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Radio On: A Listener's Diary

3.40  ·  Rating Details  ·  1,360 Ratings  ·  118 Reviews
What does our country sound like? There are approximately 502 million radios in America alone. Radios in cars, in kitchens, in malls, playing in elevators and beauty shops. Sarah Vowell listened to the radio for one year and wrote down her impressions.
Hardcover, 234 pages
Published 1996 by St. Martin's Press
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(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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Jan 21, 2009 Chris rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The reason I think I really like Sarah Vowell (beyond her being both funny and cute in a "not quite out of my league" sort of way) is because she's both a cynic and an idealist. Throughout her first book, Radio On, she writes of the people she hears on the radio, both heroes (Bill Clinton, Nirvana) and villains (Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, Garrison Keillor).

She listened to the radio every day in 1995 and wrote about what she heard. Sometimes she's really funny, other times serious but she is a
Apr 06, 2011 Dave rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I love Sarah Vowell, but this really is a bad book. Whiny, unfocused, sophomoric, and (worst) unthoughtful. She is definitely angry throughout the book, and occasionally that can be engaging if you agree (especially about Rush Limbaugh), but mainly she's dismissive, which does not make for entertaining reading. Pick up any of her other books--or start with "Shooting Dad" or the story where Ira Glass tries to teach her how to drive--and the feel is completely different. In those stories, and in a ...more
Andtruth Danielson
The remarkable thing about this book, for Sarah Vowell fans, is that it takes place during a pivotal year of her life, and she spends a lot of time unhappily thrashing about for new opportunities. The subject is radio in 1995, but the central character is her, and the most interesting aspect is the colliision between 1995 pop culture and her professional worries and personal opinions. I'm not sure how enjoyable this book would be for people who don't like the author or don't remember the year 19 ...more
Bryce Wilson
As I do whenever she has a new book coming out I'm busy rereading the collected work of Sarah Vowel. She's has one of my favorite voices period, warm, funny, intelligent, confidential, conversational, and occasionally scathing.

That being said as of Radio On she hadn't quite got it right. Not that she had it wrong, she always had her knack for seeing beauty in strange places, humor where there seems little chance to find it, and a keen sense of how pop culture and history shape our lives.

It's j
Matthew Fitzgerald
This book is oddly personal and strangely impersonal all at once. It is both a pre-internet time capsule that only hints at a world of radio podcasts and "no-license broadcast" technologies, and an eternally relevant commentary on radio's (and music's) power no mater what time period or emotional state we're in. And it's as awkward and goofy and deadeningly cynical as it is honest and thoughtful and perfectly pessimistic. Vowell can share with us her fears about politics and art and other select ...more
Nov 13, 2008 Maija rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2008
I didn't love this book. I found the diary format kind of rambling and disorienting. And, at times she complains a lot about NPR which I thought was fun as I have always associated her as NPR.

What I did love was remembering this year in my life (1995) as it was probably one of the last years I really listened to the radio. I remember driving home from dropping off a video (not a DVD!) at the video store and hearing about Kurt Cobain's death on 107.7 (The End). I remember seeing Courtney Love at
Seth Madej
In 1995, when Sarah Vowell wrote Radio On, she was a 25-year-old, urban art student fresh out of an immersion in college radio. In 1995, I was a 21-year-old, urban art student still immersed in college radio. Not surprisingly, then and now I mostly agree with the opinions she expresses about things political, social, and musical.

I mention this just to shore myself up a little before summarily dismissing her memoir as a relentlessly whiny bit of cynical petulance. Vowell writes with the assured s
Sarah Smith
Dec 03, 2007 Sarah Smith rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: supporters of public radio, 20somethings, cranks
When I saw Sarah Vowell read in Pittsburgh a few years ago, somebody asked her during the Q&A about this book, and she made disparaging comments. She said it was unfocused and vitriolic and kind of cringe-inducing. Essentially, it's a diary of every little bit of radio Vowell listened to in 1994--the heady times of Rush Limbaugh and "the Republican Revolution" and O.J. and Newt. And Kurt and Courtney. I guess Rush Limbaugh had incited this new wave of radio listening through his shit-mongeri ...more
Molly Zeigler
A good example of a writer before a voice, style, and maturation are found. I enjoyed Vowell's later works, but this early attempt is disjointed and rambling. The journal format is an interesting idea, but there's no connection between the content and form. I was expecting more insight into radio, from an insider's perspective... It is interesting to see a writer's progression and growth... Overall, though, this is repetitive and odd considering Vowell's later humor, style, form, and focus.
Martyn Lovell
Radio on is Sarah Vowell's diary of a year (1995) of eclectic radio listening.

I am passionate about radio and really enjoy Sarah Vowell's other books. Given this, and how much great work Sarah has done on radio (especially on This American Life), this sounds like a great combination, but it isn't.

