Old Memories, a New Museum

Posted by Ben Fong-Torres on Tuesday, 17 June 2003.

Ben Fong-Torres, our very own Renaissance man: author, broadcaster, and former senior editor and writer at Rolling Stone Magazine, writes again. An old letter triggers thoughts about today's radio scene. Also, a visit to the beautiful new Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.

The other Sunday, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a letter from one Vic Dertimanis, saying: On Feb. 22, I met Ben Fong-Torres at a benefit for the beautiful Signe Anderson [the original lead singer for Jefferson Airplane]. I expressed to him how much I missed the joy of hearing him on the one and only KSAN and reading his articles in the Pink section. The next day, as I was lazily making my way through Sunday Datebook, I realized that I was drawing steadily nearer to the Aidin Vaziri zone. [Note: Mr. Vaziri does a Q&A interview each week with a pop artist.] Even as inspired as I was by the great happiness of my chance encounter the night before, I realized that there was only an outside chance that Vaziri's writings wouldn't be caustic, cynical and uninformative

When I'd finished his column, I felt solemn, then decided to get up and take on the day. But first I thought back to those earlier days and smiled at how much fun it had been to read articles by someone who gives a damn

I am glad to have given Mr. Dertimanis great happiness, but, lest you think Im a 24/7 people-pleaser, let me revisit a comment I ran across years ago on the Internet, on a radio site. This is from a broadcaster named Bob Gowa:

Just look at Ben Fong-Torres. A brilliant writer, but when he turns his attentions to radio, he becomes a whiney, smug, pompous pissantcomplaining about how radio isnt the eclectic art form he thinks it should have been (but was never intended to be).

[The posting also carried this response to:]

Sorry, Bob, but you are wrong. It appears that you are someone who has never experienced radio prior to the Nixon Administrations clamp down on material content in radio and the subsequent though almost unrelated accelerated move by syndicated radio to take away any vestige of personal choice by individual DJs to play what they want.

Outside of college and high school radio, there is almost NO chance of personal choice offered to present DJs on the air.

The eclectic days of radio are over, and [Fong-Torres] is entirely correct in his whining concerning those lost days, which we all now cherish, the days of truly eclectic radio. That is what radio should be, for it was like that at one time.

--Purple Stuff

It turns out that Mr. Stuff and I were right. Radio, at its best, was an art form, dating back to the first Golden Age, before television came along. Today, because a handful of corporations have gobbled up most of the stations, the medium is in worse shape than ever. I just got a call from a publicist for the National Association of Broadcasters, asking how radio might get a positive story in the national media, and why theres so little talk about high-definition radio (which, frankly, I hadnt heard of) when satellite radio is getting all the hype.

I told her that it was because conventional, commercial radio sucks. Everythings formatted and programmed by computers; music is limited to superstars and songs that have been tested, by phone calls, and deemed safe enough to air. Commercials take up increasingly more time, and local DJs are being replaced by voices from some other city, or by an engineer punching buttons to trigger music, pre-taped announcements and, of course, all those commercials.

As for HD radio: That means well be able to hear that mediocrity more clearly. Whoopee!

So I get home and see that the new issue of Rolling Stone has arrived. I open the news section, and whats the headline?


Anyway, Im more glad than ever that I went and got a satellite radio receiver late last year. The ten bucks a month subscription is a bargain, for the variety of music I get, and for the commercials I dont. In fact, I like the innovative programming on XM radio so much that, rather than be restricted to hearing it in my green and girly Golf, Ive added one in my home office. Thanks, XM, for the great happiness.

Speaking of which, the Asian Art Museum has opened in its new space. After several decades in the shadow of another museum in Golden Gate Park, the Asian, as locals refer to it, is now in the heart of San Franciscos Civic Center, having taken over and transformed the old Main Library.

It took about $160 million, 1,300 workers (led by Italian architect Gae Aulenti), and several years, but the Asian is a gigantic gemat 160,000 square feet, twice the size of its previous location, and the biggest Asian art museum in the country. Its a marvelous showcase for the Museums $4 billion collection of 14,000 pieces.

If youre going to San Francisco, you must visit. Youll be educated, illuminated and made proud of your heritage, wherever your ancestral roots may be. That point was made clear in an excellent special on KGO, the local ABC station, whose news staff, including David Louie, Heather Ishimaru, Thuy Vu, Caroline Yu, Elizabeth Bermudez and Sandhya Patel, linked their ancestors homelandsChina, Japan, Vietnam, Korea, the Philippines, and Indiato exhibits at the Asian.

They, and the Museum, serve to remind just how small is this troubled world of ours, and how senseless its been over the years to wage war with one another.

RANDOM NOTES: Congrats to Greg Pak, whos been featured on this site for Robot Stories, his first feature-length film after years of brilliant shorts. I had the pleasure of hosting the closing night at the SF International Asian American Film Festival, which chose to spotlight Paks film. Joining Greg on stage were one of the stars, Sab Shimono, along with co-producers Kim Ima and Karin Chien, and the editor, Stephanie Sterner. The film also co-stars Tamlyn Tomita. But it was Greg who wrote, directed, co-produced and even acted in the film, for which he won the Best Screenwriter award at last years Hamptons International Film Festival. Definitely a guy to watch The Rolling Stones are playing Beijing in April, and the Chinese government has pulled an Ed Sullivan on the boys, banning four songs, including Lets Spend the Night Together, whose lyrics Sullivan forbade back in 64 (the Stones made it lets spend some time together instead). The others that got nixed: Beast of Burden, Honky Tonk Woman and Brown Sugar. The Chinese couldve censored half the Stones catalog, but I guess they arent exactly aficionados Meantime, the Larry Ching CD I produced is moving along, and should pose no problems to the powers that be in Beijing. Its all American standards, and the raciest song is probably All of Me

For more insights by Ben, visit his official website at www.benfongtorres.com