Northern Exposure and Nostalgia for Places You’ve Never Been Before

 

 

Yesterday, on our travels, we had the opportunity to stop in Roslyn, WA where the exteriors of the television series Northern Exposure were shot. The famous mural that the moose strolled past in the opening credits is there, as is a preserved KBHR radio set, and The Brick. The facade that served as Dr. Fleischman’s office is now a Northern Exposure-themed gift shop where you can pick up a walking tour map.

The final episode of Northern Exposure wrapped up with Iris Dement’s melancholy “Our Town,” suggesting that the fictional Cicely, Alaska was the real star of the show.

10391758_233868150947_1219663_n Northern Exposure was a fresh new show at a time when I, like the viewpoint character Dr. Fleischman, had moved from a more urban area to a northern town in order to start what I then thought would be my career.

I was the afternoon drive announcer on WKJF FM/AM in Cadillac, MI.

Unlike Dr. Fleishman, who, in spite of himself, became central to a community with its own culture and habits he did not understand, I was mostly isolated. I never found a community outside of work, and the life of a radio announcer mostly consisted of being the only person in a building talking to the air. I watched Northern Exposure every week, and it provided a fictive community.

Cicely, Alaska was not a typical small town. It was a place where the entire community would turn out to witness a philosopher-turned-DJ engage in performance art. Although it was isolated and rural it was diverse, thanks to the Native American population, and a spiritual dimension– a mystic searching for meaning–permeated the place. The drama came from the quest to figure out what it means to be a human being in the world living with other human beings.

While I was playing music programmed by a “clock hour” and index cards (pictured above) and later by computers, Chris in the Morning was playing an ecclectic mix of different genres as his mood and his sermon of the day dictated. It was an ideal of local radio as the voice of the community in all of its human unpredictability.

In the years that have passed all three of the local radio stations that served as the setting of my career have gone out of business. Local radio has been largely homogenized and replaced by huge media companies with nationally syndicated content.

A few years ago I returned to Cadillac, Michigan. I wrote:

Early in my radio career, I lived in Cadillac. (I was the afternoon announcer at the now-defunct WKJF AM/FM, “Your Light Rock, More Music Station.”) Cadillac surrounds a lake, and each shore of the lake has a distinctly different feel. My house was on the non-tourist side. It was then one long highway of mom and pop shops. (An appliance repair shop was one of the prominent businesses.) It seemed to have changed little since the 1950s.

I lived in the town for half a year before I even knew the resort side of the lake, with its hotels and restaurants, was there.

There is a lot to do in Cadillac for the person who enjoys hunting, fishing or snowmobiling. I was more of an indoor girl…

Something has happened to the town-side of Cadillac. Most of the mom and pop operations have closed down and been bought up by chains with their plastic facades and bright colored logos. The 1950s era businesses that remain, which once had an untouched charm, have been made shabby and out of date by the juxtaposition. Cadillac seems somehow both more built up and more run down than I remember.

The radio station building where I once worked remains, although it is a lifeless, automated router for another station. The “Incredible Broadcast Machine”– a decidedly credible Winnebago painted with the station logo– has driven (or been towed) into the sunset. Half of the office space (which was once home to Muzak) has been given over to H&R Block.

A few years after that I revisited my second radio station, WFRA and Mix 99.3 FM (“The best mix of today’s hits and great oldies”) in Franklin, PA.

 

 

That’s me as the midday voice of the station in the early 1990s, and on the right is what the station looked like a couple of years ago. The door with the station logos and the empty rooms may be gone by now leaving no trace of the place.

Last year I learned that the house in a residential neighborhood that housed my last radio station WAGE AM in Leesburg, VA was up for sale. I might have bought it if I’d had the money.

The death of local radio is a metaphor for something larger, the loss of the community voice, the separate, quirky local cultures. As Chris in the Morning put it in this clip “The total blitzkreig towards isolation.”

In the Roslyn gift shop, a friendly woman handed me a map of all of the sites in the town that had been used in the show. On the wall were large photographs of all of the show’s cast. Something about them felt off to me, because it took me back to the fact that what had taken place there had been a television production. But I had not come to see a film set, and that was not what I had been feeling walking down that familiar street.

I came to see a place that I had once belonged, which I thought had vanished like so many other places of my past. In Roslyn, that magical place, and all of its possibilities, re-appeared like Brigadoon.

Cicely, Alaska was fictional and Chris in the Morning and all the others were fictional. They never lived there, and they will always live there.

 

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