I owe my radio career to bullying.
I was small, pale, thin, sunburnt, ginger. I stuttered. I had no talents. I don’t really blame my bullies. I was the ideal victim. I had no older siblings to show me how to be older, which gives automatic coolness in school, because you know a few dirty jokes, and people think you know how dating works. I also had no older siblings to protect me. Younger Sibling Privilege is real. I did not think I would to end up in a career founded on popularity.
My initial response to what became years of merciless bullying across junior and high school was to socially shrink so small that punches and tongue lashes didn’t land. For a while, I thought invisibility would take the fun out of the abuse. Maybe my attackers were particularly committed. The less I resisted, the more joyously they preyed on me. Three years and one change of school later, I decided that the only way to save myself from a new set of abusers was to be too popular to be victimised. I developed a sociological, borderline sociopathic approach to becoming popular. I studied where cool and vogue came from. I learned references to movies I have still not seen. I fabricated a seasoned history of drinking and drug experimentation. I spent a lot of time on Facebook analysing the most lauded statuses. I took up the sports that the cool kids played. I smoked at parties. Soon, I was too ingratiated in the scenes to be attacked. I networked myself to safety. One tormenter learned slowly. I still remember the look of shock in his eyes the day a crowd rounded on him.
Radio presenters are much like comedians. At least in the kind of radio that I do. Many are both. I don’t mean that they’re funny like comedians. Many comics aren’t funny at all. They just see differently. Our best word for this is ‘funny’.
One of the better New Yorker Radio podcasts investigates the seemingly ubiquitous presence of mental illness in the US stand-up scene. Every comedian considered had a history of one or other disorder laced into their stand-up sets, or enshrined in painful detail in their Wikipedia pages: existential sadness, depression, alienation, psychotic episodes, suicidal impulses, all kinds of emotional self-flagellation. The comics the podcast interviewed described a masochistic relationship with their traumas. None of them loved their experiences of suffering, but none of them wanted to lose them either. They feared ‘recovery’. They saw it as loss of the uniqueness in their eyes. Without their mental ‘disability’, would they still find the absurdity out of which to build punchlines? Could they see the remarkable and strange in a society that they felt at peace with? Could they keep capturing the mundane in a captivating way? Their creative inspiration emanated from pain. Their skill sprang from their discomfort. They coped by succumbing to the narrative of their brokenness, and made light of it. Maybe they experienced a brief release when they joked about their how miserable they were in front of a crowd, without losing the intoxicating identity that romanticises the loneliness.
Those radio presenters who experience dislocation rarely make a spectacle of their sadness. But they are often creatively powerful because of their sense of removal from those around them, and are addicted to the performance of their dislocation, like the great comics. They usually have speaking styles that are unusual enough to pay attention to, where the forlorn comedians are unusual because of what they choose to express.
The only exception in the New Yorker podcast was Seinfeld. He could see the incredulity from within it.
During my high school survival, I spun a new essence from existing suffering much like those comedians. Bullies created stories out of my inadequacies and used them to humiliate me. It’s hard to escape narratives that reduce you to matter so little that you can be bullied without the community objecting, or noticing. So I retold myself through finding the humour in my own failings. It’s a strange redemption that many comedians use. Self-deprecation is bullying yourself. It’s the same act, but the hands holding the script have changed. Except suddenly my shame is a performance that the crowd credits me for. It’s a beautiful trick. I will laugh at myself for you. You will laugh at me and enjoy the spectacle of me mocking myself. You will love me for my tragicomic autobiography. Let me entertain you.
Slowly, I began to stockpile the stories with which to sell myself as a piece of entertainment. My much-derided hair colour became a cute baby story:
“I was born a ginger. As a toddler, standing in the sand and staring out of Langebaan lagoon, I listened to my mother tell me that flamingos were pink because the colours of their food seeped into their feathers. I tried to avoid all orange foods for months after. No Nik Naks, no naartjies, definitely no carrot cake. Even at the age of five, I knew that having orange hair would make life difficult. I soon discovered that human hair didn’t respond to food colour the same was flamingo feathers did. I was right about the orange hair.”
The low point of my high school life became a cringe-inducing reflection on how awful timing can be:
“Did I ever tell you how a Frida Kahlo film ruined my life? You need to understand that I was the laughing stock of the school at the age of fourteen for passing out in art class at just the wrong moment during a Frida Kahlo biopic. I don’t know why I passed out. I was feeling ill. I hadn’t eaten. The violence of that brutal metal rod piercing her torso lengthways in the tram accident may have been too much. Yet, I had to finally collapse during the nude scene. I stood up to leave, and fell down in front of the whole class, as a naked woman appeared on the screen. Breasts, vagina, crumpling, ignominy. This is the worst imaginable timing for a boy in a class hitting puberty. The greatest marker of a teenager’s childishness is unfamiliarity with sex. I was pilloried for years. I was the kid who passed out during porn, who fainted at the sight of a woman’s naked body.”
I have told both of these stories on air. So long as I’m the teller, in radio or casual conversation, I collect royalties on the laughter. No matter that some stories are at my expense. Plus, sociological, sociopathic analyses of audiences yield great radio content.
Companies have been duped by the narrative that ‘Digital’ far out-competes ‘Traditional’. It is just not true, and won’t be anytime soon.
The biggest obstacle to musicians is the music industry. Soundcloud can revolutionise our soundscapes again.