Thursday, January 29, 2009

Media: I Miss "The Connection"

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I am not qualified to comment on the death of John Updike. I've never ready any of the "Rabbit" novels and while I have read some of his poetry and short stories, none of them made any particular impression on me, which says less about the late author and more about my lack of literary enthusiasm in general. Yet, his death has brought out literally the best of broadcasting as a tribute to Updike. The CBC ran Al Maitland reading "A&P" on As It Happens. The calls to On Point's tribute brought out the best in story-telling by callers describing how human he could be.

What really made an impression on me, though, was a show brought out of the past. Christopher Lydon dipped into the archives to re-run an interview he did with Updike on 4-December-2000, after "Rabbit Remembered" was released. Upon seeing the subject of the podcast, I expected that it would be another retrospective with critics or other authors. Instead, I heard US3's Cantaloop and I was taken back in time. I first heard WBUR's "The Connection" at Boston's Logan Airport, waiting to take a plane back to the West Coast after my first visit there in 1997. I was blown away--the show simply operated on a higher intellectual level than anything I had heard before, even on public radio.

After I moved to Boston, I had ample opportunity to experience "The Connection" and learn what made it so unique. It didn't take long to understand. Sure, the intellectual community of Boston, nearly unique in the United States, made a difference in the pool of callers. But, if it were that simple, then commercial talk radio and other shows that have originated on WBUR in Boston since would have had the same qualities, and I can't say that any have. No, there was real genius in producer Mary McGrath and host Christopher Lydon's pacing of the show--they understood when to weave an informed caller into the show, when to have Lydon ask an intelligent question of a guest, or when to bring in an additional guest. It was truly an experience to listen--you learned from the guests, you learned from Lydon, and you learned from the callers, and the pacing kept one's attention for each self-contained hour of the show. That we got to hear two such hours each weekday was a bonus of living in Boston.

A contract dispute in 2001 caused WBUR to dump Lydon and McGrath; a show called "The Connection" with the same theme music continued onward, and actually was a worthwhile show under Dick Gordon, a former CBC host, but it wasn't the magical show that had existed previously. There has been a void on the intellectual side of my radio listening almost ever since.

Starting in July 2005, the Lydon/McGrath team did return to the air with a new show. The original incarnation of Open Source completely satisfied me, as four hours a week of Lydon-led discussions actually could lead to higher quality than the ten hours a week of The Connection, but that show lost something when it no longer took live calls, and since July 2007 it has been reduced to occasional podcasts that obviously do not have direct listener interaction. A podcast is better than no Christopher Lydon at all, but it's not the same.

I miss "The Connection."

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