How a Group of Astronauts, New Agers, Tech Entrepreneurs, and Phil Donahue Helped End the Cold War

Journalists Julia Barton and Charles Maynes uncover a little-known chapter in US-Russian relations in Radiotopia’s Showcase series, “Spacebridge”

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Imagine floating weightless out in space, tethered to a spacecraft in low orbit, looking down on Earth. Swirls of blue and green and white contrast with the vast and unfathomable emptiness beyond. The journey around the planet takes about ninety minutes, and with each revolution, familiar points on the globe blur into long stretches of land and sea with no recognizable markers.

Astronaut Rusty Schweickart recounts this experience from his 1969 Apollo 9 mission in his essay “No Frames, No Boundaries”:

You look down there and you can’t imagine how many borders and boundaries you cross, again and again and again, and you don’t even see them. There you are — hundreds of people in the Middle East killing each other over some imaginary line that you’re not even aware of, that you can’t see. And from where you see it, the thing is a whole, the earth is a whole, and it’s so beautiful. You wish you could take a person in each hand, one from each side in the various conflicts, and say, “Look. Look at it from this perspective. Look at that. What’s important?”

This moment of realization — a “metaphysical experience” according to Schweickart — went on to inspire an unlikely movement, one that played a meaningful role in the easing of Cold War tensions, and ultimately, contributed to the collapse of the Iron Curtain.

It was an experiment in citizen diplomacy whose main events acquired the very 80s name of “spacebridge.” And while they’ve become something of an historical and technological curiosity, spacebridges represented a paradigm shift in how we communicate as a global society. To tell the story of this era is to once again prove truth is always stranger than fiction.

Journalists Julia Barton and Charles Maynes reconstruct this story in Spacebridge, the 4-part podcast premiering on March 1 as part of Radiotopia’s “Showcase.” The Spacebridge broadcasts were an early form of videoconferencing using satellite technology to link up citizens in the U.S. and U.S.S.R. Kermit the Frog appeared in one event; choirs dueted on another; and Phil Donahue later famously hosted a series of sessions with his Russian talk show host counterpart, Vladimir Pozner.

Barton and Maynes, both of whom had vague recollections of events during their childhoods in the US, found themselves being reintroduced to the Spacebridge concept during their time spent reporting from Russia in the early aughts. The events have been largely forgotten in the United States, but remain an enduring cultural force in the U.S.S.R. It’s estimated that over 150 million Soviets watched the interactive programs on state television in the 1980s, intrigued at the opportunity to see how regular Americans looked and sounded, and how they perceived the U.S.S.R. Barton wrote an article in 2014 for The Atlantic piecing together the technology behind the satellite and computer link-ups. Then she and Maynes connected through their common curiosity in the improbable story, and they began to peel back the strange origins of spacebridges and their reverberations in our culture today.

It took just over a decade, but Rusty Schweickart’s stellar epiphany was the seed that bloomed into the first spacebridge in the early ’80s. Tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union had reached a boiling point with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the American boycott of the Moscow Olympics in response, and the rise of hard-liner Ronald Reagan, who famously referred to the Soviet superpower as “the evil empire.” In California, meanwhile, a motley crew of astronauts, early Silicon Valley techies, ESP practitioners, and rock festival-goers concocted the idea to use advanced communications satellites to bring together ordinary citizens from both countries in a live forum to dampen down the rhetoric.

On September 5th, 1982, their first exchange went live, and with it their dream that our common humanity would change the course of history. If we could just make a connection with regular folks halfway around the globe, ask each other some questions and share our stories, we could save our countries from the geopolitical forces that are pushing us to the brink of nuclear war. The pioneers of the movement promoted transcendentalism and the ideal of “untapped human potential;” they envisioned technology unlocking within each of us a new wave of understanding and peace.

This deep-rooted belief in the inherent good of common folk fueled dozens of these tele-links and an ensuing citizen diplomacy movement over the course of the following decade. Relations between the countries calmed, and moderate forces in the U.S.S.R. began pushing for more openness, or glasnost. At the same time, the early Internet was developing, promoted by many spacebridge participants. The entire idea of horizontal communication — the massive, many-to-many discourse across borders — took hold. A couple decades on, we’ve connected globally beyond our wildest imaginations.

The question that arises then from Spacebridge is somewhat disconcerting: we’ve realized the ultra-connected interlinked world that was the dream of Rusty Schweickart and the pioneers of the US-Soviet Spacebridges. So why hasn’t our common good and human decency fully expressed itself and led us to the promised land?

Today, the talk of “untapped human potential” is pretty much absent. (Instead, we’ve become consumed with the possibility of extra-human, AI technology enhancing our capabilities.) Cyber-warfare, open hostility on social media, and disinformation campaigns from within and beyond our borders have conspired to undermine our faith in technology and society. Newly defined enemy camps in Washington and Moscow once again raise the specter of a nuclear arms race 2.0.

