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Sounding off, wherever you are

Posted by Marcia Dick  September 3, 2010 10:04 AM

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Thumbnail image for speak.jpg Editors, don't kill me, but today we discuss my love for another publisher's product.

If you're a "Somerville Journal" subscriber or a fan of MIT DJ/performer Patrick Bryant, you're familiar with "SpeakOut": an anonymous call-in column for local readers to talk about … whatever. It's great reading. The concerns — parking tickets, the police chief, the potholes on Temple Street — seem uniquely local: Somerville in six columns.

But public radio listeners may know that there's another Summerville — a small Georgia town in the foothills covered by the national public radio show "This American Life" July 30. The primary local employer in Summerville is the biggest denim mill in the world. The classifieds advertise a two-bedroom house for $75,000. The residents are slightly liberal compared to neighboring counties but still basically conservative in outlook.

And to judge from "Chattooga Soundoff," they're just like us.

Chattooga Soundoff is a fall 2009 addition to the "Summerville News" that caught fire, said staff writer Jason Espy, who also provided the town info above. It gets about 100 calls and e-mails per week. (SpeakOut is phone-only. Sensibly, neither paper puts the column online. Now that's how you make print relevant.)
Sure, the columns — I read all the August ones — aren't identical. Contrary to stereotypes of terse Yankees and talkative Southerners, the Soundoff tells people to "keep your comments brief" while SpeakOut invites people to "vent." It changes the rhythm of the humor when you're reading the entries out loud at a party: clever one-liners versus extended rants.

The Georgia column definitely has more talk about God,  who gets short shrift in the SpeakOut, whose primary character is Mayor Joe Curtatone. (One is despised, the other revered. Guess which.)

SpeakOut is more dour, averaging one upbeat call per week: praising the China Delight restaurant, say, or Cambridge-based oldies radio station WJIB. In contrast, 11 of the 74 Aug. 5 Soundoff contributors gave credit where they thought it was due: to a hay roller, a barbecue stand, Soundoff itself.

But once a Somerville reader gets over the surprise of people being nice and talking about God, the columns look awfully similar — especially because SpeakOut callers tend to be more right wing than the average Somerville voter.

Contributors talk back to one another.

In Summerville:

This is to the one that complained about their child having homework: they are in school eight hours a day.

In Somerville:

This is for "Breastfeed in private." I am tired of when I go to a restaurant and I have to look at your ugly mug while I'm eating.

Don't come here for commentary on national and international affairs: In Georgia this August there was much kvetching about "Smitty" the sheriff, property tax increases, and churchgoers being rude. The Massachusetts crew complained about the police chief, the budget, and college students being rude.

One contributor to the Aug. 19 Soundoff even used the term "Scummerville."

There's only one key place the columns differ — aside from the religion content. Both generate their own, very specific internal obsessions that have nothing to do with the issues of the day. SpeakOut has been arguing for months over breastfeeding in public and DPW guys drinking coffee at Dunks. In Georgia, it's the absence of a Krystal hamburger joint (similar to White Castle), fried catfish, and whether Chevys stink.

The only car that couldn't outrun a cop is a Chevy. You never saw Bonnie and Clyde driving a Chevy.

This doesn't make Espy too happy — he'd rather see substantive dialogue. But it's exactly the kind of weirdness that keeps this SpeakOut fan hooked. We hang on through repetitive rants and rages for the rare moment that is truly bizarre. Like this, from 2009:

Someone help chip boy

To all the people of Somerville: a good kid is dying. He has a chip in him. Who knows exactly what that means? And he's young. Now he's dying young. Someone needs to stop him as soon as now.

Who, indeed, knows exactly what that means? And who can escape the dark shiver embodied in this Soundoff comment:

Everyone's secret life will be judged.

Yes, we're all in it together. Mason or Dixon, everyone hates the same things. Taxes. Beat-up roads. Drivers who don't signal. People who leave junk out on the curb. Lazy, incompetent, unnecessary municipal employees. The water bill. Those noisy kids out on the street.

So, let complaining bring us together? That's too negative for columns whose goal, after all, is to build community. Let's go instead with a sentiment we can all agree with on Labor Day: "Forget catfish and Krystals, the world's greatest food is barbecue."

Bonus quiz! Identify the paper each quotation comes from. We'll post the answers Tuesday in the comments.

1. I have an idea for the person saying they cannot sleep. Lay off the meth.

2. It was horrible to have to watch young people singing about Lady Gaga.

3. It's time for parents to put their foot down and tell teenagers to stay home after 10 p.m.

4. Yes marijuana should be legalized and I don't even smoke it.

5. If the person can't talk without throwing our Lord's name in there, you shouldn't even be recording this thing.

6. Why even have a justice system? It only matters if you have money and who you are.

7. Why should my taxpayer dollars pay for all kinds of accommodations for people who are not learning the English language?

8. We need to see if these school teachers and coaches have anger management issues.

9. There are trash cans at the car wash. That's what they are there for.

10. Has anyone else walked down Springfield Street and seen this crazy guy?

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