"The culture wars are over and culture lost." So said Bill Maher not long ago. There are times when I think that's just about right. But then I turn on the radio and realize that there are indeed places where culture is alive and kicking. As often as not, those places are public radio stations. April is Public Radio Music Month, a chance to shine a spotlight on the incredible performances, interviews and song choices that non-commercial radio stations bring listeners each and every day, across the nation. Public radio is the last oasis of free and independent music. For satellite radio channels, you have to subscribe; commercial stations are as corporate as basic cable. Musicians who don't fall neatly into any clear genre would be lost without the local and national support of NPR and public radio stations around the country. Thirty-eight million listeners each week tune into a non-commercial radio station. These folks hail from every walk of life-people who crave something wilder or sparer, weirder or gentler than the hammered harmonies, straight-jacket rhythms and 'earbleed mixes' of the mainstream.
Where else would you hear Tom Waits? Or jazz that isn't smooth?
Music manages to cut across political boundaries-class, race, sex, religious divisions-for the length of a five minute single (on public radio, longer songs are still welcome). Music can make the cerebral accessible, the subconscious hummable. It communicates our shared needs and desires as sentient beings better than any other medium.
Public radio DJs get those notions. They nurture them.
"Independent" art is a actually a misleading term. Really, "independent" art thrives or shrivels depending on its sustenance, which in turn depends on exposure-and audiences that are exposed often become captive as their cultural choices narrow. As a single parent living in the American wilderness of strip malls and disposable entertainment, my mother was captivated by public radio. She listened for its civility and lack of sensationalism. Each day, an intelligent, even-handed voice reported the news or cued stimulating music as she made dinner. Last year, there was an effort to end federal funding for public media. Without this funding, many ordinary citizens-like my mom when I was growing up, or anyone outside of New York and Los Angeles, really-would be denied the pleasure of hearing innovative artists or sounds like bluegrass, jazz and classical music, which have been abandoned by other stations. If we make things harder to find, fewer people will. Less money for public media means less access to the arts. Bill Maher also remarked, "[Americans] don't go to the symphony unless it's outside and includes fireworks." But some of us do. We find symphonies in all genres of music on public radio. The beauty of public radio is that, indeed, it doesn't need fireworks. And it comes right to you. Award-winning singer/songwriter and actor Nellie McKay has released five albums. She recently starred as conservationist Rachel Carson in the New York theatrical production, Silent Spring-It's Not Nice to Fool Mother Nature.