October 2, 2016

The Socialist Filter


Not to bite the hand that feeds me, but to be honest it hasn’t fed me in a while so I’m not going to worry about it too much. National Public Radio was always an invaluable tool when it came to promoting books. I mean, what other radio or TV station nowadays is gonna take the time to talk about stupid books that aren’t celebrity tell-alls? nobody reads, nobody buys books anymore, so why the hell waste the time and effort? Wait for the movie to come out and we’ll talk about that.  So yeah, over the past twenty years or so I’ve been on a number of public radio shows, both nationally and locally. For the most part everyone was very pleasant, and even though I can’t say exactly how many extra books I sold as a result of “This American Life” or Terry Gross or Leonard Lopate’s “Around New York” show, I’m still grateful they took an interest. For a while there anyway.

            That being said, have I mentioned before how much I despise National Public Radio? Just absolutely fucking hate it. Yes, they tend to offer more in-depth coverage of news stories than you generally encounter at any other major media outlet or online, and they do tend to report stories that get ignored by the corporate outlets, which is a good and important thing. But I still hate them. Hate hate hate hate hate. Morgan turns it on every now and again, but I find I have to leave the room as the reflexive rage that begins burning in my head quickly explodes to levels I can’t control. It’s just better for everyone that I leave the room instead of smashing the radio.

            The stupid thing about it all is the rage is directed not so much at what’s being said (though that plays a secondary role), but at the way it sounds. The simple physical aural experience of listening to NPR drives me out of my skull. A friend of mine once referred to it as The Socialist Filter. Myself, I have no more against socialists than I have against libertarians or moderates or Democrats or Rosicrucians (loathing and dismissing them all equally), but I know what he meant. They use specific kinds of microphones and run things through a variety of digital audio filters that effectively scrub away anything resembling an echo or ambient noise. Even during broadcasts of events with live audiences they do what they can to leave the broadcast sounding as artificially sterile as possible. It not only leaves everyone sounding as if they’re speaking in a vacuum, it also has the side effect, to me anyway, of leaving everyone on NPR—hosts, guests, men, woman, Asians and Hispanics alike—all sounding exactly the same.

     And they all sound so calm and reasonable and gentle and relaxed and smug and righteous and satisfied. Even when interviewing, I dunno, Bolivian peasants about the tortures they’ve suffered at the hands of a brutal military regime, the voiceover translations inevitably make the peasants sound as calm and righteous and satisfied as everyone else on NPR. Everyone sounds like an affluent white liberal from Stepford who knows he or she is on the right side of every issue, and anyone who disagrees with them is obviously a drunken halfwit who simply isn’t educated enough to know any better. They’re like the worst kind of Christians that way. The agenda is clear, it’s front and center, there’s nothing objective about the coverage, which makes them little more than the flipside to Fox News. At least call-in shows on Fox provide for more mind-numbing entertainment with their menagerie of conspiracy theorists and the incurably enraged, compared with the same gentle, confident, satisfied white liberals who call into NPR to offer soft, nothing little profundities about the economy or the glorious promise of another Clinton administration. They’re all so dull and smug it just pisses me off. Nothing fills me with itchy despair like listening to the Vox Populi from both sides mouthing off, hearing how very right and true and incontestable they all believe themselves to be, and knowing once again how very lost and fucked we are.

            Just as an aside here, I remember in the days following Joey Ramone’s death, in a desperate ploy to seem hep and with it, a bunch of NPR hosts got together for a special in which they all pretended really really hard they’d been Ramones fans from the beginning. All the post-mortem Bowie tributes on NPR I understood, and the Prince tributes I could buy, even the Lou Reed tribute, though that was pushing it some. But The Ramones? It was all so sad and transparent. Worse, in order to justify this supposedly lifelong fandom to the stodgy NPR crowd, they went to great and tenuous lengths to try and claim the Ramones had been some kind of liberal band. Of course this meant ignoring songs like “Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World” and “Commando,” as well as the band’s logo. In fact all they were able to come up with to deny Johnny ever existed was a single anti-Reagan song, “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg,” which they analyzed line-by-line, I’m guessing in order to fill up as much time as possible given they had nothing else to say. My god it was all so pathetic, but perfectly par for the course. I’m just sorry I missed the special I’m sure they threw together after GG Allin died.

            Few shows on NPR sets me to quivering with nauseous rage more than a weekly smugfest called “The Moth,” live spoken word performances featuring professional and non-professional writers standing onstage to tell first person stories. There was a time, long time ago now, when I used to look around the crowded subway car and think, “every last one of these people has a story to tell.” Right? Everyone everywhere has at least one good story, some wild and wooly hilarious or terrifying adventure they’ve experienced. I no longer believe this, and this fucking show confirms I’m right week after week. Now, I admit I know a couple of people who’ve been on “The Moth” more than once, a few friends even, but I’m not going to let that bother me either. With the wide open and boundless parameters of “first person” and little more, what do we end up with? First, we end up with a collection of satisfied and calmly righteous readers who sound exactly like every other fucking asshole on NPR after being run through the Socialist Filter. Second, their live audience consists of the same types, who go to art house movies and titter knowingly to themselves to let everyone around them know they got the joke. And third, despite that completely open ended landscape in which every conceivable type of story is possible, what do we get? Here are a few quick thumbnails of the stories I’ve accidentally heard in recent months while passing through the room on my way, well, anywhere out of earshot:

            “I was a speechwriter for Bill Clinton, and one time I made a joke, about how long his speeches were, that he didn’t think was funny.”

            “I was a speechwriter for the CEO of a major corporation, and one time I left the speech he was about to give back in the hotel room. It all worked out, but I was real embarrassed.”

            “I’m a lawyer, and one time I took the case of a poor black woman who’d been accused of something, and I felt real bad because she was a poor black woman.”

            “I was at summer camp when I realized I was a lesbian.”

            “I was at summer camp when I realized I was gay.”

            Okay, I think that’s about it. I mean, you get one big shot to go in front of a national audience and tell the biggest most important and best story at your disposal, and THIS is what you come up with? What miserable boring lives you must lead. Worse, even, is that you feel compelled to share it with us all. My god, I hear these voices I can’t tell apart telling these empty smug stories and I want to kill them all in slow and cruel ways, just to find out if they sound any different when they scream.

            Christ, I don’t know what got me started this time. Whatever it was, it just makes me all the happier I unconsciously used the term “cripple” while on Terry Gross’ show and it went out live. Which may help explain why I was never invited back.


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