radio, that feeling that we get together every week, you and me. I mean, literally, that's what it feels like. It feels like you and me. You and me, even though we don't know each other at all.

Anyway, months passed after he ended that job, and we wanted to get him on our show-- on This American Life And I called him up, and he was not brusk but businesslike, very proper, formal. And it sounds ridiculous to say-- I feel sort of silly saying it-- but it was hard not to feel a little strange about it. It was hard not to feel a little bit like here is this friend who went suddenly cold.

And I would not feel that way about Ted Koppel or Peter Jennings or anybody else who I've ever seen on television. I can tell you that. There is just something about radio. There's just something about radio. It's more personal.

Well, this is our hundredth episode of This American Life. Each week on our program, we choose a theme, and for our hundredth show, we bring you an hour of stories about the medium in which we work . A program on radio-- what makes it great when it's great, what makes it terrible when it's terrible, which it often is. Act One of our program today, Brigadoon. Searching for an illegal radio station in Miami that keeps appearing and disappearing and appearing again in the mist.

Act Two, The Invisible Leading the Blind. Jack Hitt stumbles on a radio station that seems to completely ignore the last six decades of broadcasting style and convention.

Act Three, Radio Most People Listen To, an act in which we spend some time with the radio programmers who think that it's better to play the same exact songs over and over all day long, the consultants who make every radio station sound the same. In short, the thinking that makes most radio in America today so boring, and we defend those guys.

Act Four, Noble Calling. A winner of the Nobel Peace Prize who says that when peace comes to his country of East Timor, he has just one wish. He wants to do a radio show like Howard Stern's. Stay with us.

Man

The following program is furnished by.

[RADIO TUNING]

Man 1

Are you married or are you living in sin?

Man 2

A little of each.

Rapper

You blast me, boy. You blast me.

Act One. Brigadoon.

Ira Glass

Act One, Brigadoon. We're devoting this first half of our program to the ephemeral thrill of stumbling onto some radio station, some radio moment, that you don't know where it came from, and you don't know what it is, but you just cannot stop listening. We have this first story from Iggy Scam in Miami.

Iggy Scam

My friend [? Sinclair ?] was the one who first found the Northside black power pirate radio station way down the left of the FM dial. You could only tune it in up on the Northside, so we'd listen to it while we drove down 79th Street whenever I went to his house. You could tell it was pirate radio because of the number of times the DJs would say [BLEEP] in every sentence.

They'd play all this poorly-recorded local rap, like this one song, "Too Many Suckers and Not Enough Stretchers" where the guy raps, "Living in the M, the I, the A-M-I. Sometimes, I've got to ask myself why." And then they'd play Tupac and then, every couple of beats, the DJs would just cut in over it and just scream, howl, or go "Uh!" And then the music would cut out completely.

Most of the time, there'd be four or five DJs all in the room with the mic, all just talking and yelling and telling jokes over the music. It was totally loud and chaotic and fun. They even took phone calls somehow. They'd play a beat over the radio, and then people would call up to rap over it over the phone. Talk about DIY.

Actually, they were never really that overtly political at all, really. We only called it the "black power station" because of one time when they were taking calls, and this dude called up and said, check it out, man. Southern Bell van's been parked in front of my house for three days. There ain't nothing wrong with the goddamn phone. It's the white man spying on us and trying to keep us down. Like I said, it was a great station.

Besides being really great radio, the station was exciting. Who were these guys? Where did they broadcast from? And how did everyone in the city know their number to call in when they never gave it out over the air? When the DJs talked, I'd listen to see if there was even some discernible code that they used. I couldn't catch one. I never found out anything about it, really, and eventually, I just moved away from Miami.

But after all my plans fell apart one by one last year, I found myself back in Miami trying to sort it all out. I ended up living back up on the Northside, off 79th Street. Good old 79th Street, home to the "Welcome To Miami" water tower and the INS building. Six lanes of road from beach to swamp, full of rusty, old, American cars blasting bass. The home of the urban trailer park and the indoor flea market, the $0.99 quart of malt liquor.

I always thought 79th Street, and not the beaches or hotels, is probably the true heart of Miami. You could look at everything and think, this was all once somebody's idea of a good idea. Right away, I started trying to tune in to the station, but I couldn't seem to find it. I didn't know if my radio had bad reception or if they'd just gone off the air. I wasn't even sure of the exact frequency, really. I became sort of obsessed with finding out what happened to those guys, but there was no way to find out.

Meanwhile, I kept busy taking long bike rides to explore the Northside, an almost touching daily tour of the very architecture of defeat. Often, I rode by sad, old Bobby Maduro Stadium, which is named for a Cuban baseball star who had never made the majors. Originally, it had been built in the '50s by a Cuban financier who was trying to lure Major League Baseball into Miami. And even then, he built it way too small for the major leagues.

The financier lost all his money eventually, backing Castro, and then later backing anti-Castro revolutionaries. By the 1980s, the stadium was only used as a shelter and processing center for Nicaraguan refugees. And now, it was a host to a weekend flea market in its parking lot.

Eventually, I pretty much fell in love with the Northside for its own sake, and I gave up the search for the station. But then one time, on my daily ride past the unused warehouses and huge fenced-off lots full of weed and rubble and the boarded-up housing projects, I found what could've been an important clue about the station. Down at the end of a dead-end street where almost certainly no one would see it, someone had spray painted "Tape Radio, 61.5 WEED."

