Over the course of the past year, I embraced the surest sign of middle age there is: talk radio.
When I was growing up, radio was my primary source for music. I listened to Casey Kasem’s “Top 40 Countdown” nearly every Sunday, waiting with breathless anticipation to find out which song snagged the top berth and keeping my tape recorder close by to make bootleg copies of my favorite tunes along the way. What I liked best about music on the radio then was the element of surprise. You never really knew which song would come up when – the only way to summon up a song on demand back then was to call the radio station and make a request – and if you wanted to know which song topped the Billboard list for that week, you had to tune in to the Countdown.
If video killed the radio star, the internet killed the element of surprise on music radio (and pretty much everywhere else, too). No longer do we wait to hear a favorite song or to find out where it falls in the ranks of popular music; we Shazam it, type some text into a search window, and we’re done. The efficiency we gained is great, but we sacrificed that sense of suspense that made it fun to listen not just to music on the radio but for it.
And just in case the preceding paragraph didn’t brand me completely as middle-aged, let me remove all doubt by adding that the music that lands on pop radio today, and the way all the stations seem to play the same three songs on an endless loop, doesn’t inspire me to seek it out. I’m not saying there isn’t some worthy pop stuff out there, just that if there’s a modern equivalent of Prince, he’s not hanging out on the FM airwaves. (If my Prince will come at all, he’ll probably arrive by way of Spotify, which is where I look for new music these days.)
And if you’re tempted to shoot down my “music radio was better way back when” theory by pointing to musical atrocities of my youth, like “Pass the Dutchie,” “We Built This City,” and “Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car” I have two things to say to you: 1) Yes, I know these songs are now stuck in your head –
you got what you deserved by mentioning them; and 2) Like all self-respecting Gen X-ers, I am deep in the process of sanitizing the memories of my past, which means I have re-characterized these abominations as musical foils meant to enhance our appreciation of artists like Prince and George Michael. Now get off my lawn.
So a year or two ago, I began the transition to talk radio when driving around town. I started with WTOP for traffic and weather “on the ‘eights’ and when it breaks” — “and when it breaks” has always sounded to me like the onset of a pox, and maybe that’s about right — but the repetitiveness and lack of depth wore me out in short order. I switched to NPR. It was a nice enough place to hang out until Campaign 2016 came along and started barfing all over the joint.
Hankering for the sound of live voices and desperate for a haven from the stench of politics, late this summer I skidded to a stop on 106.7, an all-sports talk station known as “The Fan.” I grew up on and love sports, so it made perfect sense, except for one teeny, tiny thing: I don’t like the Redskins. I never have, even though I’ve lived in the DC area for my entire adult life. Both of my parents are from Pennsylvania, Mom is from Philly, thus the Yank DNA requires that we root for the Eagles. (No one roots for the Eagles by choice. It ain’t an easy gig.) This means I must root against all division rivals, including the ‘Skins. My dislike for the ‘Skins might not have mattered had I not made my move to The Fan during the pre-season. The circumstances were far from optimal, but I’d run out of options.
When I tuned in, the Sports Junkies –four local guys who’ve been on the airwaves for 20 years — were on. I’d caught bits and pieces of their show before but had never stuck around long enough to get to know them. In an era when we all need to work a little harder to understand those whose beliefs differ dramatically from our own, I decided it was time for me to cozy up to some ‘Skins fans. And you know what? Aside from learning more about football, a sport I speak proficiently but not fluently, I’ve learned the Junkies and I have some things in common. We’re basically peers, age-wise –with similar physical complaints to show for it –and I get the sense that their musical, linguistic and cultural references haven’t moved much beyond the late ’90s and they’re unapologetic about it. So I’m pretty sure you can get off their lawns, too. And one of them is on a quest to improve his dating life, not that I can relate or anything. Best of all, though, listening to the Junks banter careen from topic to topic takes me back to the days when I’d sit around watching a game with a bunch of my guy friends. Since my cadre of guy friends has shrunk over the years, another casualty of marriage, those hangouts have pretty much fallen by the wayside. The Junkies give me a way to experience that kind of camaraderie again, albeit vicariously, and I love that.
On the drive home, I sometimes catch part of “Chad Dukes Versus The World” on The Fan. Though I suspect my and Chad’s politics differ, I know we have one important thing in common: we both love his mom. She taught music when I was a student at Orange Hunt Elementary School and remains one of my all-time favorite teachers, even if she is technically responsible for the fact that three friends and I burst into a rousing rendition of “The Fifty States Song” at a funeral. I also enjoy the way Chad weaves underused words like “bombast,” “gravitas” and “bloviate” into casual conversation. And as someone who co-hosts a weekly podcast whose episodes last however long we want ’em to, but never more than an hour, I have mad respect for someone who hosts a four-hour show daily and pretty much solo.
So yes, I’ve transitioned to talk radio and the Fan, two things thirty-something me would have mocked mercilessly. This puts me squarely on the middle age track, which doesn’t thrill me, but it helps to know I’m running in good company.