BOB GARFIELD: In a place as large and as diverse as America, there's no single program that can qualify as a universally shared cultural experience. Certainly not this one. So in our time of crisis, common threads that unite us are not all that easy to find. On the Media's Sara Fishko looks back to an earlier era for inspiration.
SARA FISHKO: Since September 11th I've found myself thinking about Dame Myra Hess. Myra Hess was a British pianist who became world famous as the organizer and performer of lunchtime concerts in London during the Blitz in World War II.
MYRA HESS: It started by wondering what to do! [LAUGHS]
SARA FISHKO: Myra Hess, recorded in 1962.
MYRA HESS: All the public buildings were closed, you know; concerts had stopped. Nothing was going on, and the blackout, you know, made it so difficult for people to get home.
SARA FISHKO: Hess was concerned about the effect of a cultural blackout on Londoners -- not only concerts but live theatre and even movies had been virtually suspended in the city. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] And so as bombers flew overhead, as air raid sirens blared, Myra Hess and various colleagues played and kept on playing.
Every day they played in London's Trafalgar Square; in the National Gallery which had been emptied of all its art treasures due to the bombing.
MICHAL HAMBOURG: The National Gallery was always crammed--
SARA FISHKO: Pianist Michael Homburg [sp?] played as a guest artist in many of the lunchtime concerts. She was 19 years old at the time.
MICHAL HAMBOURG: All sorts of people -- soldiers on leave with gas masks slung around them; office workers sitting totally quiet - lot of them on the floor - just to hear peerless music.
SARA FISHKO: The lunchtime concerts ran uninterruptedly, amazingly from October 1939 until April 1946 -5 days a week, 1,698 concerts in all, heard by more than 800,000 people.
MICHAL HAMBOURG: It was lovely because we were wanted, and people felt we had come to give them some kind of message which they might not know what it was, but which they felt was lacking in their daily lives. It was-- a part of London life during the war which was extremely significant.
SARA FISHKO: In fact many said at the time and since that Myra Hess and her daily concerts were part of the glue that held the British together in wartime. Cultural glue. We're learning about its importance here in America, and it's maybe a little harder for us to find, but where we seem to be looking for it is on television. Not that we haven't looked there before.
WALTER CRONKITE: It seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. This summer's almost certain standoff will either end in....
SARA FISHKO: We looked to one particular avuncular news anchor in times of crisis years ago.
WALTER CRONKITE: ...and for every means we have to escalate, the enemy can match us, and that applies to invasion of the North....
SARA FISHKO: But it's different now.
TERENCE MORAN: The three-network system is long gone. We're fragmented!
SARA FISHKO: Terence Moran [sp?] is a professor of media and culture at New York University.
TERENCE MORAN: We can't have Kate Smith singing God Bless America and having most of the Americans tuned in for that on Saturday night. We used to say television was uniting the United States. Well television's fragmented now, and the Internet has further fragmented us, and cable and satellites have fragmented us even further. So there really is no sort of core.
SARA FISHKO: Unless you count late nite TV. It feels almost as if late nite has become our lunch time. [APPLAUSE]
DAVID LETTERMAN: Welcome to the Late Show.
SARA FISHKO: The cultural routine.
DAVID LETTERMAN: This is our first show on the air since New York and Washington....
SARA FISHKO: The everydayness that we long to be back to.
JON STEWART: Good evening, and welcome to The Daily Show. [APPLAUSE]
SARA FISHKO: And we are back to it. [APPLAUSE, CHEERS]
JAY LENO: Thank you very much. Welcome to the Tonight Show. Nice to have you all here.
SARA FISHKO: Trying to laugh at what we fear the most.
JAY LENO: Boy, did you see those three Taliban leaders on the news announcing they have Osama bin Laden under control. All three of these guys have beards.
DAN RATHER: They hate America.
DAVID LETTERMAN: Why?
DAN RATHER: Well--
DAVID LETTERMAN: They don't get cable? What's the problem? [LAUGHTER]
SARA FISHKO: Lately we've seen roles reversed and reversed again.
DAVID LETTERMAN: Here is Dan Rather. Dan, come on out and-- [APPLAUSE]
SARA FISHKO: We've seen anchormen cry.
DAN RATHER: That they could go down to ground zero and see the following. See those firemen-- [PAUSE] take us [...?...] will you?
SARA FISHKO: And politicians tell jokes.
MAN: Do you know what Osama bin Laden is going to be for Halloween? [PAUSE] [LAUGHTER] Dead.
DAVID LETTERMAN: Oh, dead.
MAN: Dead. [APPLAUSE]
SARA FISHKO: And funny men get very serious.
DAVID LETTERMAN: You, you can feel it. You can feel it; you can see it; it's terribly sad. Terribly, terribly sad and-- watching all of this I wasn't sure that I should be doing a television show because for 20 years we've been [...?...] in the city....
SARA FISHKO: We've seen it all on late nite TV in the past weeks, after our long anxious days. We'd already seen the power of late nite start to grow last fall during the presidential election.
CECILIA TICCI: It was the first time I can remember that, that comics were accorded political power.
SARA FISHKO: Cecilia Ticci [sp?] is the author of Electronic Hearth: Creating an American Television Culture.
CECILIA TICCI: It wasn't only the pundits, the so-called "chattering classes," but that these guys cracking jokes were having an influence on the polls -- on voters' disposition. And I think that in a way set us up for this moment when, in crisis, these folks come on and take on a new role vis-a-vis themselves and the public and that role is to help further public education and, yes, to provide assurance!
SARA FISHKO: What seems odd is that it is the same box, that same screen that provides us with the cause and the cure. It is TV; almost like a sixth sense. Terence Moran.
TERENCE MORAN: Marshall McLuhan famously said that media are extensions of ourselves; they're extensions of our senses and extensions of our nervous system. They're the ways in which we take in the information we need to survive.
SARA FISHKO: TV is giving us the messages that help us feel our national coherence in a way that no space in our country can really do at this time.
BILLY CRYSTAL: It is really tense. I've been backstage at a lot of rock concerts. I have never seen musicians run away from white powder. I'm telling you. [LAUGHTER]
SARA FISHKO: In our time, it seems to be a TV smirk, a curled lip in late nite that tells us it's going to be okay. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] And that may be the closest thing we've got to the stiff upper lip of some inspirational Londoners who simply showed up at lunchtime, a long time ago.
For On the Media, I'm Sara Fishko. [THEME MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD:That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Janeen Price and Katya Rogers; engineered by Dylan Keefe, George Edwards and Steve Syarto [sp?], and edited-- by Brooke. We had help from Michael Cavanaugh [sp?]. Our web master is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Mike Pesca is our producer at large; Arun Rath our senior producer and Dean Cappello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and get free transcripts at onthemedia.org and e-mail us at email@example.com. And when you do, tell us where you live and how to pronounce your name.
This is On the Media from National Public Radio. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And by process of elimination, that would make me-- Bob Garfield.