Now, 61.5 would seem to be a radio frequency. WEED would seem to be a station's call letters. Was this some kind of ad? How could it be a station, though, if the FM band doesn't even go down that low? Even if there could be a station at 61.5, no one would have a radio that could tune it in. 61.5 would almost certainly be dead air-- static.

I decided to even try it as a phone number--615-WEED. Not in service. I figured that since there's never really any people walking around down there on that dead-end street, if 61.5 was somehow a station, they were probably broadcasting from a warehouse on that very street and that the broadcasters themselves must have painted it. Later that same day, I found the exact same spray painted message in the same exact writing in black paint 30 blocks north in Little Haiti.

I never did find out what it meant. But that night, it was hot as hell outside-- the beginning of the Miami summer-- and I was just laying around feeling sweaty and miserable when I checked the radio for first time in weeks. And I couldn't believe it. The station was back on the air. DJ Funky One was on, playing music and taking calls. He'd play a little instrumental beat part, and then suddenly cut in completely over the music, put the caller on the air and yell, what's up?

Caller would say, I want to say it two times for Little Haiti. DJ Funky One would say, all right, baby. Little Haiti's in the house. What's up? Next caller wanted to say one time for the Larchmont clique. All right, what's up? One time for Arena Towers, one time for the 6-8, one time for Edison, two times for the 7-4 boys, and a shout out to Shadow Man. It went on all night, music and calls.

Outside my window, the station's signal was flying strong over the dark, rosy streets and avenues, past the open windows and open apartment doors and front porches, and the whole sad city out there sweating in the night. I drank some tall cans from the 79th and Biscayne gas station beer special and listened, and it felt like every radio in the Northside must be tuned in.

Finally, after a while, I heard the phone number actually given out on the air. So one afternoon, when only music was on and they weren't taking calls, I called up anyway. I couldn't believe it when DJ Funky One himself actually answered the phone. I said, "Uh, what are you guys called?"

He said, "We're the Space Station."

"Well, where do you guys broadcast from?"

"Carol City."

I said, "Do you, like, have a license or anything?"

And DJ Funky One started laughing really hard, and he said, "Yeah, yeah. We got all that [BLEEP], man." And then he hung up on me.

Carol City was at the very north end of the county. It had originally been a white, suburban subdivision, but eventually, it was where city planners tried to get the rising black population of the '60s to move to when the city needed new slum land as far away from downtown as possible. These days, it's a seedy, menacing residential sprawl of little homes and gang graffiti known widely as a place where kids from white, suburban subdivisions go to buy drugs.

I rode up there, but I found no more graffiti clues to the station's whereabouts. Later, with a car radio, I found that you couldn't even get the station that well north of 125th Street, which is about 60 blocks south of Carol City. So I think that DJ Funky One was probably lying about Carol City.

So I started keeping my eyes open for any new clues on my ride home from the more wealthy southern parts of town, where I was working. It was a long ride home but always interesting. When you left downtown for the Northside, it was like crossing over into the flip side of the postcard. You rode out of the pink and blue neon glare of air-conditioned malls and chain stores and gated condos and hotels and skyscrapers into a dark, narrow maze of funky old wood houses, hand-painted signs, and corner stores. The suburbs have the police protection, but the Northside has voodoo.

Well finally, one day I got a huge clue when the station was apparently having an on-air live promo party. DJ Funky One said, come on down. We've got all this great food down here at Mama's Kitchen. We've got the fried chicken plate for five bucks and Mama's conch dinner for seven bucks. Could it be? DJ Funky One and a pirate radio transmitter live in a restaurant?

The address they gave out was only a couple blocks away in the heart of Little Haiti. But when I got there, there was no restaurant at all, just two black dudes on a couch in front of this tiny house cut up into four efficiencies. There was no music anywhere. There was no sign of a transmitter.

I said, "Uh, are you guys with the radio station?" They looked at me like I was crazy and nodded. "This is Mama's Kitchen?" I could smell chicken. They said it was.

I said, "But where's DJ Funky One? Where's the station?"

They broke up laughing, and then one guy said, "Everyone wants to know that."

So Mama's Kitchen was really just some guy's mom's kitchen. I ended up passing on the conch dinner, and I just bought a frozen cup of Cherry Kool-Aid for a quarter. I took it to my favorite spot by the tracks and sat there with it, laughing in the summer heat. Now that I'd met two people from the station-- or had I?-- the whole thing was even more mysterious.

Well, I guess I don't mind not knowing, and now I'll probably never find out more about the station because now it was time to move away from the Northside. But I had one last Saturday night with the station, one last night of the station sending out the Miami-style bass to be packaged and delivered to the suburbs via 79th Street in a great, rusted 1971 Oldsmobile. One last ride through the ruins and failing streets and bad ideas that talk to you late at night, like radio.

Ira Glass

Iggy Scam's story first appeared in his handwritten, self-published zine Scam. Some music during this story was by the Mission Burrito Project in San Francisco, which delivers free, organic, vegan burritos to the homeless one night a week.

Act Two. The Invisible Leading The Blind.