So the opportunity to travel back in time a bit — to a time of both greater imminent threat and greater inherent optimism — is not just insightful but essential. Spacebridge is far more than a curiosity. It’s a glimpse into a worldview that could point the way forward. And much like the high-pitched tenor of 1980s international relations, our global conversation today could benefit from a hard reset.

Tune into Spacebridge every Friday, starting March 1st on Radiotopia’s “Showcase.” Listen to a preview here, and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, RadioPublic or wherever you get your podcasts.


(Reposted from my article on Medium for PRX/Radiotopia)

The Best Singles of 2018

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The ballots are in (all two of them), and the year’s best singles are officially in the books. 25 songs that represent this past year, as judged by me and Robert Levy. Our annual Best Of list is a tradition that started in 2001, a banner year for pop music (“Bootylicious,” “Get Ur Freak On,” “Family Affair,” “I’m a Slave 4 U,” “Get the Party Started,” and “Can’t Get You Out of My Head,” just to name a few). And with each subsequent year, Robert and I have carefully compiled a playlist of contenders and winnowed them down every December — this year from a batch of 180 worthy singles down to the preeminent 25 you see here. 

Much has been said about #20GayTeen, starting last December with Hayley Kiyoko’s christening of 2018 as a break-out year for out-and-proud queer artists. Lesbian Jesus was right. The number of openly queer artists on our list far outpaces any previous year. We’ve always looked to champion openly gay artists on our “Best Ofs” — George Michael, Beth Ditto, Frank Ocean, La Roux, the Scissor Sisters — as well as others like Elkland and Lady Gaga who occupied the “I’m-kinda-queer” nether-zone. But the music industry has been notably unsupportive of artists who openly talk about their sexuality, despite the culture shifting a couple decades ago. It started in mass media with “the gay ‘90s.” And with the rise of YouTube and social media stardom in the ‘00s, we saw queer personalities who made no apologies for their affect, their obsessions, or their point of view.

This year, the music industry caught up. By my count, 10 artists on the 2018 list proudly don the #20GayTeen mantle. Azealia Banks, Héloïse Letissier (Christine and the Queens), Janelle Monáe, Brandi Carlile, Kim Petras, Troye Sivan, Tove Lo (a self-proclaimed “hobby lesbian”), Tyler the Creator (ok, maybe he’s in the nether-zone), ALMA, and Kevin Abstract of BROCKHAMPTON. (It also seems to be a banner year for ALL CAPS artists.)

Other notable trends: our first ballot for the year’s best resulted in 15 songs/artists, and only one of them (Troye Sivan) was male. There’s usually a female skew to our Best of list, but this year, the moment and the music belonged to women — defiant, unapologetic, angry, and assured. Janelle Monae said it best: “move back, take a seat, you were not involved / And hit the mute button / Let the vagina have a monologue.” 

A couple of the best-of worthy tracks that got away: Charlotte Gainsbourg, “Sylvia Says”; Kendrick Lamar and SZA, “All the Stars”; Sia/Diplo/Labrinth, “Thunderclouds”; Anna Calvi, “Hunter”; Snail Mail “Heat Wave”; Lion Babe “The Wave”; Ryan Beatty, “Camo.” They’re all on the extended “Contenders” playlist.

Best track for walking around the city with headphones on: Robyn, “Honey

Best of the many singles this year that sounded like a Haim cover: Maggie Rogers, “Light On

Best cover of a “Best of” track: Miley Cyrus and Mark Ronson “No Tears Left to Cry” on BBC Radio 1

Best song that I wish Sophie Ellis Bextor would cover: Kacey Musgraves, “High Horse

Best song that I never would have heard if not for Spotify Discover: Kississippi, “Cut Yr Teeth

Best guest stars in a music video: Paul W. Downs and Jessy Hodges in Tove Lo’s “Bitches

Greatest disparity in brilliance of a music video to a song that’s just aiiight: Childish Gambino, “This is America

Favorite lyric of 2018: “Whatever goes around eventually comes back to you / So you gotta be careful, baby / And look both ways before you cross my mind” — Bootsy Collins on Kali Uchis’ “After the Storm” 

So there you have it. Nominations for Best Of 2019 are officially open. Will Sky Ferreira finally release that long-rumored album? Will Rihanna follow through on her Insta announcement of new music dropping soon? I peg both with 50-50 chances, but we’re definitely saving a space for them on next year’s Best Of. See you here next December.

Book Quotes: "There There"

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Tommy Orange’s debut novel has been one of the few fiction titles to break through in a year when politics and Trump-related books have sucked much of the air out of the room. The good news is that of the handful of novels getting read and discussed these days, the attention given to “There There” is fully warranted. The novel opens with several short character studies of Native Americans living in and around Oakland over the last few decades; the stories begin to interconnect and overlap as the novel moves toward its inevitably ill-fated conclusion. Along the way, the observations of this motley group of single moms, petty drug dealers, estranged family members, and dysfunctional shut-ins are funny, poignant, and heartbreaking.

