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Alas, poor radio

By Terry Joseph
June 18, 2004

In a thoroughly Thespian fantasy, disturbed only by requisite apologies to William Shakespeare and Yorick himself, I braved a Danish fog this week, hamming-up Hamlet, holding aloft the skull of a local presenter for the poignant line of my soliloquy: "Alas, poor radio, I knew it well."

If not already dead, poisoned like the principals in Hamlet, contemporary radio is certainly stricken with an apparently incurable malady, recent on-air sex scandals only sensationalising the pitiful condition, whose other symptoms include racist repartee, vulgar vituperation and irritating inanity; all conspiring to bring to ruin this once noble art.

At its best time and with only two stations on air, radio delivered a phalanx of exemplary contributors, among them June Gonsalves, Frank Pardeau, Sam Ghany, Bob Gittens, Peter Minshall, Melina Scott, Moean Mohammed, Aunty Kay, Leo de Leon, Hazel Ward, Ken Gordon, Larry Heywood, Winston Maynard, Barbara Assoon, Vernon Allick and Trevor McDonald, who later ascended to top rung at the BBC.

Now that we boast more than ten times that number of stations, who among the current lot is even contemplating such distinction? Or are they merely vindicating the colonial view that "some people" shouldn't be left in charge of serious matters?

It used to be that radio announcers underwent years of training before being allowed on air. They were required to observe, listen and learn, working as console operators, shadowing seasoned practitioners; gleaning style and manner from those who had long mastered the art.

Today, fresh from high school where, at best, training in audio-visual arts mimics the skewed style of educating youth simply for the purpose of passing exams, these greenhorns (given their mangling of verbs) are prematurely allowed on air, foisted on us well before they internalise the level of responsibility that comes with such access.

And while no one person may be pilloried for denuding radio's respectability or, at least, bringing it into dishabille, government heads the culpable consortium, as guilty for the medium's sorry state as if they had, by parliamentary passage, decreed it should come to this.

Forever focused on protecting their own backsides, when containment of public opinion appeared more risky than preventing insurgents from commandeering mass communication systems, the powers-that-be sacrificed us instead. They didn't "open up the airwaves", as their spin-doctors so often suggest. Instead, they uncovered a can of worms.

The same rationale government defended-right up to the Privy Council-in its 25-year court battle to deny calypsonian Lord Superior a broadcasting licence, suddenly evaporated in the wake of the attempted coup of July 27, 1990. Less than six months later, not only Superior's but just about every pending application was approved.

Hindsight indicates this apparent munificence, touted as liberalism and entrenching constitutionally supported freedom of speech, wasn't primarily for our benefit. It still isn't. Government's security anxieties simply dovetailed with one of democracy's most alluring platitudes, so they gave us radio carte blanche, without even the flimsiest mechanism for quality assurance.

And judging from its most recent pronouncement on radio, another Pontius Pilate response to the 25-year-old petition from the local music industry for protection of indigenous art, government clearly prefers what is currently on air to any suggestion about legislating daily minimum content of homegrown music.

Once again, the argument about freedom of information conveniently surfaces, applied as yet another escapist maneouvre, on this occasion abetted by the most influential of allies, the Publishers and Broadcasters Association (TTPBA), even as the latter grouping publicly protests hastily secured immunity from the same pliable principle for senior officials of the Central Bank.

Desperate to shore up its argument, the TTPBA actually cites Jamaica, saying that country did not enact laws to promulgate its indigenous music. Sure. Jamaica didn't need it, since TTPBA members were already so helpful in that regard.

It should be noted, however, that joint managing director of the leading radio station, WEFM 96.1, Johnny Soong, assured this writer that, if government mandated every frequency to air 100 per cent local music from tomorrow, his station was not only ready and willing to comply but would remain in the top spot.

Meanwhile, station managers are revelling in revenue gained from appealing to the lowest common denominator, egged on by the flawed concept of "giving us what we want" when, even the most amateurish chicken-and-egg analysis will reveal our preferences can only be the distillate of that to which we have been exposed.

Radio is therefore a tragedy of major consequence, although not conforming to Aristotle's classic definition of catharsis, that fundamental of serious drama, where a hero emerges and disaster, however conclusive, occasions no loss of human dignity even in defeat.

Hamlet's optimism led him to believe, "There's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow." Indeed, we all hope human affairs hold continuing fascination for divine powers, particularly in this context, and some force will rescue us from further decline for indeed: "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark."

And for those who think "he doth protest too much", happily, there are more things in heaven and earth, providing pleasant options, avoiding the crucial question: To be, or not to be a regular listener.

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