Posts Tagged ‘Public Radio


The ‘M’ Word

The discovery of Tom Daschle’s whopping unpaid tax bill of $146,000 is a big let down to say the least. I always liked Daschle, his goofy red glasses, his cogent and clear-headed leberalism, his class and demeanor as Senate majority leader. I loved that he was respected (dare I say it?) Democrat during the Bush administration. But he is reduced in an instant to a rusty old Washington crony. His specs are cracked and our president’s vision is blurred.

One bright spot in the whole mess was Barack Obama’s admission on half a dozen networks that he made a m— … a mmm— … mmmistake!

“I think it was a mistake. I think I screwed up,” he said.

I nearly choked on my coffee when I heard it on NPR. In the last eight years, I cannot recall a single instance of George W. Bush ever admitting to a mistake. The word never even got stuck in his throat, because it apparently never even entered his mind. Even his press secretaries would infuriatingly admit nothing more than “mistakes had been made,” but no one ever was culpable — except the scapegoats he expelled from his administration after they had done all they could to undermine the will of the people.

I respect a man who knows when he screws up. Whether or not Obama was cornered by the press, whether or not his mea culpa was a calculated move, this signifies a major turn in the conduct of the nation’s highest office. It is a turn toward the light.

But there is still a major problem in Washington. OK, first of all, who are these people not paying taxes? It defies explanation in obvious ways.

And do they seriously think it won’t be discovered? Especially following the scandal around the confirmation of the new treasury secretary, Tim Geithner, who owed $43,000 himself? Daschle probably would have made it through if he hadn’t stepped out of the process, and it’s a good thing he did. But the real kicker is he probably would have been tremendously effective as head of health and human services. We are all losing out here.

There must be a common root to this problem. Why does all this scrutiny happen during the cabinet confirmation process? Why not earlier? Why is their no indication of their “error” until this confirmation process begins? The damage is done when the taxes are not paid, not when the non-payment is discovered.

Maybe some good will come out of all this exposure, and the president will look into some measures to prevent these people from not paying their taxes. Serving in the government is a privilege, not a free pass. How about we set up a new branch of the IRS to go after these people — not the little people like you and me. Let’s guarantee that senators and representatives and other elected Washingtonians are paying their taxes from the beginning? Don’t they count? Certainly they do, and I’m sure there are legions more of these folks, each owing hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Getting wind of Daschle’s planned withdrawal, Nancy Killefer, a nominee to a lesser position, chief White House performance officer, pulled out as well because of unpaid taxes on a household employee. I guess she owed no more than $900. Not a big deal. She could write a check right now. But the principle stands, and in this climate she was wise to disentangle herself from the administration.

Let’s hope the others in line for the cabinet wise up and start putting their fellow citizens before their wallets and their careers.

There’s always hope, I guess.


Discouraging Discourse

Apparently Geraldo Rivera has written a book. His Panic: Why Americans Fear Hispanics in the U.S.

Let’s ignore the implied sexism of the title; it’s not the worst part.

“His panic.”

Get it? Get it?

He was on NPR the other day talking about it. The conversation shifted from his personal experience — my dad came over on a banana boat, no one calls me Gerry, my mustache is a part of my cultural identity, that kind of thing — to a more general discussion about U.S. immigration policy.

“The hostility by some anti-immigrant activists against Hispanics is no different from that directed against earlier generations of Irish, Italian and Jewish immigrants,” he said.

Many of the most fervent anti-immigrant activists are themselves the children or grandchildren of immigrants. The style changes, the accents change, the geographical antecedents change, but it’s the same. You can track headline for headline the response to the Irish wave of immigration in the mid-19th century to the reaction of the Minutemen and similar radical anti-immigration groups today.

I can track with him so far. I probably wouldn’t argue with much of what he says in the book. But he took a turn in the interview that really disappointed me.

The anchor asked him something like What would you say to the people who argue that their views about immigration are mostly colored by the legality of citizenship and border security?

