Hostage to Public Radio

It's a game, it's Kafka, it's the 'Pledge now!' terrorists again

It was another day of the hostage crisis. Every autumn, my usually congenial public radio hosts turn into megawatt terrorists. They tie up the airwaves, gag the network programs, and deliver their demands: "Pledge now!" "We can put an end to this fund drive, but only if you contribute!" "We need 63 more calls this hour!"

The magnitude of the threats increases with each day of the crisis. Eventually they will have to start killing some of my favorite programs ("we hope we can continue to bring you 'Morning Edition,' however ...") unless I do the right thing: save myself and listener-supported radio with the power of the phone - and the credit card.

Instinctively, I retreat to watchwords of another era: "We will not submit to the demands of terrorists!" This reaction comes over me despite my deep appreciation for almost every program public radio produces.

It's not the transparent tactics that bother me. It's the "evangelical" tone. The cause is righteous. But the rhetoric tends toward the self-righteous - especially when announcers depart from their scripts and speak extemporaneously, as if filled by the spirit.

Then homilies worthy of that old Calvinist, Jonathan Edwards, commence. An image of the unpledging listener is conjured up: a sinner dangling on a string stretched across a great chasm. Have you been listening to "free" radio in the secrecy of your own car, home, or workplace? Did you really think you could get away with it? By all rights, you should have been left to fall into the abyss of commercial radio long ago! But public radio is a forgiving medium, slow to anger and generous to all who show their love for her. Call 1-800 and be saved.

This recurring hostage crisis of the air is imbued with what J.D. Salinger's fictional Holden Caulfield would call "phoniness." The full-force assault of three announcers is bad enough. They become a kind of bad cop ("only 10 percent of our listeners contribute regularly"), good cop ("but of course YOU don't want to be like them"), district attorney ("so give us a call") tag team as they construct a Bermuda Triangle of verbiage to draw you in.

And then the literal "phoniness" begins. Telephone bells resound, piercing and punctuating the whirlwind of words. The cacophony is momentarily alluring. I suppose it helps to suggest that entire neighborhoods all across town are calling in their pledges and that I, too, should get with the program.

But then the noise becomes annoying and two thoughts occur to me.

First, why are they still using phones like the ones we last had in our home around the time Richard Nixon resigned? Gee, I think, if their equipment is that outdated they really do need my help!

Almost immediately, however, a second thought comes to me. They can't really have banks of ancient phones ringing madly and especially at pregnant pauses during the broadcast. No, one of the noble volunteers must be responsible for all of this! Between breaks for sponsor-supplied doughnuts, he or she plays back the telephone track from a Sound Effects CD, taking cues from the engineering booth.

Sometimes the hostage crisis seems like a harmless game show. If enough pledges come in during a given hour, the station gets a "matching donation" from the corporate sponsor (who gets free advertising throughout the hour).

At other times it all seems like a weird Kafka fantasy - like the parable "Before the Law" that Joseph K tells in "The Trial." Every hour, another corporate challenge! And each corporate challenge is more critical than the previous one! Why not simply admit defeat in advance?

In any case, it takes me about six months to regain complete respect for my congenial public-radio hosts. By then they are articulate and wise journalists, not radio kidnappers or carnival hucksters or purveyors of existential angst. Unfortunately, that's also just about the time the hostage crisis countdown begins again.

*Theodore Trost is a PhD candidate in the study of religion at Harvard University.

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