Being a good neighbor

This week on “Bullseye with Jesse Thorn,” Jesse interviewed the creators of a new documentary about Fred Rogers. I, like so many others, was a huge admirer of Mister Rogers, a man of faith (he was an ordained Presbyterian minister) who expressed it in Christ-like love but without dogma. Every account I’ve ever read, seen or heard about real people meeting Fred Rogers – every single one – comments on how interested Rogers was in other people. Apparently, he made every person he met or talked to feel as if they were the most important person in the world to him at that moment.  What an amazing legacy.

I haven’t seen this new documentary yet. I do recall seeing (and preaching about) an amazing PBS documentary a few years ago which told the story of  David Newell. David Newell is better known to us all as “Mr. McFeely,” the speedy delivery man from “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” After Fred Rogers’ death, Newell, in character, became the public face of the show, attending events hosted by public TV stations across the country and greeting the children who continued to watch “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” in reruns. But I believe what Newell has dedicated his life to is not his former boss, but an idea – an idea about how to treat children, and how to treat each other as human beings. Fred Rogers (who, I am sure, was a sinful human being with flaws and foibles) lived his life in such a way that he became a powerful symbol of that idea.

Here is the extended version of Jesse Thorn’s interview with the documentary makers:

Dead Air

People today know me as a newspaperman, but I got my start in radio at an early age – 15, in fact. I had my FCC license (required at the time to operate a radio station transmitter) before I had a driver’s license. I worked throughout high school at WHAL-AM (now WZNG-AM) in Shelbyville, which was, towards the end of my time there, co-owned with what was then WYCQ-FM. I was active at the campus radio station at Oral Roberts University, and for a year after college I worked at KTCR-AM in Wagoner, Okla., which was owned by the Durfey family. The late Dr. Thomas Durfey was my academic advisor at ORU, and his son Kendall was my best friend at college, and Kendall and I roomed and worked together for that year in Wagoner. (You can learn more about Kendall, and hear some of our collaboration, here.)

Anyway, when I saw Bill Young’s Dead Air: The Rise and Demise of Music Radio on a one-day giveaway promotion for the Kindle, I jumped on it.

It’s a good book – which is incredibly frustrating, because it should have been a great one.

The (apparently self-published) book is horrifically-edited. I assumed it wasn’t edited at all – that, like the dad-blamed idiot who wrote Soapstone, Young had simply published it himself without a sounding board.

Then, I read the copyright page, and Young actually credits his editor, who has worked at Texas Monthly and been published in Esquire, GQ and the New York Times. Well, I don’t care about the editor’s CV; he did a crappy job of editing this particular book. Young has a lot of fascinating material here – the makings of a great book – but it’s bogged down in almost every kind of mistake that an editor is supposed to catch:

  • There are infuriating copy-editing mistakes, such as possessives in place of plurals. I’m not talking about a mistake here or there; I’m talking about tons of them, throughout the book, front to back. There are also a few easily-corrected misspellings or other errors. Some of these, like “Silvia” Plath, could have been looked up from legitimate reference sites in 15 seconds on the Internet. Even the title of the Kindle book as uploaded to Amazon has a typo, with the letter “I” in “Air” wrongly capitalized. “Forty” is misspelled in the heading over chapter 40.
  • There are numerous explanations or definitions, and even a couple of anecdotes, repeated in the book. One particularly-egregious example has to do with a story in which a radio station, as a publicity stunt, publishes an ad apologizing for the use of bad language by someone interviewed in a news report. The entire story, including the entire paragraph-long wording of the ad, appears at two different places in the book. Did the editor not notice that? Did the author not notice that?
    I’ve counted at least three different instances in the book where Young explains that, in the mid-60s, KILT promoted its own concerts, but then by the end of the decade, professional concert promoters took over and KILT became the “media sponsor” for concerts in return for giving them advertising time. Each time, he writes as if he’s presenting new information. Again, the editor should have caught this and fixed it. 
  • The book seems to be a little unclear on its purpose. The title promises a broad look at the radio industry, while the book itself is more of a personal memoir, a Texas-centric account of that industry as seen through Young’s eyes. There’s nothing wrong with a memoir – Young was such a key player and knew so many of the other key players that his personal story is well worth a book, maybe more than one – but it’s a little bit of a bait-and-switch. If the book really is a memoir, change the subtitle to reflect that, and focus it a little bit more on the personal story. If the book is really about an industry, don’t bother taking time to tell us about the fast-growing tree in the front yard of Young’s newlywed home. That’s the kind of detail that, even in a memoir, is of questionable interest. A good editor would have insisted that the book take one path or the other, and suggested that the marketing match the content.
  • Most of the book is arranged in loose chronological order, so a section about two-thirds of the way through about the birth of Top 40 radio is out of the timeline and feels completely out of place. There are also some other instances where the book starts to ramble a little bit and a good editor could have roped it in.
  • Some of the chapters near the end of the book read almost like lists of names — “Hey, I worked with these people, and they’ll be disappointed if they don’t get mentioned in my book.”

