– The Algorithm Is No Friend –
To the Editor:
July is a great issue. For starters, there was the always reliable and insightful Scott Yanow’s profile on Bob Crosby and Brian Sheridan’s interview with Michael Feinstein. Nevertheless, for me, you are the real star of the issue. Your birthday card for Ivie Anderson was sweet, succinct, and informative. But it was your editorial, “Turn Your Radio Off,” that made me ponder as nothing else I read did, especially in light of Michael Feinstein’s faint praise of Spotify.
I think the algorithm is a cultural foe not a friend, even though it comes bearing gifts of treasure to people like me in search of a past that passed long before they were born. No software can predict or even produce the kind of revelation that occurs when one follows one’s own maturing instinct and curiosity. I spent my entire youth fighting for the oxygen of good music and learning a discernment that can only come through struggle and thirst. Internet abundance is a Trojan horse planted in our midst.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad for Radio Dismuke and all the other purveyors of the vintage music so dear to us. But they’re true radio. Spotify is false radio. I’d much rather rely on the Internet Archive as a resource than Google because it places before us whole collections for us to savor—with the extra satisfaction of self-discovery.
When I was growing up, AM radio was a daily source of sustenance. Many of the deejays were WWII veterans who played generous samplings of Swing Era music. I remember monthly Saturday night specials devoted to big bands of the glorious likes of Jimmie Lunceford, Glen Gray, and Larry Clinton. I would listen with my parents who shared memories that might otherwise have stayed buried if the music hadn’t revivified them. Although my mother’s favorite singer was Ruth Etting, there was no sign of that in her listening life. I learned that fact only after her death, from my sister. If I had known while she was still alive, I would have bought her a Ruth Etting reissue-LP for her birthday.
Yes, such reissues were scarce. But somehow the likes of “X” Records got to releasing them and I always spent my lunch money on those EPs and LPs rather than the daily cafeteria fare. I remember buying a 45-reissue for Lunceford’s first recording of “White Heat” and thinking there was a God so I could thank him for the music I just heard.
There’s still some good radio, especially podcast radio. But AM and FM are dead-end streets now. And there is little, if any, likelihood of something as life-changing as “White Heat” drifting in through the ethers to my car radio. So your lament for the unmaking of radio is as touching as it is true. Progress is often a wrecking ball not a building tool. Too many bridges lead to nowhere.
– A Note on the Pfanstiehl –
To the Editor:
I was surprised to read in your column that you had a Pfanstiehl radio. My father was the manager of the tiny company in North Chicago, Illinois. They had a few employees and made battery operated radios and a few with AC power supplies. They couldn’t compete with the newer AC sets and went out of business about 1932. My father lost his job and we had very hard times during the depression. We had a Pfanstiehl radio in our living room I recall in about 1935.
Carl Pfanstiehl was an independent entrepreneur and was wealthy. When the economy improved a little my father, Oscar Bell, went back with Carl and they operated a small business until about 1950. In those days only a few completed high school. My mother used to say proudly “Your father is a high school graduate!” Things have changed.
Norton W. Bell
Palo Alto, CA
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