It’s 1:40 in the middle of the night, and every once in a while you hear something that wakes you up worrying.
Alexis and I were lying around watching the nightly dose of Trump, and this former head of the CIA came onto Anderson Cooper. He said what is going on in America is not all that unlike what he has seen in less developed countries.
He talked about what happened in Sarajevo. One minute they’re having the Olympics and the next time you're there snipers are shooting at your from the ski slopes. I’ll paraphrase.
“You realize that there’s a thin veneer that separates Democracy and all that we’re accustomed to, and dictatorship, constant war and abuse.”
This was coming from a former head of intelligence in America. He’s a voice that many of us won’t listen to, but I happened to catch it so I’m up in the middle of the night.
CNN.com’s headline right now – 24 hours of craziness in Trump’s Washington.
There’s a ton of twist and turns to the Trump drama right now, with the word “impeachment” even being thrown around. The biggest one in the last 24 hours is that Trump fired his head of the FBI, James Comey, who is investigating the Trump team for possible inappropriate ties to Russia. Evidently attorney general Jeff Sessions weighed in on the firing, even though Sessions had recused himself from the whole investigation as a condition of being confirmed to his post.
Trump’s now fired a few people who were involved in getting to the bottom of exactly what hand Russia played in getting Trump elected. Also, Trump seems to idolize dictators. He’s tweeted as such. This has one of our former intelligence guys all worried. And a lot of the country, too.
If the three or four of you think about it, the reason we started this Another Thousand Words every day was to chronicle My Radio Life as a historical document. Since radio is dying. we wanted to have it down on paper what radio was like and we wanted to chronicle what My Radio Life is like as it changes to something else. I don’t know why this seems important to me but it does.
Maybe it has something to do with my time at Berkeley. I studied Sociology. I know that this major is the butt end of jokes about college basketball players choosing areas of study and about people who smoke a lot of weed. I mean, really, if you ran into some kid who used to hang out with your daughter in high school, and he told you:
“Yeah, dude, I’m studying Sociology at Berkeley.”
You’d think he was smoking weed and going on peace marches. That might be true, but there’s also a ton of Sociological research going on at this fine institution. And when I came out of it with a Sociology degree, I thought that one day I’d go into Sociological research.
And here I am - a morning radio host. And here I am writing about it. There was this guy named Paul Rabinow who wrote a classic Sociology book that I pick up every few years – “Reflections of Field Work in Morocco.” I think about this book right now, in the middle of the night, as I wake up worrying that we could turn into Sarajevo.
Rabinow went to Morocco and analyzed how the people there interact, why they do the things they do, what the influences are on them, and so forth. And he did it in such a way that he allowed his own impressions to come into the narrative. This was groundbreaking for the time. Up until that point, most research was done in a detached, objective narrative. It was heresy to inject yourself into the conversation.
So that’s what I’m doing right now, Reflections on Field Work in Radio and the Region, which is probably not all that unlike 1970s Morocco. I’ll get to that some other time.
What I’m trying to get to right now for the three or four of you, if I can get past international thoughts of Sarajevo and Morocco, is that you and I started out just to talk about radio, and now I’m veering off into reflections on field work in America.
I hope you’ll indulge me on this, because like this retired intelligence chief, I am worried. At first, I, like perhaps the three or four of you, enjoyed the circus of Trump. It was a welcome respite from no drama Obama, the eight-year yawn.
But now, every night it’s something new, something even more bizarre. After Trump fired his own FBI director, Alexis watched CNN for two hours straight.
“They didn’t even take one commercial break. It was like a war was going on or something and they had to be on.”
Alexis understands the merit of commercial breaks. That’s how we put two kids through college. So the three or four of you may not have noticed that there were no commercial breaks on Anderson Cooper for two hours, but Alexis did.
“How they gonna pay for their kids’ college if they don’t take commercial breaks?”
Whereas I have the capacity to worry about radio, America, and Strack and Van Til’s grocery stores, Alexis can actually worry about everything and everyone in the world at the same time. It’s an amazing talent.
Speaking of Strack and Van Til’s, and speaking of my field work in local radio, I have been a bit surprised at the negative reactions to the Strack and Van Til situation. As a short refresher, SVT is the locally-grown grocer whose parent company filed bankruptcy a couple weeks ago. They’ve laid off 1,935 people and there’s 4,000 more in the cue. It’s the biggest mass layoff around northwest Indiana and Chicago’s southland since the steel mills axed thousands in the 1980s.
What I thought would happen is that local people would rally around the local grocer in a time of need. SVT has been in our communities for generations. There’s an emotional attachment to the brand, and the brand has always given back to charities and fundraisers.
But is that enough? In my quest to be like Paul Rabinow, to figure out why people do the things they do and what are the influences on them, I gotta think that maybe Strack and Van Til’s record in our local communities isn’t doing as well as they could on the sniff test.
What’s the sniff test? You smell something to see if it’s genuine or not. One whiff and you know.
Soon after SVT filed bankruptcy, a lot of people came out on the air professing their loyalty to Strack and Van Til’s and the thousands of people who work there. I thought that was the general consensus and that the whole Region might unite around the local guys in time of need.
And now, as time wears on, more and more people send me negative messages about the brand, and callers diss it on the air. Not a ton of people – the majority still favor the brand – but I’m surprised at the amount of vitriol coming my way about Strack and Van Til’s.
