Radio gives voice to drinking issue

September 19, 2010 

Back when my parents were newlyweds, they went to a party with my mom's parents. As my mom tells the story, my grandfather had too much to drink. So my father drove him home and helped him upstairs to bed. Mom says my grandfather was so embarrassed to have his new son-in-law see him in that condition, that he never took another drink.

I hadn’t thought of this story in years. But it came back to me recently. This past March, I attended the community forum on excessive drinking. About 100 people got together, not to complain, but to brainstorm solutions. Here are some of the ideas. If you’ve been following the issue (and who hasn’t?), these will be familiar:

• It costs a lot of money for police to deal with alcohol- influenced crimes; why not increase fines?

• It’s too easy to buy large quantities of alcohol before big weekends; let’s have state liquor stores close earlier.

• Young people don’t know how to drink responsibly; can they take a “safe drinking” class?

• There’s not much to do in State College but drink. Can we create appealing, alcohol-free entertainment?

• Finally, when you feel invested in a place, you’re less likely to trash it; can residents help students feel part of the community?

All of these ideas sound eminently sensible. What would it take to make them happen?

Sometimes what sounds simple turns out to be complicated. If liquor stores close early, customers may shift their buying habits. The Borough Council can’t simply vote to raise fines — that’s an issue for the state legislature. And it’s not clear that fines deter crimes.

So the conversation needs to continue — and it is continuing.

Penn State’s Debate Society recently tackled the question, “Should the Drinking Age Be Lowered?” A Penn State journalism class organized a panel discussion on dangerous drinking. This week students from the Schreyer Honors College present their results from a class project on high-risk drinking, and another group of students hosts a “multigenerational discussion” to address binge drinking.

WPSU-FM wants to use the power of radio to be part the conversation. At 7 p.m. Sunday, we’ll host a forum to explore the proposed solutions in more detail — and to invite other ideas. You can be part of the live studio audience at the Outreach Building in Innovation Park. Or, if you can’t show up in person, you have lots of other opportunities to share your ideas and to learn. You can listen to the radio or join a live online chat, and you can send your questions and ideas via Web, e-mail and text message.

At the forum in March, a number of students were on hand to share their views. “It’s not like I don’t drink,” one of them said. “I like a beer now and then.” I couldn’t help but think that this attitude suggested the bottom line. What leads some people to behave in a responsible way while others do not?

In March, when I thought of our family story, I found something striking. I remembered that Mom had said my grandfather was embarrassed by his behavior.

It seems societal norms have changed. Excessive drinking and the behaviors that come with it seem more accepted. Drinking till you’re incoherent isn’t shocking these days; in some circles it’s expected, it’s normal, it’s funny.

It reminds me of the classic knock-knock joke. How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? One ... but the light bulb has towantto change.

We can model responsible behavior. We can offer incentives for responsible behavior. We can legislate responsible behavior.

What does it take for people to want to change?

I hope you’ll be part of the conversation.

Cynthia Berger is director of news and public affairs programming at WPSU. Readers may contact her at cberger@psu.edu.

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