I swear, this book makes me want to advertise my services as a book editor. It’s a good book – very much worth reading, in spite of my complaints, if you have any interest in radio. But I, or any of a number of other people, could have made this a much better book than it is.

Theatre of the mind

As you know, I just got through with a play performed in the style of an old-time radio show. The Internet has been kind to radio drama — or maybe I should just call it audio drama. Not only are there several sites that allow you to listen to numerous classic radio shows, but I keep finding a surprising number of original productions, released in the form of podcasts. These tend to be comic, simultaneously parodying and paying tribute to the classic medium. Some are better than others.

  • Illusionoid: This is a science fiction parody — apparently largely improvised, and you can tell. Colin Mochrie of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” was a guest on a recent episode.
  • The Apple Sisters: Set in 1943, with an Andrews Sisters-like singing group.
  • Thrilling Adventure Hour: This comedy series features a variety of comic talent, including well-known comics or actors like Andy Richter or Josh Malina. The A.V. Club recently picked it as one of the year’s top podcasts.

If you prefer old-time radio, you can find it several places. Here are just a few:

Wait wait … I should have told you

It occurs to me that I should have posted something last week about “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” in advance of the BBC America TV special, for those of you that aren’t already familiar with the show. There may yet be a few additional airings of the special on TV; check your listings. But in any case, even if you missed the chance to see the show, you’ve always got the chance to listen to it.

I told the folks at Mountain T.O.P. last summer that it’s proof of how much I love Adults In Ministry that I attended two weeks last summer. The first week I attended AIM, I missed the first local concert in decades by my favorite band, Daniel Amos. The second week I attended AIM, I missed a taping of “Wait Wait” in Nashville, the first chance I’ve ever had to hear the show in person.

“Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” is a public radio panel quiz show based on a humorous take on the week’s news. it airs each weekend on public radio stations nationwide, or you can listen to it or download it from If you like “The Daily Show,” there’s a good chance you’ll like “Wait Wait,” although “Wait Wait” makes fun, not just of political news, but also of quirky little offbeat news stories. “Wait Wait” has been compared to the great British tradition of panel quiz shows, which may be what attracted BBC America’s attention to the show. There’s only one prize, and it has no monetary value. I’ll get to the prize in a moment.

“Wait Wait” is hosted by writer Peter Sagal, with Carl Kasell as announcer. (His title is “official judge and scorekeeper.”) For most of the show’s history, Kasell did double duty; he was the newscaster for the news breaks during NPR’s “Morning Edition,” and the show gets a lot of mileage out of having him say or do things that aren’t in keeping with his authoritative, voice-of-the-news image. Kasell has since retired from “Morning Edition.”

The show has a three-member celebrity panel. Most of them are not household-word celebrities; rather, they’re mostly writers or quick-witted comedians. Frequent panelists include Tom Bodett (the voice of the Motel 6 “We’ll leave the light on for you” ads), P.J. O’Rourke, Roy Blount Jr., Paula Poundstone, Kyrie O’Connor, Paul Provenza, Alonzo Bodden, Charlie Pierce, Amy Dickinson, Luke Burbank, Adam Felber, Maz Jobrani and Mo Rocca.

The show has several different segments. In some of the segments, the panelists are answering questions. In other segments, call-in listeners answer questions. There’s also a “Not My Job” segment in which a well-known celebrity (as prominent as, say, Tom Hanks) is asked multiple-choice questions about a topic designed to be as far as possible from that celebrity’s normal personality or profession. For example, Mike Rowe of “Dirty Jobs” was asked trivia questions about the advertising mascot Mr. Clean.

The call-in listeners, as well as a designated listener on whose behalf whom the “Not My Job” celebrity is playing, receive a special prize if they win their segment. The prize is that Carl Kasell will record the outgoing message on their home answering machine or voice mail. The show’s writers usually come up with some funny message to take advantage of the situation; you can hear some of the past messages at the show’s website.

My favorite segment on the radio show is the “Bluff the Listener” game. In this segment, each of the three panelists relates a bizarre news story, but only one of the stories is true. The call-in contestant must guess the true story.

