On Radio: Driveway Moment

December 17, 2012
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A week before the presidential election, a video of a four-year-old girl named Abigael Evans, sobbing in exhaustion over endless media coverage of the candidates, went viral. Abigael’s meltdown was recorded in a parking lot near her Fort Collins, Colorado home, apparently after she and her parents had exited the family car, where they had been listening to election coverage on NPR. The appeal of this recording was immediately evident: in her distress, little Abigael spoke (adorably) for everyone who felt overwhelmed by the relentlessness of the media coverage of “Bronco Bamma” and Mitt Romney. Circulating the internet on Youtube, Facebook, and Twitter, perhaps Abigael’s video also conveyed in its emotional and technological immediacy a new media critique of the gravitas and redundancy of the lumbering old media, represented here by NPR via car radio.

In short order, this non-event became “news” meriting still more local and national print and broadcast coverage. “We Are All Abigael Evans,” declared TIME.  NPR itself issued an apology to Abigael on “The Two-Way,” its “breaking news” blog.

On behalf of NPR and all other news outlets, we apologize to Abigael and all the many others who probably feel like her. We must confess, the campaign’s gone on long enough for us, too. Let’s just keep telling ourselves: “Only a few more days, only a few more days, only a few more days.”

 In an era that does not lack for examples of and metaphors for the feedback loop between old and new media, Abigael’s tantrum might not merit much more than the fifteen minutes of viral fame that it garnered. But I am willing to spend a few more minutes on it because of the nifty way it gestures toward the role of affect in old and new media. In particular, I’m interested in how it crystallizes the challenges of NPR’s campaign to re-create itself as a fully modern and digital multi-platform news, information, and culture channel, while maintaining its distinctive affective character.

In the stories that NPR has always told itself about its special appeal, affect has always been central. The vocal performances of the network hosts, commentators, and reporters have been powerful tools in conveying not just the news but also an affective relationship to it. As I have written elsewhere, these voices function as sound effects for a set of political and class-bound tastes and predilections: post-feminist, neoliberal, and most of all, inward-facing.  Crucially, NPR’s affective appeal has always been understood as part of a logic of equivalences between listener and speaker.  “NPR news,” according to McCauley, “is made by people like me for people like me.” Jack Mitchell, a former NPR producer, is also confident that “the listeners we attracted were pretty much like us.” The slippage between the audience, performers, and producers means that NPR’s affective magic works best in those moments of communitas—immediate, shared rituals of reception/production, epitomized by the Driveway Moment.[1]

The Abigael Affair presents a wonderfully subversive take on the Driveway Moment: a family fleeing their car radio, the youngest one in tears. Communitas comes virally and digitally, when the tot’s emotional response to NPR’s coverage stands in for a universal fatigue, if not of NPR, then of the mainstream media for which it stands. NPR’s subsequent effort via its clunkily-named “Two-Way” blog to seem “just like us” in wishing an end to the election and its relentless coverage, strikes a decidedly false note, as do its follow-up questions:

Meanwhile, have any of your children said something like that? Do you feel like Abigael? Tell us in the comments thread.

This episode highlights the clumsiness of NPR’s attempts at converting the intimacy of its distinctive radio sound to the web. Driveway Moments emphasize radio’s simultaneity, its ritual power to stop time and arrest the forward momentum of modern life. Lingering in the driveway, prolonging the liminal space/time of driving between work and home, the archetypal NPR listeners are caught up in the matrix of narrative, solitude, and dashboard, heeding the imperative to “only connect” by sitting alone in a car.  This spell of non-productive pleasure, of time stolen from economic functions and domestic intimacies, is a model of reception as balm, as escape. Human connection, through narrative, through the gorgeously modulated voices of NPR reporters and hosts are figured in network promotions and listener testimonials as intensely private goods. Private listening creates the conditions for fleeting moments of empathy, a seeming luxury in times of budget austerity, cascading crises, and the neo-liberal turn inward.

Web-based interfaces like “The Two Way” don’t yet convey a comparable affective power of NPR’s radio programming. In part this is because the two-way nature of new media is more literal than metaphorical. Radio’s “intimate public,” I’ve written in another context, lies in its uncanny ability to seem to blur the very boundaries that it is obsessively re-inscribing—between public and private, between performer and listener, between expert and amateur and between myriad shifting and contested social identities. In the world of viral videos, audience reception practices are more unruly and unpredictable, more diffuse in time and space. They are also subversive of the immediacy and simultaneity of media rituals like Driveway Moments. Abigael’s video moved virally, which is to say, quickly but over time, an almost endless series of repetitions of the same message, each one making the original case that Abigael is “just like us.” Sharing, re-posting, and responding to this video gives us an opportunity to reconstitute our own intimate public of reception, a serious challenge to NPR’s traditional affective power.

[1] Michael McCauley, NPR: The Trials and Triumphs of National Public Radio, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005). See also, Jack W. Mitchell, Listener Supported: The Culture and History of Public Radio (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2005), 36-37, 82.


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