Man

--at the Centers for Disease--

[RADIO TUNING]

Woman

Music from Wayne Shorter, Greg Osby, and--

[RADIO TUNING]

[MUSIC PLAYING]

[RADIO TUNING]

Gordon

Well, assistant city manager Virginia Dolloff resigned on Friday after two weeks of negotiations over severance issues. City manager Brian Martin disclosed that. Martin had asked --

Ira Glass

Act Two, The Invisible Leading the Blind. So much radio listening happens in the car. This radio signal is one that our contributing editor Jack Hitt chanced upon on a long drive.

Gordon

It was my decision. I don't want to get into it. You hire and fire until you get one that works.

Jack Hitt

Last month, I was cruising the backwoods of Massachusetts on assignment in a rental car. For the longest time, radio wasn't much help in relieving the boredom of interstate travel. After three hours, my finger was numb from jamming the Seek button when the radio suddenly snagged this station. And it was two elderly gentleman reading. It was unlike anything I'd heard all morning, or for that matter, for the last 30 years.

Gordon

Well, a good Monday morning to you, and welcome to the March 2 edition of The News, as being read to you by us volunteers, us being Mike--

Mike

That's me.

Gordon

--and yours truly, Gordon, Monday morning hosts here. And we read for the reading disabled or anyone else who would like to listen. And in the background, you're listening to a usually-swinging band playing Beatles music, Ted Heath from London, England. And we'll hear more of Ted on the way out at 12 o'clock. And then, at 11:00, we'll be playing Engelbert Humperdinck.

Mike

Nice fellow.

Gordon

Of course, music is not our game here.

Mike

No, it isn't.

Gordon

We just put it in to relieve or give ourselves a break and get us in the mood to read to you, because for the next two hours, we will be reading. You're listening to the Lowell Association for the Blind Talking Information Radio Reading Service coming to you--

Jack Hitt

The service is provided for the reading impaired. Mike and Gordon read items right out of the Lowell Sun, the Nashua Telegram, the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune. They happily lack all the mannered, practiced intonation and attitude of commercial radio. Their keen story selection favors Homeric battles among sewer commissioners and landfill managers or pronouncements from local cranky professors. I knew right away that I had found my escape from Gordon Liddy and Chumbawamba.

Gordon

We really stick to local news if we can-- Merrimack Valley news, southern New Hampshire, northern Massachusetts, anywhere within our listening audience. But it's always local news because we feel-- and I think, Mike, you'll agree with me-- they can hear the national and the international news on their regular radios or televisions.

Mike

Yes, I agree.

Gordon

And we're going to get under way with Mike reading from the Nashua Telegraph, today's edition, by the way.

Mike

Yes, good morning. And from the University of New Hampshire, the headline here says, "Domestic Assault Researcher Backs Unorthodox Views." Murray Strauss defends his theory that wives assault husbands as often as the reverse.

Jack Hitt

That's Mike, who seems to have naturally married the vocal charms of Lawrence Welk and Howard Cosell. Gordon's the other one, who tends toward a quieter style. In this story, Mike reveals that the official statistics on domestic abuse are flawed because men simply don't report their beatings to police. And Mike explains why.

Mike

Although both men and women are likely to be ashamed of being hit by a partner, many men are even more ashamed because they feel it shows them to be a wimp, he said.

Jack Hitt

Every story ends with a touch of banter from the two hosts.

Gordon

You know, Mike, that's never happened to me.

Mike

Oh, me neither.

Gordon

Well, you're married. I'm not. No wife would ever hit me because it would have to be somebody else's wife, and I don't make friends with other people's wives.

Mike

I can't remember if I've been hit by somebody else.

Gordon

Oh, you can. Come on. That was a very serious story--

Mike

Yes, it was.

Gordon

--but we sort of made a little light of it at the end. And we're sort of informal here on our little radio station, and we hope you don't mind it.

Jack Hitt

"Informal" is not quite the right word. The right word is "surreal." Even though the readings are as ordinary as anything found in a newspaper-- Dear Abby, the horoscopes-- their intensity makes the listener feel not so much like he's hearing a radio station as living in this place where Mike and Gordon dwell. Even the obits are absorbing.

Gordon

Eugene R. Goyette of Alfred, Maine. Committal prayers and services will be conducted at 11:00 AM tomorrow in the chapel at Saint Joseph's cemetery in Chelmsford. Mrs. Anna E. [? Leckis-- ?] or Leekis-- [? Kunzler ?] of Lowell, wife of Charles E. [? Kunzler Sr. ?] Calling hours are at the-- no, this is another one. I'm sorry. She's evidently already been buried, Mrs. [? Kunzler. ?]

Jack Hitt

I could not turn the stories off, whether it was assistant city manager Virginia Dolloff getting fired because she hadn't done enough to stimulate growth along one part of lower Middlesex Street, or sewer commissioner Tom Moran who, now a candidate for selectman, was worried that his sewer experience might peg him as a one-issue politician, or the account of Representative [? Millnozzle ?] breaking his leg.

But the story that had me spellbound for 10 minutes was a long and treacherous account of the annual meeting of the Dracut Water Supply District. It was rich in character and subterfuge, a mini Shakespearean drama. Essentially, three board members who faced pay cuts had packed the meeting with relatives. And in the end, they GOT raises.

Gordon

Graham's relatives at the meeting included his wife and about 10 brothers, sisters-in-laws, cousins, and nephews. Also present were about 15 Graham friends, neighbors, and business associates. Blatus had about 10 relatives at the meeting-- three sons, a sister, a brother, a cousin, and in-laws. [? Annis's ?] wife, daughter, son, and son-in-law were there, as were several of his neighbors. In all, counting relatives and friends of the commissioners, Blatus and [? Gardette ?], totalled close to 100.