She has not yet found her voice as a writer. I really enjoy her later work. Here she sometimes hits an either interesting or amusing tone, and sometimes just misses badly.

In addition, the format doesn'
Aug 17, 2014 Susan rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
After reading and greatly enjoying 'Assassination Vacation' and 'The Wordy Pilgrims', it was interesting to read this, Vowell's first book. As others have noted, the inklings of her mature style are visible, but rough. The diary form doesn't help, and more judicious editing might have prevented the sense of repetition that sets in quickly. Nirvana, Kurt Cobain and associates are Good; everything else is Bad, especially NPR (I lost track of how many times 'yawn' was attached to any comment involv ...more
Jun 08, 2014 Cormacjosh rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
One of three books by this author given to me as a Christmas gift in 2012.
I probably should have read this back in 1997 when it was originally published, for back then I leaned more to the left than I do now; but especially in what appears to be the last days of my 16 + year job at an NPR affiliate I find I disagree rather strongly with her politics, and am particularly turned off by the pretense of intellectual superiority she seems to think she has over people who disagree with her. She's fir
Laura Hughes
This is Sarah Vowell's first book, before she discovered her thing of narrating history like a story. It's actually in the mold of that "I did a thing for a year and wrote about it" type book that is so popular now. For one year, 1995, Sarah (radio being an intimate medium, I feel like I know her and will therefore refer to her by her given name) listened to the radio each day. She also did some reporting, visiting radio stations, including sitting in on production of WBEZ's "The Wild Room" and ...more
Apr 25, 2016 David rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
A sufficiently good read for backstage in between scenes, but not one of Vowell's strongest works. She draws a distinction between "whiny" and "the funnier puissance of 'cranky'" (p. 205) that eludes me.

Subtitled "A Listener's Diary," the book charts her radio listening and other activities from New Year's Eve 1994 to the following NYE. Although she visits some surprising, interesting places (most notably, Walter De Maria's Lightning Field), Vowell seems to have found little more to listen to in
Apr 01, 2014 Adam rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I love nearly everything that Sarah Vowell has written. This is clearly a much different work than any of her books on American history. I don't think that that is a bad thing though, this book has everything that I love about Vowell's writing style, most importantly, it features her own voice right up front.

This work, more than any of her others is all about her experiences, just sorting through the information that she is given and commenting. And her commentary is often brilliant, sometimes
Chad Bearden
I always kind of imagined Sarah Vowell and her NPR-siblings, Ira Glass and David Sedaris, sitting around a table shooting the snarky breeze while her NPR-grandpa, Garrison Keeler, and all her NPR-aunts and uncles (the various anchors from All Things Considered) sit around outside discussing old times. What I should have guessed is that like all families, the youngsters hold a certain amount of disdain toward their descendants.

Vowell's contempt for the NPR news-division is just one of many, mostl
Jay McCue
Closer to 3.5 stars.

Similar to another reviewer on here, I also enjoy diaries and radio. So the concept of this book: listening to the radio for a year and keeping a journal of thoughts and opinions in response to what was on the air (and occasionally what wasn't) was all something that appealed to me. On the whole, I liked the book. There are only two things that kept me from rating it higher, and both of which can arguably be seen as outside of the control of Sarah Vowell.

The first has to do
Apr 25, 2011 Aaron rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A fascinating read, probably more so now 15-plus years after the fact when the very medium Vowell observes has changed so dramatically. I would love to see her do a follow-up, although the Web has changed radio/audio entertainment so completely that I'm not sure one could do the same book anymore with the same element of surprise and controlled discussion based completely on what happened to play on the dial as opposed to what podcast one actively decides to download and listen to. I'd also love ...more
Nov 20, 2010 Alan rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: The stupid and contagious
Recommended to Alan by: Previously-read work, and subject matter close to home
Sarah Vowell is not the first or only person to decide to set down a year's worth of observations in a single volume. Brian Eno's superb A Year With Swollen Appendices (hmm, now that's a book I should go back to...) even chronicles the same year—1995. And, like Eno's book, Vowell's diary is full of music.

Not that she kept her radio tuned to a single station, the way I think most of us tend to do once we've settled down. Vowell took her project seriously, not just tuning into different markets as
Nathan Dehoff
A younger and crankier Vowell listened to the radio constantly in 1995, and left her comments on it for the world to see. Much of it was pretty negative, but there’s some positive mixed in as well. Considering that she owes some amount of her fame to NPR, it’s interesting that she’s often pretty down on it, considering it toothless and absolutely hating Garrison Keillor and his Prairie Home Companion. Rush Limbaugh is the subject of a good amount of ire as well. Vowell is someone who’s truly pas ...more
Dec 21, 2012 Scott rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I first heard of Sarah Vowell when this book came out and mentally put it on my to-read list. Then I found her on NPR and Salon and pretty much read everything she wrote except her debut.