And it’s not just coming from shoppers. Several people inside Strack and Van Til’s have told me stories about where the stores lost their way. And perhaps this is why there is pushback from supporting the local guy in a time of need.
Here’s what I’m coming up with in my reflecitons on field work in radio – perhaps Strack and Van Til did lose their way… and they’re paying for it. This is difficult to write in that I have the utmost repect for Frank Van Til and Jeff Strack, the two progeny of the founding members that I see the most. It’s difficult for my fingers to write anything that even hints of being negative about Strack and Van Til’s.
And I hope that I’m not really being negative as much as doing my duty as a Sociologist. And what I come up with is that perhaps Strack and Van Til did lose their way. Most of the founding family sold out in the late 1990s, if I remember correctly, but Jeff Strack and Andy Rabb retained 20 percent. That’s according to the NWI Times.
So that means that Central Grocer has owned 80 percent of Strack and Van Til for the last 20 years. Central Grocer is an area-wide cooperative that, up until bankruptcy a couple of weeks ago, supplied hundreds of independent grocers around the Midwest.
So, for the last 20 years, Strack and Van Til has passed itself off as the local grocer when in reality it was only kind of the local grocer. That’s not necessarily genuine. And if you listen to my show that starts in three hours and 16 minutes, you’d know that my callers and texters and emailers can tell when somethng’s genuine or not. It’s not always pretty. People get rude. They yell, They say mean things. But the three or four of you cannot deny that as a whole we can sniff out genuine or not.
This is what I’m focusing my field work on today – what is genuine and what is not. I really have been surprised at the vitriol pointed at Strack and Van Til’s. I’ve been scratching my head about it.
Frank from south Lake County – “People forget that 20 years ago the family sold out. Then, at the store I shop at – the Schererville one – the parent company did this five million dollar renovation to make it like Disneyland. Well I don’t want to go shopping at Disneyland. It was a terrible renovation. They’ve lost a lot of good people along the way. Too many suits hanging around.
“They don’t even have the bags with the handles on them anymore.”
Even my Tuesday “cohost” Verlie, whose soup kitchen has taken in donations from Strack and Van Til for years, said – “Strack and Van Til tried to grow too big.” Verlie proudly held up a Sam’s Club card and one from Costco. “That’s where I shop.”
Mike from Griffith – “I got my first job bagging groceries at Strack and Van Til’s… Even though I’m upset about what the stores have done over the years, still, that’s my store.”
Bobbi – “I was a cashier there for eight years. My mom shopped there her whole life, and when she died at 90, this black lady she knew from Strack’s and some others from the store came to her wake. Come on, people, Strack and Van Til’s may have messed up, but they’re still our hometown grocer.”
I’m paraphrasing, obviously, but do the three or four of you spot a trend? I’ve taken dozens of calls and even more Facebook messages and emails and even comments on this blog about Strack and Van Til’s, and there is a trend.
Region people, at least the ones who grew up around here, are still attached to Strack and Van Til’s, but some feel betrayed. They sense that Strack and Van Til’s got away from what they stood for, and now they’re paying for it.
Jamie – “I deliver to Strack and Van Til’s every day, and they’ve raised their prices. They’re 20 cents more expensive on a loaf of bread compared to WalMart and Meijer’s. They’re not as expensive as Jewel, but close.”
Several callers have echoed price concerns. I’m surprised at some of the ones you know are tried and true Region Rats. Several said they’ll drive down to WalMart to save that 20 cents on a loaf bread and 50 cents on a gallon of milk. Loyalty to the local guy has faded.
Or has it? Once SVT sold out to Central Grocer in the 1990s, did it cease to be the “local guy.” Sure, Jeff Strack and Andy Raab held minority ownership, according to The Times, but did that even matter?
What Central Grocer did do ten months ago was put a member of the founding family back in charge. Jeff Strack took over and immediately started rejuvenating the brand. You could feel the energy in the stores.
But was it too little, too late? Did SVT lose touch with its core mission for too many years? Did too many good people leave, taking part of the SVT spirit with them? And is all of that contributing to 2,000 people losing their jobs and another 4,000 fretting like hell right now?
I don’t know answers to these questions. I’m just doing field work in the middle of the night and I went way over Another Thousand Words with you. That’s because sometimes I don’t write at all in a day. When it’s all said and done, however, it comes out to about Another Thousand Words a day – on average.
What has me up in the middle of the night, then, is two things. I’m worried about America. It’s not just Trump. It’s us. We don’t get along with each other in a really wicked way. That worries me. I think of Harry Truman and how as Americans we’re all in this together. That spirit is dying, and I fear the consequences of that. Maybe we’ll have a big tragedy and the spirit will rear itself once again, but for now the American spirit is dying. That’s how I feel.
And I’m also worried about what is genuine and what is not. I sense that even though Jeff Strack has brought genuineness back to SVT in past months, too many people who have experience in knowing what’s genuine and what is not just won’t came back to the brand. Not without a fight anyways.
And that makes me think about WJOB. Are we genuine? Have we lost our way somehow? What makes something genuine? How can we be more genuine? Does it even matter if you’re genuine or not?
That’s all I got for you in the middle of the night. I’ll lay back down and try to sleep for a while before going in and doing another radio show. Check it out at am 1230 WJOB or 104.7 FM or live in video on Facebook. And if the three or four of you can do me a favor, let me know if you think what I’ll be doing is genuine or not. It’ll help me with my field work. Another Two Thousand Words. See ya.