At the same time, as it was becoming clear that Iowa City would indeed achieve "world city of literature" status, Iowa Public Radio announced that it would be dropping "Live From Prairie Lights" from its programming schedule. For as long as most people remember, "Live From Prairie Lights" has broadcast visiting poets and fiction writers reading, well, live from Prairie Lights Bookstore in downtown Iowa City. Apparently, though, a number of forces conspired to drive listeners away. The show's host was boring. The readers (like many readers) didn't perform their work with any particular flair. And the show ran once or twice on air which, as you and I both know, simply ain't gonna fly in an age of YouTube and podcasts. Are you gonna rearrange your schedule, wait until 8 pm, then tune in your crystal set to listen to a boring reading followed by an even more boring set of questions? "Poetry & Popular Culture" sure isn't.
But the old-time codgers here in Iowa City—many of whom haven't listened to "Live From Prairie Lights" in ages (and many of whom would privately admit that the show actually is pretty boring)—have been lamenting the passing of the wireless torch and the demise of the radio show. How horrid, they say, that on the eve of being designated the world's third city of literature Iowa City should strip away its literary radio programming. Some heavies like former Iowa Poet Laureate and Writers' Workshop teacher Marvin Bell and current Iowa Poet Laureate Robert Dana have weighed in on the controversy.
And what follows is Mike Chasar's take on the topic, a view officially endorsed by "Poetry & Popular Culture."
Appeared in the Press-Citizen on November 25, 2008
Put Readings On YouTube
Congratulations, Iowa City, for being designated UNESCO's third City of Literature. Via the Iowa Writers' Workshop, the International Writing Program and other innovative and historically significant literary efforts, you have changed the way writing happens in the United States and around the world.
It is now time to remember that history, stop lamenting the disappearance of "Live from Prairie Lights" from Iowa Public Radio and seize on that disappearance as an opportunity to reimagine what such broadcasts might look and sound like in a digital age where podcasts and YouTube reach a much larger audience than WSUI and Julie Englander ever could.
Radio poetry history
Literature has long been a part of public and commercial radio programming. In the 1920s, poetry radio shows emerged as popular parts of the media landscape. Some shows -- like Ted Malone's "Between the Bookends" and Tony Wons's "R Yuh Listenin'?" -- were broadcast nationwide and had large, avid audiences who not only waited by their sets to hear poems read aloud to live organ music, but who flooded the studios with fan mail as well.
At the height of his popularity in the 1930s, Malone's show received more than 20,000 fan letters per month. Much as I hesitate to mention that other state university north of Ames, you can go there and read some of these fan letters yourself, which are now in the Arthur B. Church Papers in the Special Collections Department of that university's Parks Library.
Malone and Wons weren't the only ones to dazzle first generation radio audiences with poetry. A.M. Sullivan's "New Poetry Hour" on WOR (New York) strove to broadcast poetry of only the highest literary quality. Eve Merriam's Out of the Ivory Tower on WQXR (New York) featured Leftist poets reading their work. Ted Malone was known for showcasing "amateur" poetry sent in by his listeners, but he also read poetry by Shakespeare, Keats, W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot.
And on the eve of World War II -- when radio was the major source of up-to-the-moment news for many Americans -- NBC broadcast Edna St. Vincent Millay's book-length propaganda poem "The Murder of Lidice" to a nationwide audience of millions. It was performed by Hollywood actor and two-time Academy Award nominee Basil Rathbone and was accompanied by a chorus of singers. Not only was that broadcast shortwaved to England and Europe, but the poem was translated into Spanish and Portuguese and beamed to South America as well.
Finding today's audiences
Those days may be over, but audiences still await -- though they're not sitting in Prairie Lights, nor, apparently, are they sitting by their radios diligently tuning in to Iowa Public Radio.
Instead, they are online watching "The Daily Show" and Tina Fey impersonate Sarah Palin on YouTube. They are downloading podcasts. They tune in at their convenience, but they do so in enormous numbers.
"Live from Prairie Lights" should find a model in President-elect Barack Obama, who recently gave the weekly Democratic radio address not just on radio, but also for the first time on YouTube.
If, as one university official claimed, "Live from Praire Lights" is a "standard-bearer" for Iowa City's literary culture, then it should not be constrained by the time tables of either a bookstore or a public radio schedule. It should be recorded in video and audio formats. It should be posted online for listeners to access at their convenience -- at a coffee shop, at work, or even (anachronistic as it might sound) at a fireside.
The readings of Iowa City's writers and visiting writers should be posted on YouTube where people not just in Iowa City, but around the world, can access them. Imagine the global audiences who might tune in to hear participants in the International Writing Program read from their work.
If "Live from Prairie Lights" really is the "gem" that people say it is, then why not share that wealth with as many people as possible? That would not only be a move in keeping with Iowa City's leadership and innovation in arts and letters, but the mark of a true world city of literature as well.