Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Swap Shop
In northwestern Tennessee, if you want to sell something, you call the radio station.
Around noon, the station, WGPR in Paris, TN has for 60 years been on the air with “The Swap Shop.” Listeners have called and written in to buy or sell all imaginable items, including but not limited to, household goods, farm implements, puppies, furniture, a drive shaft and transmission for a 1967 Camero, pie safes, and a ten acre farm.
All politics are local, Tip O’Neil once famously said. In Paris Tennessee they still think that radio is too, according to Jim Hailey, the host of the Swap Shop for the past 25 years. He is also the Mayor of Paris so he knows most all of his callers and describes the thing as sort of an electronic garage sale. People around here like to come in from the fields around noon and listen, and, to hear Jim tell it, since they are still such a rural place, this is the best way for the station to serve them and surely the best way to get to know what is out there to buy sell or trade.
The country has taken notice with a spot that aired on National Public Radio. An independent producer who contributes to that network now and then heard the station while driving through one day and the rest is history. The newspaper people write about this “oddity” once in awhile. The people here are glad their way of life can still give the rest of America a warm feeling about their quaint little radio program and then they move on trying to rid themselves of those concrete horse troughs and reclining chairs. The latter, by the way, described as having been used very few times, or a puppy who is described by the owner as not yet having its’ “feet touch the ground.”
When I first heard the show, it seemed to me Jim had more trouble trying to keep the same people calling in about the same item a lot of times. One fellow was bent on selling some car parts that were well used and clearly of no use to anyone in particular. He apparently calls about once a week to be sure everyone knows he still has them. But as the hour went by, there were some who called looking for an item they clearly needed, such as the fellow who wanted a 27 inch Motorola TV the “must not be in working condition.” He wanted it for parts, not to watch. I seemed to me that he had a twin he was trying to repair, although if he got one in working condition, he could have saved himself some trouble.
The format is so successful, a number of other small town stations use it. While the NPR listeners of New York and LA might find Jim’s station a quaint throw back, it is clear that there a number of others out here that believe they are a local resource. Their station is not just a place to play music, regurgitate the latest national news information on the Associated Press wire service, and reproduce the bloviates political rhetoric of the right and left. To be sure those folks can be found pontificating in the morning, but it seems less important here.
The small town service of the stations here are such that one I heard on a morning drive along the Kentucky border had a fellow with a most unlikely radio voice making calls to the local high schools, police and ambulance services to speak with his “correspondents” to see what they may have to report this workday. This is complete with the sound of the phone being dialed and ringing while he told you whom he was calling. This is raw production. This is small time radio. The day I heard him, it was “Teacher Appreciation Day” so that got a mentioned a good bit and it seemed that most schools were having hamburgers or pizza for lunch. His surprise at the lack of response from the one school he called seemed genuine. His time constraints made him, albeit reluctantly, pass over that call after twenty rings in stereo out of the eight speakers in the van.
Rural America appears to have a different take on why the media exists. It isn’t about talking heads or in depth analysis of the latest political hypocrisy. It is a part of life, a useful part, a utilitarian part, one that serves the people who hear it and not the people who decide, in some far metropolis like New York or Los Angeles, what they want them to hear.
Maybe there is a need for more of that.