Last weekend’s BBC America special was a pretty good translation of the show into TV. They used the same taping session to create both the TV special and this week’s radio show, although the content isn’t exactly the same. For example, the “Bluff The Listener” game is on the radio show but not the TV special. The one thing people have commented on about the TV show is that everyone is wearing headphones, just as they normally do for the radio show tapings, which looks a little funny on TV. But for me, that just added to the charm, a reminder of the show’s origins.

If you get a chance this week to see the TV special on BBC America, do it, but in any case be sure and check out “Wait Wait” online or on your local NPR station. It’s always good for a laugh.

Theater of the mind (brought to you by Lady Esther cosmetics)

As I explained yesterday, I’m going to appear in a play which tells the story of “It’s A Wonderful Life” as it would be presented on old-time radio. Actually, movies and radio scratched each others’ backs during the golden age. If you’ve ever read the trivia pages for old movies on the Internet Movie Database, you’ll note that many of them were turned into radio plays, using the top two or three stars from the original movie, surrounded (I presume) by the type of versatile radio utility players we’ll be channeling on stage.

IMDb says that there were, in fact, two such adaptations of “It’s A Wonderful Life,” both broadcast in 1947, not long after the movie was in theaters.

I was looking up old radio shows online – there are plenty, at sites like The Internet Archive, and the Old Time Radio Network. I haven’t found “It’s a Wonderful Life” yet, but I’m right now listening to another Jimmy Stewart classic: “The Philadelphia Story”, in a 1947 Screen Guild Theater adaptation with Stewart, Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in their original roles. The story is quite condensed – into a 30-minute radio show! — which works just fine for the audio format, although it requires some clunky exposition, both as dialogue and from the announcer at the beginning of each act. This seems to have been produced in front of a live audience. It’s one of three different radio adaptations mentioned by IMDb; the other two were 60 minutes in length, one with Ruth Hussey and Virginia Weidler in addition to Stewart, Grant and Hepburn, the other with only Stewart from the original cast.

In those days, of course, once a movie left the theater it was gone – the very biggest hits might possibly be rereleased, but everything else disappeared into the vaults once it ended its original run. There were no TV broadcasts, no DVDs, no way to re-view something you’d enjoyed seeing on the big screen, or catch up with something you’d missed. So these radio adaptations were, in their day, a nice bit of instant nostalgia, as well as a way for stars to promote themselves and their upcoming projects. The Screen Guild Theater adaptation of “The Philadelphia Story” ended with mentions of where you could see each of its three stars in current screen projects: Stewart’s current project at the time was … wait for it … “It’s A Wonderful Life.”

I have, on cassette tapes, the adaptation of the original 1977 “Star Wars” movie which was done for the BBC with Mark Hammill and Anthony Daniels reprising their film roles. The BBC approached George Lucas for permission and he agreed, but only if his alma mater USC was involved in the production. This was done as a serial, and actually includes scenes which were cut from the movie, emphasizing young Luke Skywalker’s admiration for, and later reunion with, Biggs, a neighbor on Tattooine who joins the rebel alliance. I haven’t listened to it since I originally bought it (I also heard it on public radio when it first aired in the 1970s, perhaps the first public radio I ever listened to). I need to break it out and give it a listen.

Dramatis personae

I’m going to be in a play over the holidays. I can tell you what; I just can’t tell you where.

OK, to bring the story up to this point: I’ve enjoyed occasional participation in community theater, and last spring, I played the lead in “Cash On Delivery,” at the Fly Arts Center in Shelbyville. It was the first time I’d ever had a solo lead part, and a huge one at that, but I had a great time, with terrific castmates and a great director.

This fall, some of those same folks formed a new theater group, the South Of Broadway Players, not so much to compete with the existing group at the Fly as to offer a more flexible and democratic alternative. A few people are already participating in both groups, depending on what they’re interested in trying out for and their personal schedules. I did not try out for the group’s first play, “Here’s Killing You, Kid!”, because the timing wasn’t right. But I was excited about the new group. I attended one of the organizational meetings.

“Here’s Killing You, Kid!” was presented as a dinner theater at the Duck River Restaurant in Shelbyville, with one final performance at a restaurant in Normandy. The Duck River Restaurant was, I am told, delighted with the production, and it did good business. The SOBs (and, yes, we’ve embraced that acronym) hoped that the Duck River Restaurant could host several such performances throughout the year, and then the group might also do a more traditionally-staged production at some point, perhaps using a school theater over the summer or what have you.

The next SOB production will be “WSOB Presents: It’s A Wonderful Life.” This is one of two similar adaptations of the beloved holiday movie in the form of an old-time radio show. Instead of using sets and costumes, a small group of players performs the play on a stage set up to look like a radio studio. Each cast member does numerous characters, and there’s a sound effects man over to the side producing sound effects, with occasional help from other cast members. Little or no memorization is required, because everyone is reading from scripts, just as radio actors did. Part of the fun is seeing the same actors doing different voices, sometimes even having conversations with themselves.

