Low Brow/High Horse: Radio Vs. Television, Round Three

Well, I’ve been going over the results of the “Great British TV Survey” in the latest issue of the Radio Times. Surveys tickle me, which is probably why I used to enjoy guessing the answers on Family Feud. Anyway. I think I am just giddy about Eurovision on this eve of the semi-finals, the night Europe celebrates its Hasselhoffian roots. Sure enough, the Eurovision Song Contest tops the survey in the category of “guilty pleasure.” I know no such discreditable delights. If I am lowbrowsing for Sonja Henie, I don’t hope to find Hedda Gabler on skates. And if I expose myself to the pipes of radio’s “Vagabond Lover” (Rudy Vallee, left), I don’t expect Lorne Greene (or whatever’s the name of the opera that sounds like the actor who played the guy who ran the Ponderosa). I leave my high horse in the stable when treading on the thin ice that is likely to crack once one begins to account for one’s tastes or discounts those of the masses, the pondering of which is a hobbyhorse of the elitist.

That said, I could not fill out such a questionnaire without drawing a blank. I have remained immune to the charms of Doctor Who or Coronation Street. And much as I enjoyed shows like The Avengers and The Royle Family (a sort of Vic and Sade gone Eurotrash), I simply don’t know enough about the history of British “telly” to decide whether or not the medium’s offerings have gotten better or worse over the years. Not that I rely on the informed opinions of galaxies-removed stargazer Sir Patrick Moore, who had this to say on the topic:

[British television has gotten] much worse. Any interesting programmes are put on very late. The 650th edition of The Sky at Night [which Moore hosts] was put out at 2 AM [. . .]. The trouble is that the BBC now is run by women and it shows: soap operas, cooking, quizzes, kitchen-sink plays. You wouldn’t have had that in the golden days. I would like to see two independent wavelengths—one controlled by women, and one for us, controlled by men.

American radio programming, back when the wireless was the main source of home entertainment, often met with similar dismissals, a disdain for the popular that dates back to the days of bearbaiting and the origins of reading for pleasure. Some fifty years ago, Fortune Magazine called for a “Revolt against Radio,” arguing that a “very large part of America’s radio fare (most soap operas, quiz programs, audience-participation shows [the kinds of programs mocked by radio comedian Fred Allen on this day, 9 May, in 1948], gag-comedy acts, juke-music sessions, commercial announcements) would affect any person of modest discrimination somewhere in the range of complete indifference and acute illness.”

I don’t know what is worse: being talked down to by broadcasters or patronized by their critics? Perhaps this is why I turned (on) to old-time radio, the everyday in retrospection. It is so little regarded these days and treated (if at all) as being very nearly beyond criticism that it can be appreciated anew by those equipped with a keen ear and an open mind. Besides, what does it matter whether the brow is high or low once your eyes are closed? When you find yourself in the country of the blind, don’t trade that kingdom for a high horse.

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