Learning To Listen: A Farewell To Radio Pioneer Ed Walker (1932-2015)

For those who do not regularly read my grunts and grumblings on social media, chances are that you are unaware of what has been a regular part of my Sunday evening routine for many years now. WAMU FM, one of the PBS radio stations here in Washington, airs a program called “The Big Broadcast” on Sundays from 7-11pm Eastern, featuring classic radio shows from the 1930’s to the 1950’s. During each broadcast a host of stars such as George Burns and Gracie Allen, Eve Arden, Jack Benny, Bing Crosby, and countless others come pouring out of the speakers once again, as they once did many decades ago. I’ve always made it a point to tell my social media followers about it on Sunday nights, asking them to tune in on-air or online, as collectively we sit back, relax, and listen to great comedy, drama, and music.

The host of “The Big Broadcast” for the past 25 years was Ed Walker, who died yesterday. Mr. Walker, who was 83, had recently been diagnosed with cancer, and on the advice of his physicians had reluctantly agreed to retire from radio in order to focus on his treatment. The last episode he hosted was recorded a week ago, from Mr. Walker’s bed in Sibley Hospital here in DC.

For regular listeners this was a particularly poignant broadcast. Although Mr. Walker did not sound at all well, and clearly had some idea of what was coming, on the occasion of his final show he took the opportunity to select some of his all-time favorite recordings, explaining why he enjoyed them. This included the brilliant radio play version of “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, with Humphrey Bogart and Walter Houston reprising their original roles from the classic film. Reports are that when “The Big Broadcast” aired this past Sunday evening, Mr. Walker listened to the show surrounded by his family, and then passed away a few hours later.  

Mr. Walker was an institution in these parts, having been in radio for well over 60 years. Generations of Washingtonians grew up hearing his voice; with the advent of new media, he reached many more listeners well beyond the confines of the Capital Beltway. Tributes have been pouring in from all corners of DC media, many of which have noted that his appeal was such that he continued to reach new, young audiences right up until his passing. Comments on social media and blogs over the past 24 hours have revealed how many people across the generational divides – Greatest Generation-ers, Baby Boomers, Gen X’ers, Millennials – loved listening to his work.

While “The Big Broadcast” was never about Mr. Walker himself, his gentle humor and enormous knowledge of the radio genre made the program something more than a compilation of old recordings. He always gave listeners interesting tidbits and commentary about what we were listening to, such as pointing out the appearance of a then-unknown future star in a radio play, or reminding us of a connection between performers of yesteryear which we might not otherwise know. However what was perhaps most remarkable about Mr. Walker, and something which he rarely if ever alluded to on the show out of his own modesty and self-effacement, was the fact that without alluding to it, he brought us into his world, and showed us what it means to make the most out of our lives.

For as it happens, Mr. Walker was born totally blind.

Ed Walker was the first blind student to attend his alma mater, American University, and in 1950 he helped launch the original WAMU on campus. Despite his disability, Mr. Walker went on to a successful career in broadcasting, beginning in 1955 with his good friend (and future NBC “Today” show weatherman) Willard Scott, on their comedy show “The Joy Boys” from 1955 to 1974. He also worked at various television and radio stations around Washington, until he took over the captain’s chair at “The Big Broadcast” in 1990, to date the longest-running program on WAMU since it first aired in 1964.

Never having been able to see with his own eyes, Mr. Walker nevertheless lived in a rich world which allowed him to see with his mind, and to teach others how to do the same. The radio broadcasts of yesteryear require no visual stimulation whatsoever on the part of the listener, who creates the scene in his head, rather than having it placed before him on screen. The brain is highly stimulated because it is forced to imagine, relying upon the sounds reaching the ears to understand and process the information being sent. For these few hours a week, at least, Mr. Walker and his listeners were united in a way that demonstrated how much more alike than different we all are. Whatever our abilities, we human beings experience joy, sorrow, apprehension, and humor together.

