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An interview with Susan Douglas
Susan Douglas is the author of Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media. She is Catherine Neafie Kellogg Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Michigan. She contributes essays and articles to The Nation, Ms., TV Guide, and The Progressive. Her latest book is Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination.
A wave of mergers has swept the media since the 1996 Telecommunications Act. The consolidation in radio has been particularly acute. For example, one corporation, Clear Channel, now controls more than 800 stations with pre-formatted programming, computerized music lists, and the like. What does that bode for the future of radio?
You can look at this wave of consolidation in both an optimistic and a pessimistic way. Obviously, the pessimistic way is that it is exerting a stranglehold over commercial radio as the formats are becoming narrower and narrower, serving ever-smaller demographic niches. One of the biggest demographic niches now is the 12- to 18-year-old market. What these consolidators will say is that there's more variety on radio then ever because we have all of these different formats. If you don't like one, you can turn to another. But within those formats, variety is left at the door. One of the real problems with this culturally, forget economically and politically, is that it encourages us to indulge in push-button listening, to think of ourselves as members of mutually exclusive auditory niches in which one group doesn't really have to listen to the music or thoughts or sounds of another group. This segregation is very damaging to us culturally. It separates old people from young people, people of color from white people, men from women.
Having said that, history shows us that it is just at these moments when corporations have a stranglehold on radio, when it seems like there's nowhere to turn, when it seems that conformity controls everything, that someplace on the radio band a rebellion occurs. Listeners are restless, bored, and fed up. Listeners want a revolution in radio. History has shown us that every time this kind of corporate grip on radio takes hold, a rebellion does occur, and it's often very successful.
Where do you see those cutting edges in radio?
Right now you see this kind of experimentation on the web. You see people online trying to be their own DJs and playing alternative music. The question is, Will that translate to on-air radio? As much as I might find it exciting and interesting, I can't take my computer with me in the car, kitchen or bedroom. So the question is whether there will be some kind of crossover from this web experimentation to on-the-air.
Low-power FM had been sanctioned by the FCC. There is a concerted attempt, led by the National Association of Broadcasters and supported by National Public Radio, to repeal the FCC's edict on licensing low-power radio.
This has been one of the FCC's better moments in the last 20 years. There are moments when FCC regulations actually make a big difference. In the early 1960s, AM stations that owned FM stations were allowed to simulcast the same programming over FM that were on AM. In 1964 the FCC said, You can't do that any more. The spectrum is too crowded. You have to do original programming on FM. That ruling led to the very creative explosion in FM programming in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It's surprising given how conservative the FCC has been over the last 20 years. The range of low-power FM is about seven miles. All of these arguments about interference are bogus. It's going to tap into very small communities of young people, of African Americans and others in very interesting ways.
You've compared listening to radio to an act of subversion. What do you mean by that?
I don't think all radio listening is subversive. Some of it is utterly conformist and passive. But I do think that when radio programmers encourage avid, careful, experimental listening, that is a subversive activity. When we have seen that happen throughout our history, there have been important cultural explosions and cross-pollinations. For example, in the 1920s, African American jazz was banned on most radio stations. Most owners thought it would be scandalous to put musicians like Louis Armstrong or Bessie Smith on the air. But some stations did it. There was a socialist station in New York where they got on. They were played in Chicago. There were Southern stations that played Bessie Smith. The telephone lines at the station would light up from white people asking to hear repeats of Bessie Smith songs. Why was jazz so threatening? The white cultural critics said that jazz was jungle music. It was going to promote promiscuity and lead girls down the road to ruin. All of this was a very racist criticism of this music. But when jazz did get on the radio, people like Armstrong and Fats Waller and Duke Ellington introduced legions of white listeners, especially young white listeners, to African American music. Jazz enlivened radio. This little turnstile that radio has provided between white and black culture started with jazz.
Then you have things kind of tamed. You have more white-led bands. A few African American musicians get on the air, but they can't get jobs as studio musicians. Then you have the next revolution, which is swing. Swing is the music that crosses the color line. You have Benny Goodman playing with African American performers. Again, you have an explosion. Swing was youth music. You have a broader audience for African American musicians than you did in the past. When some white people listen to the joy and beauty of African American music, it makes them sympathetic to civil rights and creates understanding of African Americans as people.
