Arab Artists in a Revolution is my new mission to get inside the liveliest minds and spirits of the Arab Spring. By their films, poems, songs, novels and stories, we will get to know what's going on. I will be listening for you – in Cairo, Tunis and Beirut. For podcast and broadcast listeners around the world, we will deliver a solid score (maybe lots more) of recorded conversations – of satisfying length and critical depth that you've been waiting to hear.
Two fascinations, two burning ambitions, propel me here. First, there’s the story itself, a world-historical surge of people power. And then: our radically new ways of experiencing it. I approach it all with two lifetimes on the job: I’m “the last newspaper guy” who’s also the “first podcaster.” Take my word: we’ve barely begun to apply these near-miraculous tools of the digital revolution for human benefit. Yes, they’re built for speed, and famous for 140-character bolt-flashes. But they can also be used to serve intimacy and patience -- to let us all slow down and listen, to shed the inhibitions of traditional media, to catalyze a culture of connection.
Radio Open Source delivers strong informed conversation about arts, ideas and (when all else fails) politics.It's my wide-ranging, mindful journalistic effort to escape the blinkers of tribe, commerce and empire. The thrill of the "new media" is picking up new tools at the same time I’m shedding old habits of mind – most particularly the false majesty and chronic biases in the news game as we learned it. The ultimate technique, as Susan Stamberg once remarked, is still: listening. And my preference more and more is to listen to artists – in the spirit of John Ruskin’s observation that “great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts” -- deeds, monuments and arts. We must read all three, Ruskin said, but only the arts can be trusted!
Parachute Radio is my shorthand for these long-form conversational immersions. I first dropped in on Jamaica 10 years ago – then Cuba and West Africa, Singapore, India and (last summer) Pakistan. First step is always: “Take me to your talkers.” Second: “Seize the radio station” – whenever we can. (We managed to do marvelous live call-in radio in Kingston, Accra and Singapore.) Third big truth, from the radio credo: the emotional timbres of what Studs Terkel called "vox humana" reveal all. The sound of a great talker is worth 1000 videos. We know how to find the creative spirits today who are ready to tell their many versions when we give them our informed attention.
Speaking of “new tools,” Kickstarter is a fabulous gift to creative and non-commercial, non-imperial, non-institutional journalism. Kickstarter lets me turn for help first to people who know my work. It will keep us independent and free if you will respond generously and fast.
For me and two younger colleagues, we think the no-frills cost of a month in North Africa and air-fares back and forth can be held to $15,000. The trick about Kickstarter is that we must hit that goal on a short schedule, or lose it all. So please: pitch in all you can, as soon as you can. Tell your friends about us. Note the many ways we want to give back in big and little prizes. Your extravagance will be rewarded and repaid! Receipts over the bare minimum will go into editing and production and distribution through the Public Radio Exchange to the public radio universe. What’s left will go toward the next trip. Maybe next time you’ll come with us!
A short history of Parachute Radio
Jamaica in 2001 gave me the local-global “aha!” moment when on-line listeners in Brooklyn started calling in (free) to our on-air talk show on RJR (“Real Jamaica Radio”) from Kingston. Suddenly the diaspora and home-towners were making riotous conversation together … about dancehall and reggae music, about ganja, sex tourism, the mix of Jamaican identities and the Caribbean’s Nobel-class writers. Jamaica reset my standard of lively, boundary-jumping radio gab...
Ghana (in 2002 and again in 2010) began for me with a poet’s line I’ll never forget: “Slavery is the living wound under the patchwork of scars...” Ghanaian radio callers introduced themselves by name, then said, “I’d like to make a contribution.” They did not hesitate to talk about the legacy of slavery -- even in their own families, into the 20th Century. Offerings on music, foreign debt, family relations could be tart, whimsical, politically incorrect, comic, prayerful and at moments testy. Some, because their phone bills are unmerciful, opened with an angry blast at being kept on hold. In general over a fortnight, I felt an endearingly modest, constructive and collective spirit connecting the “contributors,” taking turns in the village dance, tossing their spice into a common pot. “That was my contribution,” they signed off.
A talk show in Singapore was said to be a contradiction in terms – a clash of cultures, I was forewarned. Yet two weeks of “Wide World” conversations into the Singapore night became in fact a total engagement, inside a whole nest of paradoxes. Whiffs of totalitarianism blew lightly past the sweet blossoming of expressive democracy. Often I felt I had stumbled into a family fight, or at other moments into a philosophy workshop. I suppose I had expected to be playing with Singaporeans’ heads, but they were also playing with mine…
We went to India in the summer of 2010 – looking for “the real India,” as Miss Quested put it in E. M. Forster’s masterpiece. “Try seeing Indians,” the schoolmaster Fielding responded in A Passage to India. We recorded scores of them and settled on Amartya Sen’s “Open India” as the historian Ram Guha described it: “Just like our Rupee note, which is 17 languages and 17 scripts -- India is a glorious, remarkable, admittedly flawed, experiment in multi-cultural, multi-religious, multi-ethnic living. That’s what the world can learn from us..."
We spent the midsummer of 2011 in Pakistan, “the country that could kill the world,” in a native line that lingered. Or maybe the new normal. Early on we planned to see this nightmare aslant — less with oft-quoted strategists, more with the imaginative class, so to speak: with the typically grim but mettlesome singers, story-tellers and artists of Sind and the Punjab. They are wonderfully available, individual, candid women and men who have their own dark, truth-telling traditions. They each tell different stories, of course — and almost all of them different from the standard line of an “Af-Pak” crucible of global terrorism. Many of them point rather to “Indo-Pak” roots of the modern turmoil, in the Partition that carved two wounded and unequal sibling rivals out of the British Raj in 1947. So I came to think of Pakistan today not as a failed state by any means but as an afflicted state – suffering the Revenge of the 1940s (Partition) and the Revenge of the 1980s (the unseemly Reagan-Zia alliance that drove the Soviets out of Afghanistan -- and created the Taliban).
And along the way there was the enchantment and ruin of Cuba – that “exercise in willpower," as Robert Stone, the American novelist, once observed Havana, “a dream state being grimly and desperately prolonged.” The most unexpected and exciting of many Havana conversations were with three African-American women who were finishing their medical education at the Latin American Medical School in Havana. Entering the second half-century of both the black-freedom movement in the US, the women’s movement and the Socialist revolution in Cuba, each with its ups and downs, these very American young women would remind you that grand ideals, the best we have, can prevail.
What we're building, we like to imagine, is a new sort of conversational coral reef in a new sort of sea.
- (29 days)