Although it has been announced that “The Big Broadcast” will go on, the loss of Mr. Walker’s calming, grandfatherly voice on Sunday nights will be deeply felt. He always asked his listeners to put their cares (and fear of Monday morning) away for a few hours, in order to spend time together enjoying good stories and good music. In a cacophonous and hyper-stimulated world, his call to simply be still and listen is something that ought to resonate with us all the more.


Ed Walker (L) and Willard Scott (R) in 1965

Phone Booth Friday: Let’s Give Our Superheroes A Break

Yesterday I read this criticism of superheroes by Vlad Savov in The Verge, because a well-intended reader of this blog sent it my way, wondering whether I would care to comment on it. In his piece, Mr. Savov raises a number of points, but his general thesis is that the superheroes with whom we’re familiar don’t seem to be very super.  Despite their powers and abilities, they do not eradicate evil and suffering from the world, they only beat it back for a time, and sometimes not very successfully. In essence, the author is asking the question, “What are superheroes for?”

The most important thing to consider when attempting to answer this question is the rather obvious, though perhaps easily-forgotten fact, that superheroes don’t actually exist.  They’re beings inhabiting works of fiction, no different in their way from other characters in adventure tales such as Captain Nemo, Michael Strogoff, or The Scarlet Pimpernel.  Even when there are traces of their being drawn from the lives and experiences of actual persons, theirs are not stories about real people.  As vivid as Bruce Wayne or Steve Rogers may be, they are still just characters in a story.

In most cases, a fictional character is created primarily for the purpose of entertainment.  Not all fictional characters exist devoid of deeper meanings or significance of course: they can often serve important pedagogical purposes, such as teaching us things about human nature, or about anticipating the consequences of our actions.  The best literature, oftentimes, not only entertains, but informs and enlightens.  Yet while one can easily learn a life lesson from The Little Engine That Could just as well as one may do from Thérèse Desqueyroux, in the end if their stories are not entertaining, no one is going to read them.

When we complain that superheroes don’t appear to solve the problems of the worlds which they inhabit, we’re playing a version of the classic game known as the “omnipotence paradox”, i.e., can God create a stone so heavy that He cannot lift it?  If Superman is so powerful, why doesn’t he work to eliminate all crime instead of fighting against it with his fists?

If superheroes fail to fix everything that afflicts mankind, it is because they have a fundamental belief that it’s important for people to solve their problems themselves whenever possible.  Certain threats against humanity – an approaching asteroid, a water supply poisoned by The Joker – they will step in and act upon.  Yet to remake the world in their image would be to set themselves up as all-powerful gods or benevolent dictators, negating the ability of ordinary people to exercise their own free will.  As Gandalf points out in “The Lord of the Rings” when Frodo offers him the One Ring, he would try to use its power for good, but in the end the temptation to turn it to his own selfish desires would be far too great for even him to resist.

This is because appearances to the contrary, superheroes are vulnerable.  They get shot, stabbed, punched, kicked, poisoned, and otherwise mangled and mistreated on a regular basis.  While they may have miraculous powers of self-healing, they still have to suffer in the course of their lives and work as we do. They do so in ways which are less mundane than paying the gas bill or being stuck next to a screaming baby on a plane. Yet they keep going, fighting for what matters to them, because they believe that the values which they fight for are more important than their own personal comforts, and because they recognize that the abilities with which they have been gifted call them to a different level of commitment and self-sacrifice.

By no means is this meant to be a complete response or even a riposte to Mr. Savov’s piece, which despite my disagreement with his assumptions and conclusions is worth reading for some of the points and criticisms it raises.  However, the takeaway from this is to remember that the superhero genre is meant to be, first and foremost, a form of entertaining literature: it is FUN, and it is perfectly acceptable, indeed laudable, to simply sit back and enjoy the ride.  While it might be nice for all of our problems to be solved by these beings endowed with unbelievable powers, the reality is, each one of us is called to work out our own problems ourselves whenever possible, rather than having all of our solutions to the difficulties of life handed to us.

So let’s give our superheroes a break, gentle reader.  Give them a chance to kick off their boots, and put their feet up after a hard day of fighting crime.  And let’s encourage those virtues of selflessness, self-reliance, and courage in the face of evil in our lives which, as fictional characters, they try to exemplify in their own.

