It's Radi-O!

The medium that can turn anywhere into somewhere

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.

Sky Radio

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.

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.

My responsibilities at the station included reading news, public-service announcements, and emergency bulletins that came in on a telex machine in a room down the hall from the studio. The bulletins usually originated at the National Weather Service office in Birmingham, and usually concerned severe thunderstorms or tornadoes spotted somewhere in the listening area. When I got one of them, I would interrupt the music and read it immediately (this was my opportunity to mispronounce county names like Autauga and Etowah). One night I was reading just such a bulletin when a tornado came through and ripped our main transmitter out of the ground. A week later, on the first night the station was back on the air, I had no sooner started my program than I began receiving phone calls on the studio line. There were no requests that night, no suggestions; every single call was a variation on the night's first, in which a middle-aged woman named April shouted in my ear, "Praise Jesus! I reckoned you were dead!"

*  *  *

My own experiences aside, I've long believed that the truest measure of the impact of any cultural phenomenon is the number of popular songs written about it. On this scale few things can beat radio. From the Charleston swing of "Radio Lady O' Mine" to the disco beat of "On the Radio" to dozens of other songs that correspond to no known dance craze or musical movement, radio has inspired a legion of songwriters to endow us with or inflict upon us a legion of radio songs. My favorite is one I first heard on a thick 1923 Edison disc I stumbled upon at a garage sale in Clanton, Alabama. The song, "Love Her by Radio," was sung by the tenor Billy Jones. Its chorus goes like this:

Love her by radio.
You will find it's Radi-O!
If you want to reach your heart's desire,
you won't have to send her word by wire --
you'd never buy her.
Love her by radio,
even when you're all alone.

Anytime you feel that you would like to sit and spoon,
Why, send your message through the air, she'll get it very soon.
But first of all, make up your mind.
Your hearts are both in tune --
when you love her by the radiophone.

The fact that an expression like "It's Radi-O!" actually entered our lexicon, if only transiently, says it all. Someday, perhaps, young hipsters might cotton to saying "That's Inter-Net!" But I doubt it.