Am I too busy for radio?

How my time spent on-air made me a better scientist
Aug 2020
Lama
A.
Technology and Policy Program

The way I see it, a major part of being an “entitled millennial” is our personal conviction that we all have a message to share and a voice to be heard; its primary symptoms are the oversaturated podcast market and the unlimited supply of Instagram influencers. As a new graduate student at MIT with new inferiority complexes, a poetry habit, and a Middle Eastern-American identity crisis, I also was swayed by the opportunity to empower a community with personal anecdotes and eloquent adages. So, I searched for a platform. And due to a self-important ‘hipster’ fixation with remaining different, I took the road less travelled right to broadcast radio. MIT’s own 88.1, WMBR.

I was mainly attracted to the novelty of having a radio show. Never mind that it was student radio and almost anyone with an MIT student ID could share their latest Spotify playlist. I felt special (I repeat, millennial entitlement), so special that I urged my friend to co-host and share the air. She did. By property of our collective lineage (she’s Persian and I’m Palestinian) we knew our show would revolve around being “Middle Eastern women with Indie preferences”, and we deep-dove into the musical fringes of Arabic, Persian, and all adjacent cultures.

It was so fun. I had so much fun doing radio. More fun than I did doing research, class work, or the like. I felt important and powerful every other week, for an hour, in our 100-square-foot broadcasting studio. So much so that I would distract myself from work with endless conversations thinking up our next week’s topic. So far our topics have ranged from the role of music in periods of protest and war to our joint experience with hyphenated identities. The subjects mattered, and we conveyed them in deeply personal on-air conversations and carefully curated playlists.

But like most love stories, my relationship with radio began to go sour. I blame Graduate-Student-Guilt. I blame my time at MIT always feeling like a race to finish an infinite list of things-to-do. Each minute I spent on radio was a minute misused, a minute spent away from my graduate student responsibilities. I was consumed by the realization that a hobby would not advance my career, make me a better programmer, or help me publish more papers (i.e. the precise insecurities I regularly recalled).

But while our show cannot add to my LinkedIn accolades, our one-hour episodes have allowed my co-host and I to put to music the shared and variegated experience of being Middle Eastern, unconsciously assuming similarities between cultures our ancestors had already sworn against: Arabs, Persians, Sudanese, North Africans, Turkish...  For months now, we have been a small collective of two people preaching unity through music, and we never even recognized it. And since my American community is primarily made familiar to our ethnicities through a myriad of negative depictions in mainstream news (and Aladdin), our platform is our rare opportunity to dispel all Ali Baba rumors. We discuss current events without strong political statements or affiliations and choose instead to use music to dissipate our differences and amplify our shared humanity.

And so, by interrogating the productivity of my radio pursuit and falling prey to the Guilt, I learned to enjoy and respect my radio pursuit differently. Not just because it’s fun, but because it underscores the social value we should try to ascribe to both our work and our personal ventures.

In general, art, sports, or music can feel so tangential to being an effective scientist. Pragmatically, they are. However, when you carve any space for yourself, be it a creative endeavor, a relationship, or a sport - you start to gain ownership of your time. Time is no longer in deficit: it is a fixed ration, and you apportion it. You can apportion to yourself the right to have fun and the opportunity of valuing yourself beyond academic or professional successes. What I’m trying to say is that it is OK if the research question you’ve been working at for over a year is not only, or at all, what excites you every day. It’s also OK if it is. Your time is your own, just try to make it meaningful. Just do YOU authentically, and your to-do list will feel less like a weight on your shoulders.

P.S. Given how different the world is today, I felt it important to add that apportioning time in a post-COVID world, no longer feels like a perfect bisection between work and leisure. Instead, time has begun to pass and nothing gets done. Over the last few months I have had to teach myself how that is OK, because right now we do not always feel OK, and it’s enough to do our best.

To learn more about our radio show, check out our website.