Geraldo responded in a tone of confident superiority: “Are you really concerned about ‘border security,’ or are you concerned about the changing demographic face of the United States? For example, if it’s terrorism that you’re concerned about and you want this fence built between the United States and Mexico, why don’t you want the same fence built between the United States and Canada?”

For Geraldo to jump directly to the bugaboo of terrorism struck me as a total dodge, and it really bugged me. Especially considering that Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff himself has stated publicly that he’s more worried about the terrorist threat from the Canadian side than the Mexican side.

Besides that, given the context, I understood the question of “border security” to be more about illegal immigration than terrorism.

He continued: “It’s not crime. It’s not terror. It is demographics that is the true fear. If we wanted secure borders, what about the entire Atlantic and Pacific coasts?”

That’s fine. Xenophobia and the institutional bullying of immigrants is certainly a problem. But also, certainly, is the growing pool of undocumented workers in this country. His evasion of the illegal immigration question does his argument a disservice. This — not terrorism — is the entire reason his book is relevant, and I think Geraldo missed a golden opportunity to contribute something meaningful to the national discussion. But he passed it up in favor of an intellectually dishonest soapbox. Perhaps more disappointing is that the anchor did not press him to answer the question. Apparently, a strongly worded statement about terrorism gets you a free pass.


A Prairie Homesick Companion

We saw A Prairie Home Companion yesterday. I loved it, but found it truly odd, rather like the radio show on which it is based. The movie seemed to be about nothing. It followed no particular path or plan. This is the mark of an Altman film, of course, but also shows a heavy influence of Garrison Keillor. It was like a two-hour “News from Lake Wobegon” monologue set to a screenplay: an aloof, meandering, and largely ad-libbed story told in Keillor’s grave, butterscotch voice. Just a slice of life. Nothing important. Nothing more to see here, folks. Move along now.

And that is precisely is why it was so good.

It was also an intensely personal experience for me — to the point of distraction. It made me strongly nostalgic for my adopted home. My North Star. My Minnesota.

I lived in Minneapolis for six years and worked at Minnesota Public Radio in downtown St. Paul, where the film was shot. (Keillor’s folks would want me to take great pains, I am sure, to make clear that Prairie Home Productions is a separate company from MPR, and that A Prairie Home Companion is distributed by American Public Media, also a separate company. Though they are all like in-laws at a family reunion potluck wondering whose ambrosia salad will go home untouched.)

Half the fun was seeing people and places I once saw daily. I knew that the movie would be like a photo album for me, but I did not want to be the annoying guy up front pointing out the bottles of Grain Belt Premium beer stacked up at the Fitzgerald Theater concession cubby (Who but a Minnesotan knows what this stuff is?) and that the interior of the Fitzgerald had been repainted for the movie and that the room with the box seats where Tommy Lee Jones sits is actually a production booth in real life.

The film takes place at the Fitzgerald, where the real show happens every week for most of the year. We used to have all-staff meetings and our holiday cabaret party there. In one of the final scenes, some of the men working backstage are theater staff in real life. I never knew their names, but I recognize them!

I annoyed Jeff right away by squealing quietly when the camera panned to Mickey’s Diner in the opening scene. Mickey’s looks like an old, stationary railroad dining car at W. 7th Street and St. Peter. A historic St. Paul landmark. Essentially a burger joint. But you don’t go there for the food. You go there because it’s Mickey’s.

A ridiculous movie called Jingle All the Way used exterior shots of the diner, but the interior, where Gov. Schwarzenegger and Sinbad get into a fist fight over a toy robot, is a lamentable fake. Keillor’s movie, however, authentic down to the Grain Belt, is the real chrome-plated deal.

“You’re not going to do that all through the whole movie, are you?” he said.

And truly, I wasn’t going to.

The radio show in real life is actually better than the radio show in the movie. The musical feel is the same, but there’s more humor and a number of radio sketches and fake commercials and such.

My connection to Garrison Keillor is minor at best. I met him when I worked on the A Prairie Home Companion Web site for a year at MPR. My first meeting with him was in his cluttered office. He was barefoot. I had just been given responsibility for the Web site representing his show. He wanted us to completely redesign the site, which was the largest, most visited, most visible and most beloved of all the sites that MPR produced.