Jack Hitt

But wait, there's more.

Gordon

26 from the school department, six firefighters, three police officers, and two from the sewer department.

Jack Hitt

The disputed raise, by the way, was a mere $2,000. But the ferocity of the battle was apparent, and even the political tactics were strangely familiar. Like Bill Clinton or Newt Gingrich, the raise plotters pretended to be astonished that anyone would question their motives for going to the meeting. So they shrouded themselves in patriotism.

Gordon

"It's just one of those things that happens," said district clerk Michael Blatus. "Everybody can go to a meeting. Shame on the people who don't--

Jack Hitt

By the end of the piece, my heart went out to Maureen [? Cares, ?] who had arrived innocently ready to defend smaller Jeffersonian government. But she was easily crushed.

Gordon

"I'm disappointed," said Maureen [? Cares, ?] who attended with her husband. "This was my first water district meeting, and it strikes me as though the other side-- and I hate to use that tern-- it appears that there were some efforts to bring out a particular constituency." Mike?

Mike

I think that should have been subtitled "All in the Family." And now, I'd like to introduce Lowell's weather wizard, Steve Roberts.

Jack Hitt

The core audience of this program is maybe 200 blind people in New England who actually hear the broadcast on special radios configured to receive its non-AM/FM signal. Occasionally, they air the show on the local college channel, which is how I heard it. But for the most part, Mike and Gordon's universe shares in our air space but is not of it. It's what Lake Wobegon would be if real people lived there, and then broadcast their own show without Garrison Keillor. In this alternate universe, the men are not always strong. Rather, they are savagely beaten by their wives. And the children are not at all above average.

Mike

From Tyngsboro, sophomores at three area technical high schools scored poorly last year on a nationwide test of English, math, and other key subjects. Greater Lowell sophomores scored in the 27th percentile, meaning 73% of the school systems nationwide scored higher.

Jack Hitt

Not that there isn't a good deal of Keillor's sweetness on the air. Mike and Gordon discuss a pledge drive that will occur between now and the-- I'm not making this up-- Acme Club picnic. Later, there's a discussion of the election of the town hog reeve. That's the guy charged with rounding up the village's pigs if they bust out of the pens.

When you hear this program, you realize just how homogenized everything else on radio is. This is banter that hasn't been focus grouped or copied from another show with better ratings. Finding Mike and Gordon was like discovering radio as it might have been 65 years ago, a kind of ur-radio, beautifully preserved in amber.

Mike

By the way, I have a little funny I want to make. Is El Nino related to that old movie star Sal Mineo?

Steve Roberts

No, I don't think so.

Mike

I had to say that. I just had to say that.

Steve Roberts

Well, that's all right. I'll ask Dutch. He's an aficionado of these things.

Mike

Sal Mineo, eh? OK, Steve, thanks a lot.

Steve Roberts

You're welcome.

Mike

Back to the news, we are.

Ira Glass

Jack Hitt listens to the radio from his home in New Haven, Connecticut. Coming up in the second half of our program, we move from the radio we love to the radio that actually exists on most radio stations, plus, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who wants to host a radio show like Howard Stern's. And which Nobel Peace recipient is it? Nelson Mandela? Henry Kissinger? Yasser Arafat? The Dalai Lama? Real answers in a minute from Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Three. The Radio Most People Listen To.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, Radio. What makes it so great? What makes it so terrible? And we have arrived at Act Three, The Radio Most People Listen To.

[LAUGHTER]

Female Dj 1

He can't even get it out.

Man

We start June 26.

Female Dj 2

Free tickets?

Female Dj 1

Myra, please.

Female Dj 2

Well, I just thought I'd ask.

Man

Not for you.

[LAUGHTER]

Ira Glass

This is a recording of V103, WVAZ in Chicago. A few years back, V103 was in fourth or fifth place. But radio is not an art, my friend. No, no no. It's a science. And by applying scientific principles, consultant Tony Gray and program director Max Myrick transformed V103 until it tied for number one in the Chicago market, year after year, with adults age 25 to 54. This, of course, means lots more ad revenue, much bigger profits. Twice as many adults listen to them as listen to Chicago's public radio station.

The story of how Max and Tony did this, made their station number one, is the story of how radio works-- pretty much every commercial station on the dial. This is the science of modern radio. And it begins here, 15 blocks away from the radio station.

These are the offices of a company that V103 hires called Strategic Media Research. Every day, young women in 10 windowless rooms get on the phone in the late afternoon and early evening and call radio listeners. It's targeted research. For V103, they only call the listeners that V103 wants more than any others. These are 35- to 44-year-old African-American women. They go for women rather than for men for a very simple reason, Tony Gray tells me. Women are more likely to actually fill out the Arbitron diaries, which ratings are based on.

Tony Gray

In most cases across the country, the stations target females because you know you can rely on the women to fill out the diaries.

Ira Glass

So they get these women on the phone, and they hook them up to a computer which plays them brief clips of 30 different songs over the phone. It takes about 15 minutes. For each song, the women press numbers on the phone's keypad to indicate if they're familiar with the song, how much they like the song, and if they're getting bored of the song, which Max says is the most important thing.

