Listening to the radio

I’m a big fan of radio. I used to say that a lot, but the truth is that I don’t listen to as much radio as some. I’m not the biggest consumer of media in general, and I suppose that my two main sources of news and information these days are radio and the Internet. I don’t spend much time with television and I consume almost as much of my Internet news in the form of podcasts or other ways of listening.

For a few years in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s I worked at a small market radio station. I was the host of the morning show. I read local news, farm reports and weather. I chose which music to play and occasionally took calls from listeners. Our transmitter only put out 1,000 watts, so our coverage was a circle with a 100 mile radius. This was in southwest North Dakota, so there weren’t too many people in that area. My usual on-air shift was 6 to 8:30 am. During the years that I worked for the station, I listened to radio quite a bit, especially when I was driving my car. It was driving across North Dakota that I first discovered Public Radio. In those days, we couldn’t get Public Radio in our town, but I could get a weak and improving signal as I drove towards Bismarck. I got interested in “A Prairie Home Companion,” and soon had acquired several cassette tapes of Garrison Keillor monologues. I enjoyed his storytelling style.

I listen to the radio in part because one can do other things while listening. I can drive my car and listen at the same time. I can do home chores while listening. There are many aspects of my job that are too engaging to have the radio on in the background, so I don’t listen at work very often, but I usually have the radio on in the car when I am driving without passengers.

Radio has another quality that I appreciate. It engages one’s imagination in a way that more visual media fail to do. I will occasionally take a look at the web site of a familiar radio program and be surprised at the photographs of the host. I imagine people to look differently than they actually do. A drama can seem more suspenseful without the visual elements of television and movies.

I remember once, during the time that I worked at the radio station, that the owner and general manager of the station attended a broadcasters convention and came home talking about the future of radio when people would be able to listen on demand. I didn’t know exactly how that would work, but the idea was that a listener could choose the programs and what time to listen to them. Each listener would have his or her own schedule. It turns out that these days I listen mostly to podcasts, which works as predicted.

Like all other media, radio has a combination of good and bad. I’m not a fan of the style of talk radio where the host yells at callers and promotes his or her own point of view. I do, however, enjoy in depth interview programs where a host is a skilled interviewer and the listener feels like the guest becomes better known and appreciated.

One of the radio interviewers I appreciate is Terry Gross. She is the host of NPR’s “Fresh Air.” She has hosted that show since 1975, which among other things, spans met entire career as a pastor, though I didn’t hear the program during its first decade of broadcast. She has interviewed thousands of people over that time, and I have listened to hundreds of her interviews. What I appreciate about her is a combination of rigorous preparation and what seems to be genuine empathy. In the portion of the interview that is produced for broadcast, it is evident that she has read what the subject has written and really has a good scope of the background of the subject of her interview. Then it seems that she goes beyond listening when she is interviewing. She does listen, but she also conveys, through her tone of voice and choice of questions, a sense of really caring about her subject.

My job actually involves some of the same skills. When I meet with a family to plan a funeral, I try to find out as much about the deceased person as I can. I read any published obituaries and when the obituary points to other sources, i try to follow up and learn as much about the person as I am able. Then, when I meet with grieving family members, I listen very carefully and ask questions in a manner that illustrates that while I can’t know exactly what they are experiencing, I really do care about them. I ask gentle questions about the deceased and encourage them to tell me stories. After meeting with the family, I make follow up calls and visits to friends and others who have information.

I also employ interview skills when working with a couple to prepare a wedding. Those skills come into play when assisting people who come to me with problems.

It was from listening to Terry Gross on the radio that I learned my most-used question, that really isn’t a question. “Tell me about yourself” is one of the best ways of starting a conversation. I don’t need more pointed questions, like “What is your job?” or “Where do you live?” Those topics will often come up, but I allow the person with whom I am speaking to choose which parts of their story they share and in which order they speak of themselves. A slightly modified version of the opener that I use when planning funerals is “Tell me about (the name of the deceased).” This works whether or not I know the person who died. Of course it doesn’t hurt to be genuinely curious about that person.

I don’t know whether or not listening to the radio can help our divided communities to recover the art of conversation, but I know it has taught me quite about about becoming someone with whom others want to talk.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!