Sunlight Shining Through Cloud

Archive for June 2012

He pulled the gleaming new Silverado into the gravel parking lot and rolled to a stop near us. Gary said to me, “This guy lost his wife in an accident last month at Four Mile Corner.” He then walked over to the driver’s side and extended his iron-strong hand.

The guy might have been sixty, hadn’t had a haircut in a while, was wearing a plaid shirt and the obligatory ball cap. Maybe a farmer or a rancher, his face had seen its share of weather. His lenses tinted dark in the morning sun. He reached into a shirt pocket and joined Gary in a cigarette. From the other pocket, he drew some photographs.

“This is what hit us,” he said. “He t-boned us so hard, it knocked the fifth-wheel right out of the bed of the pickup. The airbags didn’t inflate. Her shoulder belt held so tight that it broke some ribs. EMS got three calls from the scene, but didn’t send a paramedic until a fireman called; I had to cut her out. They took us to the hospital. She had a punctured lung. She went into cardiac arrest three times. They airlifted us to Minot.”

Upwards of twenty-thousand trucks move through Williston’s Four Mile Corner every day. Add to that the cars and pickups and you have a real mess. They put traffic lights there a couple of months back, and a truck destroyed the intersection’s control box just a week later. It’s been flashing yellows and reds ever since. Testosterone-fueled decision-making yields a harrowing experience for all. I could just hear the truck driver tell the cops, “I thought I could make it.”

I was getting my car fixed at Gary’s shop. It’s a mammoth-sized garage that he’s run by himself for generations. Tools of all kinds and ages are strewn about and Gary knows the location of each one. Johnny Cash plays from the radio, and calendars with drawings of beautiful naked women hang high up on the walls. They date back to 1953.

The garage also serves as a gathering place. When I first came here on Wednesday, I learned that the price of admission was a case of beer for the community fridge. It was too early for beer, today, so I brought a dozen donuts fresh from the bakery. Coffee and donuts and assorted neighbors; the conversation ranged from the Oil Patch to the Vietnam War to rebuilding the church west of here. Somewhere in the middle of that, Gary started working on my car.

And now he handed the pictures back to the Silverado guy. “How are you doing?” Gary asked. “Well, I’m doin’ okay, I guess,” was the brave answer. “Don’t think I’ll buy another fifth-wheel, though. I’m headed for family in Minnesota. Maybe I’ll come back after summer.” And for just a moment, I thought Gary was going to hug him…but that’s not his way.

I may not have much in this life right now. What I do have is the ability to breathe and walk.

And I have a good mechanic.

My relationship with radio goes back to my earliest days on the planet. Today, I remain an insatiable information junkie. Given the amount of time spent behind the wheel, I find myself hungry for a meal that can only be served up by NPR. No bloviators for me: give it to me straight…I’m smart enough to interpret. Such has it been for some twenty-five years.

I have been both blessed and cursed with opportunities to live in many places in this country. Thus, I have the means to compare. When I get to a place, finding NPR is a priority. The Twin Cities operation is top-notch. My most recent experience (in the Triad of North Carolina), not so much.

And now I’m in North Dakota; the 48th least-populated state. I have, therefore, a commensurate expectation for the NPR affiliate/network here. They call it Prairie Public. First, the bright spots.

Three ND cities have two Prairie Public transmitters each. The second signal has been dubbed, Roots, Rock and Jazz. It’s a hodge-podge of low- or no-cost syndicated programing covering the Blues, Jazz, and non-pop Rock…the kind you won’t hear anywhere else. There is also a local DJ who quite obviously has a pedigree in each genre. Mike Olson will string together a number of records along a theme. It could be Negro Spirituals performed by contemporary artists; or lesser-known songs of Bonnie Raitt or Neil Young. Olson has done strings of songs about the sky up above; about dysfunctional love; about Puerto Rican girls.

Olson’s shows are fun because he never announces a theme: you are implicitly challenged to figure it out. And he never tells you when it’s done; he just (deftly) transitions to a new theme. He is not your polished DJ-type either; he’s just a low-key cool dude sharing his musical world with you.

The other bright spot is on the statewide network of news stations. Danielle Webster has the presentation skills and intelligence you should expect from an NPR local affiliate. If she continues to work at her own high standards, she could well find herself at a larger market.

And that’s the problem: standards. NPR News delivers at the highest level of excellence from Washington. Its affiliates are challenged to work up to the same standard as best they can…some succeeding more than others. Prairie Public has either low standards or no qualified leadership. The drive-times are occupied by mumblers and stumblers who, it seems, have never read the copy they’ve torn from the papers. An hour-long daily interview program is given over to a guy who has no interviewing skills.

A ‘special assignment’ producer delivers the dullest reports from what should be the most exciting area of the state: the Oil Patch. Irrelevant syndicated features are inserted into the most-listened-to newscasts to fill time in a state that, frankly, doesn’t have too much other news. All of this is stitched together by a ubiquitous sponsorship reader who hyper-enunciates her horrific regional accent.

Then, like other lower-budget affiliates, Prairie Public fills the daytime and overnight hours with classical music.

I’m sure it’s a tough thing, running a listener-supported, non-profit, highly-visible enterprise like an NPR affiliate network. On one hand, there’s never enough money. On the other hand, there are audience expectations. And if you don’t deliver on those, they don’t give you their donations. And the circle goes ’round again.

But no experienced radio industry professional could credibly blame listeners for a station’s poor performance. Therefore, the responsibility for this awfulness rests squarely on the shoulders of management.

Radio’s greatest strength has always been its ability to communicate on a one-to-one basis with its listener (and there’s only one: you). If a station dishonors this relationship by delivering crap, you turn it off. I’ve waited months to write this review thinking that, given time, I would find a way to appreciate Prairie Public‘s effort. But little effort seems apparent, so I reflexively reach for the volume button each time NPR News finishes its segments.

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