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The Big Questions: Is Nostalgia Dangerous?

Rob Elder interviews Steve Darnall for podcast. | Geoff Scheerer/Sun-Times Media

Rob Elder interviews Steve Darnall for a podcast. | Geoff Scheerer/Sun-Times Media

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Steve Darnall will be at the Ela Township Community Center in Lake Zurich Tuesday, Jan. 28, for a noon presentation: Radio and the Great American Songbook. Darnall will talk about the evolution of radio and will feature some radio performances from Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer and George Gershwin.

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Nostalgia, says Steve Darnall, is like a drug.

“If used in moderation it can probably be very helpful,” he says. “And if used excessively, it can cause disorientation, and you kind of lose track of where you are.”

And Darnall should know. As editor of Nostalgia Digest and host of the old time radio show “Those Were the Days” on WDCB in Glen Ellyn, Darnall has spent more time listening to our past than most.

“I like to think of it as inexpensive time travel,” Darnall says.

In this episode of “The Big Questions,” La Grange native Darnall talks about what we can learn from our media ancestors and how nostalgia can serve us now.

Below is an excerpt of our talk, but the entire conversation can be downloaded via SoundCloud or streamed via YouTube. “The Big Questions” is part of the Sun-Times Media Local Podcast Network.

Q: Is nostalgia dangerous?

Steve Darnall: I think like a lot of drugs, if used in moderation it can probably be very helpful. And if used excessively, it can cause disorientation, and you kind of lose track of where you are.

Chuck Schaden, who started the Nostalgia Digest and “Those Were the Days,” always had a good quote, which I’ve lived by: “We are living with the past. We are not living in it.” It is a real danger to live in the past because, as the saying goes, “Nostalgia is never what it used to be.”

Q: You’ve spent more time listening to dead people than Haley Joel Osment in “The Sixth Sense.” So my question is, what have you learned listening to all those hours of old radio broadcasts?

Darnall: To be really pretentious about it, I suppose, the sense that I’d like to think of it as inexpensive time travel.

That you learn something about the time in which it was produced. Whether it was how people lived, how they bought their cigarettes and their soap, what they thought was funny and entertaining. Some of that humor from 60, 70, 80 years ago has not aged especially well. Some of it has aged beautifully.

Q: What is the difference between sentimentality and nostalgia?

Darnall: That’s an excellent question.

Nostalgia I have always rather flippantly described as something that used to be one way and now it isn’t. The sentimentality obviously can be part and parcel of that ...

Sentiment is valuable because it reminds us, I think, at the heart of who we are. I think it is the reason that all of us flock to “A Christmas Carol” every year, whether it is stage show or the movies.

Virtually every year on “Those Were the Days,” we play a production of “A Christmas Carol,” usually with Lionel Barrymore, who did Scrooge for so many years. And I think the thing about that story, that works so beautifully is the sentiment. At its heart, it tries to reminds us that all of us have the capacity to be better than we can be.

Q: It seems to me, that nostalgia is a moving target depending on which generation you are and as generations get older and so my question … is there time when Nostalgia Digest has Led Zeppelin on the cover?

Darnall: No. For one thing, Led Zeppelin’s been pretty well covered. I want to give [Rolling Stone founder] Jann Wenner a break. I think Rolling Stone deserves a leg up in some area [laughs].

This excerpt was edited for length and context. Visit Nostalgia Digest online at:

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