Radio Heroes

There is something intimate about a voice on a mic. I would be talking about radio, but in the changing times as traditional AM/FM dies out, I'm more and more talking about podcasting. These days, I get all my perception-piercing microphoned voices from podcasts; This American Life, The Moth and especially WTF with Marc Maron.

Undoubtedly, Marc Maron has been an influence on my life and mindset as of late. But when I first started listening to talk radio, I was deeply into the anger and rantings of Adam Carolla's run on Loveline. Today, they both produce highly popular podcasts, and something weird happened: They did guest spots on each other's shows. It was a crossroads of two influences on my life. To be dramatic: a conversation between who I used to be, and who I am now.

I got into Loveline in high school. As an impressionable, depressed adolescent with no friends, I took to listening to radio late at night on my CD player. I would make sure to be in bed by 10 PM to catch Loveline so I could lie in the dark with my headphones on, and listen to Adam Carolla & Dr. Drew try and solve everyone's problems. It was usually hilarious, and occasionally tragic. Ultimately, I would laugh myself to sleep.

I also learned a lot about the world I did not yet know. Loveline, Adam Carolla in particular, taught me the ways of regular people. I was socially inept, stunted in my growth as a person, and had mountains of anxiety about the littlest things, such as the delicate act of making friends. Today, it's a challenging but frequently winnable project. A few years ago, it was the hardest thing I ever had to do. I credit Adam Carolla's nightly rants to that difference.

Adam Carolla is one of those personalities that sells himself on givin' it to you straight. He has an air of unapologetic truth to him, which is an infectious and appealing cult of personality. The caller that changed everything for me was a girl my age who expressed problems I had been having in regards to social anxiety. He did what he did best, and gave it to her plainly: Make eye contact, stop being anti-social, stop looking like a puppy that no one wants to play with. Something clicked. The phrase "anti-social" made a huge impact on me. It was a true epiphany. I had never identified with that term, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized I had bounded myself in that trap.

So I changed my mannerisms. I willed a new mindset. And, immediately, I saw progress.

But when someone has that kind of influence on you, they infect more than one area. I saw the world the way Carolla saw the world; full of things to complain about, full of bullshit. Bullshit like double standards, like political correctness, like having to treat people a certain way. I was high on cynicism, held tightly onto these views that now make me uncomfortable. One of my most embarrassing memories is divulging my opinion on racism to my therapist at the time, which I had grown from Carolla's unapologetic skewering of everyone.

Eventually, I healed. Eventually, Adam Carolla left loveline to do his own late night radio show in Stern's late night vacuum, but I didn't follow. Radio was dying. I no longer owned a CD player, just an MP3 player, and it wasn't so easy to listen and laugh in the dark of my dorm room. So I became a normal person, or as normal as I could be, without the influence of Carolla.

Life happened and I changed a lot. Even though I had my ups and downs, I was always finding something to feel sad about, because, as Maron would say, I was wired to do so. I got hooked on Maron last year. It was refreshing, in a world full of comedians that find empathy and emotion to be unfashionable, to hear a guy that was a little more balanced than that. He was a comedian that wasn't apathetic, whose act wasn't based on irony and saying things that you aren't supposed to say, but on human heart. He wasn't afraid of feeling things.

As someone who had been nourished off the emotive music of Saddle Creek and the entire genre of indie rock, it was like I had found my comedy home. I had always been attracted to that which moves me, and Maron's confessional, introverted, self-involved style appealed to me immensely. While I may not be as impressionable as I was in high school, I can notice his slight influence. My inner monologues can take the same structure as his rants. I tend to crib words from his vocabulary. Small stuff so far, but still, a piercing voice in my head. The magic of broadcasting.

When I listened to Maron on Carolla's show, it was fun, but nothing affecting. That, I suppose, is the difference between their shows. The two focused more on discussing Maron's psychology and troubles, but it didn't feel like the meeting of two worlds. More than anything, I noted how uncomfortable I felt listening to Carolla refer to an incompetent receptionist as "a head from Easter Island," or his judgement of the Middle East being full of people that are just naturally chaotic (ignoring history and imperialism and education in favor of "that's just how they are!") I became acutely aware of Carolla's humor stylings, which is, vast generalizations for the purpose of sticking it to polite wisdom. It was something I used to take glee in, the way you watch anarchists smash store windows. Eventually you realize they're just doing damage.

A few weeks later, the seats were switched, and Carolla did a guest spot on Maron's show. Since Maron is more of a navel-gazer (to his credit and discredit, but it's really what I'm into right now) he took it into a different direction. He talked about the difference between their audiences, their personalities and their opinions. Imagine your favorite band in 8th grade jamming with your favorite band in senior year of college. Who I was, who I am.

I found Carolla to have a reductionist point of view on a lot of things. He comes from the school of thought that says, "I'm not racist, so I can say these offensive things free from criticism," with no regard for his influence on culture and ability to reinforce prejudice. He comes from the school of thought that says, "stereotypes are stereotypes because they're true," with no regard for the cultural regression that mindset is responsible for. Things are easy in Adam Carolla's worldview. Tough love and hard ass consequences solve problems, because they solved his problems. Coddling and helping hands prolongs them, because they prolonged his parent's problems. Things are simple, and that's why his personality is so easy to believe in.

How can you not? Guys who have the answers always breed loyalty. That's why these answerers build dedicated cult followings of various sizes, from Rush Limbaugh to Jon Stewart. Marc Maron, in contrast, doesn't really have answers. He is a doubt machine, easily capable of true self-deprecation, still incapable of fully slaying his demons. He wins some and he loses some. It feels more like the truth, because it's not clean. It's a process, and that rings more in tune with me today, in my mid 20s as I try and glean wisdom from these older voices to navigate the rest of my life.

Maron made the observation in his podcast that Carolla fans and Maron fans are, in a lot of cases, the same depressed dude. In the former's case, their feelings manifest outwardly into "Fuck the world," and in the latter, their feelings turn inward into "Fuck me." Anger at society, and hatred of self. It seems those are the only options for people like us.

As Carolla confidently threw out statistics ("93% of people on welfare...") that I look at with skepticism these days, I felt a little frustrated. Not because I disagreed with Carolla, or because it triggered judgement of my past self. Mostly, it bothered me that the mindset of callous cynics could still be so appealing, that giving a shit about other people could be so unfashionable when we probably need it most. I know that's not always his intention, but that's the way it digests. It was easy to reduce the trials of people to the same "tough shit" solution.

While attributing his own personality and his own audience with the benefit of complexity and individuality, he simultaneously likens swaths of people and cultures to breeds of dog: predictable and easy to judge. Of course, there are a tiny minority of exceptions, but why should he be persecuted for pointing out the majority truths? The thought that it does more bad than good didn't seem to make an appearance. His opinions weren't even all that unreasonable. Just simple -- easy. Too easy to be real anymore.

I could, and have, written thousands of words on my thoughts about the place and boundaries of cultural sensitivity (which I prefer to call, "simply not being an asshole.") But if the experience of listening to my two radio heroes talk it out has taught me anything true, it's that our world view can be fickle. In ten years, I grew from a lonely high school freshman to a socially adjusted yet neurotic college graduate. Of course, the impressionability of my age had a lot to do with it. I simply have the knowledge that I can change. I hope I don't -- I like who I am now. But I liked who I was back then, too.

There is something intimate about a voice on a mic. It pierces your perception and self-awareness. More than any other medium, you are letting someone in. It could be that the influence of Maron and Carolla on my life is a testament to the power of radio. It could also be that I am merely an empty vessel, trying to fill up that void with something close to real.