Sunday, November 10, 2013

Cultural Airtime

This morning as we sat down to breakfast, the radio was on and the man being interviewed was speaking earnestly about some fragment of military history. Of course he was. Tomorrow is Remembrance Day, and so for the last week or two there have been programs on a military history theme every day on the radio. The local newspaper included a supplement on remembering our veterans, and the local museum has scheduled an exhibition and talks on military history as part of its annual program. 

Remembrance Day has been observed in commonwealth countries since the end of World War I to commemorate the signing of the armistice on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day in the eleventh month of 1918, and to remember the soldiers who died in the Great War. Although WWI ended 95 years ago, we continue to mark the date every year on the anniversary of the end of that war. There are very few people alive today who were born prior to the end of World War I, and those few would have been too young during 1914-1918 to remember the war. So Remembrance Day has become something other than what it was originally declared for -- kind of an all-purpose day to think about the experience or death of any westerner who has fought in any war, or even just to give airtime to military topics in general. 

This got me to thinking about what kinds of things we make cultural space for. Every morning I awake to news, weather, and sports on my radio alarm clock. These three topics are repeated in considerable detail every half hour. The other topic that is part of this repeating sequence is a traffic report describing the delays and accidents of the morning in the large city where the program is broadcast (but which is not the place that I live). How was it decided that news, weather, sports, and someone else's traffic are what listeners want to hear? I know for sure that I am not interested in hearing the sports report. I enjoy doing sports, especially things like skiing, cycling, and hiking, but I am not at all interested in watching or hearing updates on men's professional football, hockey, baseball, or basketball. 

What I would enjoy hearing each morning would be a report or story on something food-related. By this, I don't just mean restaurant reviews, although that could be an occasional focus. There are so many interesting food topics they could talk about: a recipe for something, such as creme brûlée; interesting travel and food topics, such as why the Portuguese love bacalao; vegetable gardening tips; or health related food facts, such as the health impact of excessive salt ingested in prepared foods.

Another topic area that would be or great interest to me would be just about anything on a health theme. Or human development and learning. Or books, especially fiction, or writers. Or interesting facts about other cultures. 

We all eat every day. Many of us spend considerable time planning, shopping for, preparing, and eating meals every week. Everybody has health related incidents and concerns in life, whether it is breaking a bone, an interest in being fit, raising healthy children, or coping with chronic illness. How is it that hese topics that would be useful and of interest to most people do not get cultural airtime, and yet the weather (which we can find out about in an instant on our mobile devices) and sports reports are privileged? In the seasonal cycle, Christmas is certainly the cultural event that takes up the greatest time, attention, and money, but we also make space for Valentine's Day, Halloween, Mothers' Day, and so forth.

Is it that we value these days and topics more than any other? Is it simply commercial, in the sense that whatever sells the most or is most likely to get listeners to tune in or readers to buy the newspaper or magazine (and therefore be exposed to the ads) has become the fabric of our culture? Or is some of it just laziness or habit: once we have created a specific cultural date, event, or practice, it goes on and on long past being meaningful because it has become part of the routine unexamined rut of our cultural life?

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