At the summer’s start, my scholarship was, as was everyone’s, utterly unmoored by the abrupt and brutal rise of the pandemic. In addition to the impact Covid-19 had on the day-to-day logistics of my project—conducting and recording interviews, chief among them—it also profoundly impacted the scope and scale of what I was seeking in the first place, and the kind of story I wanted to tell.
In these times, back home for the first time in months, I listened as radio, as a medium, changed shape from a form of entertainment to a necessary lifeline connecting each of us in our separate isolation tanks to one another across vast and impenetrable distances, the likes of which I had not known in my lifetime.
While social media connects us, it’s rarely a successful vehicle for narrative. On someone’s Instagram account you see the still image: the takeaway, the moral, the lesson once its already been hard-earned, but what radio offers is the opportunity to “listen in” on the journey as it hitches and stalls, the lesson as it coalesces. It’s the sound of the ignition as it catches, the seatbelt buckling on route to pursue a new lead; or the sound of a throat being hesitantly cleared during an interview, the clink of crystal, the crackle of fire or the static of wind interrupting someone’s silence or punctuating their point that keeps me listening—the sound of where we are in space and time, and the insight into how it is that we were able to arrive that most compels me to pursue and consume podcasts and radio documentaries.
When radio was first becoming a household medium, it was often called the voice of God. I think of this analogy, now, not as a description of the sound, but as a way of capturing what it must have been like to be thrust into a universally shared experience all at once, and all across the world—one that irrevocably binds us to one another, though one we necessarily experience alone.
I was inspired to go back to Western Kentucky to interview coal miners in part because of the song Paradise by John Prine, a song and a songwriter solely responsible for keeping that town in the America cultural lexicon now decades since its destruction. Prine wrote about Kentucky because it was his ancestral home, though he grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. He listened to the stories of Paradise fondly remembered by his father and grandfather, he listened to folk and country on the radio, and managed to remain tethered to this place he had only ever really known in childhood. This listening, this fixed attention, didn’t only preserve the memories of Kentucky in John’s mind, it literally allowed him to retain his accent, the modes of expression that marked him as belonging to a very specific place, as having lived in a unique and bygone time.
John Prine was killed by Covid-19 in April. So much loss. So many gone too soon. So many utterly preventable deaths. I mention Prine not because I believe he should be singled out to be grieved, but because I look at the prospect of returning to Iowa, I consider the fact that the institution has chosen to allow its thousands of students to return, and I think about the implicit narrative behind that choice, and every institutional choice to return to business as usual during a pandemic from which people, artists, loved ones, people, continue to die every day. The narrative, if you pare it down to its most essential basis, is this: that the elderly, the ill, the poor, and the immuno-compromised do not deserve to live. That they are not valuable citizens of this country, or, at least, not valuable enough to merit saving.
If you keep following that narrative to its logical conclusion, it sounds very familiar. It sounds like it ends at a very old lesson I am shocked and horrified to watch my school and my nation repeat.