There's Something Out There

I listen best at night. No surprise there--things are quieter and the world is eminently more listenable. Or more audible. It's like the daytime wall of sound comes down--cars, kids, electronics--and you can hear what's really going on behind it. That doesn't mean what you hear is all lovely, but it is revealing. However inelegant, it is the truth.

For the last ten years or so I've been on a listening mission, straining to connect with my fellow Americans. I've been doing it in an odd way. Every night at about 10:30, I turn on KFI-AM and the overnight "Coast to Coast" show. As fans know, it's a strange-phenomena program that discusses--with a very straight face--everything from alien invasions to pet psychics to government conspiracies and cover-ups. As the hour grows later, things get more bizarre (I've tried to stay awake to see what's in rotation at 4 a.m., but I haven't made it yet). It's the only time I willingly listen to an AM station like KFI, which is brazenly right-wing and has been since Tom Bradley left office, or maybe that's when I first noticed.

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KFI and its talking heads is part of the wall of sound that's been obscuring the real America, the one that unites around kitsch and trivia a lot more readily than it does around politics; admittedly, it's the country I've been looking for every night on the dial, just to make sure I'm participating in a national conversation of some kind. That I would look for anything resembling a unifying conversation at KFI at all is ironic, to say the least. But I have my reasons. Or I found them.

See, I initially listened to "Coast to Coast" only for entertainment. Times were ugly, people were polarized, and what better way to escape the daily political grind than to listen to nighttime accounts about the latest sightings of Bigfoot? Strange phenomena was the perfect escape, plus it fed my romance with talk radio that I've had ever since I was a kid and tuned in to Dodger pre-game shows. Yes, there was some politicking and flag-waving on 'Coast-to-Coast,' but it was generally retired by 11 p.m., and then I could listen unperturbed. But things have changed. In the last year or so, as the Bush years careened to a close, I heard politics itself becoming part of that strange phenomena. Forget who shot JFK: "Coast to Coast" hosts fretted more about climate change, the secrecy of the White House, the Big Brother-ness of warrantless wiretapping, the government's engineering of the free market with bailouts and buyouts. I started listening with new hope that me, KFI and the whole right-wing monde were actually coming to a meeting point. Among the more encouraging things I heard recently was an economist on the program who concluded that America could build a small-business economy much more efficiently if it didn't have so many young people in prison. That was more earth-shattering to my ears than a confirmation that Elvis was still alive.

I'm not naïve. Obama notwithstanding, I doubt that the truckers, Wisconsin small-towners and other folks in the "Coast to Coast" demographic would invite me over to their houses for dinner. But a certain layer of ice has melted. When I listen in these days--nights--I at least feel like we're all in this weirdness together.

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