Jerome Weeks went from literary scholarship to Grub Street -- then on to multimedia broadcasting. Scott McLemee catches up.

July 29, 2009

Last week’s column took an admittedly nostalgic look back at public television as it was 30 years ago -- when its programming was forthrightly didactic and unabashed about indulging culture-vulture appetites. To a kid living in a rural town in Texas – one in which the school system could just aspire to mediocrity – the area PBS affiliate was as close to an Advanced Placement program as the circumstances would allow. And so I remain grateful.

The column also noted that KERA (the station in Dallas that served as my alma mater) has lately been providing serious arts coverage via its Web site. One recent offering, for example, was a podcast about the exhibit, at an area university, of artwork from Fluxus, an avant garde movement of the 1960s. Local arts coverage of any substance can’t be taken for granted. As it happened, the reporter and critic who recorded that podcast is Jerome Weeks. Until a couple of years ago, he was a staff book critic for one of the Dallas newspapers – until it, like so many others, started cutting back on that sort of thing.

Jerome (we have had beverages together, hence the first-name basis) was once a graduate student in English before being seduced away from academe by Ephemera, the muse of journalism. And now he’s been lured still farther away, into the world of broadcasting. I’d heard bits and pieces of his story but wanted to find out more -- on the assumption that it might not be completely atypical. The whole cultural infrastructure is in upheaval. The ability to reinvent yourself from time to time seems increasingly obligatory.

Around the time I was watching “Waiting for Godot” on PBS in the late 1970s, Jerome was a graduate student in literature. By 1980, he was enrolled in the Ph.D. program at the University of Texas at Austin -- on track to specialize, as it turns out, in Samuel Beckett, whose papers are on campus. “Seemed like a good idea at the time,” he told me by e-mail, “considering the wealth of 20th century material owned by UT’s Humanities Resource Center. ‘Wealth’ is the applicable word. At the time, late-‘70s/early-‘80s UT was flush with money.”

But then, he says, “I burned out for the reasons almost every one of my grad student-friends did at the time. The employment market cratered and many departments responded feebly or went into shock; they hadn’t faced such a death spiral since the beginning of the baby boom.”

It was the dawn of a new system of low-overhead pedagogy. Graduate students could be counted on as an endlessly replenishing reserve army of academic labor. He says he realized that he “could do all of this research and writing, and still end up in career limbo…. Frankly, I was naïve enough to be shocked by academia’s eating-its-young, economic cynicism, the perfect preparation for associate profs today. It’s not that little has changed; it’s that it has expanded and become entrenched.”

A few years earlier, he'd had a brief taste of life as a newspaperman at the Detroit Free Press. “While my brush with journalism had convinced me how much I wanted to be a literature professor,” he says now, “my apprenticeship in academia convinced me how much graduate research looked like journalism without the tape recorder.”

Faced with a choice between two evils, it's usually best to pick the one with a reliable paycheck. By the mid-1980s, Jerome was on the staffs of various magazines and newspapers in Texas covering books and theater, including the occasional Beckett production. For a decade he was the book columnist for the Dallas Morning News -- and might well have expected to continue in that job for the rest of his life, had the newspaper business not started imploding.

Not quite three years ago, he took a buyout and started a blog at ArtsJournal called book/daddy (an allusion to the slang expressions “mack daddy” and “bone daddy,” and I suspect possibly also a delayed reaction to having heard Gayatri Spivak discuss phallogocentrism in Austin thirty years ago).

Then, with no experience in broadcasting, he was hired by KERA as producer and reporter for Art & Seek, a multimedia program covering the arts. He does short radio features, and 10 minute TV interviews with authors, and articles for the station’s website.

“It sometimes seems I'm dispensing culture chat with an eyedropper,” he told me. “But seriously, how many people can you name who regularly interview authors and artists and review their work -- on television, on radio and online? Commercial radio and broadcast television do nothing, of course, and the arts on cable are mostly a joke.”

So is the idea that reliable coverage can be expected from blogging via spontaneous generation. Disobliging as it may be to press the point, reporting is a skill. “It's a lot easier to teach someone Web procedures and Web news needs than it is to teach the ins and outs of an area's arts-music-theater-literature scene and how to write intelligently about this particular art form, frame it in a wider context….. Whatever might be said against them, NPR and PBS do have audiences that expect a thoughtful quality to their news and analysis, so turning over this new venture in arts coverage to twenties-something who are savvy about Flash but know little about Feydeau really wouldn’t make sense.”

NPR and PBS remain, he says, "the only national, electronic media with a book-reading, museum-going, theater-watching, concert-listening audience. When I was the book critic for the Dallas Morning News, publishers' reps and even publishers themselves would tell me to my face that they'd prefer their touring author were interviewed on the local NPR station than written up by me. A radio talk was more likely to produce an audience for a bookstore appearance than anything in print.”

No doubt he is right about that. On the other hand, as another friend puts it, an awful lot of National Public Radio involves recycling what was in yesterday’s New York Times.

But some public broadcasting affiliates are experimenting with locally produced arts coverage – an encouraging development, but difficult to sustain. Original reviews and reporting require a staff, “preferably a knowledgeable staff,” says Jerome, “and as newspapers know, that's expensive.” The one for Art&Seek consists of four people who developed the site “only after lengthy sessions with local arts leaders” and work in collaboration with volunteers and tipsters who also contribute.

“I’m enough of a geek," he told me, "to have fun with the new gizmos and techniques, to catch a perfect piece of audio for a radio report, to learn how to edit on Final Cut Pro. But my heart is still in the essay, the hammered-out argument that expands my own thinking as much as any reader’s, the critique that deftly nails a subject.” One example is his recent commentary (longer and more far-ranging than any newspaper would publisher) on the history of American controversies over public funding for the arts. And his radio piece on Fluxus contained “enough quirky human interest (man with oddball art taking over his house) to satisfy my editors” while also giving him a chance to discuss a movement he’d long found interesting.

Edmund Wilson once wrote that cultural journalism had been a good way to get other people to pay for continuing his education. I'm not sure Wilson would thrive in a multimedia environment, but then again he's dead and doesn't have to worry about that now. For the living, existence is a matter of flux (if not of Fluxus); and as the example of Jerome Weeks suggests, half the art is just to land on your feet.


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