Listening to Lydon

A fluent and erudite public-radio host with an immense topical range shows how a call-in program can be a higher calling.

Illustration by Barry Blitt.

THOUGH the average American spends twenty-two hours a week listening to the radio, it's hidden in plain view. Almost no one reviews radio shows, and newspapers bury what scant radio listings they print. For the most part that makes sense, because very little that is new ever happens on most stations. The same songs spin endlessly, often programmed by computer in some distant city and sent via satellite to local transmitters. The talkers offer mostly shtick, comforting because it never varies -- there's blowhard shtick and raunchy shtick and even genuinely funny shtick, like Car Talk. And of course there's traffic and weather on the fives. But on the extreme left of the dial -- the numbers below 92 FM -- you can find the virtual college town. Most cities have at least one really fine public-radio chat show -- Leonard Lopate in New York; Steve Scher in Seattle; Diane Rehm in Washington, D.C.; Michael Krasny in San Francisco. (I've been on most of these shows on one book tour or another; invariably it's the highlight of my visit, the bonus for smiling through Good Morning Cleveland.) On a larger scale, Ray Suarez hosts National Public Radio's Talk of the Nation in the afternoon, and usually overcomes the handicap of his Washington base. Though she doesn't take calls, Terry Gross, on Fresh Air, has for twenty-four years offered a reliably wise and wide-ranging take on popular culture.
But it's Christopher Lydon I've been listening to since last fall, when my upstate New York radio station picked up his nationally syndicated broadcast. For two hours each weekday morning he hosts a program called The Connectionfrom his radio studio at WBUR, in Boston, and every day he demonstrates how radio can be so much more than audible wallpaper. He is general interest incarnate. His voice is erudite and extremely fluent -- no ummms, no set phrases -- and his range is immense. When he takes on a political issue, he betrays his origins as a newspaper reporter -- he actually follows through on a story, trying to shed some light rather than presiding over a cable-TV-style cockfight. Most of the media treated the Russian economic meltdown, for instance, as a natural disaster, without much background or future; for Lydon it was an intellectual puzzle to which he devoted five or six programs. He must have devoted fifteen hours to Kosovo last spring; regular listeners were among the few Americans to sense the extent of the internal Serb opposition.

In any guise politics takes up only about a third of The Connection, which is why the program sounds so fresh. It is open to the idea that our lives might consist of many excellences -- in music, poetry, food, film, love. It's open to the notion that a lot of things are kind of interesting. The program runs in two one-hour segments each morning: Eric Bogosian, Robert Brustein, Sven Birkerts, a gospel musician, a ska band, or Robert Fagles on his new translation of The Odyssey might be followed by a session on Muhammad Ali, Eartha Kitt, or several waiters discussing life behind the tray. A few of the usual professional talk-show guests do appear (oh, no, not Camille Paglia, Rahm Emanuel, Alan Dershowitz), but they are vastly outnumbered by surprises. Here's A. N. Wilson to discuss the start of the Christian Church; Simon Schama and Jamaica Kincaid discussing snow; Illinois Jacquet or Dave Brubeck (Lydon has a feel for jazz); Robert Strassler on the Peloponnesian War; Bill Barich on racehorses.

A typical day might feature one guest discussing "doing Buddhism" followed by a squad of academics on new developments in the understanding of early childhood, or the latest on the war in the Congo followed by "Dear Diary," a guide to keeping a journal. Some segments offer wonderful rediscoveries: Mort Sahl, or Tom Lehrer, who turned his hour into a detailed celebration of Stephen Sondheim and the American lyric tradition. Others introduce important but difficult voices to a broader audience -- it's hard to imagine another talk-show host in America with the guts to bring on the iconoclastic but brilliant essayist George W. S. Trow.

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