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Rip Van Wradio

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Lately I get these Rip Van Winkle moments. They pelt me around the ears and leave me dazed. They started last year, and in 2018 kept on coming.


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It happened again this week with the retirement of radio newsman Tony Sarabia. Sarabia is a fixture at Chicago public radio WBEZ, filing local stories, hosting a daily politics and culture interview show, Morning Shift, and playing world music on Radio M. This busy city guy is retiring to a goat farm in Iowa. I can relate, migrating to the tall pines of East Texas every year. Gotta follow your bliss.


Sarabia joins other NPR stalwarts taking a bow this year: long-time All Things Considered host Robert Siegel, who retired, and newsman and Wait? Wait Don't Tell Me! host Carl Kasell, who died in August. I listened to these guys for a long time, and then I stopped. Now after many years we've happily reconnected, but just as they're taking their curtain calls. It makes me feel like Rip Van Winkle, woeful for all the time I missed ? a bittersweet feeling that comes courtesy of the Amazon Dot.


The Echo Dot has been a real blessing to me. I realize it's creepy bringing a listening device into your home, but as a quadriplegic I've got other concerns. Turning on lights, making hands-free phone calls, recharging my laptop, setting reminders and recording notes and phone numbers when I cannot jot them down with a pen, all add up to a windfall of benefits. These are things my wife doesn't have to do for me anymore, so it makes her life easier as well. In fact it's made things so much easier that I now have creepy listening devices scattered throughout my home, serving and surveilling me throughout the day.


My favorite Dot benefit, though, is radio. I'm back into radio in a big way. I've always loved radio, always had it on. To me, a television in the background is what's truly creepy. It's white noise, propaganda, piping anxiety and sales pitches directly into your subconscious. No wonder the times are so crazy. But music, ah. All types of music, music for every mood. My tastes have always been eclectic to match my moods, and I was an inveterate station flipper. No one station could interest me forever, but if it was a good one I would be back. For other times, long-form radio news or a good talk show was there too. So, my radio was always playing.


When I went on disability, life simmered down a lot. It was a blessing, no doubt, because going to and from work every day had become an incredibly fraught, frustrating and humiliating process every single day. Two hours to dress, two hours to get into work (the drive itself was only 40 minutes), and that's with no mishaps, falls, self-urinations, all kinds of fun ? and coming back home I had to do it all over again. Sometimes I'd fall asleep in the car before driving home, I was so exhausted. So yeah, disability was good. No more struggle, commuting, snow or bosses in my face. Like magic, the bruises covering my body disappeared. But what I didn't count on was the isolation.


All of the hurly-burly of life disappears and is replaced by the four walls of home. It sounds good, you know, not having to confront random jerks on the street or cars cutting you off in traffic. But then you don't get the cool, spontaneous moments of simply interacting with people either. On disability you interact with others a whole lot less.


My life got quieter, literally too. I lost the radio habit. As it became more and more difficult to operate the radio, maneuvering my scooter to just the right spot (with no furniture casualties) to reach and work the dials, knobs and switches with deteriorating fingers, I slowly but surely tapered down my listening until I lost the taste for it altogether. I went in and out of remote controls, with their small buttons, and Internet radio, which can be temperamental, and it wasn't the same, not as instantaneous and fun anymore.


But my bubble of silence was popped when I tried the Dot. It's geeky, I know, to say that a gadget fixed my wounded soul, but that's the power of music. Not just using the gadget as a voice-operated jukebox ? the best jukebox in the world because you are programming it yourself, and no need for quarters! ? but when I first tried requesting a radio station, what a day! I don't remember what radio station it was that I asked for, but afterward it was a steady stream of Chicago stations, stations in distant towns I'd passed through on road trips, and other far-flung stations I'd only heard about. They were coming in, all of them. The Dot is like a super shortwave radio, pulling in stations from all directions, but completely hands- and static-free. It was glorious, and it was all mine. No more deciding by committee, no compromising, no asking somebody to change the station or volume. Soon I'd compiled a week-long list of radio shows, by day and time, featuring the music and news programs that I like. That list is still around and it's growing. It is my TV Guide.


I was reconnecting with shows that I loved 20-25 years ago. So cool, like a reunion with a friend. I'd listened to these DJs and radio hosts when I was a young man, still strong though developing a noticeable limp that would be diagnosed as multiple sclerosis. Back then I would have looked at the Dot as a novelty, something like the singing fish trophy on the wall. Now, years later, I was tuning in to these same people as a grizzled quadriplegic in a wheelchair who relies on the Dot like a fifth appendage. Oh, I had missed so much, but at least we were together again. I was blissed out.


