Vol. 4. No. 1 R-4 July 1999
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On the Air! Listening to Radio Talk

Catherine Sadow and Edgar Sather (1998)
New York: St. Martin's Press
Pp. xv + 208
ISBN 0-312-15405-4 (paper)
US $16.50
Cassettes (set of 3) ISBN 0-312-17795-X

At first glance, it would seem that we are living in a world in which radio has seen better days. This is the era of the multi-media, multi-channel universe. Anyone with the right equipment and the necessary funds (and who lives in a part of the world where the technology is available) can have access to information via television, cable, satellite dish, Internet, pay-per-view, . . . the list seems endless. Why would radio, a single medium, survive in all this competition for our senses? As an avid radio listener, I can only give my personal opinion, as I am not an expert in the theory of communication. First, radio permits "multitasking"; that is, you can listen to the radio while cooking, doing the dishes, driving to work. In fact, I understand that there is a waterproof radio on the market that permits you to listen in the shower. Look around the next time you are on a bus, subway, or at your local gym. My bet is that if you are in an industrialized country (as I assume you are, reading TESL-EJ on your PC), you will see a great number of people plugged in to their Walkmans with a glazed look in their eyes as they go about their business. What comes over the radio waves is astonishingly varied: music (of all styles), talk (of all stripes), comedy, arguments, movie reviews, news, advice, religion, gardening tips, cooking shows, health ideas, as well as an earful of phone-in shows which cater to all variety of opinions.

Radio, then, seems to be flourishing these days. I am writing this review while listening to National Public Radio News on Real Audio over the Internet. Just looking at the list of preset stations provided to me by Real Audio (http://www.real.com) is an education in diversity: twenty alternative stations (including GoGaGa Radio), eight classical (try Net Radio: Quiet Classics for your jangled nerves), five country stations playing all the broken-hearted songs you could ever want or need to hear, twelve international stations (listen to Japan or Berlin), as well as news, pop music, rock, sports, talk radio, not to mention my all-time favourite, CBC Radio One, to which all my radios at home are tuned.

This long preamble, then, is to say that I come as a biased radio lover to the review of a book which uses radio programs as its primary material. On the Air! Listening to Radio Talk is designed for intermediate and above ESL students, using "authentic and provocative radio programs from National Public Radio and WRKO, Boston" (p. xi). The book and its three cassettes consist of "unscripted, natural, unedited listening material from high-interest radio broadcasts" (p. xi). [-1-]

On the Air includes fourteen chapters arranged by degree of difficulty from easier to more challenging. Although the subject matter is varied, it generally consists of topics which "give a cross section of U.S. personalities and the far-ranging issues about which they speak" (p. xi). However, I fail to see how "Car Talk" with the Magliozzi Brothers (the subject of chapter 1) is an example of these "far-ranging issues." The excerpts from National Public Radio are somewhat more interesting and relevant. Chapter 2 presents an NPR interview with a young boy who would like to take a year off to cycle around the world. In chapter 3, health expert Jane Brody gives an interesting, but unfortunately too brief, interview on the subject of the common cold. Another too brief interview with Alan Shepard, the first American in space, is sandwiched between two chapters that deal with the incongruous subjects of radio personal ads and commercials for cellular telephones and an American airline. There are a number of chapters that deal with "a slice of life," such as interviews with a letter carrier and a computer analyst who ran off to join the circus. Roseanne gives her views on sociology in chapter 13, we hear about the trials and tribulations of parking in Tokyo in chapter 9, and even former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn speak to Terry Gross from NPR's "Fresh Air."

Although the textbook comes complete with over three hours of tapes, the actual selections are only two to four minutes in length. There are many exercises, both pre- and post-listening, which complete the chapters. Each chapter opens with an introductory reading (also on the tape) which sets the stage for the chapter. Discussion follows with the "Talk it Over" section, in which a number of relevant questions are posed. Two pre-listening dictations follow; one is on the tape, and the text for the other is provided to the teacher. The dictation on the tape is agonizingly slow; more advanced students would certainly find this exercise less than challenging, as the goal is simply to fill in the missing words. The actual taped selection follows, the students being asked to listen a second time and identify sentences which they hear on the tape. Post-listening exercises include an opportunity to write, do true-false questions, and read a text in which vocabulary from the tape is recycled. The chapters end with other short taped conversations, lectures, and even rhymes.

As an example, chapter 8 introduces the students to the poetry of former president Jimmy Carter. The introductory reading brings us up to date on the former president's life after he left office in 1981. Most people might be surprised to hear that he has also published a book of poetry, a selection of which we hear him read on the tape. [-2-] The "Talk it Over" section asks students to discuss the poem and poetry in general. Dictations follow, and then the students listen to the tape twice. The interview is all too brief, just a little over two and a half minutes, which is unfortunate, as Carter's voice is soothing and sonorous, and he seems very thoughtful in his ideas. The students check their understanding and recycle vocabulary through readings. An interesting activity is suggested in which students are asked to bring to class a poem in their native language to share with their classmates. The chapter ends, somewhat oddly, with selections from English nursery rhymes. Perhaps another poem by the former president might have been more appropriate in this context.

Overall, I see this textbook as a very good effort, especially for classes in which most of the students have had limited contact with American culture. There is a varied selection of subjects (although I would have liked to see some that were more challenging, or more international in scope), and the chance to hear different voices and accents is welcome in classes where the teacher is the only native English speaker. While stronger students might become restless with the slow pace of some of the listening exercises (especially the dictations), lower intermediate students would probably find them challenging enough. Upper intermediate and advanced students would benefit from longer audio selections, such as those available by Garrison Keillor or any of the CBC's programmes available on Real Audio on the Internet. The main strength of this book is the many pre-listening exercises which the authors have developed to set the stage for their listeners.

In conclusion, I would recommend this textbook for anyone looking to introduce certain aspects of American culture to a group of intermediate students.

Sorel Friedman
Université de Montréal

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