Max Myrick

Once you get a record on the air, you have to know when to take it off, because there's nothing that'll drive a person away from a station than a song that they're just tired of.

Ira Glass

Every week, a printout of the audience scores arrives on Max's desk. And he marks it up, dividing the songs into A songs, B songs, C songs. A songs will be played on V103 every three and a half hours. B songs will be played every five hours. Cs will be played twice a day. These 30 songs are the only new songs that V103 plays They make up 40% of the music on the station.

The other 60% is what radio programmers call "golds," proven songs that always test well with the target audience. For V103, that means Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing," anything by Anita Baker. On last week's list, Max crossed off six songs that just did not test well enough to stay on the station, one of them a sentimental favorite for Max by his favorite artist, an artist that he does not want me to name on the radio. So I'll just say that he's a crossover black artist who married Lisa Marie Presley.

Max Myrick

The reason this song is in brackets is because we've been playing it for several weeks. So it's saying it'll never be a hit. The research is saying it's not going to happen.

Ira Glass

Now, you like this song.

Max Myrick

I love this song. I love the artist.

Ira Glass

But you cannot let those feelings interfere.

Max Myrick

No, it's not about me. It's about listeners. It's about playing what they want.

Ira Glass

You have your own radio station here. You can play whatever you want.

Max Myrick

That's my job. You said the most important thing. I have my own radio station at home. And I play all the stuff I want to play as often as I want to play it. I make tapes. But when I come here, it's about business-- big business. Millions of dollars are affected by the decisions we make. So that's the real bottom line.

Ira Glass

V103 has four competitors who are going after the same demographic group that they are. The average person, says Max, jumps around between two and three radio stations all the time. If at any moment V103 has a song that scores lower with the audience and one of its competitors has a song that scores higher, V103 loses.

Some programming tidbits I picked up during my visit to V103-- if you play rap music, you pretty much say goodbye to any adult audience. So even stations that target African-Americans usually don't play much rap. V103 plays none. Sampling is another matter. One of the reasons that sampling bits of old songs so popular now in pop music has to do with the way that radio stations operate, with the science of modern radio.

Picture-- if you were a songwriter and you put some famous old clip from a pop song into your song, when radio stations do those telephone surveys of listeners, way more listeners, especially older listeners, are likely to say that they recognize and like your song. And radio stations will add your song to the playlist. One of the songs that Max is adding is a song called "Too Close," which has a sample in it.

Max Myrick

Oh, here it is. This is another song we were looking at. Normally, we would not go on a song like this because it tends to be a little young. But the bed for the song is from a familiar adult song.

Ira Glass

What's the sample that they steal-- use?

Max Myrick

What is that song?

Tony Gray

You'd have to put it in.

Max Myrick

Oh, here you go. It was a rap song back in-- oh, "Christmas Rappin'" by Kurtis Blow.

Tony Gray

Kurtis Blow. Right.

Max Myrick

Remember that?

Ira Glass

The '80s, sure.

Max Myrick

This is a very familiar sound. If you're in the adult demo, it's not going to make you mad to hear this song because it's just so familiar. You know this song? What is this song?

Ira Glass

When they came to V103, Max and Tony made some changes in personnel, they tinkered with the station's slogans and promotions. They paid a marketing firm to call 200,000 women on the phone telling them to listen for a contest on V103. But the main thing, Tony says, the single most important thing that moved them from number five to tied for first place was picking their music more carefully, letting in nothing that did not test well with the target demographic.

Tony Gray

A higher degree of discipline. And what, again, my experience has been, a short playlist always seems to fix the problem a lot quicker than, let's say, a more liberal playlist.

Ira Glass

When I went to visit V103, I had not been in a commercial radio station for 20 years. And I was curious about what it was going to be like, Chicago's number one station. Turns out it looks exactly like Chicago's public radio station-- same carpet, same fixtures, same office equipment, same phone system. It looked exactly the same, except everyone at V103 had much nicer clothes. And the stereo speakers in Max's office are nicer than the ones in the studio that I speak to you from right now.

Tony and Max and I are the same age-- 39 and 40. All three of us started in radio as teenagers Ask them what they love about radio, and they talk about finding unknown songs, putting them on the air, watching them become hits. They talk about the satisfaction of watching the science of radio marketing actually work. And their lives are organized around one moment that happens every month-- the moment they get their numbers.

Max Myrick

It happens every month. I can't sleep the night before the book comes out. I can't do it. I can't sleep. I can't do it. And when I pull them up, I always have my head down. I don't even want to see them. And luckily, we've been at the top of the page. But man--

Ira Glass

Running a station the scientific way means, of course, that most radio stations sound the same. It's why most radio is so boring, why we hear the same songs repeated over and over, everywhere on the dial, from city to city, why V103 can't even play Otis Redding. I should note that public radio does not stand above all this. Research has been driving it for years. The jazz played on Chicago's public radio station is audience tested. The classical musical on most stations is audience tested. The most any of us can hope for in this environment is pockets of individuality.

And one of the interesting things about V103 is that their format does include pockets of individuality, most notably, the morning show. Tom Joyner, who's syndicated around the country, who does one of the most idiosyncratic, funny, truly interesting radio shows I have ever heard. It jumps quickly from This Day in Black History to the three-minute radio soap opera It's Your World. From serious and semi-serious to straight-out comedy, it is surprising and just great by any measure.

