On the wireless…

It began, really, as a moment of true serendipity.  One of those spur-of-the-moment yet slightly calculated decisions that led to the opening of a possibility, that made reemerge memories of a childhood dream so long forgotten about: the Studio 4.

Earlier this year, I was sitting at my desk streaming RNZ on my PC.  I was listening back to the previous day’s The Panel show, with Jim Mora, and they were talking about the recent death of the very first winner of noted candy-confection singing comp, Eurovision.  They played her song, Refrain, which must have sounded – even then – like an attempt to push back against the looming youthful Rock & Roll rebellion.  They then compared it – disparagingly – to the 2016 winner, Jamala.

I don’t know why, but I found myself quickly in the midst of writing an email to the show’s producer, Caitlin.  Fair enough, I said, if you didn’t like the song; music is, after all, a completely personal and subjective exercise.  But oh what a shame, as the song you dismissed has the most fascinating backstory.

I’m a bit of a fan of Eurovision, you see: its campy and spectacular embrace of the ridiculous, the outrageous, the it-makes-no-sense-so-therefore-it-makes-perfect-sense nature of it all.  It appeals to the part of me that loves the complete artifice of pop music that nonetheless masquerades as something real, ‘authentic’. 

A couple of summers previously, I had sneakily devised a way I could frame the first lecture of my event studies course around Eurovision, using it as an example of how a single event made a whole bunch of the course’s theoretical issues visible.  So I knew all about its backstories.

So I sent it off, and thought nothing more of it.  Admittedly, and here’s the calculated part, I did send it from my work email, with professional title noted in the auto-signature.  They’d be more likely to read it, I thought, even if I did sound like a raving loop.  I’m a raving loop and published author, after all!

Two days later I received a reply.  You sound like you’ve got a lot of expertise about Eurovision, it said.  Why don’t you come in and talk about it as part of the Tuesday music feature with Jesse Mulligan, it suggested.

Geva, my excitable Facebook message began, I’m going to be on Jesse Mulligan’s show talking about Eurovision!  Geva was one of the first people I messaged.  Even though I had long known about Eurovision (hello, ABBA), it was Geva who really introduced me to it, a decade earlier when we were both music students at the University of Otago.  Well, what else do you do in Dunedin?

I can’t deny I was secretly – not-so-secretly – chuffed.  I’d seen and heard friends, colleagues, fellow university staff, on TV and radio many times over the years.  How cool would that be, I wondered?  To be able to speak as an expert, to such a large audience, a much larger audience than the tens of people who no doubt ever really read the stuff you publish as part of the job (“publish or perish”, as we call it in the biz).  Maybe I’m being a little harsh, but for sure an average of 273,000 people were not reading my academic outputs!

So, a few weeks later, I found myself nervously walking up to the RNZ Auckland studios for my radio debut.

It went amazingly well.  To say I came away elated, on cloud nine, is still an understatement.  Coincidentally, Jim Mora was filling in that day, and the rapport felt instant, like a couple of chums chatting convivially.

Despite this, I had no intention of listening back to it.  Too many memories of the first times you hear your recorded voice played back to you as a kid, and recoil in horror; well, at least I did.

And then a message.  You sounded great, very natural.  Then another, you have a great radio voice.  Then another.  Ahh, whanau (family) and friends, so reliably supportive.

But it made me wonder.  So, when I got back to my desk, tentatively, cautiously, I downloaded and pushed play.  And, ever so slowly, my unease slipped away; down through my tense shoulders, spine and thighs, now relaxing, and quietly fell silent.  I started to enjoy it; much as I had enjoyed making what I was now listening to.

And then the memories came flooding back.  All of a sudden.  And I was quite taken aback that I had so completely forgotten, buried away into the nethers of a dark and dusty subconscious, that, ironically, aside from first wanting to be a teacher, the second thing I ever wanted ‘to be’ as a child, was a radio announcer.

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So completely had I wanted to be a radio announcer that I – must have – begged my parents to buy me a Studio 4 for Christmas.  Somewhere in the massed piles of loose family photos – Dad was a professional photographer you see – there is a photo of my reaction, so innocently and completely unable to mask my whole-of-face joy upon revealing its glistening box-full of promise.  I vividly remembered that photo.

And so I became a radio announcer.

I had already starting amassing a collection of tapes, spending hoooooours listening to the FM radio station on Dad’s proper, flash stereo with a proper equalizer and levels and red record lights, waiting for that perfect recording, where they didn’t talk over the top of the song.  