I got to hear reporter John Hockenberry again. Hockenberry wrote a great memoir about living and working in a wheelchair called Moving Violations, always memorable to me. I listened to his show exactly twice before he quit in August, 2017. Was it something I said? (No, it turned out to be #MeToo-related.) Bummer, but this was only an appetizer. Enter Rip Van Winkle.


In 2017, KEXP in Seattle announced the end of Shake the Shack. KEXP was one of those radio stations I'd only heard of, and while I was exploring there I hooked into Shake the Shack in a big way. Shake the Shack was a 30-year deep-dive into hot rod rockabilly, surf, blues, gospel and all other kinds of roots music that I love. Hosts Leon Berman and "Cousin Mike" Fuller made it sublime: it was one of those shows where you can't believe they played one great song after another, and then the next one would lift things into amazing. StS instantly became part of my Friday night routine, but alas, only for those last months before they turned off the jukebox. Shake the Shack, we hardly knew he.


At the same time, another announcement: the Mambo Express would be signing off the airwaves. For 30 years, Victor Parra at WDCB in suburban Chicago played Afro-Cuban rhythms that were impossible to sit still to. In my early 20s, I savored Oscar Hijuelos' romantic, atmospheric novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, which was like a tour through the vibrant nightclubs of New York's Latin Quarter in the 1950s. That's when I found Parra, whose music was like a soundtrack filling in all of those names I had read about: Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, Desi Arnaz. I got to visit them all again until the end of the Mambo Express in 2017.


Jacob Marley told Scrooge he'd visit with three ghosts, and that was the number of the year's Rip Van Winkle moments. The third came with the end of Jazz Transfusion at WXRT in Chicago. The show was always niche, a remnant of XRT's independent radio past. For as long as I can remember (another in the 30-year club, it turns out), JT was shoehorned in a Sunday late-night time slot. But I delivered years of pizzas to the sounds of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly and a lot of others I wouldn't have known without DJ Barry Winograd's program. Thanks, Barry, for the perfect music to meet a 30-minute guarantee.


Each one of these is sad news ? stacked together, they made me feel like Rip Van Winkle. The days tick by as even and mesmerizing as white lines on the highway. Then something jars you out of your hypnosis, maybe a string of Rip Van Winkle moments, and you get a shocking glimpse in the rearview of all of the road behind you. That time has passed and it terrifies you. Here's to great radio that made this whole thing remarkable. I'm listening to it now.


Now you'll have to excuse me: Rip Van Winkle's got a station to flip.

Comments

  1. Crashbang's Avatar
    What a good post, you should think about writing a regular column for New Mobility magazine! I?m home alone with my radio/computer for company, too, and I feel the same pain when favorite shows and announcers, hosts, broadcasters retire or move elsewhere. I?m including the links to shows I enjoy and hope they?ll maybe add some enjoyment to your list and to other CC members. I?m wishing you and all a happy new year and hope to contribute more in the months ahead. Thanks, Spitzbub, for your excellent post and reminder of the joys of streaming radio shows and music. Here are some of my faves:
    Legends radio, classic jazz, mainly with vocals:
    http://theoriginalgasstation.com/mobile.php
    Replays of Garrison Keillor?s Prairie Home Companion shows:

    http://www.garrisonkeillor.com/radio/
    Replays of radio humorist Jean Shepherd?s broadcasts from station WOR, NYC:
    https://archive.org/details/JeanShepherd1965Pt1
    Vintage rock curated by Little Stephen Van Zandt, with current and archived shows:
    http://undergroundgarage.com/shows-8...g-to-town.html
    Celtic music show, The Thistle and Shamrock:
    http://thistleradio.com/
    Metropolitan Opera radio:
    https://www.siriusxm.com/metropolitanopera
  2. Spitzbub's Avatar
    Oh thank you! Looking at your list, you and I would get along fine. (I just rolled in from a long road trip and we were hitting Little Steven's Underground Garage hard.) Saturday afternoons from 1-5 central, you can find Those Were the Days, vintage radio shows on WDCB which was referenced in my blog. I know that it streams online. Thanks again and let me know if you want to trade more programs.