Tom Joyner

So we kind of made a little noise, huh, Mr. Novak?

Robert Novak

Indeed you did. You've got some power, I would say.

Tom Joyner

No. No, no, the people, not me.

Robert Novak

The people, OK.

Tom Joyner

It's not me.

Ira Glass

A few weeks ago, Joyner and his morning crew took on conservative columnist Robert Novak. This is while President Clinton was in Africa apologizing for slavery. Novak, at the time, said something on television about how African-Americans would not be in the United States if not for slavery. Joyner's show started a barrage of mail to the Chicago newspaper that publishes Novak's syndicated column. And very, very quickly, Novak came onto Joyner's show to try to clarify his position for Joyner's audience.

Robert Novak

Some of our really fine citizens are African-Americans-- in government, in business, athletics and show business. You know how they got here? They were all slaves, weren't they? So it's kind of a problem. We wouldn't have this enrichment of our society if it wasn't for slavery. I never said slavery was a good thing. I said it was an unusual thing.

Tom Joyner

Mr. Novak, let me jump in right quick, if I may. When you say it's kind of a problem, the "it's" in that sentence presumably stands for slavery. So if slavery is kind of a problem--

Robert Novak

No, I didn't mean that.

Tom Joyner

OK, what did you mean by that?

Robert Novak

I meant it's a logical problem that we wouldn't have--

Ira Glass

One more thing about the scientific way of making radio-- it is weirdly democratic. Every song is chosen by polling. Here's this multimillion dollar business, all these well-groomed men and women and their expensive clothes spending every hour of every day thinking about how to please middle-aged, inner-city black women. How many other civic institutions are doing that?

Robert Novak

And let me just say one thing, that I'm not in the business of offending people. And I am genuinely sorry if anybody was offended by the remarks I made before or even the remarks I made this morning.

Tom Joyner

OK. We appreciate it. Thank you, Mr. Novak. All right. You've got it. CNN, Washington bureau.

Ira Glass

Well, of course, the science of radio-- the machine of modern radio-- takes as well as it gives. It breaks hearts. Lots of people and ideas get knocked off the air as programmers try things they think will more predictably and scientifically attract listeners. Ida Hakkila had a job as a DJ on two big New York rock stations, and she got pushed out for more predictable programming. She began at a station called Z-Rock.

Ida Hakkila

I was the voice of Z-Rock. And what they'd have me do was-- I was kind of younger. I don't think I'd do it now. But I was the only female voice on the station. So I had to be really, really angry, which isn't the way that I am, personally. So it'd be like, AM 1480 Z-Rock! you know, like I was going to hurt somebody. So sometimes--

Ira Glass

And were those instructions to you? Did they actually sit with you in the studio and they're like, "No, angrier. Make it sound angrier"?

Ida Hakkila

No. Actually, I did all the production. I just did everything. It was funny. And I think I got paid, like, $5 an hour. And then, at the end of the day, there was a boss that would hear everything. And he'd say, "Could you sound more, I don't know, like a dominatrix?"

Ira Glass

And at some point, you became a DJ-- a regular DJ on the station, right?

Ida Hakkila

Right. Well, what happened was, they started out this butt rock rock station. It was called Q104.3.

Ira Glass

What are you calling it?

Ida Hakkila

Butt rock.

Ira Glass

Butt rock?

Ida Hakkila

And I mean that in the most endearing way. I really love the music. It was AC/DC and Ozzy. And for some reason, the best way to describe it would be to call it butt rock. And the way commercial radio is, there's these very slight parameters.

But this guy, as program director, knew that the best thing to do with me was to let me go. The very first shifts that I did were Saturday nights. He'd let me play some of my own records, which was an amazing amount of freedom. I know it doesn't sound like very much, but it was enough space to be a human and to have a lot of fun with the listeners.

Ira Glass

So what happened? So how come you're not there?

Ida Hakkila

Oh, because in 1996, I guess Viacom could own more than one station, and they decided that they wanted to have a station that appealed to males age 25 to 54. So they changed the format from pure rock, which is what they called it, to classic rock.

Ira Glass

These distinctions you're making-- pure rock versus classic rock versus new rock-- it's so Talmudic. It's just so fine.

Ida Hakkila

Classic rock, oh, it was like Aqualung again, and, like, Jimmy Buffett and stuff that just-- I was literally praying to get fired when I kind of saw the writing on the wall. I walked into the promotions closet, and I saw these Jimmy Buffett t-shirts. And I said, OK, I don't want to work here anymore. I hope they fire me.

Ira Glass

That's the sign that the Antichrist has arrived-- the Jimmy Buffett t-shirts.

Ida Hakkila

That's exactly it.

Ira Glass

Ida turned in her resignation. Then she looked for other jobs, including one at her first radio stations-- Z-Rock and K-Rock. But she decided she couldn't work there when she saw what those jobs would be.

Ida Hakkila

And I just kind of knew what was going to happen to me was that they'd want me to become somebody that said what they wanted me to say. You know those-- they're called liners in commercial radio, where DJs say stuff like, keep your button set on us.

Ira Glass

Wow. I didn't know there was a name for that.

Ida Hakkila

Yeah, that's called a liner, where they say, like, 20 songs in a row or your money back. Stuff like that. So really, like, middle of the road-- and these were people who were actually-- maybe 10 years before, they were the most vital and vibrant DJs, and they had just been beaten. They were people who were just absolutely beaten. They were reduced to having to say-- I just remember that button one, like, keep your button locked on us. And every day is a no-repeat day. And, we play 20 songs or someone wins $20,000.

