A week on US radio: stuck between stations

Fun-wise, it's been an unspectacular summer in New York

A week on US radio
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Fun-wise, it’s been an unspectacular summer in New York. “We are quietly snoring,” reports the New York Times, briefly enlivened by Beyoncé causing havoc at Coney Island by perfecting her make-up for an impromptu photo shoot on the 90-year-old Ferris wheel, and leaving a lone couple stranded for over half an hour 150 feet at the top, certain they had been forgotten for the night and forced to sit tearfully in their wind-rattled cage, gazing down on the wide and clamouring boardwalk below.
 
When immigrants approached New York by boat in the 19th century, it wasn’t the Statue of Liberty they saw first, but the one million electric lights of Coney Island – lights promising one thing: here, pleasure is a birthright. But not this summer. A numbing heatwave in June was followed by perpetual drizzle and brown-shadowed thunderstorms along the Jersey shore, knocking out power in the run-up to Labor Day.
 
“After the news, I wanna bring something up,” sighed Jim Gearhart, the veteran host of New Jersey 101.5, on yet another overcast morning. “Today’s the day that the burger flippers are supposed to go on strike. Has anybody in New Jersey heard about this?”
 
In New York, fast-food workers’ wages have increased just 25 cents in ten years to a parlous $7.25 (£4.67) an hour. The burger flippers of New Jersey – the most densely populated state in the Union, with tens of thousands working in that industry – earn marginally more, but still short of Barack Obama’s proposed $9 minimum wage. When recently McDonald’s sent out a sheet of contemptuous “suggestions” on how its workers might more sensibly live within a budget, it included an assumed “income from another job”, conceding that nobody can hope to survive by flipping cheeseburgers alone.
 
“Do you believe in the minimum wage or is it pushing even Karl Marx to the left?” muses Jim. “Let’s go to Joe in Neptune.” “Oh wow,” says a distracted Joe, forgetting what he wanted to say and hanging up. Jim sighs and leisurely goes to the ads for statins. It takes more than dead air (or even murder) to faze a New Jersey DJ.
 
Later that afternoon, on National Public Radio, it’s not Marx but Einstein up for discussion. Tom and Ray Magliozzi – brothers who nominally dole out advice about fixing cars on the station – affectionately mock a listener who has just emailed in on the subject of geniuses and called Albert Einstein “Norman”. “Hey– Norman Einstein!” shriek Tom and Ray, 76 and 64, respectively, but brimful with the dimply charm of fantastically unsnooty delinquents. “Hey, man!” they bang the table, hooting with a soul-deep satisfaction. “Ah, man . . .” It’s the most fun they’ve had since Memorial Day. “You been collaborating with Yogi Bear on this?”
A summer thunderstorm in New York. Photo: Getty

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone

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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war