We had auditions last weekend at the Duck River Restaurant. I enjoyed reading the parts and looked forward to the play. Production dates had been set and announced, with performances to take place right before Christmas and during the dead week between Christmas and New Year’s.

Then, a day or two later, the restaurant announced it would go out of business after one last music event this coming weekend. So now, the SOBs have the rights to the play, and a cast, but nowhere to perform it. Our director and producer are scrambling to find a suitable and available space.

Anyway, I got formal notice today that I’d been picked for the cast. I don’t know yet which characters I’ll be doing.

I’ll let you know as soon as performance details have been nailed down.

Wait, wait — it’s Dick Van Dyke!

NPR may be having a bad week, but my favorite NPR program had a very, very good week. The “Not My Job” guest on “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” is the legendary Dick Van Dyke — a man who has done so much for entertainment that host Peter Sagal joked that the DVD was named after him.

The very clever “Not My Job” quiz they concoted for him included a question about “Dick” Nixon, a question about a new Chrysler van, and a question about the world’s largest dike.

But the highlight comes at the very end of the segment. As Peter is wrapping things up, Mo Rocca begins cheerily humming the “Dick Van Dyke Show” theme song, which leads Dick to reveal that it has lyrics — and then, he offers to sing them.

Listen to the whole show at the NPR web site or your local station, or listen to just the Dick Van Dyke segment here:

By the way, I think I’ve passed along this story here before, but the “Star Trek” theme also has lyrics — but for a mercenary reason. When creator Gene Roddenberry hired Alexander Courage to write the theme, the contract reserved the right for Roddenberry to write lyrics for it later. Once the show had become a modest success, Roddenberry exercised that right — not so that the lyrics could be used on the show, or even used at all, but because writing the lyrics made Roddenberry the co-writer of the song and entitled him to half of the royalties! Courage resented this maneuver and, reportedly, refused to write any incidental music for the show after that.

That great smokehouse in the sky

I posted a link to a video of Sir Cecil Creape earlier on Facebook, and in the process of doing that I ran across some blooper tapes from Nashville TV in that same era. Here’s Pat Sajak, in his weatherman days, with the late Dan Miller:


It wasn’t the only time Dan got tickled. Several minutes into this next video, you’ll see Dan with Huell Howser, doing a followup to one of Huell’s human interest stories, this one about a pig:


This one begins with a brief clip of a very young Chris Clark, but most of it is taken up by an announcer for the “Carl Tipton Show,” who can’t make it through a live ad.


Sajak, by the way, mentions his radio show on WSM-AM. I once won a Polaroid camera from him on that show. During those days, WSM – the traditional, clear-channel home of the Grand Ole Opry – played country music at night but adult contemporary pop during the day! The two different formats were buffered in the morning by Teddy Bart’s live “Waking Crew” show, and in the afternoon by an hour of news at 5 p.m.

Ring-Ding smackdown

Normally, I’m disappointed when “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” is on break and runs a “best of” episode — after all, it’s a topical news quiz — but this week’s compilation, based on listener favorite suggestions, is pretty darn good, and a great introduction to the show if you’ve never listened to it.

In one of the repeated segments, they ask TV’s Craig Ferguson — who is open about being a recovering alcoholic — three questions about a man who has a more literal monkey on his back.

But the highlight of the package is an appearance by healthy food expert Michael Pollan — who gets into a hysterically-funny argument with panelist Paula Poundstone over the importance of comfort foods like Twinkies and Ring-Dings. Even if you don’t listen to the whole show, skip ahead in the NPR player to this segment.

Lauren Order, Ginger Vitis and Dave Reckoning

I admit I haven’t listened to the funny and informative “Car Talk” in a while — I need to, if only for a good laugh — but one of my favorite parts of the show is the credits. In addition to the actual credits, there are some joke credits, based on excruciatingly-bad puns. For example, the show’s loan officer is I.O. Silver, the sports information director is Linus Scrimmage, and so on. Some of these are used for a long time, others rotate in and out. Anyway, I just discovered that there’s a comprehensive list, past and present, at the show’s web site.

If you’ve never listened to the show, find it on your public radio station. Even if you know nothing about cars — maybe especially if you know nothing about cars — you can listen just for the entertainment value. MOVIE TRIVIA: Tom and Ray Magliozzi were the voices of Lightning McQueen’s original sponsors in the Pixar movie “Cars.” Their characters even get to use Tom and Ray’s normal “Car Talk” signoff: “Don’t drive like my brother!” “Don’t drive like my brother!”