Last week, I wrote an open letter to Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT, duh) concerning the Local Community Radio Act, a nifty little bill currently awaiting passage in the U.S. Senate [“Low Power to the People,” May 19]. Long story short, the LCRA would ease ridiculous restrictions on bandwidths available to low-power FM radio stations across the country, which would help to break up the stranglehold corporate radio has on the dial, which would increase variety and localism on the airwaves in communities around the country. In other words, it would make it a lot easier for other areas to have cool, locally run LPFM stations like the Radiator in Burlington. Pretty sweet, right?
My original hope for the story was to speak with Sen. Leahy by phone, since, along with Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and John McCain (R-AZ), he was one of the bill’s original cosponsors in 2005. I wanted to find out why he supports the bill and, since opposition to it is now virtually nil, what the freakin’ holdup has been. I honestly never intended to write an open letter. It just worked out that way.
Now, here’s a free lesson for you aspiring journalists out there. If you ever need to get hold of your senators or representatives, write an open letter to them in a widely read alternative newspaper. Also — and this part is key — get something wrong. Works every time.
The day after the piece ran, I received an email from Leahy’s office apologizing for not being able to connect me with the senator. The message also pointed out a small error toward the end of the piece, in which I wrote that Leahy was not listed as a cosponsor on the current bill. Turns out he is. (As is Bernie Sanders [I-VT], interestingly. Vermont rules.) I goofed. It happens. But we quickly corrected the mistake online, and I wrote a correction for this week’s paper. Done and done.
Following a meeting later that afternoon, I returned to my desk and noticed the little voicemail light flashing on my office phone. I picked up the receiver, dialed in to my 7D voice box, and heard this:
“Mr. Bolles,” creaked a cool, emotionless voice. “This is Senator Patrick Leahy. I understand you wish to speak to me about low-power radio legislation. You may call my Washington office today.”
Were you ever sent to the principal’s office in grade school? That’s the only way I can describe the sinking feeling/sheer terror gnawing at my gut at that moment.
Senator Leahy is, by almost all accounts — Dick Cheney excluded — a genuinely nice man. That is, until you cross him. I’ve seen him shred far more accomplished men and women than I in hearings on C-SPAN. Yes, sometimes I watch C-SPAN. But he doesn’t do it with fire and brimstone. He breaks you down with calculated precision and power. He’s like a lion, stalking his prey, patiently waiting for an opening. And when it comes, he attacks. Ruthlessly. It is unnerving merely to watch. I never dreamed I might one day find myself in his crosshairs.
In a state of dread, I dialed his number, while a thousand lame excuses flew through my mind. It was meant to be tongue in cheek! (True. Mostly.) It was an honest mistake! (Also true, but irrelevant.) I’ve been voting for you since I was 18! (Ditto.)
I was put on hold while Leahy’s receptionist ran a predictable interference play. I waited, assuming I’d have to leave a message. Just then, the line clicked.
It was the same cool, expressionless voice. Holy shit.
In my line of work, I speak regularly to famous people. And I can count on one hand the number of times I have felt nervous doing so: Brett Netson from Built to Spill (my first interview); Ornette Coleman (thought it might be my last); and Neko Case (sigh…). Yet I don’t mind telling you I was dumbstruck in the presence, even on the phone, of Senator Leahy.
But then a funny thing happened. After fumbling and stuttering through some meek pleasantries, we got into the meat of the conversation. Almost without realizing it, I found myself on sure footing.
So, Senator, what is the big holdup?
“This is a far different Senate than I have ever seen,” he said. He noted that in just the last eight or nine months, there had been more than 100 filibusters, a number normally seen over a much longer span — like, 50 years. Without saying so explicitly, he also insinuated that the Senate has been a tad preoccupied with some weightier matters: health care, financial collapse, war, etc.
And why is LPFM legislation important to you, personally?
“Because I live in a rural area in Middlesex where I see more and more of our radio stations homogenized by out-of-state ownership. These low-power stations really give you a sense of what’s happening locally.”
And the thousand-dollar question: Will the LCRA pass?
“It will pass. Soon.”
Senator Leahy then excused himself, as he had left the secretary of agriculture “cooling his heels.” To talk to me. About LPFM radio.
Either that, or he really is Batman.