Ira Glass

And, Ida, literally, what would be in front of you as you were on the air? Would there be a list of, you're going to play this song, you'll play this song, you'll play this song, you'll play this song?

Ida Hakkila

Yeah, it's basically a list. It's a list that says exactly what song comes at what time.

Ira Glass

So then, what's the pleasure of being a DJ? What is the thing that you're doing yourself? Somebody else has chosen the songs and all of that.

Ida Hakkila

I don't know why people become DJs. But I don't think that they look at the room like a really big phone or something really vital or exciting or alive, but more like they look at it like a room.

Ira Glass

You look at the radio station like a really big telephone?

Ida Hakkila

Yeah. Yeah, I thought of it as a really big phone. And it was a magic room. It was just the most vital room. And I really, really liked the listeners. All my phones lit up the whole show, and I just basically talked to people. And I'd talk about what people were doing at work. I'd talk about what they were eating at lunch. People would send me pictures of what they did. And it was this community. And if it was hot and people were working on roofs, I'd have them call up and talk about how hot they were and who's the hottest. And I shouted out songs.

I know it sounds really hokey or stupid or whatever, but you were just making somebody's day. And I can't tell you how much I loved that. That's what, I think, breaks my heart the most is I miss that like you wouldn't believe.

Ira Glass

It's so weird. It's like you were betrayed by radio itself.

Ida Hakkila

I just so don't want to sound like a bitter person. And there aren't very many people, if anybody, that understands what I've gone through, which is, I was saying, it's just like an open wound. Or I am just so heartbroken. This is something that I love so much. And I just don't think that it exists. It's like being in love with somebody that you've never met. It's like some kind of strange situation where I just love this thing, and I don't see it anywhere.

Ira Glass

So what are you doing now?

Ida Hakkila

Now? Oh, god. Well, actually, I've been doing a lot of cool things, like being in a band. And I've been writing a lot. But the real reality of it is that I ran out of money. So I'm answering phones, and I waitressed for a while.

Ira Glass

And do you listen to the radio on your job?

Ida Hakkila

I actually tuned into some internet stations. There was a station that I really liked in Calgary that was-- they didn't even play good music, but the people just seemed real.

Ira Glass

Wait, you got onto the internet, and you had to search on the internet for a radio station in Calgary?

Ida Hakkila

I actually went all over every single thing that they put on Yahoo. And I listened to every single station that existed.

Ira Glass

Until you found one that you could stand? Like, there was nothing in the metropolitan or tri-state area on the actual radio? You literally had to pull in a station from another country.

Act Four. Noble Calling.

Man

Participating with sister stations KEX Portland, WKRC Cincinnati, and--

[RADIO TUNING]

[DRINK POURING]

[GULPING]

[RADIO TUNING]

Jose Ramos

Let's address the issues on the ground that affect the daily lives of the people, people who are being killed or kidnapped or tortured. All of these problems--

Ira Glass

Act Four, Noble Calling. This is Jose Ramos-Horta on an international news program called Worldview that's broadcast on Chicago's public radio station. Horta is an exile from his homeland in East Timor, has spent two decades as the leading international figure denouncing the invasion of his country by Indonesia, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996 for his efforts to hinder the oppression of a small people.

But before his appearance on this radio program, Worldview, he confided in producer Edie Rubinowitz that someday, if peace comes to his country, he has another dream. He would like to do a radio program himself, one like Howard Stern's. He's seen Stern's movie, Private Parts, on an airplane. We reached Horta at the United Nations offices in Geneva.

Jose Ramos

That's the kind of radio program I would do in Timor one day. I probably wouldn't copy off the hair, but his approach is really hilarious, and I enjoy listening to him when I can.

Ira Glass

So you've heard his radio show?

Jose Ramos

Oh, yes. Yes. I heard before-- long before the film came in-- when I was in New York. A few times, I heard it on a taxi, like when you take a taxi somewhere. At first, I didn't know what the hell this is, but I noticed the taxi driver would crack up, would laugh. And then I would join in, so after that, of course, I heard it many times whenever I could, yes.

Ira Glass

Let me play you a little clip from the Howard Stern Show, OK?

Jose Ramos

Yeah.

Ira Glass

All right, here we go. This is a clip, he's talking about Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Howard Stern

So I said, Fred, let's go chase Arnold into the bathroom and tell him how great we think it is that he's doing Conan The Barbarian. We went in there and he's like, "What?" [FART NOISES] "Hey, boys." [FART NOISES] "Hey, boys, please. Thank you so much for nice compliment, but please." [FART NOISES]

Man

"Sorry to bother you, Arnold." "That's OK, boys."

Howard Stern

Yeah. Something tells me he gets a little thing on the side going with some girls.

Woman

Oh, here we go.

Howard Stern

I'm tellling you.

Man

"Meet me in my trailer."

Howard Stern

"Jamie Lee, that was a good strip."

Man

"That was very nice. Now, let's go practice in private. Come here, Rosanne."

Ira Glass

So can you imagine that your own radio program in East Timor would go in this kind of direction?

[LAUGHTER]

Jose Ramos

Well, I don't know whether I can afford to be exactly like that. Well, they would get me off the air right away. But it is entertaining.