Then the war happens. A lot of the entertainment for the servicepeople was segregated. There was music sent out for white soldiers and music sent out for black soldiers during World War II. At the end of the war, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, what happens to radio? It's dying because all of the talent is going to TV. People think that radio's dead. But radio goes local and discovers for the first time the African American audience. There's a big explosion in the black middle class in the 1940s. You begin to have stations around the country catering to that audience. They're playing R&B, Louis Jordan, the Clovers. Whites start listening to this music. One of them is Wolfman Jack, who thinks this is the coolest music. With the spread of R&B and the emergence of rock and roll, once again you have African American music and patter and slang having the opportunity to constitute the identities of white kids in the 1950s. This is threatening and there are enormous reactions against rock and roll. There's a book by Brian Ward called Just My Soul Responding, which looks at the relationship between R&B and rock and roll and the civil rights movement. This music played a crucial role in shaping young white people's sympathies for the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.
Then AM gets tamed. By 1963, we have the Drake formula. We're hearing the same six songs in very tight rotation. It's boring. No wonder young people began in 1967, 1968, 1969 to flock to underground FM stations where different kinds of music were juxtaposed, where there was criticism of the Vietnam War and where there was a lot of community activism going on. Then in the 1970s, FM gets tamed. The people who introduce a surprise on the radio are going to discover an untapped audience.
Where do more contemporary forms like rap and hip hop fit in?
I stopped the story too soon. Here you have these inner-city kids who do not have access to fancy equipment. They can't go out and buy electric guitars and form bands. But they can use these old turntables, and they have something that white kids don't have, this powerfully established form of rhyming and word play that comes from the inner city. These things combine to produce something called rap in the late 1970s and early 1980s. We've all seen what's happened to rap. Rap became as demonized as jazz was in the 1920s. It was a horrible influence on American culture, etc. Is there some rap that many of us find revolting? Yes, there is. There is rap that is very misogynist, that promotes a kind of hyper-commercialism that we all find repelling. There is rap that encourages racial hatred. But rap was like news from the streets about what it's like to be an African American in a racist society.
Let's talk about NPR, which you said you're a devoted listener of. It started in 1971 with its flagship news program “All Things Considered.” In 1979 “Morning Edition” comes on. Both programs are carried on hundreds of stations all over the U.S. NPR is now an established player inside the Beltway. It's respected and respectable. Once established, is timidity in content inevitable?
I don't know the answer to that question, and it's not just a question about NPR. If you look at almost any corporate or institutional entity in the U.S. that got started on risk, on experimentation, on introducing a new product, whether it was hardware or software, the kind of ferment that got that experimentation going can die down once they become established. Then you find experimentation coming elsewhere. After all, it wasn't IBM that produced the computer revolution. It was some guy in his garage named Steve Jobs. This is a pattern we see in many institutions, and it's happened with NPR. It's not only some kind of natural history of institutions where they start off experimenting and then they become ossified or establishment. To give NPR its due in the face of criticisms that many of us feel, it has suffered from the start with how it was funded. It has been subjected to enormous bashing and political pressure from the right to become mainstream. There were threats of defunding, real and imagined. NPR has had to become much more entrepreneurial. They've had to find underwriters because they can't trust a form of funding that is free from political tinkering and threats. They've had to become more safe and mainstream. It's like the New York Times of radio. It's the broadcast of record. Many of us regard “All Things Considered” as much more reputable and prestigious than “NBC news.”
Having said that, if you listen to the very early broadcasts of “All Things Considered” and how they played with sound, the layering of sound, to bring you right in the middle of a demonstration or strike or disaster, the kinds of voices that got on, you heard a lot more African American voices, working-class voices, rural voices, than you do now. Those voices and those kinds of sounds made NPR a constant surprise and joy. Susan Stamberg had a real sense of play. There was a lot of political satire that went on in the 1970s and early 1980s that isn't there any more..
A few years ago Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, FAIR, the New York-based media watch group, did a systematic study on “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered,” who gets on and who they represent. The results revealed a narrow range of opinion. For example, on media issues, voices like Ben Bagdikian, Bob McChesney, Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman, and many others were never heard.
