Spoken word radio makes a comeback

Postscript finds art and culture in the airwaves

Spoken word programming on CFRC has grown from five time slots to 23 over the last three years.
Spoken word programming on CFRC has grown from five time slots to 23 over the last three years.

I was raised on spoken word radio and I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with it.

As a child, I thought my parents seemingly unhealthy adoration of the CBC was like watching the colour tests on television—not fun and definitely not cool. Even now the sound of the “long dash” aired everyday to signal 1 pm Eastern Standard Time brings back unfortunate memories of being a motion sick six-year-old stuck on exhaustingly long car trips listening to the CBC. It seemed that all my friends’ parents bought them Disney soundtracks and educational sing-alongs to help their children learn the alphabet while having fun.

Years later, I found out that at nearly every parent-teacher interview my parents went to, they heard the comment, “Your children have so much general knowledge.” While I was ready to chalk this up to our sheer brilliance, my parents credited years of listening to Peter Gzowski.

As a teenager, National Public Radio’s A Prairie Home Companion show filled our kitchen every Saturday evening. I would always try to sneakily put on some of my own music when I thought my parents weren’t paying attention, but apparently a sudden blast of Dashboard Confessional doesn’t go unnoticed when it interrupts Garrison Keillor mid-sentence.

After spending a few years in a farm town in Western Canada, I found myself desperate for the intelligent and creative conversational dialogue that I had spent my childhood listening to. Thankfully, the CBC is available pretty much everywhere in Canada. I spent an entire afternoon listening to a show about Robert Burton’s 17th century text, The Anatomy of Melancholy. I was officially sucked in.

Luckily, my radio fixation did not have to be given up upon coming to Kingston. CFRC, the University’s campus and community radio station features a number of fascinating spoken word programs.

Spoken word is similar to the idea of talk radio, though spoken word is the term more often used in non-commercial radio settings, including campus and public radio, the two places where high quality spoken word is most often found.

“Talk radio is just a format where people can do more opinionated pieces. It can also fall within the realm of news, weather reports, giving road updates, things like that, in terms of commercial radio,” CFRC’s spoken word co-ordinator Sirena Liladrie told the Journal. “With campus and community radio, in spoken word we have an opportunity to explore many mores issues, opinionated pieces and specialize in things such as science or history or poetry.”

While music may be played in these types of programs, it’s often used to illustrate a topic of discussion or to segue between topics or shows. The dialogue is always the main focus of the show. While most people associate the term “talk radio” with either shock jocks like Howard Stern or politically partisan programming like Rush Limbaugh’s or The Al Franken Show, there is much more diverse programming available outside those narrow margins. People are talking on the airwaves about social justice issues, cultural observations, literature and art.

CFRC’s spoken word programming includes Pro Bono Radio, which features Queen’s Law School students talking about legal issues, while Groundswell covers social justice, progressive ideas and political events happening in the Kingston community from a grassroots perspective.

Divine Chit Chat focuses on poetry and its expression in many different formats, from slam poets to poems used in theatre.

Of course things have changed since the days when families gathered around radio speakers and listened to dramas. The Internet has revolutionized the way people listen to radio, with many programs providing online archives of their shows and regular podcast feeds. Both NPR and the CBC offer automatic RSS feeds of programming.

While CFRC has not officially made the jump to podcasting, many program hosts have begun to offer podcasts independently via their blogs.

“Considering the amount of work that goes into each show, it’s just another avenue [for spoken word hosts] exposing themselves and having their work heard,” Liladrie said.

Perhaps due to the advent of podcasts or the increasing inability of commercial radio to satisfy listeners, more and more people have been turning to spoken word radio. Throughout the three years that Liladrie has been the spoken word co-ordinator at CFRC, spoken word programming has increased almost five-fold.

“When I came into the station, there were just a few spoken word shows scattered across our programming grid. We were able to increase the amount of spoken word programming to 25 per cent of our programming needs at the station,” she said.

In addition to listening to and improving spoken word shows on her own station, Liladrie said she listens to shows like CBC’s Definitely Not the Opera, in order to keep up with what other stations are doing. And it’s paying off.

“I would say a lot of the stuff we are doing now is comparable, in terms of the research we are doing and the work that goes into our spoken word programming, to the CBC,” she said. “We have had listeners call in and say that a certain show is high quality, and ‘it sounded like I was listening to the CBC.’ ”

Liladrie said that spoken word seems to be making converts.

“We’ve even had a few of our music programmers switch from music into spoken word programming.” Much to the joy of children everywhere, it seems spoken word might be becoming cool. If nothing else, at least it’ll increase your general knowledge.

CFRC has the goods

•Democracy Now, Tues-Sat, 7 a.m., Mon-Fri, noon
•Groundswell, Mon, 11:30 a.m.
•This Way Out, Tues, 11:30 a.m.
•The Best of Our Knowledge, Wed, 11:30 a.m.
•Pro Bono Radio, Thurs, 11:30 a.m.
•Women’s Word, Fri, 11:30 a.m.
•CFRC’s community newsfile, Mon-Fri, 1 p.m.
•Campus Confidential, Tues, 4:30 p.m.
•Absolutely Frivolous, Wed, 4:30 p.m.
•You Are What You Eat, Thurs, 4:30 p.m.
•Chatterbook, Fri, 4:30 p.m.
•Spoken Word Surprise, Mon, 5 p.m.
•Scientia radiostus, Tues, 5 p.m.
•The Lonesome Whistle, Tues, 5:30 p.m.
•Rules of Engagement, Wed, 5:30 pm
•Radio Ban Dung, Thurs, 5 p.m.
•Divine Chit Chat, Fri, 5 p.m.

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