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Wednesday, January 1, 2014

How NPR changed my life.

As a kid, I never read. ‘Never did homework. Squeaked by in school with C’s. In about 8th grade, a close friend dared me to read To Kill a Mockingbird. I love a dare. I loved the film and thought, how hard could it be? I read it. It took me awhile. ‘There were big words in there I hadn’t heard before, like ‘prejudice’ (not to mention, ‘chifforobe’!?). It was good. It created better pictures in my head than the movie had. So, you’d think I’d read another book. ‘Never did. It’s still the only book I ever read (at least it’s easy to answer people when they ask me what’s your favorite book!). I grew up with an alcoholic single Mom. When she came home from work, right before she started pouring, she’d ask “did you do you homework?”. I’d say “yup” (which I sometimes had, right before turning it in), and that was the extent of my parental involvement in my literacy and education.

My teachers were worse. I always hear people talk about their favorite teachers that really made a difference in their lives and I think, “where did you go to school?”. I never had a teacher say boo to me, except something like “you ‘flunk another test and you’re going to get a ‘D’ for the semester!”. I watched TV. All the time. ‘No time for reading! After school, it was reruns of Lost in Space, My Favorite Martian, Wild, Wild, West, Beverly Hillbillies, -’important stuff! ‘Gomer Pyle, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Gilligan's’ Island. ‘About the most intellectual show I ever watched was The Twilight Zone! And I probably didn’t fully understand about half of those. And ‘PrimeTime’ wasn’t much better, from The Brady Bunch to Mary Tyler Moore.  

I Hate to admit it, but I was an ignorant, uneducated, un-interesting person, who knew every TV commercial by heart, but had no idea what ‘civil rights’ were, or where any other country was on the globe. You know, -like most Americans still today! ‘Needless to say, I was not very self-confident or outgoing during High School. After High School, I took two years’ worth of community college classes, but didn’t complete a degree due to dropping out of required classes like English. As a typical young person, I found music to be the ultimate entertainment source, though looking back, I missed most of the deep meanings of the lyrics. I listened to music all day, everyday, and even got a job where I could listen while I worked. I installed car stereos (assuming that, naturally, everyone else wanted to listen to music constantly, right?).

I started by installing CB radios in it’s boom of 1976, and then worked at a small, ‘wholesale’ radio place where we put in radios for car dealers, right on their lot, right before the car was delivered. Later I was the sole installer at a big-box retailer like BestBuy called ‘The Federated Group’. I was ‘straight commission’, could work any hours I wanted, ‘enjoyed the work, ‘didn’t have a busy social calendar, and for the first time in my life, was making good money. A no brainer! -And ‘no-brainer’ also described my intellectual level at the time. I had a good, home stereo tuner and big speakers on the wall so that I could easily listen to music while I worked on the cars. All day, every day, music, music, music. Commercials, music, commercials, music, ‘news segment -oop! (‘boring! “hope the music starts again soon. ‘what are they talking about, anyway?”)

‘One day, when annoyed by all the commercials, headline-news segments, and same music over and over and over, I spun the the big analog tuning knob all the way to the left in frustration. It bounced back from the end and stopped at around 91.5. There was a guy singing a folksy song and when it ended there was clapping and I realized it was some kind of live music show. Then the guy started talking, the way some musicians do, telling a story to introduce the next song. Only there wasn’t a next song. This guy just kept talking and talking, telling all these stories about weird funny people in some small town in Minnesota. “What is Minnesota?” I wondered. I thought it was just a mythical place they made jokes about on the Mary Tyler Moore Show. ? And what kind of radio station is this, to let some guy ramble on and on, for twenty minutes, before he gets around to playing some more music?

Then they started doing these little radio plays, like in the old-time radio days, and they were really funny and entertaining! Then satires of commercials, ...which I loved! And then all different kinds of music, and then the ‘show’ ended, but they said it was a weekly show, and I remember writing down the date/time and station frequency so that I wouldn’t miss it next week! However, it turned out that I didn’t need the reminder, because after that show was another, very interesting, but very different show where two guys talked about fixing cars, and people called in with their questions, and these guys were really funny! And then another show came on about how to start your own business, which I was kind of interested in doing, since I knew I wouldn't get a degree. And even the news on this station was interesting because they explained things really well, and talked about each topic of the news for like, 5 minutes, instead of just stating the brief title of the item for 20 seconds, never giving any details, and then just going back to more commercials.

That was the other, really amazing thing about this weird station  -  ‘NO commercials!!   None!  -  “Wut??” - It was crazy! With this new station, I could listen all day long, getting news (interesting news!), music, comedy shows, small business tips, excellent interviews of famous people, -tons of fascinating content, -’all new, everyday, ….- and absolutely no commercials to annoy the shit out of me! It was like a revelation! Like the sky opened up! ‘Needless to say, when the next week rolled around, I didn’t have to remember to switch to this station to catch that variety show,.......I was still on the station! I had never left!
And I still haven’t. And it's 35 years later!

Within a year of that revelation-event (which I consider one of the most important events of my entire life), I left that job and started my own car stereo store, and had success with it. Partly due to the info and encouragement I got from that small business show series, and partly due to the self-confidence I got from being informed, intellectually stimulated, and generally aware of the world around me. After awhile, I could keep up in conversations with highly-educated people that were surprised to find out how little schooling I'd had, or that I didn't read a lot . All by just listening to a radio station. ‘For free! While getting stuff done! Normally, people only achieve this as a result of undergoing a proper, formal education. Especially if it follows a childhood where study habits are taught in the home. But I had had neither. And neither do most Americans. And so, unless one can find a job where memorization of TV commercials is considered an important skill-set, I strongly urge everyone I know, to tell everyone they know, about this incredible free education. You just may know someone in the situation I was in, who then may someday say: “NPR changed my life”.  


  1. This post is awesome. Also, I think I am turning into you because I have this daily routine where I do household chores with my bluetooth headset and my audiobooks. It is one of my favorite times of the day. If I were to start listening to NPR, what is a good day and time that has educational and entertaining content?

  2. all day everyday. except a show called "The Splendid Table".