The world was smaller then. In 1992, if you were a typical kid looking for people like yourself, you were stuck with those you could find in your high school, or, if you had wheels, within driving distance. If you were a green-haired punk in Bolton or Manchester, you bitched about how it felt like a small and lonely world — unless you were a gay green-haired punk, in which case you probably wouldn’t have dared bitch out loud. You didn’t see yourself on TV; the magazines about you weren’t exactly showing up at your local Stop & Shop; and you’d never heard of something called the Internet.
Then, one October night, two out queer voices punctured the isolation, taking the edge off the solitary darkness. It was electric, radio-wave lifelines, the first hello from America’s queer future. One in Ten was born.
It’s hard to imagine now just how seismic it was when WFNX (owned by this newspaper’s parent company, Phoenix Media/Communications Group) became the first commercial FM-radio station to offer a permanent slot to a queer show. The inspiration struck PM/CG chair Stephen Mindich after a friend drove through upstate New York and heard a gay-themed college-radio broadcast. Mindich knew immediately that this idea needed a bigger forum, and, in the words of current One in Ten host Keith Orr, he decided to use " his power of the media to get this done. " Long before Ellen came out, before the Internet made communities out of bedrooms, before Will & Grace won an Emmy, Mindich went for it: he asked no-nonsense lesbian communications professional Mary Breslauer and clubby gay boy Michael Smith to fill three and half hours of nighttime air with topics related to homosexuality. A decade later, the hosts have changed, the format is different, and American society has queered up considerably, but One in Ten lives on — and thrives.
In the beginning, it was a sprawling show conducted in a tiny space. " It was an enormous time slot [10 p.m. to 1:30 a.m.] to fill, " recalls Breslauer, " so it was incredibly free-flowing radio. " But the first studio was a shoebox of a room, where the long and late hours led to a kind of " insanity, ’cause everyone was so friggin’ tired. " The format involved news headlines followed by lengthy single-topic segments, and then phone calls in the wee hours. The first show included the director of the Human Rights Campaign Fund, comedienne Lea DeLaria, and staffers from the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt — about as heavy-hitting a queer line-up as you could imagine in 1992.
And from the beginning, it struck a chord. In addition to its powerhouse guests, One in Ten offered an outlet for callers to ask questions about gay and lesbian sex, an experience which Breslauer describes as being " like the gay Ann Landers. " (Up till that point, the topic of gay sex was relegated to every fifth or sixth question on Dr. Ruth’s Sexually Speaking.) And it provided a distinctly open forum for talking about AIDS, as Smith was candid about his status as an HIV-positive man. At a time when other local media figures didn’t dare be so honest, Smith gave a brave, funny, human voice to the epidemic and the issues surrounding it. " He was a very public face of HIV, " says current co-host Sue O’Connell, " and came in week after week while dealing with it. "
AIDS wasn’t the only hot topic being dealt with frankly on the show. One issue that reared its head around the time of the show’s first anniversary was " Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, " the flawed Clinton spin on gays-in-the-military policy that has since yielded more annual sexuality-based discharges than at any time since the Reagan era. " ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ " Breslauer recalls, was " this awful thing, but incredibly powerful in its outcome. We had fighter pilots and midshipmen telling their stories — as awful as it was, the images America received turned out to be very positive in the long run. "
While gays in the military were among the first to come out on the show, many others avoided the intimate studio. " It was hard to book guests, " says O’Connell, who was the show’s entertainment sales manager at the time, " because they were afraid of what people would think. " And Orr, who did remote segments and fill-in hosting in the early years, adds, " We used to have to promise people that they didn’t have to use their names in telephone interviews. "
But a decade has altered the landscape considerably. Both the current hosts (Orr took over the slot full-time when Smith died in 1995; O’Connell came on in 1997) point to the recent media trend among artists of cultivating more diverse audiences (and thus more economic success), which means publicists now actively maintain or even exploit the gay fan base for their clients.
Yet even as that has come to pass, the show has intentionally become less personality-driven and more focused on audience interaction. Interviews remain a staple, but the guests are often non-celebrity experts on a topic, and there is a much greater emphasis on listeners’ responses. One segment, " Ask a Homo Anything, " draws questions from the large number of straight listeners who tune in. O’Connell describes a recent caller from Rhode Island as a " Modern Adult Child " whose parents had divorced, with dad and mom each settling down afterward with a woman. His mom now has a new lesbian partner who wants the caller to treat her as a mother. What, he asked, was he supposed to do with his " stable of parents " ?
Some calls, of course, are less humorous. Though they’re not licensed therapists, the hosts nonetheless have to be prepared for despairing calls, often from teens, no matter how light the subject matter at hand. " When kids call in with problems, it changes the show dramatically, " O’Connell says. The hosts try to help put an optimistic face on the situation, but they also actively work to connect troubled callers with resources like the Fenway Community Health Center’s Peer Listening Line. Simply hearing another gay person answer their call is a potent experience for many who dial in.
While they always knew that queer kids were tuning in, it wasn’t until the attack at Columbine High School that the One in Ten hosts discovered just how many kids of all orientations were hooked on the show. During the first broadcast after the shootings, the phones lit up; one of the earliest questions was from a straight girl afraid to go back to school. Issues like bullying and feelings of otherness were affecting kids across the spectrum, many of whom found solace in One in Ten, as if it were an at-home version of a Gay/Straight Alliance. The hosts speak with feeling about what it means to realize how deeply the show registers with kids. Breslauer says hardly a week goes by without people now in their 20s thanking her for touching their lives a decade before. Orr and O’Connell are treated like rock stars at Gay Youth Pride, drawing screams and whistles from the current crop of fans.
The fact that a bunch of teens can now hop in a car full of classmates and drive to a city-approved, youth-specific queer festival — and cheer on their favorite dyke and homo radio DJs — suggests that the world is a very different place than it was when the show started. If One in Ten was born during a time of queer isolation, does the community’s current easy access to the mainstream mean the show is outliving its usefulness?
Not likely. Orr likes to remind callers that sexual freedom is not just a queer issue: " Tell a straight caller that sodomy laws can apply to them, and their jaw hits the floor. " And while one caller said " gay is just not that interesting anymore, " what kids — and many grown-ups — do still find interesting is frank, irreverent, and bold conversation. In a time when all-talk radio leans heavily toward the conservative, commercial stations operate on testosterone overdrive, and liberal NPR puts off younger viewers with its static sameness, One in Ten does indeed fill a niche — call it non-sanctimonious progressive radio — and still electrifies its audience.
David Valdes Greenwood can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org