So I had my music library, and now I had a way to talk over the top of the songs, adding sound effects, and using my ‘equaliser’ to lower and raise volume and mix song, voice and sound effects.  Every hour I’d read the ‘news’, using the beeping-alarm effect button to mimic the news pips.  

In addition, I found an instrumental song on one of Dad’s old tapes – ‘Sirius’ from the 1982 Alan Parsons Project album, Eye in the Sky; don’t ask me why I can remember that – and I’d use it as backing for the ‘weather report’. I even had an old plastic lid that sat on the corner of my desk, against the wall; to me, that was the padding that you’d have in a studio to make the broadcast sound ‘proper’.

And that is how I spent my weekends.  My tapes were housed in pale blue cases with clear plastic snap-button lids; one, then two.  Eventually, I had to move the tapes into a desk drawer, where they all lined up in alphabetical order, the mishmash of fonts and colour and record company logos mesmerising my young eyes; entry points into an industry that fascinated me.

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That innocent inability to be anything other than honest also eventually led me to ring that radio station, ZMFM.  I wanted to come in and look around because I want to be a radio announcer, I must have said, all of nine years-old; me and my mum and some friends.  Amazingly, they let this precocious child do exactly just that. 

I can still remember Nick Tansley taking us into the studios, showing us how they recorded their shows, how they played the songs on-air.  I’d never seen the types of cartridges and tape machines they used on their radio station; I was further mesmerisingly spellbound.  The other kids waited with bated breath for us to return, where we had to give S Block a full rundown in front of a special assembly; a very special show-and-tell.

That was thirty years ago now, amazingly, and I really had completely forgotten it all. Had.

The weekend after the Eurovision show, with friends over for lunch, we were talking about the success of Ireland in the competition (winning four out of five years, from 1992-1996), and, wondering out loud about the simultaneous success of Irish popular music at the same time, I wondered whether I could swing this opportunity that random email had ushered forth, into maybe, perhaps, possibly, another slot.  They had already asked me to come back, post-Eurovision 2018, to give a short musical critique, which I did a few weeks later, so I jumped at the opening.

Super gratifyingly, not only did they allow me to come back to talk Irish pop, but allowed me to follow that up with Latin pop, Pacific pop, musical urban legends, the music of Trinidad, and, finally, fittingly, an obscure Xmas songs special.  

Are you sure, I said after about the third approval, I don’t want to feel like I am monopolising your music slot.  Not at all, was the response, we’re appreciative of the content; cash- and resource-strapped public broadcaster I guess.  Mutually beneficial arrangement, I suppose.  For sure one of the highlights of my year; this momentous year of change about to properly kick off.

If I were to say that this serendipity and rediscovery of memories has reignited that long-forgotten dream, then certainly the target demographic, the intended purpose, has aged thirty years in the intervening period too.

My university generously provides a retraining allowance as part of its severance payment; an allowance that would pay for about half the cost of radio school in Wellington. 

My logical brain tells me to use it for further education papers, maybe some further research methods training; logical further development and upskilling along the path I’ve been walking for a decade.  The other brain, with one foot in the late-1980s, is not so sure.  I’ve got about a year to decide how I want to use the money.

Makes you think, eh?!

– JMC

On ‘the 40 year-old burnout’ and leaving academia (for now)

A couple of years ago, approaching the end of a second semester in a row in which I experienced the physical manifestations of workplace-induced stress (a new experience), I discovered an article by a former university researcher and lecturer, Jonathan Malesic.  It’s called ‘The 40-year-old burnout: Why I gave up tenure for a yet-to-be-determined career’, and reading it was confronting.  

Not only was it startling at the time but it remained with me for a disturbingly long time, sitting just off to the side, menacing an at-times already foggy brain.  In retrospect, and if I’m honest, it sparked a realisation that continued to chip away at my resolve and thus became fully actualised when I made, in effect, the same decision as Jonathan made, almost two years later.

My own journey through New Zealand’s education system as a student was, in effect, about as perfect an experience as could be written.  The education system as it is, as it was, was set up for learners like me: inquisitive, questioning, naturally oriented towards learning in the style in which it was being delivered.  

A ‘teacher’s pet’ from kindergarten on, I sailed through primary, intermediate, and secondary school, put up a year in a couple of subjects (the joy of sitting in mufti-privileged sixth-form classes while still in uniform was a real joy!), soaking up everything that wasn’t physical education, and left with an A bursary, a scholarship-level result in music, and a (recently re-discovered) glowing testimonial written in superlatives.

My first attempt at tertiary education, straight out of college, was the first time I experienced educational setback.  Although, in effect, progressing just fine, life in general was spinning out of control in ways I didn’t yet have the maturity (or words) to successfully negotiate.  So I dropped out. 