As it turns out, that is a good thing. Not that the book is irredeemably bad, but it certainly doesn't wear well. Mid-nineties/twenty something Sarah was a hard-to-stomach hipster. In the book she is contemptuous of middle-brow culture, impatient with political compromise and angst-ridden in a way that stopped
Eric Cartier
Jan 10, 2010 Eric Cartier rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
My Mom gave me a used copy of this book as a stocking stuffer on Christmas Day and I started reading it on my flight back to Chicago from Boston. Sarah Vowell was 25 years old and newly-enrolled at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago when she decided to listen to the radio every day for a year and keep a listener's diary. As she traveled with her class to see earthworks in the Southwest, visited friends in Mississippi and California, and went to see her family in Montana, she tuned into t ...more
Apr 06, 2010 Heather rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is Sarah Vowell's first book, and I actually found it more interesting reading it 14 years after being originally published (1996) than I would have if I'd read it in the mid-90's when it was "current". This is because the book is a snapshot of what our society was like back then, as well as what were the current events of the day. For example, I didn't realize that Rush Limbaugh was a national presence that long ago (I was a sophomore in college at the time and too self-absorbed to pay att ...more
Heath Davis
I'm in this habit of purchasing books by Sarah Vowell in hopes that I will be wowed enough to keep them around on my bookshelf. With this in mind I have purchased two of her books and, after reading them in the span of a few hours or a few days, turned around and sold them right back to a second-hand bookstore.

"Radio On" was a decent read. It kept me occupied on the bus rides home. Vowell's ascerbic criticism of NPR radio personalities echoed similar conversations I have with myself when listeni
Feb 19, 2010 Nora rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: funny
I adore Sarah Vowell -- she's one of those writers I want to carry around in my pocket. But this was one of the hardest books to get through. It's "A Listener's Diary," chronicling a year of what she hears on the radio: 1995 start to finish. I graduated from high school and started college in 1995; it's a year I remember vividly. I listened to all that music, I read every news article I could get my hands on, and I argued those political issues of the day possibly more passionately than I ever h ...more
Oct 27, 2011 Ruben rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A valuable book in an unconventional sort of way. This is a year-long journal of listening to the radio. It was an interesting combo of commentary, news, and reflections. But what made this book more meaningful is having read it so long after its initial publication. Though not the intended point of the book, the journal captures the world of the mid-90's perfectly. It replays the hot air from Rush Limbaugh's climb from obscurity; Congressional stalemating; the state of music and how it can accu ...more
Shaun Swick
Jun 09, 2009 Shaun Swick rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: npr-approved, essays
Her first, and therefore not best, work, Sarah Vowell still manages to establish her writer's voice very early on in this diarist's look at the radio waves in the year 1995. Spanning politics, music, art and, most of all, looking inward, Vowell is never afraid to voice her opinions. While she may go off on the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Republican power, NPR, and whoever else stands in her way, she does it with style and without any real blind venom. For that I can appreciate all her arguments even ...more
Thirteen years after she wrote this, it's interesting to see what was happening in 1995 from an immediate perspective. Thirteen years from now, will we look back on our writings from today and see them as comparably hyperbolic and more apocalyptic than they needed to be? Will we regret the musical artists we spoke ill of, like Mariah Carey? This book is a relic of the 1990s, and it has a lot of the same flaws as the decade: too serious, too restrictive in its definition of acceptable art, too ma ...more
Even though I devoured The Partly Cloudy Patriot and Assassination Vacation when Reddirtgirl introduced me to Sarah Vowell a couple of years ago, I've always been timid about dipping into her earlier stuff.

Learning people backwards is tricky, but I loved Radio On. It is very "Look At This Fucking Hipster" meets "Nerd Voice": A love letter to radio and music and all manner of raw outrage over the Republican Revolution taking place in '94.

I think Radio On may be even funnier than Vowell's more re
Emilia P
Nov 01, 2010 Emilia P rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: real-books
Ah! It's done.

Ok, so. Were you interested in reading a book that you could have written yourself, detailing your own grumpiness and the pessimism of the country at large by way of their radio broadcasts? Well, if you were, this was the book.

And for that very reason it was pretty tough to get through -- snapshot after snapshot of Rush Limbaugh, NPR, a far too critical attitude towards pop and most music, a far too forgiving attitude towards Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins, and an acceptably adorin
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Sarah Jane Vowell is an American author, journalist, humorist, and commentator. Often referred to as a "social observer," Vowell has authored several books and is a regular contributor to the radio program This American Life on Public Radio International. She was also the voice of Violet in the animated film The Incredibles and a short documentary, VOWELLET - An Essay by SARAH VOWELL in the "Behin ...more
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“Radio is the playground of coincidence.” 7 likes
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