Am I going to listen to fucking Women of the Hour hosted by Lena Dunham and suddenly feel complete? Is she going to tell me something I don’t know? Like how I’m “less than” for never having had an abortion. You think I should start with something simpler–more foolproof? Like Serial. Or would you have me take a baby step with Sirius? Listening to goddamn Howard Stern like it’s still the 90s. Yes, everyone has some sort of advice about how to get me “turned on” to the perfect podcast. Oy vey. That very word. So monotone, abrasive. It sounds as though it was intended to describe a nightly diatribe from your “leader”–a.k.a. a dictator you never asked to “represent” you. Yes, the Führer would have loved the medium of the podcast for his own breed of “fireside chats.” In fact, it’s a wonder a certain orange man hasn’t taken a shine to creating his own series. But then, he’s far too riveted by the wonders of Twitter to get side-tracked by such a thing.
In any case, I suppose you could say my aversion to podcasts, like everything else, stems from something greater. Something far more deeply seated. And it wasn’t until recently going on a road trip with an older friend of mine, Clement–and no, he was anything but mild in temperament–that I was forced to reconcile where it all started, my hatred of people talking over airwaves.
I suppose I should start by mentioning that I had first met Clement at a bar most commonly frequented by older men, veterans of the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. Either that was the clientele, or alcoholics like me that needed to drink during the day in order to get through it. When you’re two people alone at a bar, you tend to start talking. And Clement’s story was one for the proverbial books. He had a talk show for a while, a hyper-local one centered around the topic of “The Way It Used to Be” in New York before 9/11 (where he pinpoints the moment of hyper-sanitization to have occurred). He even had that Pet Shop Boys song, “The Way It Used To Be,” play every time the show faded in and out to really drive home the point. The show got popular, reached a zenith of listenership in 2004, and then was promptly pulled just as Clement was finally starting to make a bit of money off it. The sound bite that cost him everything: “Maybe if Ed Koch had a little more gay sex in his life, he wouldn’t have made such poor decisions toward the end of his run as mayor.” Mind you, this was still during the Bush presidency, one of many peaks of conservatism in America. When that sound bite hit national news, Republicans were disgusted. Ed Koch, on the other hand, remained markedly out of character in his silence. Clement maintains he was ultimately asexual in his gayness, kind of like Bill Cunningham.
Nonetheless, his lack of comment on the matter almost made it worse for Clement, who, with one sanction from the mayor, might not have had his few advertisers pull out of the show. The controversy briefly drew more interest in the show for a short period, but ultimately, without his financial backing, it fizzled out. Incidentally, he does work as a radio programmer for Sirius now, and is doing much better on the monetary front than he ever has been. Emotionally, however, he’s been feeling a bit barren. His show was his life, his ultimate release. A funnel for the passion he has both for nostalgia and New York. Now, what does he do? Arranges content and drinks himself silly without an appropriate outlet for his rage. His tale spoke to me in ways I hadn’t fully expected, it reminded me of how my own dream was starting to crumble. The one where I’m more than just a “background artist” in TV shows and am actually somewhere in the shot that my mother doesn’t need to pause the screen for ten minutes in order to find me. I haven’t broken through the glass ceiling of my life quite like I thought I would.
I guess that’s how I ended up going on a road trip with Clement to Vermont when he mentioned he was going there to “get back to nature.” I figured maybe I ought to do the same thing. But I didn’t know what I had bargained for in getting into a car with him. I suppose I should have surmised that he would have a predisposition toward talk radio. And yet I never could have fathomed just how much having to hear All Things Considered on NPR would send me over the edge. Would incite old memories of riding in the car with my mother to well up. Except, in that instance, the torture was even more profound as she would only listen to Dr. Laura and The Savage Nation. Both of those voices continue to haunt me to this day. The reverberation of anger and sanctimony still echoing in my ears whenever I hear talk radio-based intonations of any kind. As I try to tell Clement about my issue, he turns the volume up to hear Ari Shapiro, who surprisingly doesn’t fit the bill of that played out joke about “having a face for the radio.” He’s almost more suited to a modeling career. Too bad he’s gay. Too bad Clement’s not, I think to myself a few times when he “accidentally” grazes me while reaching for something indeterminate in the glove compartment. I feel vaguely as though my skin is crawling from having to hear Shapiro. I don’t think there’s any voice that’s ever been suited for radio except Janeane Garofalo as Abby Barnes in The Truth About Cats & Dogs. That’s the only exception. And even that would probably grate on my nerves after long enough hearing it through this passageway of translation.
Clement starts to turn off the freeway, telling me he’s running low on gas as we come to a commercial break. I suddenly feel something hot dripping down my neck, touching it to feel what’s trickling down. When I pull my hand back, I see blood. My ears are bleeding. It’s the radio that’s done it, this I know at once. And I turn to Clement with tears in my eyes and say, “This is why I can’t listen to podcasts. The quagmire of people’s minds funneled out in stereo has never sat well with me. Not since riding in that car with my mother.” Maybe it’s cliche and all, to blame one’s mother for a particular psychological weirdness. And yet, she is so much of why I abhor the pod(cast) people. Those who create them and those who listen to them. For really, it’s like an even more extreme, militant version of radio. The voices–always the voices–trying to invade your mind with their convictions.