Not by accident. In fact, intentionally. I am not plugged in; I am plugged out.
Every day, I see my opposites, who confirm my choice. They come into and out of my field of vision — which would also be their field of vision — if they were looking, which they rarely are. I sometimes hear their voices as well. Heads down. staring at, and speaking to, the phones in their hands.
This is a part of the so-called “social” media which is being credited with, and blamed for, so much of our troubled world today. “Social media has changed America in a thousand ways,” writes social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. “And nearly two out of three Americans now believe that these changes are for the worse.” (“Yes, Social Media Really is Undermining Democracy,” Atlantic.com)
One of the seminal (he would love the lubriciousness of this word!) practitioners of the non-social, often anti-social, communication arts was Larry Josephson, who died this week at the age of 83, his body having withered and been transformed by Alzheimer’s.
At the end, as he died in his sleep on July 27, he was accompanied by family members who kept vigil.
That closeness of that vigil, when I heard about it via e-mail, struck me. Because for me being close to Larry Josephson did not involve physical proximity. It involved a now nearly obsolete communication device called – a radio.
You didn’t have to look at it while you walked. Or bring it Into your skull via head phones or ear buds. It could be by your bedside, on a sooty shelf beneath a dirty window, as it was in my gloomy third-floor walkup apartment in Greenwich Village where I lived alone. There, Larry Josephson came to me as a disembodied early morning voice.
I usually left my small, static-plagued “portable” radio on all night. The last voices from it, Doris Lessing’s “The Golden Notebook” or Thomas Mann’s “Buddenbrooks” slumped in my hands, belonged to WBAI’s host Bob Fass and phone callers to his “Radio Unnamable” late night program. Which ended when they all got tired and Pacifica station WBAI went “off the air.”
Then, at around 6 a.m. a brief, scratchy bit of music came on. And the unmistakable gruff voice of Larry Josephson, way off mike, thanking someone for having brought him take-out black coffee and a toasted bagel with cream cheese. Mouth full and slurping, Josephson began by reciting the morning New York Times, especially the headlines relating to viciousness, vacuousness, and venality, of which there were (and are) plenty.
Josephson was a highly educated and successful Los Angeles born computer engineer. He’d earned a lot of money at IBM as that industry began its explosive growth. But as a college liberal arts major (Linguistics, UC Berkeley) he’d gotten totally disgusted with IBM’s corporatist mentality. So he shocked his careerist colleagues by deciding to quit his job, breaking with his home state and his family, and getting as far away as he could. And that meant New York City.
One day he wandered into WBAI, then located in a deconsecrated church on the upper East Side. As a listener in various short-term rooms, he knew that visual artists were regular guests, as were musicians and poets. And people with brains and creativity who didn’t need salaries were especially welcome to interact on the air with them. People who didn’t stay up all night and could be relied upon to go through complicated plugs and switches necessary to turn on a powerful remotely controlled transmitter were a big plus as well.
And so it was Larry Josephson who broke the static silence in my little dingy bedroom as Doris Lessing and Thomas Mann slipped to the floor at more or less 6 a.m. every day. Josephson came into my life, and stayed in my life, as I walked, rain and snow and sweltering heat notwithstanding, to my corner newsstand to spend lots of money It helped that he was funny as hell. And an equal opportunity mocker of earnest integrationists, segregationists, communists, fascists, feminists, sexists et al, he was fundamentally one kind of “-ist” – a humanist.
I left my home after a few years of careerism, as Josephson had left his. But my migration was the opposite of his. As New York had beckoned from Los Angeles, San Francisco called to me as the opposite of New York. My long-time profession — writing, editing, publishing — became an accidental casualty of my migration. When KPFA in Berkeley needed someone with my skill set, I came to the East Bay to work, and eventually to live.
Josephson tired of the endless internal battles for governance and direction at WBAI. He was recruited to come back west, without much knowledge of the endless internal battles for governance and direction at KPFA. So we finally met. He to do a morning program, me to do reporting, interviewing, and documentaries on the seemingly inflexible Bay Area governmental structures and the growing and diverse Bay Area “movement” seeking to change them. Groups of people who could (and did) meet in living rooms became the Black Panthers, Women’s Liberation, the Chicano Moratorium, Chinese for Affirmative Action, Alternative Futures, on and on.
