Neal Conan died this week. I feel as if I have lost a family member. Neal was a broadcaster on NPR for years. I listened to his show, “Talk of the Nation” while I was living my life. His daily efforts at informing me, sharing ideas, and challenging my beliefs roused many things. I carried on conversations with him in my head, in my car, with his callers and with others who also had heard what I heard. He was part of the fabric of my life until his show ended, and then, like so many one-sided friendships, I forgot about him.
I could have run into him in the grocery store or at a neighborhood coffee shop and never known who he was because I only knew him as a voice. I created a three-dimensional persona in my imagination that filled out his physical form based solely on his vocal intonation and cadence. Seeing his picture in the obituary was disconcerting. He looked nothing like he sounded.
For years I argued with him, found him incredibly insightful when he agreed with me, and offered scathing critiques of the shows I didn’t like and swooning praise of those I did. He made me laugh and made me cry. He got me thinking about things I had never thought of. I felt an intimacy and sense of deep connection with him. He had me at “Hello”.
Radio Raised Me
I am a child of the 50s. While I remember the hoopla around getting our first TV, some of my strongest memories are linked to the radio. Mornings were spent listening to Don McNeil’s Breakfast Club and Arthur Godfrey. Afternoons were spent with radio soap operas. Evenings were spent with baseball games. Late night was listening to the Blues. Weekends included college football games and the Metropolitan Opera. I missed out on the hey-day of The Shadow and radio dramas, but thoroughly enjoyed the sound imagery of Fibber McGee’s closet opening and things falling out.
Radio was also the source of weather and local news. Tornado warnings were broadcast alongside the Emergency Broadcast System. Both were essential in training us post-war babies about how to avoid certain death – in tornados, you headed down to the basement. In the event of a nuclear attack, you ducked under your desk.
I grew up listening to WGN and WLS, two dynamic radio stations in my hometown of Chicago. WGN broadcast the sports games. WLS played rock and roll. Radio deejays were kings of the airwaves. Larry Lujack and Dick Biondi framed what was “cool” and “boss” for me as a teenager. Jack Brickhouse taught me the ins and outs of baseball and the subtle differences between the American League (White Sox) and the National League (Cubs). For years, I listened to the weekly Metropolitan Opera broadcasts with Milton Cross as my guide and teacher. Each of these men’s voices and choices framed my world and provided me with individual tutoring that I couldn’t get in a classroom.
In the summers, we would move up to our family home in southeast Wisconsin. Radio was different there, both in call signs and content. WTMJ and WISN would report daily corn futures and soybean prices along with the all-important weather forecast. Different audience, but similar reassuring voices. Late at night, we would slowly turn the radio dial to see what new and different stations we could pick up from different parts of the country. Sometimes we could lock on to stations broadcasting country and western music, gospel or occasional fiery, fundamentalist preachers. It was like being invited into somebody’s kitchen, where there was no need for pretense, and everybody was welcome.
Where Are the Women?
In my later years, I became a huge fan of public radio. I fell in love with Carl Kasell’s baritone and Jim Fleming’s honey-butter voice on Wisconsin Public Radio. When I moved to San Francisco, Michael Krasny stoked my politics. And who wasn’t a fan of Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion?
What was missing, of course, were women’s voices. Until the mid-1980’s there was a distinct lack of female voices in media in general. Eventually women reporters began to make their way on to the airwaves. The Mothers of Public Radio broke through, and I became a groupie of Linda Wertheimer, Susan Stamberg, Nina Totenberg, and Cokie Roberts on NPR.
I rarely listen to AM radio any more. I still listen to NPR and especially enjoy some of the game shows (Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me holds a special place in my heart because it is from Chicago). I find I prefer listening to news on the radio, so try to make a point of catching the PBS Newshour when it is broadcast on KQED radio, my local NPR radio station.
I generally prefer men’s voices on radio. I fear this is a vestige of my age and socialization from voices like Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. I find myself irritated by high-pitched, little-girl voices that seem to be a hallmark of the current generation of female broadcasters. Even the men’s voices seem to have shifted upwards from the bass/baritone to more of a tenor.
I have never acquired the habit of listening to devices while I walk, so podcasts don’t hold much energy for me. I realize that AM/FM radio is no longer the powerhouse it used to be, having been supplanted by on-demand services. Still, for me there is nothing quite like listening to radio, especially in the car. There have been many times I have found myself parked in my garage, the radio still on, so that I can listen to the end of a story or broadcast. It keeps me company and keeps me informed.
I did not realize how much I missed you until I learned that you were gone. That could be a line in a country and western song I heard on a radio station while turning the dial late at night. Radio is one of those constants that I have always taken for granted. Like Neal Conan’s show ending, and now his voice being stilled forever, I feel badly that I took him for granted and remain in his debt for providing me with so many years of incredible auditory experiences. I will miss you now that I learned you are gone.