Bob Garfield on the Media, Cannes, Trump and Being Ruggedly Jewish (Not Necessarily in That Order)
When I told Bob Garfield I would be interviewing him, his response was "I will take short, shallow breaths." So I can assure you that despite his current gig as host of WNYC's "On the Media" and his upcoming one-man traveling show, "Ruggedly Jewish," Bob is still the same smartass I worked with for more than 20 years at Ad Age. He was our resident ad critic, author of "The Chaos Scenario" series that later became a book and the instigator of a revolt against
The Jewish part I get. But rugged?
You sort of have to be there, but it will turn out that during the course of the program that not am I not all that rugged, I am not especially Jewish. The show taps into my personal search and Americans' search for self improvement and building a personal identity at the core of our current political moment. There are like three different strands all woven in together. It's funny, it's shocking, it's poignant, its weird.
Is the show really based on your time at Ad Age, or did you just say that to get me to interview you?
When I first came to Ad Age, it was not to do ad reviews. I did this roving American thing where I went around the country looking for oddballs. And for years I did this both in print and on the radio and I thought I was just looking for 'man bites dog' stories, but over the years of collecting them I found that there was something loftier going on. And as I looked back at my whole body of that work it wasn't just a freak show, there was a common strand connecting all these people. That strand was pursuit of happiness; pursuing the American dream. We are told by Thomas Jefferson and our parents and our teachers and especially our commencement speakers that we can be anything we desire and furthermore if you don't, you are betraying your forefathers and posterity and yourself. I've been thinking hard on that subject, on my personal journey to figure out who I am, but also the journey that the nation is going on right now with its political divisions and Trumpism and Nazism and everything that comes with it.
So what specifically ran in Ad Age?
There is a sequence with Rose Lokey who was the owner of Katrina the talking cat but she couldn't understand why Meow Mix and Nine Lives weren't beating a path to her door because she had a talking cat. Likewise a guy named Garry Waite who was a country-music-singing endodontist and a guy named Jeffrey Weber who ran a freeze drying business in Florida – freeze drying dead pets. These were all in Ad Age and will now be onstage.
Is this a one-off or a tour?
It will start in Philadelphia and this year we will do Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis, Boston, Washington, San Francisco. Then we'll see what happens in the spring.
It's terrifying. The last time I did a theater performance I was 13. I played the part of the auctioneer in the play of the Shirley Jackson short story 'The Lottery.' Because I was at the podium I had the script in front of me the whole time so I didn't have to memorize shit. I didn't even have to do any stoning because I was the master of ceremonies. This is 9,500 words that I memorized.
What do you think of the state of ad creative today?
I am barely aware it exists. Because like most other humans I use all the technological tools available to me to avoid ads. I don't even see them. My preoccupation is trying to find a way for advertising to be healthy so it can sustain media. It was really healthy for 350 years and then came the digital revolution and it blew everything apart. I wish every day that advertising was a reasonable business model. But it isn't. It's carved away by middlemen and fraud. The creative is the least of my worries.
So is there a need for ad criticism anymore like you and Barbara Lippert were famous for?
There is plenty of ad criticism out there, but I don't know that anyone is doing it with any kind of rigor. I Everyone has always been an ad critic. But saying 'that sucks' is not a criticism. What Barbara and I had in common was that we made it about something, we mounted an argument or created context. ... I don't know that that exists anymore. It's O.K. Everything in its time.
What media do you consume?
I read a lot of newspaper stuff online, a lot fed to me from my aggregators and producers at 'On the Media.' I read a lot of the New York Times in print. The Washington Post, The Atlantic, the New Yorker and a lof of ad hoc stuff pushed from various sources. I read a lot about media revenue largely from the trade. It is the most underserved commercial subject I can think of.
Less revenue means less staffing, fewer copyeditors. Someone on my Facebook feed posted a correction from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that apologized for identifying Ringo Starr as a player for the Packers.
Ever since his knee surgery he has been useless. Also, he's 80.
Publicis had declared a one-year moratorium on going to Cannes. Do you have any thoughts on that?
I have always believed until the industry collapsed that Cannes celebrated the worst values and the worst impulses of advertising. As a business, it made a pretty good adjustment by making it about everything, but it mostly became about a marketplace and a convention. Despite all the seminars and programs it was really a place to do business and to gladhand and to posture, which, oddly, I think is a better reason to have a conference than to celebrate much of the worst of what your industry produces. Another reason for Publicis to back out is that Martin Sorrell won. It was part of his strategy to have festival dominance, and I think he succeeded. So why spend a couple of million dollars a year to go and not win network of the year? ... There is a lot of value at Cannes, it's just that very little of it takes place during daylight hours.
Everyone talks about how the media was out of touch with the country. Has that given you a lot of fodder for 'On the Media?'
Like everyone else in the media, we believed that institutionally – the show believed – that [the media] got into coastal punditry and not enough into middle America. I don't mean just the middle of America – God knows you don't have to leave the five boroughs to locate it. The conventional wisdom was that the conventional wisdom left out out all of these people. I don't think that is exactly the truth. I think that in fact the most coastal of the coastal mainstream media did their due diligence, read every precinct in America and interviewed the shit out of the red voters and the Trump supporters and the Rust Belt Americans whose lifestyle has changed dramatically since the collapse of the manufacturing economy. It was all there. The tea leaves were read wrong, obviously, but it was not because anyone was not paying attention to the plight of Middle America.
And your show?
I am not losing a sleep about how we covered the election and how we covered the people covering the election. It's not that we in the media are not paying attention to them. The problems are a lot deeper than that. Much deeper. The harvest of 50 years of resentment, going back to Miranda warning and abortion and prayer in schools and the civil rights movement and same-sex marriage. The cultural wars have been going on and the conservatives have lost at every stage. The resentment has been building and building and building and there are politicians and right-wing media who have been raging about how their country has been taken away from them and that creates more and more resentment, more and more anger and more and more frustration, rage and despair. I look at where we are today as a society as part of a gradual and positive democracy and there are at least 70 million people who look at the same landscape and say 'Where is my America? Who says there should be Miranda warnings and abortion? Who the fuck gets to say that? These people are dictating to us their set of values.' Those fans have been flamed for decades and I think it was the culmination of something a long time in coming.
What was your hardest 'On the Media' interview? Who did you piss off the most?
Those are not the the same questions. The most colorful I guess was Glenn Beck. Glenn Beck did not go well for Glenn Beck, let's put it that way. He was not happy about that turned out because he was going on about this 'Oh, I'm a new man and I'm looking at the world through very different glasses.' It was just bullshit. I called him on that stuff and he did not like it one bit.
Are you a big social media user?
I am a moderate social media user. I now tweet quite a bit. I have an Instagram account, but I only used it once when I sent out a picture of a roll of duct tape. And just for extra absurdity, it was a video.
Do you have a favorite follow?
It's nobody that anyone has ever heard of but it's a woman on the Pacific coast. Her name is Julie Lynn. She makes me laugh. Alexandra Petrie of the Washington Post makes me laugh. Ana Navarro, a Republican strategist. She hates Trump so much that you get sunburned from the radiation that comes out of her Trump tweets. I follow what the president has to say just because I need my daily dose of horror. I watch Trump's Twitter feed the way some people watch Jason Voorhees from 'Halloween.'
Did you ever make up with Comcast?
Let me put it to you this way. I was moderating a panel there a few months ago and I wasn't sure I would ever leave the building. But I did. I got to the street. I emerged unscathed, and the world premiere of 'Ruggedly Jewish' is at the Suzanne Roberts Theater. (Suzanne Roberts is the widow of Comcast founder Ralph Roberts.)