I was one of the original dudes in Michel Martin's Barbershop. It was great. After about a year, I left for a variety of reasons I may or may not get into - nothing controversial mind you, but recent events, namely the closing of that shop puts me in a mood to talk about it. According to the comments over here, NPR lost money on the show.
Around 2007 I was in what I considered to be a very typical place, underemployed and over talented. I kinda wanted to be rich but not so much that I'd take a big risk. At the top of my career, I had time and energy to burn as a consultant. Since I had always put as much time into writing and reading as other folks presumeably put into their other hobbies, I had lots of ideas and opinions. I put some of that energy to work as a blogger and was rewarded in that universe by thousands of comments and an actual award. So, at the recommendation of my friend Jimi Izrael, I became one of the chairs in the Barbershop. I loved it.
I haven't written as much about my involvement with the show as I thought I had. In the recent runup to its termination, Jimi asked me to put together a string of memories. They were unfortunately brief - some followup I have in this blog under the category of Radio Recap. But as I think about it, there was and surely is some reluctance on my part to becoming famous as a black man. As a member of the group formerly known as The Talented Tenth, I gave up my birthright to be a 'black leader' a long time ago. The quick reason was that I was first overwhelmed by and then finally reconciled to black American diversity. I officially gave up, without rancor, all expectations of black unity somewhere around 1992, which somewhat coincidently served me quite well to be an independent voice 'of color' 15 years later on Michel Martin's show. What I never gave up is any pride in my own upbringing and what I felt was important to me about being the particular sort of African American I am, and I know very well that in this country, stories such as mine are a very rare commodity indeed, so much so that people still think Barack Obama is a phenomenon. We're the same age, and just like with Eddie Murphy, Spike Lee & Denzel Washington, I grew up with people just like him. I knew who we were before America did. And America still doesn't know.I wonder from time to time if I'm OK with that, and it is in that context that I think about what loss we all sustain from Michel Martin not being front and center with little old me in the wings.
Whoopie Goldberg said something I remember. 'TV is the only place where you can have 1 million friends and be considered a complete failure'. Whoopie was smart enough and focused enough, and popular enough to solve that problem. But it's now Michel's problem and my problem too. I'm not an entertainer. My mother didn't raise me to be one, and if my father thought I was headed down the avenue towards class clownship, he would have marched me off that plank. I suspect that there are at least a million Americans who can relate to exactly that, maybe even five million, probably more quite frankly. However between those millions and men such as myself are arbiters whose eye we have not captured. I think they're called big media producers or some such - it's really not my field of expertise. But I would say part of the miracle was that Martin and her supporting team at NPR were able to get the lot of us together on the air. This is fast becoming a lost art if it is not lost already.
Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Ben Carson are two men I have been pleasantly surprised to have emerged in this post-Ebony media world of black men in the public eye. And I have paid a lot of attention to that world. There is certainly plenty enough elbow room for guys like me to make our way through America - it's not as if people fall over faint when they see me fly first class. A black man can have a suitcase (if you can remember that Eddie Murphy joke). But beyond mere token representation there is a certain responsibility we all bear for letting the airwaves get increasingly polluted by ever more lax standards of comportment and content. I for one specifically lament the death of Oakland's Bob Maynard. By God they still make men like him, but I don't see them broadcast anywhere. While I must confess that I don't watch or listen much and my consolation comes from reading, I do feel a twinge when I do look and know that we all could do much better. One of my idols growing up was Charles Ogletree as he moderated the debates put on by Fred Friendly. Likewise, I took great joy listening to William F. Buckley and most recently Christopher Hitchens, all now departed. I cannot be so sure that I am not romanticizing the past, but neither can I be so sure that I am not underestimating the relative deprivation of the present. Dare I say, the depravity of the present?
Michel Martin's show and the feature with which I was associated were small things. Iv'e been told that you never know how your writing might affect someone, and while radio isn't writing and what can fit into a half hour might not be much, it can be a mighty spark. If we are unable or unwilling to light such hot sparks, are we not submitting to darkness? Looks like this is the end, but don't miss our next underdog show. Ahh but where will it be? Where will it be? Heaven forbid public radio loses money. There's always YouTube.
Some days I think about Mike Royko and Andy Rooney. I wonder if I'm as good a writer as they were. I also know that I probably could not be persuaded to jump through the old school hardships they must have put up with in their careers. After all, I studied computer science, not journalism. But as Ishmael Reed said "Writin' is fightin'" , and I'm still a writer and I still want to win. Yet I can't help but feel, as I'm sure my colleagues feel, that we're fighting a losing battle when we are coming up empty when it comes to men of a certain persuasion and birth getting a word in edgewise that's not played for a laugh. All due respect but I don't like being less famous than Nipsey Russell, because that's not how I want my country to be represented. Those broadcasts do go out into space, you know. And maybe I'm not as funny as Andy or Mike, but everything is not a joke, and sometimes people who actually think with some diligence and interesting perspectives are required to sound off, not just the professional talking heads who have figured out how to party with the right producers.
What do I know? I'm digital. I think what Amazon's Jeff Bezos is saying makes sense, embroiled as he is with the oligopoly that is Big Publishing. And maybe on the other end of this media madhouse we will find a way to properly fund that which is fit and proper to distribute for the intellectual and ethical betterment of all who can see, hear and read. Maybe that will take a revolution of sorts. I've written literally thousands of essays here on this blog, and I'm still getting better all the time. I'm still growing up. Is there any room for grownups? Anyone?