Media Literacy Review
Center for Advanced Technology in Education - College of Education - University of Oregon - Eugene
Hard Lesson to Learn
Bill Walsh, Contributing Writer
My own introduction to the world of media literacy twenty three years ago was not a pleasant one, but perhaps it bears re-telling. If others can learn from my folly and unrealistic expectations, it will have served a purpose.
It was 1972, and I was fresh from college, a veteran of four years at not one but two college radio stations and off to make it as a disc jockey in the wonderful world of radio. Back then, you did everything at a college radio station: news, interviews and engineering as well as being a disc jockey. (I'll tell you about the station sometime. It was remarkably like "WKRP in Cincinnati", complete with the Les Nesman-types, Johnny Fevers, and assorted others. There was, however, no Jennifer. Sigh).
I'd done early morning shows, all-night programs, request shows, news - the whole bit. I could fade from Jimi Hendrix to Joni Mitchell. I could recite a discography of each of the major groups and even the minor ones (The Ultimate Spinach put out three albums, not two!). I once trained a kid who had actually spoken to Paul McCartney. Raised on Juicy Brucie Bradley, Dick Summer, and Dale Dorman, I too was about to enter the world of professional radio. I was ready!
Some radio station in Maine actually responded to one of my application letters, so I headed up there for an interview. On the way up (when I got within range), I tuned in the station to see what they were playing. It was Mark Lindsay's syrupy "Arizona." Once I finished retching, I made up my mind to revolutionize this rinky-dink station with real music - good old rock and roll.
The station owner was a gruff but kindly Lou Grant type, who ushered me into his tiny office and put my audition tape in the deck and started to listen.
"Nice voice, kid," he said at the sound of my melodious tones.
"Thanks," I beamed.
"But that's not important." He listened for a few more minutes.
"I like the music you play," he commented.
"But that's not important."
He heard me explain how the song was written and which album it was from.
"You know a lot about music, huh?" he asked.
I blushed. "Yeah. Kinda." I was afraid of what was coming next.
"Too bad that's not important."
He finally shut the tape off.
"I want to hear you read a commercial."
"We were a noncommercial college station," I explained. Actually, the closest we had come to doing a commercial was reading public service announcements from the Mobilization Committee to Stop the War (usually with the Jefferson Airplane singing some revolutionary anthem in the background).
"Here," he said, "Read this."
It was a commercial for Ned's Yarn Shop. I read it aloud.
"Can't use you," he explained. He saw my disappointment and his face softened. "Look, you're a nice kid, so let me tell you the facts of life.
"I don't make a penny off the records you play. I don't care how much you know about music or how good your voice is. The only way this station makes money is by commercials. The music is nothing but filler. FILLER. The COMMERCIALS are what's important. That's where we make our profit. And YOU can't read a commercial worth beans!"
I was crushed, not by my inability to get folks interested in the yarn shop, but by hearing a radio guy say that music wasn't important!
My DJ dreams hit the hard wall of reality. Commercial reality. Financial reality. Adult reality. He was right, of course. That didn't help me feel any better back then, but it does now.
And so today when I hear media literacy educators explain that all media have commercial purposes, I nod knowingly. Media are businesses, commercial enterprises. They exist to make money for their owners - whether the owner is a Lou Grant type in Maine or stockholders of some conglomerate.
This is not good or bad; it's just the way it is.
Top 40 radio's loss was (perhaps) Billerica High School's gain. And that disappointing experience was for me the very beginnings of learning about, trying to understand, and beginning to explain the way media works.
I want to go back and visit Ned's Yarn Shop someday, though. Maybe I'll buy something.
Bill Walsh is the A/V Media Specialist at Billerica High School, Billerica, MA.