When I was a kid radio thrilled me. The idea that invisible electromagnetic waves would bring people and music to a little box amazed me. It still does–I am easily impressed.
Radio formed my taste in music. I remember vividly the pop music from 1964 and 1965–the Beatles, the Stones, the Supremes, and many more, tumbling out of the static on WKIX 850. That was when AM was still king, despite all the static. (Whenever a thunderstorm passed overhead, the lightning strokes blasted the airwaves. It was cool!)
I loved to listen at night as I drifted off to sleep. I could pull in distant stations like WCAU in Philadelphia with Sol Weinstein, WOWO in Ohio, and many others. Sometimes I could hear the Mexican stations. Their sounds all jumbled in the air. Digital tuning had yet to arrive, so I had to change stations very carefully above 1200 kHz.
I was an early news junkie. The other major station in town, WPTF 680, was even then a news and talk operation. On weekends they broadcast NBC’s Monitor program, which many consider the precursor to NPR. In between songs they ran the news and feature reports. Their signature was the Monitor Beacon, hard to describe but hard to forget. It was electronic music before Keith Emerson.
As I grew older, I turned from top 40 to progressive rock. The music was fine, but it wasn’t the same. I grew up on the 3-minute tune, and playing entire album sides usually left a lot of filler–I’m looking at you, Low Spark of High Heeled Boys.
I shifted to records–no commercials and complete freedom of choice. I could calibrate my (drug-induced) moods by flipping one of those wonderful black disks.
Today, radio is again pre-eminent in my listening, thanks to NPR. Programs such as This American Life conjure up images like my young days in the dark. Scott Simon warms my ears, as does Laksmi Singh.
Sometimes in the storm season the National Weather Service radiates its warning tones. The synthesized voice lurches word to word of oncoming danger… and once again, radio becomes a mystery to a little bookish kid. A soothing counterpoint to childish woes and arguing parents. All brought to me free of charge in a little plastic box.