Ira Glass

When you imagine what you'd like to do on your radio show, what would you like to do?

Jose Ramos

The kind of program, the kind of show that would not take people too seriously, like government leaders, politicians.

Ira Glass

When you describe it that way, it makes it sound like you'd have mostly a political show. You saw in Howard Stern's movie, Private Parts, he has, like, naked ladies in the studio. Would you do that?

Jose Ramos

In our society, in our country, no, I couldn't do that. I don't think you'd find too many women in the Third World that would do that. You have to take into consideration that in certain countries, there are certain things that people are not yet prepared to listen. For instance, if I were to talk about sex the same way Howard Stern Show talks, the bishop would excommunicate me right away.

Ira Glass

Yes, and I should say, you won the Nobel Peace Prize-- it was a co-award, you and an archbishop.

Jose Ramos

Yeah. Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo is an outstanding, courageous individual. And I don't think he would appreciate very much if I were to have a radio program exactly similar to Howard Stern when it comes to discussing sex.

Ira Glass

And let me ask you to explain, what's so appealing to you about Howard Stern?

Jose Ramos

Well, he challenges all the hypocrisy, the snobism, the double standards. He says things, he does things that most people would want to do and to say but that they don't dare.

Ira Glass

You know, when you describe his program the way you do, it sounds that, in a way, it's almost a diplomat's dream. A diplomat can't usually say exactly what's on their mind, and here, you have a radio personality who gets to say exactly what he wants.

Jose Ramos

Exactly. Many diplomats feel like I do. You get frustrated with all this posturing at the United Nations. And sometimes, I lose my temper and I tell some people what I actually think of them. And if I were not constrained by the delicate work I do, if I were to have my own radio program, I tell you, I would be almost exactly like Howard Stern.

Man 1

We don't believe you. Flat out don't--

Man 2

I don't really care what you believe.

Howard Stern

I don't believe it.

Woman

I think that Mark has a radar in his pants for money.

Howard Stern

Yep.

Ira Glass

Do you think there are many members of the diplomatic corps who listen to Howard Stern and are fans?

Jose Ramos

Oh, yes, yes. People have fun. They enjoy it. Most of them feel, well, that's exactly what I would like to say myself.

Ira Glass

And if only I could have a job where I were able to speak honestly like this.

Jose Ramos

Exactly. Yes, yes.

Ira Glass

Now, over the last few weeks, knowing that we were going to do this interview, we've been trying to arrange to get you onto The Howard Stern Show so you could take a look firsthand at your potential new career. And we haven't been successful so far. And I understand that at one point, you were in contact with them. You called them up.

Jose Ramos

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Can you tell me what happened?

Jose Ramos

Well, first, the lady had no idea what I was talking about. I told her East Timor. She said, East what? She probably thought I was calling from the East Side in New York. After, I tried to explain-- she even didn't know what the Nobel Peace Prize is all about.

Ira Glass

She had never heard of the Nobel Peace Prize?

Jose Ramos

No. and then she pass on to the editors or the producer, whoever. And they say they don't know what you're talking about.

Ira Glass

Yeah. I'm going to play you one more clip. This is also from The Howard Stern Show.

Caller

Morning, Howard.

Howard Stern

Right.

Caller

I'm interested in the porno cruise contest.

Howard Stern

All right, listen. This is the ultimate prize. It's a porno cruise. It's like 70 hot chicks who are going to be naked the entire time, filming porno. They're going to be poolside. It's a cruise, a legitimate cruise, and we've got two tickets to give away.

Ira Glass

In other words, they're having a cruise, and it's going to be all porno actresses. And they're giving away tickets to it.

Jose Ramos

But that again, is a joke, no?

Ira Glass

No, I think it's real.

Jose Ramos

It's real?

Ira Glass

I think it's real.

Jose Ramos

Well, OK, if it's a joke to joke people, I would. Many, many years ago, when I was a journalist back in Timor, on April Fools Day, I ran a story saying that a Swedish cruise vessel had ran aground not far from the capital, and there were many blond, nice, Swedish women around. And I tell you, everybody, including some very respectable men, they all rushed there. And all there was when they got there, there I was, waiting for them. There was no boat, no Swedish women.

Ira Glass

You were ahead of your time.

Jose Ramos

Thank you.

Ira Glass

In a certain way-- you're trying to get freedom for your homeland-- do you view this kind of speech, which, I have to say, Howard Stern is often criticized here in the States for the things he says and the way he is. Do you view this as being, in a certain way, what freedom is all about?

Jose Ramos

Yes, obviously, that is freedom. It is irreverent, but it is freedom. It is honesty. And that's why it is so popular and many people hate him because of that. But he should, in fact, receive a medal of freedom for what he's doing.

Ira Glass

Jose Ramos-Horta in Geneva.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our hundredth addition of This American Life was produced by Julie Snyder and myself with Alix Spiegel and Nancy Updike, senior editor Paul Tough, contributing editors Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin, and Consigliere Sarah Vowell. Production help from Laura Doggett and [? Sahini ?] Davenport.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

To buy a cassette of this or any of our 100 shows, call us at WBEZ here in Chicago. 312-832-3380. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, who has issued new orders for how I'm supposed to do the show from now on.

Ida Hakkila

"Could you sound more, I don't know, like a dominatrix?"

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI. Public Radio International.