Omir the Storyteller

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Tuesday, May 31, 2005

The Vinyl Cafe


Every so often I am reminded just how much potential the medium of radio carries, and how little of that potential is realized here in the You Ess of A.

Case in point. Last week I was casting around for stuff to listen to. A while back I built myself a Linux app based on perl, mplayer, oggenc, cron tabs, duct tape, baling wire and potrzebie, that records programs off of Internet streams, encodes them as Ogg files and saves them to disk so I can copy them onto a memory card and listen to them on the bus on the way to and from work. (Boy, that was a long sentence.) Stuff like Doctor Demento, Global Griot, Music with Moskowitz, Democracy Now. It's sort of like a TiVo, but for Internet streams, so I immodestly call it "creevo" for "Creede's radio TiVo." If I ever decide to make it a little less ramshackle and a little more robust I'll probably choose a different name.

Anyway, I was checking out local public radio affiliate KUOW's home page and it says they are going to start running a program called The Vinyl Cafe, which they describe as "Canada's version of A Prairie Home Companion." Good enough for me, I think, but I decide that since it's from the CBC I might as well record the program when it's broadcast in Canada on Sunday instead of waiting for Thursday when KUOW runs it. So, Sunday morning creevo recorded Vinyl Cafe for me, along with the program that follows it on CBC Radio One, Madly Off In All Directions which starts songwriter and funnyman Lorne Elliot. But that's a subject for an entirely different diary.

I've only gotten through about a half hour of the first broadcast of Vinyl Cafe I've ever heard, and I'm already impressed to the gills. This week host Stuart McLean did the broadcast from Goderich, Ontario, a port on Lake Huron somewhere north of Detroit. He started off the show with a piece about when spring comes to Goderich; not when the calendar says March 21, but when the first vessel comes into the harbor after the ice breaks up. Then, after a song or two, he launched into a compelling story about a fellow named Roger Woodward. Roger is about my age, he lives in Alabama, he's semi-retired, and his life seems entirely unremarkable except for one thing: On July 9, 1960, with no protection other than an oversized life preserver and the clothes on his back, seven-year-old Roger went over Niagara Falls.

Not only did McLean tell the story of Roger Woodward, he had Woodward on the show live on the phone. Woodward, obviously very emotional, said he had been asked to tell the story many times since that summer day, but he had never heard it told so well by someone else.

I don't want to fall into the trap of praising "every century but this and every country but [my] own." William Gilbert called the man who does that an idiot, and rightly so. But when I listen to radio in this country, which has been homogenized by consolidation into near unlistenability, and then listen to some of the projects put on by the survivors -- public radio, a few independent efforts by commercial stations and national broadcasters like the BBC and CBC -- I just shake my head. I know why it's happened; I know I'm in the minority in getting a great deal of my entertainment from radio; but it's still a shame to have a medium I grew up with and have loved for almost 45 years be in such sad condition.

In fact, of all the programs on creevo's list, only one -- Doctor Demento -- is commercial in nature, and I get that one from a community college station in Amarillo. (They take out the commercials and run promos and public service announcements in their stead.) And, just so you don't think this is a screed against commercial radio, I would gladly listen to commercials if they would fund the programs I want to listen to. Over a decade after he officially retired from KIRO Radio, for instance, Jim French is still doing radio drama there every weekend -- but alas, since it doesn't stream, I seldom get a chance to listen.


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