How annoying: The risky business of being a pest

The Wall Street Journal recently reported on the thorny legal issues attending on the outwardly simple word “annoy.” It seems the word in one form or another appears in more than 5,000 state and municipal ordinances across the country.

A 2012 Indiana law makes a criminal of anyone who “harasses, annoys, or alarms another person” while drunk in a public place. The Town of Liberty, New York, deems it aggravated harassment to use phone or pen in a way “likely to cause annoyance or alarm.” It prosecuted a visitor who annoyed town officials by replacing “Liberty” with “TYRANNY” on the payment form for a speeding ticket.

Lawrence, Massachusetts, forbids annoying others in city parks. Winthrop, Massachusetts, bans it on town beaches. Cumberland, Maryland, protects city employees rather than the general citizenry from “annoyance.” Syracuse, New York, forbids gathering on street or sidewalk for “any purpose to the annoyance or disturbance of citizens.” Traffic congestion is deeply annoying to many of us. Does that make drivers criminals?

That’s the rub with such ordinances generally: Annoyance is in the mind (and eyes, ears and nose) of the annoyed. Scrupulous enforcement would mean banning music, since everything from Bach to Beyoncé annoys someone. Syracuse stopped enforcing its public annoyance law in 2012, after a federal judge declared it unconstitutional. The Supreme Court struck down a similar Cincinnati ordinance 43 years ago, noting that “conduct that annoys some people does not annoy others.”

Washington law may avoid that trap by looking to the intent rather than the result, in defining “malice”: "’Malice’ and ‘maliciously’ shall import an evil intent, wish, or design to vex, annoy, or injure another person.” But what do they mean by 'evil'?

Though the objects of annoyance vary, the emotion itself is visceral and universal. And, at the same time, shameful. We feel ashamed at getting worked up over something as trivial as finger tapping, the “Winchester Cathedral” song. There are copy editors for whom inserting an adverb between main and helping verbs or ending a sentence with a preposition are things up with which they never will put. You loathe the annoyance and loathe yourself for being annoyed. And that just gets you more worked up.

I confess that I think about this — that is, I get annoyed — often of late when I listen to public radio. And not just when it goes into pledge overdrive, as the local NPR stations did earlier this month.

Public radio is the medium we love to hate (as opposed to much more obnoxious and brain-deadening commercial formats, which we just ignore). We all have our pet peeves about NPR and its local outlets: They’re too leftwing, too rightwing, too timid, too grandiose, too fluffy, too staid and serious, too puerile and pop culture-oriented. And we each have our special list of insufferable hosts and shows.

If I were sent up for enhanced interrogation, a few hours of Car Talk, Sound Opinions, The Splendid Table, The Dinner Party Download or Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me would shake every secret out of me.

Radio’s special power to annoy in part reflects its success, endurance and ubiquity. Familiarity can make a show like A Prairie Home Companion as comfortable as an old shoe, or make us totally sick of it. Or both, in succession and alternation.

The most ubiquitous voice on public radio hasn’t been on air as long as Garrison Keillor, but it’s heard a lot more often. It doesn’t appear on any show; rather, it pipes up before, after and in their middles. It is more than any other the Voice of Public Radio. It cuts in before and after news breaks, sometimes after just a brief musical riff, to list the corporations, foundations and odd casino tribe with an image to repair who’ve brought us this commercial-free radio.

For years the voices that recited these sponsor lists were mildly mellifluous, smooth but not too smooth, fitting seamlessly in the NPR sound fabric. The local sponsor-thankers on KUOW and KPLU still are, but lately NPR has turned the readings over to a single, very different voice: sharp, insistent, and whinging, at once plaintive and scolding. Or so it sounds the gazillionth time around; perhaps it's a perfectly pleasant voice soured by repetition. It seems a couple decibels louder than the programming surrounding it, and the sponsor lists it recites seem to keep getting longer. They are impossible to ignore.

Why would NPR want to rub our ears in these recitations? Why would producers who strive so mightily to weave that seamless fabric inject so discordant an element?

Maybe annoyance is the intent, not just the result. Consider pledge drives. Many years ago John Ross, a former manager of the Portland community radio station KBOO, wrote a hilarious tell-all about pledge drives for an ancient weekly called Argus. In it he disclosed that the strategy wasn’t just to play on listeners’ consciences, it was to annoy them into contributing. To that end the station maintained an arsenal of “threat records.” Pledge now or we’ll play Captain Zoom and the Androids again.

Could today’s ever more grating and intrusive sponsorship announcements reflect the same strategy? Pay up or we’ll have to take on even more sponsors, and pretty soon their names will be all you’ll hear?

If so, it’s a risky strategy. A natural response would be, If you’ve got so many big-bucks sponsors, why do you need my puny pledge? I try to avoid thinking that way, and instead just turn the dial.

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