Much of what I’ve learned about the Midwest comes from listening to the car radio on long-distance drives. Twizzling through the dial will tell you exactly what folks are interested in:
-- Tips for home and farm. Midwesterners are a practical people with practical problems. In western Iowa I listened to an hour-long discussion on cleaning the strainer in your deep sink. Callers and experts agreed that if you remove the strainer to rinse it, the sludge goes down the drain and clogs the pipes, but if you rinse the strainer while it's still in the drain, the sludge just sits there in the strainer, so you have to take it out to rinse it and, well, you just can't win.
-- Music by local performers. Small stations often showcase hometown talent. On a long-ago trip in Ohio I heard a song called "We're Ants," featuring that famous squeaky effect produced by playing a tape recorder at double speed. “We're Ants" described a frustration that is common to ants, the fact that the world is full of problems, but we, the ants, can't do anything about it due to the fact that we’re, well, ants.
I've spent decades trying to find this song. If anyone has any information about "We're Ants," please let me know. Of course, I may have some details wrong. The title may not have been "We're Ants." And the song may have been about gnats or lice. I guess maybe there's no such song as "We're Ants," in which case I'll have to write it myself.
-- High school football. In the Midwest your local team is always a main topic of conversation. In the fall, it’s the only topic. On an autumn trip to Denver, the mania exploded when we crossed the state line into Nebraska and on every radio station, rabid discussion focused on the hopes that the Wolverines would trounce the Bulldogs on Friday night. A half-hour later, we were in Bulldog country, and broadcasters predicted the impending annihilation of the Wolverines. Soon, a new station faded in and it started all over again with the Vikings and the Bearcats. If you drive fast enough through Nebraska, you can experience a complete football season in two hours.
-- Church services. A church broadcast lets listeners join in prayer. In the Midwest, this will include prayers that loved ones may prosper, that the harvest might be bounteous and that the Beavers might stomp all over the Warriors in the playoffs.
I particularly enjoyed a broadcast of a Wisconsin church service that featured Mrs. Laureen Klingkloff singing "He Touched Me" with piano accompaniment by her 11-year-old daughter Samantha. Mother and child clearly did not agree on the number of sharps in the key of G major and the pastor had to step in and break up the fight.
-- Death. Small radio stations are pivotal in notifying listeners of the demise of their neighbors. Driving across southern Iowa I heard a death notice for Vernon Schlagster, Jr. and then, 40 minutes and three radios stations later, a death notice for Lucy Schlagster. I’m still not sure whether one family was having an extremely difficult week or everyone in southern Iowa is a Schlagster.
Much as I enjoy it, I know that such drive-by listening to local radio gives you the sense of a community but not its dark secrets. Only long-time residents get the real dirt, and after 14 years in my Midwestern town, I haven’t even found the shovel.
Frank Mullen III is a former New Yorker who now lives with his wife in her Aledo hometown.