No pressure.

Oh, and have it done in three weeks in time for the launch of the new season.

And we did. The home page, and the major architecture, anyway. The rest of it came in phases throughout the next year.

I met with him again to show him design sketches from our truly marvelous Web designer Ben. (I mean it. This guy is good.) It was at his house in a fashionable St. Paul neighborhood. We sat at his dining room table. I fell in love with his kitchen. And I couldn’t help but think, “I’m discussing Web site navigation with a genius.” But he’s so… normal and homey. So… Minnesotan.

As we were leaving, he gave me and the designer copies of his latest book at the time and a new CD compilation of Lake Wobegon stories. I didn’t dare ask for an autograph. It felt petty and ungrateful at the time. Unprofessional. And I didn’t want to seem impressed. I was a colleague first, a fan second.

I can remember back when he was working on a nebulous “screenplay.” Who knew what it was about? Didn’t matter. The man was always writing something. He is so busy and so prolific. I respect him immensely. A weekly radio show, a book or two, a screenplay, an op-ed, an essay, plus whatever we could squeeze out of him for the Web site. Sure, he has time for it all! I remember a blog I had set up for him, to use as a travel log while the show made stops around the country one summer, in which he noted a visit from Robert Altman, who attended the L.A. show. Hmm… Interesting… That Keillor sure gets around, don’t he?

And here we are with a full-blown movie.

Oh my god! Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin are sitting in the seat at Mickey’s where I always sat! I had chili fries Right There!

(P.S. It’s also the same booth where Jeff spilled a whole Coke on his lap. Maybe that’s why he shushed me.)


I Heart Sufjan Stevens

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There are three I’s in Illinois

I am developing a small obsession with a folk musician from Michigan. I hear him all the time. But the problem is I just don’t like his music.

I want to like it. I really do. Critics roundly praise him. Public radio certainly loves him. (Find him on or or And I love public radio. So, there’s something, right?

But I’m just not feeling it. So I must be a joyless freak for not adoring him, I guess.

I bought Jeff his album Greetings from Michigan for Christmas. <!–(Take one look at Jeff, and you’ll see why.) –>The best thing about it is the cover art and the song titles — clever, promising numbers any Michigan nerd would love such as “Flint (For The Unemployed And Underpaid),” “For The Windows In Paradise, For The Fatherless In Ypsilanti,” “Say Yes! To M!ch!gan!,” “Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head!,” “They Also Mourn Who Do Not Wear Black (For The Homeless In Muskegon),” and “Oh God, Where Are You Now? (In Pickeral Lake? Pigeon? Marquette? Mackinaw?).” But listening to it in the car driving from Detroit to Saginaw was a rather depressing experience.

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More than a pretty picture

I like his guitar playing. I like his 50-state idea — the album after Michigan is Come on Bring the Illinoise. (I hope he makes it through all 50.) And he’s a total cutie-pie.

See? –>

But his music always leaves me with the feeling of having been at a high school music recital. There’s always a weird, unconnected brass arrangement or xylophone or something. His voice is cute but … shall we say unadorned. A whisper. A shadow. He uses layer upon layer of instruments and noise, but somehow it comes off sounding as flat as the Michigan sugar beet fields. It all adds up to a unique, very specific, practiced amateurish sound.

A sound I just can’t love.

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Sufjan Stevens and the Michigan Militia

But I will continue to try to love it. He’s more than a pretty picture; he’s clearly talented and prolific and musically versatile. Whatever he’s doing is deliberate, and that’s very cool. He is unique. I wouldn’t deny that I respect him. And I’m delighted that he’s getting so much attention.

The bottom line, I guess is: He’s a fellow Michigander — born in Detroit, raised up north. So I remain loyal to him. I wish him boundless success. I hope that I will begin to like his work very soon. And above all, I dream of the day he shows up at my doorstep, having been caught in a sudden rainstorm, his steaming t-shirt clinging to his lean, lithe body, asking me for a towel.

Let’s get you out of those wet clothes, shall we, Mr. Stevens?

the untallied hours