Would You Read a Novel That Started Like This?

There was a disc jockey on the public radio station in Provincetown, Massachusetts, who played essentially the same oldies show—the same songs in the same order, though with different interstitial patter—just about every Saturday morning from eight to noon, with only the occasional Saturday off. When James Stoddard first started on the “Motown and More” show, he would spend the week before his broadcast planning the sequence of his songs to develop various themes of history, influence, subject, wordplay, and so on, themes that he may or may not have elucidated for his listeners between songs. This took up almost all of his free time, and even began to interfere with his job as a history teacher at the high school. After a few months of missing students’ raised hands during tests because he was so focused on the lists of songs he was reviewing at his desk, it dawned on him that perhaps he was a bit obsessive about the matter. Yet he couldn’t get comfortable with the idea of quickly planning his show the night before, or, worse, improvising it on the air. He was fully aware that his audience was small; he also knew they didn’t really care about these finer points of presentation, but he did. He knew that he wasn’t a professional disc jockey, but he took the craft seriously.

Not long after James recognized his planning efforts as perhaps an obsession, he also found that he was repeating from one show to the next certain roughly twenty-minute song sequences with which he was very pleased. (Because his show had three breaks for news, weather, the community calendar, and whatever else he might want to say each hour, he developed his themes as seventeen- to twenty-minute arcs.) It occurred to him that he could free himself of his weekly planning compulsion by developing a single, definitive set of twelve such sequences that he could play every week. He reasoned that this would be acceptable by drawing a distinction between the composition and the performance of his program. After all, Mozart’s compositions, though more than three hundred years old, were still performed over and over again, year after year, and critics evaluated these performances based not on the novelty of their content, but on the quality—the fidelity, precision, and energy—of their execution.

Once James settled on the final order of his show, from The Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun” to Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction,” he gave all of his attention each Saturday morning to perfecting the timing of his announcements, the cross-fading of the records (though he had settled on a set song order, he wouldn’t allow himself the luxury of committing the sequences to DAT or compact disc—he insisted on playing the records every week), and every other aspect of his performance. The first people to become aware that he had adopted this approach were the disc jockeys who were on the air immediately before and after him. They noticed that he always started and ended his show with the same songs, but that wasn’t particularly unusual for disc jockeys with a regular radio program. What was unusual, especially for public radio, was his insistence on starting his first record at precisely eight o’clock and having his last record end at precisely noon. The station had an informal tradition of the two disc jockeys bantering in the transition from one show to the next. But if the disc jockey from the show before his attempted to engage James in conversation past eight, he would mumble uncomfortably for a few seconds before abruptly turning off the microphones and starting The Carpenters (he would make up those lost seconds in his first break, which would now start not quite precisely at twenty after eight), and if the disc jockey after him wasn’t ready right at noon, James would do nothing, allowing Barry McGuire to be followed by an indefinite period of dead air.

James’s rigidity began to create a certain tension among the staff of the station, if tension can be said to exist in such an unstructured environment. The disc jockeys that he’d cut off mid-sentence to start his program and those who’d found themselves having to open their shows with a stumbling attempt to recover from dead air were the most unhappy, but the station manager wasn’t happy about the dead air or the disgruntled disc jockeys either. James was aware of the discomfort he was causing, but he believed that this was their problem, not his. He was merely taking his job seriously. How could he be held responsible for problems that that might cause? But he was uncomfortable enough about the problem that he never actually presented that justification to anyone, nor did he ever tell anyone that he had committed himself to playing the same show, week in and week out. He knew no one who ever listened to the whole show carefully enough to notice. Certainly, no one had ever mentioned it to him. And as confident as he was describing and justifying his show to himself, he found that he wasn’t nearly so sure of himself if any conversation looked like it might be headed that way.

It was the semi-annual pledge drive, during which James was obliged to spend most of his time on the air trying to convince listeners to donate money to the station, that finally brought his increasingly personal secret into the open. As the first pledge drive after he settled on his perfected program approached, he realized that his sequencing wouldn’t accommodate all the extra talking, so he decided to take that week off. When he announced his intention, the station manager assumed that he was just trying to avoid the unpleasant task of begging his listeners for donations—a task that none of the disc jockeys enjoyed and that several tried to avoid—and denied his request. James was forced to explain that his reluctance to do his show during the pledge drive stemmed not from any discomfort about soliciting donations (though he didn’t enjoy that any more than anyone else), but from his inability to perform his program. The station manager’s first reaction to the revelation that James had been playing the same program every Saturday was incredulity. He almost fired James on the spot. Realizing that his position with the station was at great risk, James quickly agreed to work during the pledge drive (he decided to develop an alternate, reduced sequence of songs for the pledge drives, which, once developed, started with Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want)” but still finished with “Eve of Destruction,” which he felt might spur worried listeners to action on behalf of the station), and then tried to explain more fully to the station manager the reasoning behind his decision to play the same songs each week, to try to justify his view of his program as a weekly performance. The station manager wasn’t convinced, but didn’t make any decision right away, there not being any replacement disc jockeys immediately available.

Luckily for James, this happened prior to the winter pledge drive, a time when little else is happening in Provincetown. As a resort town—one that’s geographically isolated at the tip of Cape Cod with only a single local radio station and no local television stations—Provincetown loses ninety percent of its summer population every winter, and those who remain become very involved in each others’ lives. Nothing happens in Provincetown in the winter that isn’t promptly known to everyone in town. During the winter after he had settled on his definitive program and the station manager was thinking about firing him, James became one of the topics of town-wide discussion. Most people were surprised to learn that he had been playing the same songs every week, but some claimed to have noticed, though they hadn’t thought it worth mentioning. Provincetown tolerated and even valued eccentrics, this was a harmless and amusing eccentricity, and everyone who listened to the show really liked the songs he played, so the town decided that James’s program should stay on the air. In fact, more of the town’s residents tuned in than had before.

At first, this meant attention for James. People would ask him about the show, make requests for changes, and joke with him about his rigidity (a trait that, unlike eccentricity, was foreign to Provincetown’s culture). He wasn’t very comfortable with this attention, good-natured though it was, and never quite knew how to respond to people. But within a few weeks, his show was no longer novel, and people’s attentions turned to other gossip and scandal. His show became a local institution. As the winters passed, residents came to schedule their Saturday mornings by it. It was generally playing in the few shops and restaurants that were open at that time of year, so someone running errands up and down Commercial and Bradford Streets could measure his progress by the songs he heard. If he was meant to be somewhere at eleven o’clock, he knew that he needed to hurry if “I Want You Back” was on and that he was late by “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”

But during the summers, amid the influx of transient residents and tourists, and the canned music being played in the seasonal stores (the techno and Euro-disco in the men’s clothing shops, the neo-folk and world music in the women’s clothing shops, the classical and New Age music in the art galleries and jewelry shops, and the classic rock in the T-shirt shops), it was nearly impossible to follow James’s show along Commercial Street. It was like the heartbeat of a man who had gotten very fat—it was still there, but it was much harder to find. Unlike the fat man’s heartbeat, though, it returned strong and clear every winter.

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