Jonathan Goldstein’s Wiretap: an Appreciation

Yesterday, it was announced that Jonathan Goldstein's Wiretap was ending after an 11-year run on CBC Radio.

“At one point Kerouac said, quoting a Frank Sinatra song, “unrequited love’s a bore.” Unfamiliar with  Sinatra at the time, I heard the words as “unrecorded life’s a bore.” I think my confusion was prescient.

Recording life, out there with a mic and goofy head phones, is like trying to love life back a little by noticing it, by slowing it down, by performing the absurd act of presenting your favorite parts of it to the world, to simply share it with people the way you would a meal you have chewed up like an Eskimo mother for her papoose.”

–Jonathan Goldstein, 2003

The first season of Wiretap produced an odd sensation for me, a sort of  mixture of bemusement, and amusement. Though I grew up on a steady diet of CBC radio 1 (in the kitchen, all day long), I’d decidedly never heard anything like it. It was the same with my radio-listening friends and family. We would sit in the car, and when the show came on, the familiar expression I wore would creep over their faces too. My favorite people would get quiet, and in time, crack a smile.

Eventually, things started making more sense. Jonathan would be in the studio – people would call on the telephone, he would tell a story, or read a journal. Howard would check in. The ambiguity of the conversations –  real, but obviously just a notch or two heightened from normal, were initially befuddling. I knew, because of the credits at the end of the show, that at least some of the people Jonathan talked to were themselves. But as I listened, I didn’t really know which ones they were – it was all so gently mixed together, so masterfully punctuated by music, so deftly stitched up, that all the odd parts created a loose but recognizable world. A world shaped by the love of the medium of radio, and that constantly pushed its own format in ambitious directions.

That marriage of conversations/script, of documentary/fiction, might not seem especially cutting edge right now – and of course heightened reality is something radio producers have been playing with forever. But in 2004 nobody was doing it in this way. Now I can name a dozen shows and podcasts that do, both new and old.  The aesthetic is so pervasive that even a current affairs show like The Current sometimes sounds like something you’d hear on Wiretap. The tone can be so strikingly similar that I’ve actually had to reference the CBC schedule (embedded in my brain) and be like “wrong time-slot, this is actually DNTO”. This is not a bad thing of course. Jonathan Goldstein makes genius radio and the people who rip him off are making pretty good radio themselves.

The times when Wiretap is at its best it is right on that razor-thin edge between quality writing and off-the cuff interaction. The emotion delicately poking out from the contrived. Those moments are comparatively infrequent. Plenty of episodes are chock full of slapstick shtickiness, mixed with journal-like monologues; stories and snippets written by various authors. Usually, it’s funny and weird stuff. Yeah, sometimes the the shtick got repetitive, sometimes the ruminations got boring. But then, boom – a radio moment, segment, sometimes a whole episode, so perfectly vulnerable and imaginative – it was mesmerizing and addictive. It’s for those moments that I got an ex of mine to physically tape the show onto cassettes and mail them to me while I was abroad the summer after the first season.

I wasn’t the only one that got obsessed, though I think there weren’t too many of us  – it seemed like only a few people listened hard enough to really get into it at the time. There was a website where a guy named Jared, and another guy named Chris from Montreal would record the episodes and post them for us. The episodes from the first couple seasons are still on my hard drive in those unofficial .mp3s, and they’re the ones I go back to the most, surprisingly big chunks of them memorized, bubbling up in my brain frequently.

We’ve gotten to know Jonathan pretty well over the years. There’s the Jonathan radio persona – the monologue-writing, sad sack holed up in his lightless studio, worrying about his sweaty hands while uselessly trying to deflect the borderline emotional abuse of his bizarre friends. The one who practices saying “MONday,” over and over.  This is the most contrived version of him. Then there’s Jonathan the son. The playful and inquisitive one who likes to talk to his parents, Buzz and Dinah, about every hypothetical question or idea. This Jonathan is warmer. Then there’s Jonathan as a friend – the rarer sparks of him actually caring, laughing, and prodding at people he cares for and is curious about, which is the real thing. And of course Jonathan the creative writer – his imagination has produced touchingly comedic remakes of bible stories, dialogues between Barney and Fred Flinstone, a story about a world in which kisses have gone extinct, and scores of miniature characters that appear, fully alive, on the other side of the phone line.

There’s his taste in old-fashioned fake names. Bernice, Meryl, Morty, Cheryl, Muriel, Putterman, Dougie, Mary, Tommy. There’s all the segments that stick in my brain, that I can listen to over and over again. That I badger my friends about, as use as a litmus test for potential dates (top secret: if they stay silent for the whole thing, they pass). Like when Jonathan talks to a clairvoyant about his negative thinking, and she catches it. When he talks to a young writer about dropping out of college. When he discusses Hebrew incantations against bad luck with his mother. That one episode where Tony has to move a pig from his house in the drenching rain as his relationship falls apart. When Jonathan talks to Buzz about what it means to be a man. When Misha Glouberman demonstrates his empathy through his mastery of charades. David Rackoff explicating his beautiful relationship with a former convict in a literacy group while he cracks under his own bitterness. When Jonathan investigates a troubling Aesop’s Fable with his rabbi. When John Tucker wants to get his girlfriend’s toe back into the hole in the bowling ball to recapture moment of closeness between them. When Sean Cole overhears a book club in the next apartment tearing the book of poems he wrote a new book-hole. When Gregor explains the disappointment of being a precocious kid that grows up to be totally normal. When Jonathan’s daughter Zuzu sings “the long and winding road”. When Heather O’Neil tells pretty much any of her stories. When Lois Lane’s ex-boyfriend talks about his relationship with Superman. When Jonathan discovers that Howard and Dinah talk on the phone and gets jealous and weirded out.

The good thing about Wiretap going off the air is that 11 years is a lot. Even the most avid junkie has probably missed a bunch. Me, I’ll be plunging into the archives. I’m incredibly grateful and retrospectively amazed that CBC radio had the intelligence to keep Jonathan around for so long – it’s a coup beyond what they seem to realize, given Wiretap’s consistently low profile on the network.

Thankfully, CBC’s relationship to the show seems to have been better than Jonathan’s occasional fictionalized conversations with radio executives might imply. Or maybe it was just that Wiretap wasn’t too expensive to produce. Either way, we’re fortunate to have these 11 seasons. They put CBC radio unwittingly in the centre of the current generation (some say golden age) of radio production, which Jonathan Goldstein has been such a key part of.


Jonathan Goldstein — This is Radio from This is Radio on Vimeo.

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