Sunday, October 25, 2009

Orson Welles, Major Bowes and . . . Balloon Dad?

I almost always enjoy reading Frank Rich's weekly column in the Sunday New York Times for his deft weaving of cultural and historical references into scathing contemporary comment. So I was especially pleased when I read Rich's column about "Balloon Dad" Richard Heene in today's (Sunday, October 25, 2009) New York Times, where the columnist makes two references to 1930s radio programs.

The first reference is to the much-cited War of the Worlds panic-inducing broadcast of October 1938. The second is to the now obscure Major Bowes Amateur Hour, something of a precursor to American Idol. I credit Rich for his fluency in American pre-television media history, and for being willing to regularly reference programs that few among the living can remember.

In fact, I think it was just last week (or maybe the week before) that Rich's column mentioned another 1930s radio figure: controversial priest of the airwaves Father Coughlin. With all these radio references flying around, I can't wait to see how Rich will work Amos 'n' Andy into a column about the run-off election in Afghanistan ("I's regusted, President Karzai!"); Joe Penner into a column about stalled health care reform ("Wanna buy a public option?"); and Jack Pearl into a column about Speaker of the House Pelosi ("Vas you dere, Nancy?).

On a semi-related media metaphor note, another talented New York Times writer a few years ago (who I've been unable to identify and unable to find online) brilliantly called pioneering 1990s tabloid video perps Amy Fisher and Joey Buttafuoco the "Howdy Doody and Buffalo Bob of Reality TV."

This kind of lively, informed writing is exactly what media criticism needs more of, if only to balance what typically comprises the broadcast beat: puff piece performer profiles and cautionary tales of talk radio that use the word "demagogue."

Otherwise, media criticism may as well be written by Charlie McCarthy.

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