It was a quiet Sunday evening, and Wayne Clyburn and I were hosting our radio show, Music from the Hills of Home, on WNKU (89.7 FM). We were reading promotional copy for the festival, part of which concerned the Dulcimer Society, a group of people devoted to an instrument called the "lap dulcimer."
This instrument, which is thought to be the very embodiment of Eastern Kentucky culture, has little volume and is plucked with the sharp end of a quill. If you're in a good jam session at a Bluegrass festival, it can be annoying to have a dulcimer player come running up and want to play a solo. Real Bluegrass people hold the dulcimer in about as high esteem as they do contra dancers: They're suspicious of the relevance of both, at least to Bluegrass culture.
To add insult to injury, a bureaucrat in Frankfort had gotten a bunch of names on a petition and, before anyone could get their shotguns loaded, the dulcimer had been named the "State Instrument of Kentucky." What happened to the fiddle and banjo? What about "Blue Moon of Kentucky?"
With this bad blood in play, I read from the Appalachian Festival announcement, "The dulcimers will be located in one central area under one tent." If only I hadn't paused there. I did, though, and looked at Wayne impishly and said, "Well, that's good. It will be easier to bomb them that way."
The remark might have gone unnoticed had it not been for a bus-load of dulcimer players who were on their way to their monthly meeting. They were tuned to WNKU and listening to our show. When I made my unfortunate remark, their mob caps began to bob around and they got hot under the collars of their linsey-woolsey shirts.
The next day, all hell broke loose. Letters and e-mails called for our immediate dismissal. People who had pledged money to our small public radio station demanded their money be refunded.
Bags of mail arrived at the station asking whether in this climate of terror we really ought to talk about bombing dulcimer players and whether we knew how it felt to be bombed. We were aghast.
I had to appear before the station manager and explain myself, and of course I apologized on the air. To this day, I can't understand why I said such a thing, except that for a split second I didn't pay attention. For a split second, I wasn't civil.
Of course, I had no desire to see any dulcimer player hurt under any circumstance, but when you're in front of a microphone you have to be disciplined enough to remember at all times that people really are listening.
Interestingly enough, because I always play the good guy on the radio show, everyone remembered Wayne as being the one who made the remark. He was, after all, the curmudgeon, the guy who made fun of Bob Dylan when WNKU still played mostly Folk music. (The Folk music people and the Bluegrass people are a lot like the Sunni's and Shi'ites: You believe in either Pete Seeger or Earl Scruggs and, as the old saying goes, "You don't mess with Mister Inbetween.")
We didn't get suspended, but a curious thing happened: Our ratings went up! The handwriting was on the wall: If you want an audience, be controversial.
I couldn't play that game, though. I would have been too uncomfortable about hurting people's feelings, and I couldn't have withstood the disapproval.
We're lucky to live in a country where we have the right to be ourselves and to follow our own consciences, and I have a radio station venue where I can do that as long as I pay my own way at fund-raising time and mind my manners. I'm happy enough to slide along under the radar and watch the entertainment world swell with money like a mushroom cloud somewhere over my head out of my reach.
I like the little things in life: local shows on public radio, a good Jazz trio at the bar down the street, the small art openings in Over-the-Rhine on Final Fridays, a really good library book. I'm not high maintenance. I don't demand that my spinach be shipped in from California or my sushi from Vietnam.
I don't listen to Bill Cunningham, and I don't get up early enough to see or hear Don Imus. If I get in a taxi with someone who's listening to Rush Limbaugh, I've been known to get out and walk the rest of the way (after paying, of course). Too much loud talking gives me a headache.
Once I heard a man say that, if he could get really good and mad, the energy would keep him going for a few days, maybe even a week. That scares me -- you never know where that kind of floating rage might land. Still, it would never occur to me to want these people silenced.
Imus said a bad thing, an ugly thing, about the young women at Rutgers University, and people reacted viscerally because they were innocent girls who had done something wonderful on the basketball court. It felt like their honor was besmirched, and the remark went right to the quick of our national guilt about African Americans.
According to the media clips I saw in the week following his fall from grace, Imus had said a lot of other shocking things, things that would have peeled back the ears on a hound dog, yet nobody much cared then. He was attracting huge ratings and making lots of money for his sponsors.
I wonder if his sponsors weren't paying attention or if they just didn't really care as long as the cash register was ringing and the complaint lines weren't.
I can't cast the first stone at anyone after what I said, but I'm glad most of my listeners forgave me (though they're still suspicious of Wayne). The ones who didn't forgive simply exercised what is every listener's right, no matter how rich or poor, how powerful or powerless: They changed the channel.
CONTACT KATIE LAUR: firstname.lastname@example.org. Her column appears here the first issue of each month.
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