Piece Comment

Review of HEAT -- Visions of Armageddon

Back in 1990, a new public radio show appeared. It was a live, two-hour show, smart, playful, unpredictable. It had a bit of this, a bit of that. It created a lot of buzz, then it disappeared. Well over a decade later, Heat is back, shined up and re-packaged thanks to PRX's Reversioning Project.

One first impression is that the show is, well, not all that hot, if by hot you mean snappy and quick. Heat ambles along at a thoughtful, very public radio pace. Which is just fine, though the show could just as well have been called "Cool."

It's hard to avoid comparing Heat to public radio shows that came later--most inevitably, This American Life. In fact, Heat is more cerebral that TAL, not so concerned with narrative and more interested in ideas--including, of all things, politics. Studio 360 is a closer cousin, but Heat is less canned, less produced, more freewheeling than anything now on public radio.

This hour, tied to Earth Day, opens with a small slice of radio drama by Hockenberry: a transmission from the moon after Earth's become uninhabitable. Then a complete pop song: "Waiting for the End of the World" by Elvis Costello. Next, a poetry reading and a bit of vox pop about what the end of the world might mean. Later, a commentary on the origins of Corn Flakes as a food source designed for the apocalypse, and a 1950's "duck and cover" PSA aimed at children. And so on.

So you might think that this is what a typical hour of Heat is like: a series of smart and witty takes on a given theme. That would be wrong. Another hour, here called "The Contenders," has no overarching theme and consists of several leisurely interviews. The only constant is Hockenberry--his keen intelligence and improvisational spirit.

During an interview with Spalding Gray (in "The Contenders"), Hockenberry asks Gray how the interviewing process would be different if their roles were reversed. So Gray starts interviewing Hockenberry, starting with, "Why are you in a wheelchair?" Hockenberry tells the story of the car accident that left him paralyzed and answers Gray's followup questions...for seven minutes. In that same hour, Hockenberry gets Joyce Carol Oates in the studio and George Foreman on the phone, and soon Oates is interviewing Foreman about his strategy if he ever faces Mike Tyson.

The fact that much of the material in these shows is dated strikes me as a non-problem. Certainly the late Spalding Gray has not lost his relevance. The reversioning allowed for inserts in which Hockenberry tells listeners about Heat's 20th century vintage and makes updated allusions, such as a reference to Global Warming during the show about environmental apocalypse.

Should stations put this 1990 series on the air? Absolutely. Your 2007 listeners will thank you.