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The grievances of airing – ‘Talk Radio’

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What does it mean to be part of a community?

In small towns all over this country, people are constantly seeking ways to connect. Even in places where everybody knows everybody else, we can struggle to really be heard. Finding an outlet – any outlet – where one’s voice can ring out (figuratively or literally) is a vital part of the human experience.

Ham Martin’s “Talk Radio” (Black Rose Writing, $20.95) offers a unique and idiosyncratic look at what can happen when the opportunity to be really and truly heard is offered up to the people of a small midcoast Maine town. Taking place largely over the airwaves of a small community-oriented radio station, it’s a story that explores that need for connection, that desire to be heard … and what happens when not everyone is willing to listen.

In the small Maine town of Frost Pound, one of the cultural centers is the local radio station WNWT. Specifically, the station’s morning show, hosted by local institution Fred Boyland, serves as a clearinghouse of sorts wherein callers can discuss the news of the day. But when circumstances lead to Fred’s unexpected absence from the airwaves, the listeners are destined for a new and different radio experience.

Vivien Kindler lives alone in Frost Pound. Her husband has left her, though the dynamic remains amicable – she kept their beautiful home and all that. Still, she’s feeling adrift and unfulfilled. On impulse, she reaches out to the owners of the station and puts her hat into the ring, seeking to take Fred’s place on the air. Despite an utter lack of experience, she gets the gig.

But when she sits in the chair, with the microphone live and the On Air sign lit, she quickly learns that the denizens of Frost Pound aren’t necessarily comfortable with change – particularly when it comes to exchanging the beloved and familiar Fred with a strange lady who is very much “from away.”

Vivien soon starts hearing from the cadre of regular callers – the woman seeking solace in her faith following the loss of a child, the former shipyard welder turned backyard gardener, the delivery driver who composes poetry in transit – and developing a rapport. Vivien is genuinely engaged with and often moved by what her callers have to say and encourages them to share the thoughts and stories that mean something to them. However, there are also plenty of people who are not the least bit interested in what Vivien has to say, wanting only to bring back Fred and his ripped from the headlines attitude regarding content.

As Vivien’s time on the air passes, her confidence in what she is doing grows, though she’s still happy to accept good faith criticism (though there’s an awful lot of the other kind to deal with as well). For so many, all they want is to be listened to. And even when a groundswell of opposition to her work begins to rise among the less flexible of Frost Pound’s residents, she carries on, opening the phone lines to whoever wants to talk so that she might simply … listen.

You don’t often read books so obviously heartfelt as “Talk Radio.” There’s something extremely engaging about reading something so sincere in its affections. This is a book written about people and places that are loved, warts and all; the author’s personal connection to all of it is splashed across every page.

Part of what helps that affection shine through is the unconventional stylistic choice of writing most of the book as essentially transcriptions of on-air conversations. There are interludes that take place in other places, face to face, but the majority of what we experience is dictated by what words are sent out over the airwaves by Vivien and her callers. There’s a stripped-down effectiveness to it that is really quite striking, a chance to eschew the unnecessary and explicitly focus on the important stuff – the connections built on that dual foundation of listening and being heard. We’re given a direct line into their psyches, a chance to learn who they are in their own words – the ones they say and the ones they choose not to. It’s a risky play by Martin, but it works.

That stylistic choice also has at least one secondary effect – “Talk Radio” is a fast read, pulling you into the conversation until you feel as much like a WNWT listener as anyone else in Frost Pound. It’s a welcome surprise, one that’s easy to embrace.

Small towns have their heroes and villains, their legends and their cautionary tales. “Talk Radio” allows us an auditory check-in, a chance not to see this small town, but to hear it. These are places that even today still embrace the oral tradition, the sharing of stories rather than their passive consumption. This book nicely captures that energy.

Anyone who has ever lived in a small town – in Maine or otherwise – is going to recognize a lot of what pops up in the pages of “Talk Radio.” It is a warm and funny book, sweet and sincere without ever becoming saccharine, engaging its small-town cast of characters with a respect they don’t always get in fiction. So tune in to “Talk Radio” – it’s worth a listen.

Last modified on Wednesday, 27 January 2021 08:25

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