Tongue Tied

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I knew something was wrong before I heard any actual words about the subject.

It had already been a rough morning. My kids had missed their bus, so I had to drive them to school.

Then, I’d had to slog my way through traffic on I 94 to try to get from the north end of StPaul out to my job, near Ridgedale. But things were finally picking up; I was listening to PJ O’Rourke doing a book interview on the KQRS morning show. They got to a commercial break, and I flipped over to “Morning Edition”.

And I knew something had to be terribly, terribly wrong even before I heard a coherent sentence.

The NPR hosts were trying to ad lib.

Maybe you never think about this – the way people sound on the radio is pretty easy to take for granted. But even though in 2001 I hadn’t set foot in a radio station in nine years, that sound – NPR hosts trying to ad lib – grabbed me like a hand reaching for my throat out of the dashboard.

Remember in “Hunt for Red October“, when Fred Thompson says Russians “don’t take a dump without a plan?“ Public radio air staff don’t put a bagel in the toaster without a script. Everything you hear on the air on public radio is written out, and doesn’t get anywhere near a microphone until a chain of editors has picked it over. Those “spontaneous “ questions that the newscasters ask of the reporters when they’re talking about news stories? Scripted. Even the rare, occasional program that is made up of unscripted material – think “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me“ and Teri Gross and the like – is edited to a fine sheen before it gets anywhere near broadcast.

NPR people never ad lib – and when they have to, they are pretty much always terrible at it.

And so when events move too fast for the editorial process to keep up, and they have to ad lib, it stands out like Ozzy Osbourne at a Rotary meeting.

So when I flipped over to Morning Edition, and heard nothing but stammering and people trying to express the unthinkable in real time, I knew something had to be terribly wrong even before I actually heard anything.

And so while the news got worse and worse all day, I don’t know that anything really triggered my sense of alarm more than the gaping, stammering, confused not-quite-silence on NPR that morning. And of all the things that happened that day, that feeling – driving down 394, thinking “this has got to be real, real bad“ without knowing anything concrete about it at all – is still the memory that sticks with me when people asked “where were you that morning?“

Remember when your grandmother said “nothing good happens at 2 AM“? Nothing good happens when public radio people go off script.

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