1972 was a critical year. Pacifica had added stations in Houston and Washington D.C. Radio engineering had improved so that simulcasting KPFA programs was possible, with 18 other stations, all but two of them (Tampa and Boulder/Denver) very small. It was decided (a long story, don’t ask!) that the Democratic Presidential Convention was going to be a milestone event. And that Pacifica need to broadcast it live.
Guess who got tapped as the lead broadcaster?
But of course there had to be buy-in from all of Pacifica’s fractious elements. And a condition of that buy-in was that people from all stations had to be in Miami for the Convention. New York advocated for Josephson (who had soured on KPFA’s knee-jerk “progressivism” and returned east) and Fass.
We met in Miami in mid-July, about a week before the Convention began, The Democrats were as disorganized and fractious as a Pacifica station, though with far greater consequences. Convention sessions began hours late. Protestors were all over the Miami Beach Convention Center neighborhood, most non-violent (led by Alan Ginsberg) some Viet Nam veterans armed with weapons they’d survived by using there.
Tear gas was fired indiscriminately by the numerous law enforcement agencies that sent “tactical squads.” The fact is it was great for radio, as we had to fill long hours with interviews and live reports from the streets. Josephson was one of our voices, but from our hotel room studio, as his already obese body had increased in size due to caloric overfill on his return to New York.
Eventually (the final session ended at 3 a.m.!) the whole Democratic Convention mess shut down. George McGovern gave his acceptance speech at 3 a.m., to a half empty hall – but Pacifica Radio, me at the anchor microphone, stayed till the end. There were hundreds of arrests, many injuries, a political party broke and unable to mount a serious campaign against a well-funded, unprincipled opponent, Richard Nixon. Who won every state but Massachusetts, without any controversy over “fraudulent” voting and “incorrect” counting.
Josephson, Fass and I would meet every night at the only place open 24 hours, Wolfie’s Diner (“Kosher and non-Kosher Food,” a joke to those of us who knew that Kosher authorities don’t allow non-Kosher food to comingle). Josephson ate any and everything. He especially savored huge Turkey drumsticks, roasted on rotating spits not far from us. And his table behavior was disgusting, directly derived from that coffee and bagel slurper I’d listened to, and laughed with, a decade before. He talked through his food with a mouth of already bad teeth. (At his death he had suffered multiple diabetes-caused amputations, and had to be fed mush, with a spoon.)
But in Miami, was he funny! He could imitate a George McGovern midwestern drawl and a Jesse Jackson Southern accent, women’s liberationists and segregationist neo-Nazis. He could put ridiculous words in voices that sounded in their pretentious nonsense close to what the real speakers would say.
Nowadays, on-line life makes it easier to lie, and harder for the truth to catch up. One way of doing so would be to use humor. But only one broadcaster, to my knowledge does so: Harry Shearer’s “Le Show” Sundays at noon. Similarly, Josephson’s gift for mixing music, history, irony, and reminiscence has been lost; only one program that I know of, Derk Richardson’s “The Hear and Now” (KPFA, Thursdays 11-12 p.m.) explores that territory.
What would Josephson make of what might be called the “Parade of the Palefaces” in the January 6 hearings in Congress? All of the summoned and convened witnesses, sworn and unsworn, have been white, with the exception of one county clerk in Georgia. So have the members of the committee, with the exception of two Democrats.
When I hear them I long for Josephson to be with us, to mock and parody them.
But I also long for poetry on the radio. Or music mixed, contrasted, dissected. Or street sounds and voices. Or birds chirping. Or hours of piano and guitar riffs, uninterrupted by awful non-commercial commercials and smug “underwriting” texts.
These, Larry knew how to do.
As well as shut up, and let others talk when he was with them.
You can find out particulars of his long and successful life on his thorough Wikipedia site. There are many links to archives of his broadcasts there, too.
Some even work. I can hear him laughing about those that don’t. He had that gift as well.
(Larry Bensky welcomes praise and blame: LBensky@igc.org.)
In The Beginning was regular early morning fare half a century ago back in the Naked City, with the William Tell Overture rousing the groggy troops. I must be getting old.