FAIR has been great in documenting these kinds of trends, and I think this is testimony to the kinds of political pressure that NPR has been put under and also who's in the Rolodex. I could name other people. I'd like to hear Katha Pollitt or Salim Muwakkil. How many African American voices do we hear on NPR who talk about media coverage or the economy or the environment or international affairs? Aren't African Americans informed about these issues? Of course they are. The voices are white. They're usually male. They're often very mainstream and once in a while conservative. When you have safety, safety retreats to the enclaves of white men.
Another area where there seems to be a significant gap in both public radio and public TV is coverage of labor issues. For example, on PBS there's “Wall Street Week” covering what's happening in the market, mergers, takeovers, stock options and the like. On public radio there's a comparable program called “Marketplace,” a daily half hour produced by Public Radio International. Where are the labor voices?
You don't hear them. In mid-September the New York Times had a cover story about real middle-class Americans. They looked at people who actually earn the median income and talked about their lives as if this was a big surprise that some people are checkout folks at Toys “R” Us in the morning and work at McDonald's at night, that there are families struggling between the mother and the father doing three or four jobs to make ends meet. We don't hear about these people at all. We don't hear about strikes, labor activism, and the differences that unions can and do make. The dominant image of the labor union in the media right now is some fat, corrupt, and corrupting bureaucratic institution. There's no countervailing imagery that shows us what working-class life is like, what working conditions are like, how most of America lives. What we hear and see is an upper-middle-class white view of the world that represents probably five percent of the population. The rest have been forgotten. I was just thinking about this recently as I was looking once again at Studs Terkel's book Working. What a great radio program that would be, a show called Working. What's it like to be a chambermaid? What's it like to manufacture candy in a factory? What's it like to build bridges? Most Americans don't know. It's a whole side of life that has been censored, that is forbidden. When things are censored and forbidden they become tantalizing.
You say that talk radio has become a kind of electronic surrogate for the town common or the village green of the air.
Talk radio started taking off in the late 1970s. The original audience, studies suggest, was mostly working-class men who felt really cut out economically. The 1970s was a very tough economic time. There was a collapse of faith in the federal government and in many institutions. Men in particular who felt shut out economically and culturally began turning to these talk shows and interacting with hosts and venting. By the 1980s, the audiences for these shows became more varied. There were more upscale listeners. The cell phone was crucial here because people could call in from their cars. There's a powerful screening filter about who gets on and who doesn't, but nonetheless you get to hear different voices from around the country expressing themselves. Whether you agree with Rush Limbaugh and his dittoheads or not, you get to hear a range of opinions that you are not hearing on the mainstream news media on TV. Some people were turning to Limbaugh for what's called “surveillance listening.” They wanted to hear how the other half was thinking about things. They were liberals or progressives, but they wanted to hear what was going on. For conservatives, this was a place for them to go to hear a range of opinions. The other thing about talk radio that was crucial to its success was that it was passionate. It was emotional about politics. You see Peter Jennings or Tom Brokaw laced up there in their suits and it's emotionally cold and buttoned up. Talk radio provided a place where people could be emotional about political issues. People wanted that and didn't have a public space for it, so they went to the air for it.
Are there any feminist voices on radio or TV?
Talk about forbidden. There were two legacies of the media coverage of the women's movement in the 1970s and beyond. One was that the media coverage of the women's movement let many Americans know that there was something called a women's movement, that it was making powerful demands, equal pay for equal work, non-discrimination. The news media played a crucial role in reshaping the terrain of gender relations in the U.S. by giving feminists a forum. At the same time what the news media did, and this started four seconds after the women's movement got broadcast on TV, was they turned feminism into a dirty word and promulgated the stereotype of the feminist as the child-loathing, man-hating, anti-fashion ninja from Hades. Feminism is still an F-word. You struggle to find a feminist commentary about anything, a self-identified feminist on TV or on the radio.
There are millions of young women in this country who would never go back to 1953 or 1963. Yet they say, I'm not a feminist, but.... Once in a while they let one of us talk if it's about day care or abortion. How many people got to hear Molly Yard on the radio, a very powerful speaker? How many people get to hear the writer June Jordan or Jill Ireland of NOW or Eleanor Smeal of the Fund for the Feminist Majority? Feminist voices are very heavily censored and continue to be heavily demonized as if none of us ever had men for friends or children we love or bought a suit. This kind of stereotyping is awful and it has cordoned off feminist voices and put up a real cardboard caricature of feminists, when in fact there are as many ways to be a feminist as there are to be a woman, and a man, for that matter.
