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.
Sometimes on my drives I would actually go somewhere: a very small AM radio station, housed in a wooden shack thirty-five miles northwest of my town and just off Highway 61. I had a friend, Greg, who moonlighted at this station almost every night, working alone among the tape cartridges and control panels. At night the station dropped its local programming in favor of a satellite feed that originated somewhere in Colorado. The feed's programming was truly insipid -- mostly fifteen-year-old bubble-gum music punctuated by a monotonous male voice that didn't identify itself or the station or even the songs but merely recited quasi-religious homilies such as "A man with faith and family is a rich man indeed" and "Have you done your part today?" Twice an hour, though, Greg got to interrupt the feed to announce the local time, the weather, and the station's call letters. Sometimes, if he had any, he would read some news or make announcements. Greg told me that on any given night he had anywhere from three to eight listeners. Whenever I stopped by, he would toss me a pair of headphones and we would chat on the air, an event that never failed to elicit a phone call from at least one of those listeners, someone grateful for a break in the routine. Usually we would put the caller on the air too; the station's owner was fast asleep by that time, and no one would tell. * * *
A year later, when I was a graduate student in Alabama, I decided to seek employment at the school's FM radio station to make some extra money. I ended up hosting my own show, playing jazz from ten at night until two in the morning several nights a week. That station was very powerful, 100,000 watts with a second 50,000-watt transmitter some three hours away, so our signal covered a huge area -- most of northern Alabama, along with parts of Mississippi, Georgia, and Tennessee -- and my listenership often climbed into double digits. We had a toll-free number, so people weren't shy about calling, and many did, from dozens of small towns I'd never heard of and couldn't even find on the station's gigantic wall map. They called for any number of reasons -- to request a song or an artist, to rib me for mispronouncing the name of their county, to ask where I was from and what I was doing in Alabama and how I liked the place. Most times, I think, they called for no reason at all except to make contact with someone who had made contact with them and to express, without saying it outright, their appreciation. Like Greg, I worked at the station alone, and I was as thankful for the contact as they. It is a powerful feeling to send your voice out into the night over thousands of square miles, and it is powerfully gratifying to know that that voice is being heard, by real people sitting in real living rooms in real houses.