In the grand scheme of things, this is a mere blip now (it wasn’t then, of course), and I always had within the flicker of flame that told me I would one-day resume my studies.  As long as I had this, I told myself, I had no fear of believing a setback would stumble into an abyss from which there was no return.

And so, when I did return, aged 25, (more) mature, ready, the momentum picked up from where at it had ended at college.  I sailed through my return to university, leaving Australia after one year and returning to New Zealand and the University of Otago because, while great for a first-year experience, I didn’t believe my Australian university was going to offer me the challenge I really wanted.  

It was the right choice; the following years in Dunedin represented the most profound period of personal change and growth I’d experienced up to that point.  By the time my honour’s degree in music was being capped I’d already moved on to PhD planning in music and anthropology, experiencing what I call my own ‘Eureka moment’ in drawing a connection between anthropology and the anthropologist-like behaviour I had exhibited since I was a baby.  

I confidently ignored advice to start with a Masters and then upgrade, just in case something unexpected happened, such was my determination to continue gliding on my educational gulfstream. This self-belief, fortunately, was well-placed: within the three-year period of scholarship I had been awarded a thesis was submitted, and later conferred with minimal change.

As life-changing as these years were, I was certainly in no way naive enough to believe mine was a typical experience; I know that; for all the reasons outlined above.  However, in retrospect, as I reflected on in my last post, I entered ‘the other side’ of education with a firm belief in the transformative power of education, for personal growth, for socioeconomic mobility, for whanau (families), for creating more well-rounded and active citizens, and it was up to us as educators to harness this power and advocate for these outcomes in our students.  

Perhaps this was the part of me that was/is naive.

And so, with this naivety, it was probably inevitable that the disconnection between expectations and reality would result in confrontation.  For, while the job certainly contains within it elements of absolute privilege – to teach, to research and be engaged in and follow intellectual pursuits – the reality of day-to-day academia is somewhat more administrative in the managerial accountability era.  

And while some students certainly enter tertiary education to not only learn but to make the most of the experience for which they pay such a monstrous amount (financially, emotionally, time-wise), the sad reality is that far too many students attend (or not) because of an implied and/or explicit pressure.  

They are those who are not really sure what they want to study, to do with their lives, but are there in the classroom anyway; going through the motions so that they exit with the piece of paper they’ve been told will lead to prosperity.  It is an apt illustration of the power of the massified education-for-all narrative that has gained traction over the passed three decades; one that continues to prioritise the prestige of the ‘degree’ label, and one that continues to be championed and propagandised by schools, parents and politicians alike.  

It is an illustration of a system that I think will come under increasing pressure in the next disruptive decade, revealing illusional emperors and exposing systemic faultlines.

Drawing on the Christina Maslach’s Burnout Inventory, Jonathan Malesic writes that academic burnout arises from dislocation: “we train as researchers but spend our days managing the emotions of late adolescents, haggling over budgets, and figuring out how to use Moodle’s gradebook.”  The result is “exhaustion, cynicism, and a sense of professional ineffectiveness.”  Maslach asserts that burnout comes from a noble place – a serious investment in one’s work and students – but that, in the wrong conditions, comes back as continual stress; stress that, in a physiological sense, diminishes the brain’s ability to work.

Reading these words at seven pm on a Friday night, approaching the end of another 50-60 hour week, became the confronting moment.  While I didn’t equate my own situation with that of Malesic, who often found himself lying on the floor, motionless, for hours at at time in his final semester, it was confronting to see in some of his words your PC screen turn into something of a mirror, revealing experiences that were too coincidentally similar to ignore.

I’ve thought often of Malesic’s article, and of that confrontation, over the last couple of years, as I edged ever closer to my own stage left.  The marked disconnection between what you thought academia might be and what it is, and the point at which you stop trying to pretend it ever will be something different, is a somewhat bitter and sad realisation to come to.  

It requires a kind of grieving, moving from a sadness that what you dreamed is not what will be, to an acceptance of this reality, but then a moving on to the hopeful: the possibilities of finding something else, something that might turn into something you never knew you might dream about.  How very millennial of me!

But it is at this stage of hopeful that I find myself now, and I have seven long months to use hope to make a plan.  Has my experience formed an impenetrable seal over the door that leads back to academia?  I don’t know; maybe, maybe not?  I still believe in the transformational power of education, for the personal and the collective; I still love the thought of being an educator; I still love the idea of research and writing.  And for now that’s a fine place to start.  Well, it’s the only place I’ve got.

– JMC

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