Orange inhabits his diverse cast of characters with ease, portraying a proud but fraying culture that’s continually trying to find its authentic identity within a larger society that is indifferent, at best, and more frequently, outright hostile. The effects of 5+ centuries years of marginalization and antagonism toward Native Americans is unflinchingly grim.

Knobs of wisdom emerge unexpectedly in the text, rippling with meaning both for the characters on the page and for the part of us all that feels disenfranchised. Their outsider identities tap into something universal, but the extremity of their other-ness is on a scale that few of us can fully imagine.

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We all lack the answers to larger questions of our existence — no matter our background or our lot in life. And the alienation that reverberates from life’s elusive mysteries is what drives us to “keep going.” It’s not a lot to hang your hat on, but there’s a morsel of solace to be found in that observation.

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Thank you, Shudder -- bringer of "Ghostwatch"

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With the Halloween-Industrial Complex in full swing — pumpkin-ifying everything in sight — streaming services have embraced the season and stocked up on creepy programming in spades. Netflix’s highlights include the undeniably charming reboot of Sabrina and the surprisingly intriguing tween anthology series Creeped Out. Huluween boasts an impressive and well-curated array of hair-raising programming divided up into categories such as “Scary as Hell" and “Spooky, Not Scary.”

And then there’s Shudder.

Shudder is the streaming service launched by AMC a couple years ago, and its horror/thriller/suspense bonafides go well beyond the ~500 titles they offer on the service. Shudder is run by true-blue (bled-red? core-gore?) horror experts with programming credentials from places like Fangoria and the Toronto Film Festival. If you’re a genre fan, it’s well worth the $3.99 per month, chiefly because they track down titles that you won’t find anywhere else.

Exhibit A: “Ghostwatch

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Up until last week, I’d never heard of Ghostwatch, a British “reality” show that caused such a stir in its initial airing on the BBC in 1992 that it was shelved for over a decade and became the subject of judicial review and media thought-pieces for decades to come. Shudder acquired the show last year, giving it its first exposure in the U.S.

The special aired on Halloween night 26 years ago, a scripted 90-minute show written by Stephen Volk. He had originally pitched the idea as a multi-part series that documented the investigation of poltergeist activity in a council flat outside of London. The show centers around a single mother and her two children, who live under the oppressive specter of “Pipes,” the ghostly antagonist whose constant tormenting echoes the rattling of heating pipes in the walls. When the idea was rejected, Volk re-pitched it as a one-time, “live” event in the spirit of Geraldo Rivera’s Al Capone Vault Opening.

Director Lesley Manning cast news reporters and talk show presenters in the main roles, setting up a mobile unit outside of the fictional household where the paranormal incidents had been occurring. Hosted by the venerable Michael Parkinson — or “Parky” as he’s affectionately known in the UK — the special unfolds with various experts and on-the-ground commentators weighing in on the veracity of supernatural hauntings. Parky delivers what turns out to be a truly chilling performance in the end. The entire cast strikes a pitch-perfect balance of gravitas and diversion as they delve into the investigation. The term “mockumentary” has been attached to the show, but that implies a winking, “we’re all in on the joke” tone. “Ghostwatch” plays is straight down the middle, only breaking a sly little smile in the over-the-top opening credit sequence.

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The BBC took a lot of flack for airing the special, which it quickly reframed as a “spoof;” calls poured into their switchboard, a suicide was attributed to a disturbed viewer, and irate tabloids decried the network’s lack of standards. It’s evidence of what a different era that was, only a couple decades ago, when the line between news and entertainment was just starting to blur. Volk intended the show as something of a commentary on the growing trend he had observed in soft-focus “news magazine” shows like A Current Affair and the 24-7 cable news cycle.

It’s hard not to see that commentary, as “Ghostwatch” builds out a circus-like atmosphere around the purported haunted house. It’s done subtly, but with the benefit of hindsight (and a full understanding of the fake-reality context), it’s clear that the show is presaging the ills of vacant punditry, both-sides-ism, media saturation, and over-hyped reportage. That said, I wonder if events like “Ghostwatch” simultaneously warned us about the rise infotainment while nudging open the floodgates that would steadily inure us all to the growing subjectivity of news. Reality TV began its ascendance in 1992 with the premiere of “The Real World;” Fox News launched a few years later; the OJ phenomenon soon followed.

Did "Ghostwatch” open the proverbial Pandora’s box? No. But it did crack open lid to take a chilling peek at what was inside. The fact that the show remains both a startling commentary, as well as a genuinely spooky and fun show to enjoy on its own merits, is a credit to how expertly the creators devised this groundbreaking pop culture event.