Superman After a Long Day by Alex Ross

Superman After a Long Day by Alex Ross





“The Cosmopolitans”: Whit’s Still the Man

This weekend I had the chance to check out the pilot episode of “The Cosmopolitans”, the new series by writer and director Whit Stillman released on Amazon Prime.  If you’re a regular visitor to these pages, then you know that I’m an unabashed fan of his work.  Yet after the somewhat anti-climactic “Damsels in Distress”, it was great to see him return to seriously good form in this, a new series about young Americans living and loving in Paris.

Like much of Stillman’s work, “The Cosmopolitans” isn’t so much about a story moving toward resolution, but rather a series of stories that intertwine, punctuated by significant events.  He’s been described as the conservative, bourgeois version of Woody Allen, and there’s some truth to that observation.  For more often than not, the reason why someone either enjoys or does not enjoy Stillman’s work comes down to the question of whether the conversations taking place among his characters remind the viewer of conversations which they themselves have had.  If you can’t relate to Woody Allen – and I certainly can’t – then you probably find him irritating and perverse.  Stillman, on the other hand, is “The Man”, in a sense, because he is writing largely about the experiences of educated, cultured Americans from good schools and respectable backgrounds, exploring the world around them and always dressing stylishly as they do so.

It’s also interesting to see how effortlessly Stillman has transitioned to the small screen.  Like Amy Sherman-Palladino back in the first few seasons of “Gilmore Girls”, when it was one of the best-written things on television, Stillman has an ear for the witty comeback, the snarky cultural reference, and the perfect put-down worthy of the Ancien Régime. Yet because of the nature of the films which he has made so far, Stillman’s work usually has a drawing-room quality to it, like sitting at a party at the house of someone you don’t know – also a favorite plot device of his – and overhearing other people’s interesting conversations. These make the small screen just as good a venue for his observations as the big screen.

Stillman has also presented us with a combination of characters that we will try to figure out better as the series continues.  For example, writing Chloe Sevigny’s character as a kind of proto-Miranda Priestly seemed a surprise at first, seeing as how her outing in Stillman’s “Last Days of Disco” was as something of an ingenue. Yet watching her take a throwaway comment about how long it takes to become a Parisian and turn it into a recurrent thematic weapon is absolutely hilarious, and makes the viewer want to hear more of what she has to say.

The phenomenon of seeing prominent actors and directors like these creating on-demand streaming internet series is an interesting phenomenon in and of itself.  The American version of “House of Cards” is, understandably enough, extremely popular and heavily advertised here in DC.  This is due not only to the fact that the series is set here, but also because a significant percentage of the population here is tech-savvy enough to feel perfectly comfortable with the idea of watching a show streamed via the internet.  As more investment in digital infrastructure takes place in the coming years, it seems reasonable to assume that more and more of these “online tv” series will be made.

Of course the best sign that any series, online or not, has completely sucked you in is when you are watching a scene, the music swells, the screen goes black, and you audibly shout, “Awwww NO!” You’ve been so caught up in the story that you weren’t keeping an eye on the clock.  That’s happened to me a few times, during some really engrossing series: the British series “MI-5” for example (as “Spooks” is known in the U.S.) These moments are the sign of a good writer, good director, and good actors all coming together. And that same, telltale outcry of disappointment that the episode was already over arose from me and my group of friends watching the pilot for “The Cosmopolitans”.

As the central characters began to make their way home across Paris from a party they had stayed at too long, the credits began to roll, and we were all disappointed to see that the episode was already over. I was reminded at that point of the conclusion of Stillman’s first film, “Metropolitan”.  In that story, his characters had to make their way back to Manhattan with no reasonable means of transportation at their disposal, leaving them to hitchhike along the highway as the picture faded into text.  Unlike in “Metropolitan” however, it appears that we are going to have the great pleasure of seeing what happens next to this new group of characters.  I can’t wait to eavesdrop on their conversations.

It's Whit Stillman. Of course there is a dance sequence.

It’s Whit Stillman. Of course there is a dance sequence.