Oprah Winfrey is enormously popular. Apparently, 76 percent of her audience is women. She has a literal empire, including a book club and a new magazine.
Oprah is a very particular phenomenon and she builds on what Phil Donahue was doing in the 1970s. But Donahue was the one who started this talk show phenomenon. I think people would be shocked today if they went back and looked at Donahue tapes from the 1970s. They were about politics, political issues. He discovered the female audience that was not being spoken to as a citizenry. Were there programs about cultural stuff and lifestyle issues? Sure there were. But if people went back and looked at the old shows they would be amazed to see the way in which Donahue gave women access to the microphone as audience members to talk about a range of political issues. Oprah has built on that, and one has to admire her for not becoming like Jenny Jones or Montel Williams. She is very proud of the fact that she is trying to cultivate reading among women, reading of books authored by and for women, including African American women. But I wish that she would also include more political issues of import to women rich and poor, like day care, health, the treatment of women in prison and domestic violence. We need more discussion about these things, and someone of her stature could continue to advance these kinds of feminist issues.
A couple of other prominent talk show hosts are Jerry Springer and Howard Stern. How would you characterize them?
There's an interesting book out by sociologist Josh Gamson called Freaks Talk Back. Gamson is looking at the way in which shows like Jerry Springer, however manipulating, however exploitative, however marginalizing they are of the guests, nonetheless have provided over the years a brief space where what Gamson calls sexual nonconformists can get on the air. Are they sometimes vilified and made fun of and treated as freaks? Yes, they are. But Gamson's argument is that when Springer and these other folks bring on right-wing anti-gay bigots, the audience boos them off the stage. With Springer you see the cost of visibility. Until recently, and we're just beginning to see this, there have been so few places for gays and lesbians and transgendered people to be anyplace on the media, you get some visibility on a show like Springer, and you pay for it. I think these shows have been a double-edged sword not only for gays and lesbians and transgendered people, but also for women, for people of color, for mothers. Any kind of nonconformist is booed, vilified, exploited, made fun of. At its core, despite the fact that conservatives beat up on the Jerry Springer show, I think it is a profoundly conservative show. What it does at the end of the day is endorses and reinforces core, highly conformist, upper-middle-class values about comportment and behavior.
Howard Stern's TV show is appalling. Now that his marriage has fallen apart, he's gotten even more exploitative and revolting in his dealings with women. There were times when Stern on the radio was funny. I certainly didn't agree with his race-baiting and attacks on people with disabilities and his sexist and misogynist harangues. But back in the 1980s and early 1990s, he was very good at pricking the arrogance and self-importance of celebrity culture. I don't think he's funny any more. His sexual objectification of women has reached a point where it makes him look pathetic.
It's interesting that Stern has an African American woman on who virtually echoes everything he says.
I don't really understand Robin Quivers's politics. They've been together a long time. She's done radio with him for years. She's got a great radio voice. She's a wonderful foil for him. But she seems to reinforce this kind of objectification of women. I don't understand it.
Talk about some of your recent research on mothering and the media.
What I'm finding very interesting about this historical moment of the mid and late 1980s and the early 1990s is you find two things happening in the media. One is, you get an explosion of these celebrity mothers on the covers of all of these magazines. They are telling us mothers how perfect they are, how wonderful their babies are, how motherhood is like having Christmas and New Years all the time and it's the equivalent of seeing God and climbing Mount Everest, when those of us who are real mothers know otherwise. At the same time, and nobody puts these images together, we have the circulation of African American welfare mothers as the demons of the culture who are ruining everything that is good and great about America. I'm writing a book on this with Meredith Michaels of Smith College. One of the things we are looking at is the way in which these images circulated together and shaped public policy and the status of life for poor children. Let's remember that we still have a quarter of the children in this country living in poverty.
Much is made by what are called moral entrepreneurs, like William Bennett, for example, who lectures endlessly on family values, morals and marriage. Joe Lieberman is another one. What's the subtext that's going on there?
