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Radio storytelling: property of the upper middle class?

Charles Jaco

Charles Jaco

Jennifer Waits and I are at the What is Radio conference in Portland, which opened with an interesting lecture by veteran radio/TV journalist Charles Jaco. It focused on the importance of narrative and storytelling in radio, and its decline on the commercial radio dial.

Jaco noted that it is in the public radio sector that one gets the best storytelling these days—on This American Life, the Moth Radio Hour, and similar shows listened to by predominantly upper-middle class audiences.

Why the decline in the commercial sector? The emphasis on profits plays a factor, Jaco noted. Commercial outfits “are interested in running the stations as cheaply as possible and selling the advertising time for as much as they can get, period, discussion is over,” he observed.

But, “how in the name of heaven did compelling storytelling on radio become the province of the upper level five percent educationally?” Jaco asked out loud. “If storytelling is among the oldest of human occupations and desires, why is it that the vast majority of Americans get almost none of it on their radio dials?”

Here was his answer:

“Let’s face it. For most people in this country life is already hard enough without asking them to think or feel while listening to the radio. And that may sound like a smart ass ironic comment, but it is absolutely the truth. Life is so distressingly hard for the majority of our fellow citizens these days, media, in whatever form, works best when it has an anesthetic effect, because life sucks, and they don’t want to be reminded of life when they turn on the radio or are watching the tube.”

I asked Jaco about this observation in the question and discussion period. Given that storytelling has survived and even flourished through many eras when life sucked, I noted, when did this relationship begin to wane?

Here was his reply:

“I think it has happened within the last 40 or 50 years. A number of things have happened. One is that the source for a lot of this storytelling, the nuclear family, has largely been blown to shreds in a lot of places, so kids don’t hear it. Secondly, how many people do you know, and I’m not talking about your peers, I mean in total, whose main baby sitter is The Tube? You sit the kid down in front and walk away from him.

How many people lost most of the value of their homes during the crash? How many people’s 401ks vanished? How many people’s jobs vanished? Well, 80,000 of them in the town I come from. St. Louis was gutted by the recession. Poverty makes people mean. Poverty pisses people off. People’s middle class expectations are being blown completely to hell. Do not make them yearn for something bright and shiny and wonderful. It makes them pissed off.

And for most of the people I talk to, media is their anesthetic. ‘Wow. I don’t have a job. The kid is still living at home. My husband has been laid off. Do I really want to think when I am listening to the radio? Do I really want to watch something on television that is going to engage me and get me outside of myself? No I do not’.”

The country has had a “collision of economic and social forces within the last half century or so that have accelerated within the last five or six years,” Jaco concluded. “So right now I think people who are engaged by media are the people who have the economic freedom to be engaged by media.”

A pretty stark analysis. Not sure I agree, but the speech was a heck of a way to start the conference. Paper presentations begin on Friday.


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7 Responses to Radio storytelling: property of the upper middle class?

  1. James April 26, 2013 at 4:52 am #

    I think he’s partially right, but then again, what is TV if not storytelling?

    I agree that profits and money probably drive some of it. Storytelling costs money that music and talk format doesn’t. You pay for music and talk, but not in they way you have to pay for storytelling. Stories have to be produced, recorded, investigated, etc. Music costs pennies compared to stories.

    But the “most people in this country life is already hard enough without asking them to think or feel while listening to the radio” sounds base and lazy. If that were the case, wouldn’t the same thing happen on the internet? And still, compelling stories go viral all the time. We search them out, and are impressed and moved by them.

    Blogging is the same way. It’s easy to crank out SEO posts and commentary on the news of the day. Storytelling is harder to nail, and it takes more time, so more blogs post the equivalent of talk radio. Perhaps podcasting is the same way. It’s easy to sit three friends in front of a mic and talk, but it’s hard to make something compelling out of it. But shows like 99% Invisible tell stories and do really well. Top podcasts are either public radio oriented or from famous people, and we want to hear the famous people tell us stories.

    So I think he has some points, but misses the boat on many things. Perhaps out of self interest, perhaps out of a lack of analysis. Perhaps it’s just easier.

  2. James April 28, 2013 at 9:59 am #

    I was really hoping for a discussion on this. Any thoughts on what I said above?

  3. Dan Bodah May 6, 2013 at 1:13 pm #

    I think there is a very prominent place for storytelling on radio. It appeals to the working and lower middle classes, and is robustly commercial. It’s called talk radio. It’s also popular in the mornings on music stations, where they have morning drive-time talk shows that have lots of stories.

    I know, I know — they’re not the same as the stories on the Moth or This American Life or whatever. But I think that has more to do with what kinds of storytelling are commercially viable in the limited imaginations of the people running commercial networks. There could be more “NPRish” storytelling on commercial radio in the drive time and I am sure it could go over quite well.

    The other thing I can think of is the comedy bits that commercial music stations sometimes play. I haven’t heard one in the NYC market for a while, though, so those might be on the outs.

  4. John Barden May 9, 2013 at 2:43 am #

    I totally disagree with Mr. Jaco’s comments on society. Good storytelling still exists on radio beyond NPR, and some of us lower-class folks are into it.

    Focus on the Family has been producing the show “Adventures in Odyssey” for decades now, and it’s still popular.
    I think Mr. Jaco discounts the popularity of Christian radio, as so many in the industry do, because he personally can’t relate to it or has a bias against it.

  5. Ben May 9, 2013 at 12:00 pm #

    I am tempted to agree with Jaco that there has been a decline in the importance of narrative and storytelling in radio. As James pointed out, the work that goes into developing a compelling narrative is enormous; I tend to think of it as production versus reproduction.

    Dan and John are right that there are plenty of other forms for storytelling on the radio, but I do wonder at what level they’ll continue to exist. Neverthelss, it does seem clear that Jaco has his own opinion of what qualifies as good storytelling.

    It should also be pointed out that the last decade has seen a change in how narratives are approached on television. Specifically, the rise in prominence of “reality” tv seems relevant. Additionally, how they compare to the current crop of more traditional dramas with high production values and complex stories (Mad Men, Breaking Bad, etc.).

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