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.

Boston, Cambridge, and environs not only provide a steady supply of guests; they make one realize what a mistake it is that most journalistic enterprises are based in Washington or New York, guaranteeing a steady diet of politics and money and almost nothing else. The professoriat may not be particularly powerful, but it contains the last full-time thinkers in our economy. And the callers are often even better. They rarely call in to rant; Lydon's generosity of spirit seems to have spread to his audience. One day around Halloween the novelist Harlan Ellison appeared to talk about scary writing. Midway through the show Ellison became upset when Lydon referred to some of his work as "science fiction." He got up and left. The calls did not stop: instantly the program became a discussion of genre fiction and why its writers might be sensitive to ghettoization. Lydon ended the hour by reading part of an Ellison short story he particularly likes.

Ada Louise Huxtable on America's fascination with simulation, Isabella Rossellini on beauty, Bobby Short on Duke Ellington, the director of MTV's The Real World on "The Observed Life: Is It Worth Living?," a vegetarian chef on "Big Flavor, Without the Meat," Robert Nozick on Socrates, a batting coach on how to hit a curve ball, Robert Hass judging a haiku contest, Donald Hall on poetry and grief, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Yo-Yo Ma, Loudon Wainwright III, electric deregulation, twenty-five-cent words -- Lydon handles it all with casual aplomb, as if he were the host at a particularly good brunch. It's only when he's away that you understand just how good he is. One day last fall a fill-in host staged a familiar catfight among women opinionators over Bill Clinton. No matter what anybody said, she kept dragging the conversation back to the same tired debate: Were feminists letting the President off easy for his affair? Eventually someone named Ti-Grace phoned in, with a long and quite brilliant monologue on the whole subject; it was almost certainly the feminist writer Ti-Grace Atkinson, but to this host it was just someone to cut off as quickly as possible because she was straying from the insipid point. Lydon seems genuinely interested in his callers. One day not long ago he was interviewing an author about the life of Shostakovich, his music, and his struggles with the Soviets. A caller rang up, a Russian émigré violinist with the Boston Symphony, who had once rehearsed a new Shostakovich piece in the composer's Moscow apartment. She described the occasion, the man, the music, all at some length, and Lydon did not stop her.

Lydon has his blind spots. As befits an urban intellectual, he rarely discusses the physical world, the environment, the grand sweep of nature that informs more lives than jazz or avant-garde film. But that means only that there should be a few more Chris Lydons, each with the courage of his or her idiosyncrasies and with enough of a budget to get on the air.

Sometimes public radio seems to be losing its touch -- flagship programs like Morning Editionand All Things Considered, fine as they are, seem more and more to restrict their gaze to politics and policy, leaving aside the other 350 degrees of human life. But more often than any other medium, public radio finds common turf from which to operate. A spectacular example is This American Life,a weekly documentary hour hosted by Ira Glass, which does things with the sound of human talk that no one else has managed since recording was invented. A steady, reliable example is The Connection, every weekday morning from 10:00 to 12:00 EDT, with Oliver Sacks, with Martin Amis, with Tim McCarver, with Barry Lopez -- celebrating Bloomsday, following World Cup soccer, explicating the vibraphonist Gary Burton's four-mallet technique, debating the pros and cons of bachelorhood. It's the world pre-irony, a place that's still worth ambling through.

Bill McKibben is the author of several books, including (1992), (1999), and (1989), which has recently been re-issued in a tenth-anniversary edition.

Illustration by Barry Blitt.

The Atlantic Monthly; October 1999; Listening to Lydon - 99.10; Volume 284, No. 4; page 104-106.