NEWSPAPERS and television networks ran a story not long ago about a Briton who invented a windup radio, which has been successfully manufactured and marketed. It works on the same principle as did the crank-operated phonographs and music boxes of many decades past; in this case winding the crank coils a spring that when released turns a generator that produces enough electricity to operate the radio for about half an hour. This new radio has apparently come as a boon to several Third World countries, where people who were prevented by the high cost of batteries from owning and using radios are now hooked into the broadcast media for the very first time. They benefit greatly from public-service announcements regarding health and safety.
The obvious "How about that!" angle to this story is "How about that! A windup radio!" Then there's the obvious subtext: "How about that! A place where people can't afford batteries!" And the obvious sub-subtext: "How about that! A place where radio is still important!"
The truth is that radio has not been eclipsed by television and cable and the Internet. In fact, radio is as popular as it has ever been. According to the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association, 675 million radio receivers are currently in use in the United States; on average, Americans over the age of eleven spend three hours and eighteen minutes of every weekday listening to at least one of them.
I don't mention this to make the case that radio is "better" than other electronic media (I use and enjoy all of them), but I will say that it is different, very different. Radio is special to people. And in an era when we in the West have so many other media available to us, media that can "do" so much more than radio ever could, radio still inspires a kind of loyalty that premium channels and Web sites cannot claim.
This loyalty is largely due to radio's very limitations. Radio can't dazzle us with visual spectacles; it has to capture and hold our attention aurally. That is, it has to speak to us, through either words or music. Couple this with the fact that radio is a curiously intimate medium: people tend to feel that they are connecting with their radios one-on-one. This is generally not the case with television, where the individual viewer invariably senses that he or she is nothing more than an anonymous, statistically insignificant part of a huge and diverse audience. But because radio is a "smaller" medium (many low-powered mom-and-pop operations, which were never part of television, still exist on radio), the individual listener can somehow believe that the signal is traveling direct and uninterrupted from the studio microphone to his set alone, that the announcer is speaking and playing records just for him. Few people exploited this quality as well as did Franklin Delano Roosevelt. His radio "Fireside Chats" endeared him to countless listeners, who reported feeling during his broadcasts as if the President were sitting in their parlor and talking with them like a next-door neighbor. Roosevelt is given credit for his ability to use the new medium so effectively, but a case could be made that it was actually the nature of the new medium, its peculiar power and personality, that made Roosevelt so effective on it.
Intimacy is itself both cause and effect of another singular truth about radio: most people, most of the time, listen to their radios in solitude. Radio, then, is usually more than just a medium; it is company. Whether it is the company of first choice or of last resort makes no difference. It is a reliable and tireless buffer between solitude and loneliness, and for this it is often regarded, consciously or otherwise, as an old and valued friend.
I had no real use for radio until after I graduated from college. I was born in New York City in the late 1960s, and grew up in its dense suburbs toward the end of the transition from black-and-white to color television. In junior high school twenty-channel cable TV came along; in high school we got "microcomputers," which boasted two whole kilobytes of random-access memory and built-in cassette decks for information storage. In retrospect, of course, these innovations look hopelessly crude, but at the time they were more than enough to render radio seemingly irrelevant to my life.
Then I found myself working as a reporter at a daily newspaper in the Mississippi Delta. The Delta is a place that can blind you, if not drive you mad, with its sameness and isolation. It is endlessly flat and relentlessly rural. My job often required me to drive great distances, usually on long, straight two-lane roads flanked by vast plantation fields. It was not at all unusual for me to travel many miles without seeing another car, a house, or even a road sign. In such an atmosphere it is not difficult to imagine that one is the last person on the planet. Not difficult, and not pleasant, either.
On one such journey I turned off my car's tape deck and started listening to its radio. I can't say exactly what day that happened, or why, but I can say, with confidence, that the first day I listened to the radio while driving through the Delta was also the last day I used the tape deck. The radio was the perfect antidote for the paralyzing remoteness of the Delta. It didn't matter anymore that I couldn't detect any evidence of humankind on a lonely stretch of Highway 49; I could always turn on the radio and hear a human voice. Soon I figured out which stations carried national radio-network news and talk programs (Radio networks! Who could have imagined that such a thing still existed in the late 1980s!), and I came to regard these programs as an umbilical cord to the world back home. I varied my listening regimen even further to incorporate local low-wattage stations as well -- stations where the announcers spoke in a thick drawl about who had been born or died or gotten married or divorced or was spotted eating lunch this afternoon at the little restaurant across the street. I began to realize that radio -- this medium I had once considered so antiquated as to be nearly useless -- could do more even than preserve my sanity and defeat my homesickness: it could provide me with a wealth of information on, and a hearty appreciation for, a place as different from my home town as any in the country.
It was also in Mississippi that I discovered what might be my favorite thing about radio -- its durability. Sometimes on clear nights I would get in my car and drive out of town, out along the narrow highways of the Delta, where we -- my car and I -- would be surrounded by a darkness so intense that it seemed tangible. Often I drove without any particular destination in mind. My real objective on these trips was simply to motor around the back roads while sliding back and forth along the AM dial to see what distant, exotic stations I could pull in. I was never disappointed. Way out there, on a plain a hundred miles wide, far, far away from anywhere that could reasonably be classified as somewhere, I picked up stations from St. Louis and Denver and Houston and Detroit and Philadelphia and Omaha and Boston and Kansas City and Washington and Chicago and Minneapolis and New York. I don't believe in magic, but I do know that sitting in my car in the middle of Mississippi and listening to a signal that traveled more than a thousand miles, over nearly a dozen states, and came down into my car through a metal pole antenna and two paper-cone speakers, was as near to a magical experience as ever I'm likely to have.