Monday, October 23, 2006

Where did that captive audience go?

It used to be that I loved the sound of my own voice. Or at least I relished the idea of getting up in front of people and having them listen to me for a few minutes. Or, say, an hour. Or two.

In middle school, we would go to assemblies, and there would be some problem with the Eisenhower-era PA system, and as our principal - donned in his white belt and white patent leather shoes – struggled to get the microphone working, I would joke with my friends that that was the perfect occasion to try my stand-up routine. (What would have been included in my stand-up routine at age 13 is anyone’s guess. References to "Super Freak", probably.)

I kept up this kind of thing throughout high school. I have this recollection of being on a van ride back from a jazz festival in Williamsburg, Virginia, and maintaining a running commentary, including invented folk tales and an entire mock radio broadcast of a completely random (and fictitious) baseball game between the Texas Rangers and Seattle Mariners. I also have a recollection that it was at the request of others in the van that I kept this up for the entire ride.

[Mitch’s note: On the other hand, the van ride happened almost 20 years ago, so I concede the story might be one of those events that are, at best, exaggerated, or at worst, apocryphal (like, say, the part about the monologue coming at the request of someone else). I checked in with the only person I still know who was on that van ride and who survived my possible five-hour monologue. She reports a vague recollection of the event, but no lasting emotional scars from being subjected to it.]

All this is to say that few were surprised when I got into radio 15 years ago today. My thinking was that – as long as I was going to be talking all the time, I might as well get paid for it.

The problem is, after you’ve been talking into a microphone, in a darkened studio for so many years, the prospect of talking in front of people whom you can actually see becomes less appealing.

Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to moderate at an event at a local bookstore. It was a reading and discussion of the book based on NPR’s “This I Believe” series. Basically, my role involved getting up and making one vaguely humorous reference to the day’s Badgers football game, thanking everyone for being there, telling them to check out the station’s website, and then introducing the first speaker.

It went fine – the NPR groupies were out in force, and were perfectly happy to hear what I had to say for the 3 ½ minutes I was at the front of the room.

But after a decade-and-a-half of interviewing remarkable and occasionally newsworthy people – people who have interesting stories to tell - I’ve started having this nagging worry that people are expecting me to have something interesting to say, or at least to speak with a level of gravitas that seems to come naturally to many of the people on the other side of the microphone.

The truth of it is, I’d still be more comfortable making up a pretend baseball broadcast in a van on Interstate 95. Or at least in a place where my listeners don't have the option to change channels.

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