The backlash against feminism has never stopped. People like Bill Bennett are doing several things at once. One is, of course, reasserting patriarchal values. The other is to suggest that prior to, say, 1968, we had these wonderful patriarchal values and everything was great. The family was happy. Things were perfect. He combines 1960s-bashing with the bashing of women and feminism. He harkens to some time that never existed in which people were allegedly happy and seeks to reestablish some kind of fictitious past in which men were literally and figuratively on top. He and others do this through this kind of culture wars language. The culture wars have subsided somewhat in terms of the level of vitriol, but they've gone underground and gotten embedded in institutional structures. There are a lot of things that one cannot say any more. I'm quoting from Katha Pollitt now, who says as a result of these things, a 22-year-old woman who's had an abortion cannot say, I'm so glad I had that abortion. If I'd had that baby it would have ruined my life. I wasn't ready for it. The father was awful. You're not allowed to say that. What you're supposed to say is, Oh, my God, I anguished over this. What did I do? I'll regret this for the rest of my life. There's a way in which this kind of family values discourse has powerfully censored what women can and cannot say.
So it has special implications for women because of so-called family values?
“Family values” is a code word for patriarchy. Whose family values? Of the lesbian couple raising children? No. Of a woman who is the sole support of her family, whether she has a husband or not? No. Family values is the upper-middle-class white male breadwinner who goes out and the wife stays home and takes care of the kids. There's a very small percentage of the population that wants to or can conform to that kind of value system.
Where are the points of resistance?
Women are not out in the streets. I teach at a university where I meet a lot of women. The revolution “has happened.” These young women don't know what they're in for yet out there. They expect to work and have children and have families, whether they're straight or gay. They don't expect to be in the home becoming domestic goddesses. They're getting mixed messages, because at the same time they're also surrounded by the kind of Martha Stewart-ization of America where there's a revalidation of the glories of domestic life. Women are resisting in a variety of small ways or in not paying attention to these guys because their lives are going to be different. You see it in resistances in marriages, where men are being asked to do more than they used to in the past, resistances at the workplace, where women are saying, I'm not going to be part of this work culture. It's alienating and dehumanizing and I can't be a mother and a worker. So I'm going to find another work culture. I wish that more of us were better organized. I went to the Million Mom March. When you're in a group of 750,000-plus people who are really angry, these were women of color, white women, old, young, kids, men, you see resistance there. There are resistances against this stuff around the country. They don't get much media coverage, so people don't think they're out there. Just because things aren't covered, or they're covered dismissively, as the anti-WTO demonstrations were in Seattle, for instance, it doesn't mean that resistance isn't out there.
What is your vision of democratic media?
There would be cable channels devoted to feminist issues. There would be cable channels with feminist programming. There would also be programming by and for women on MSNBC, CNBC, CNN, etc. There would be cable channels that would show independent video productions and documentaries that would shake things up a little and move us beyond the kind of documentaries that are on Discovery or the History Channel to showing us the kind of experimental video art that a lot of feminists and people of color are doing. We would see the exciting documentaries that people don't realize are being censored all the time off of PBS and elsewhere. We would see the work of Kalle Lasn of Ad Busters magazine. He does these hilarious parodies of commercials, both from print media and broadcast. We would have talk shows in which there really was a left, it wasn't just Sam Donaldson representing liberals. There would be a progressive cable channel. Wouldn't that be great? There would be more voices on radio, particularly on NPR, of people who don't get access to the mike right now, people of color, workers, feminists, etc. I agree very much with Sut Jhally of the Media Education Foundation in Northampton, Massachusetts that people on the left don't want censorship. If Laura Ingraham and all those right-wing blondes want to go on the air, let them. But we're being censored because of commercial pressures. I would advocate more voices, more diversity. The other thing democratic media would have would be more outlets for kids, teenagers and young people, not just to be the objects of marketing strategies by corporations, but to be the subjects of their own lives. That would be the beginning of my vision of democratic media. Z
David Barsamian is the founder of Alternative Radio and producer of Making Contact. He is the author of Keeping the Rabble in Line and The Pen and the Sword. His interviews have appeared in Harper's, Z, the Progressive, and other magazines.