Spirit of the Radio

A desperate search for the old magic of the airwaves.

Radio is a sound salvation
Radio is cleaning up the nation
They say you better listen to the voice of reason
But they don’t give you any choice ’cause they think that it’s treason
So you had better do as you are told
You better listen to the radio.

  — Elvis Costello, “Radio Radio

I’m a radio guy. Always have been.

My love affair with the little box that made the magical sounds started early. I’m told that, as a toddler, whenever Neil Diamond’s “Song Sung Blue” came on the console set — the one that took up most of the counter in my family’s kitchen, its back panel warm from the tubes that glowed a faint orange inside — I’d demand to be picked up and danced around the room.

It took years, by the way, for me to appreciate Diamond and all his Borscht-Belt schmaltziness in a way that wasn’t dripping with irony. For that, we can probably thank Natalie Portman, the film “Beautiful Girls,” and repeated sing-alongs of “Sweet Caroline” with my friends. But that’s a tale for another time.

Because this story, at its heart, is about falling in love with a medium, watching it grow with you, and, as happens in so many relationships, watching it grow away from you until all that connects you to it are the tangled threads of nostalgia and the lingering hope that things might somehow be the way they used to be.

As soon as I was old enough to know anything, I knew that WTIC-AM 1080 (named for the massive Traveler’s Insurance Co.) was a titan in Hartford, CT, in much the same way that the spires of its namesake office building dominated the city’s skyline.

And I also knew that an aging holdover from the World War II era named Bob Steele was the king of morning drive-time radio. He ruled the Connecticut airwaves from 1943 until his retirement in 1991, and for most of my formative years, his folksy New England directness was a part of the fabric of my life.

There are other Connecticut radio personalities whose names I can still rattle off, the way sports nuts can tell you the starting nine of the 1978 world champion Yankees. There was Gary Craig, the guy who did the hilarious morning drive on WTIC-FM. His partner-in-crime was news guy John Elliott, who played straight man to Craig’s wild guy.

There was Sebastian, a kind of low-rent Howard Stern, who presided over affairs at WCCC-FM 107, Hartford’s hard rock station. He was the dangerous one, and I remember him most for starting an on-air feud (the specifics of which have long deserted me) with one of my colleagues at the Journal-Inquirer newspaper in Manchester, CT.

Weekends weren’t complete without listening to Casey Kasem’s “American Top 40” show, most likely on WCKI-FM in New Haven. And I remember only too well the row with my parents that ensued after a friend introduced me to the “Dr. Demento” show, which aired late on Sunday nights when I was supposed to be asleep.

My first radio was a little AM transistor model my parents bought for me at Radio Shack. It was no bigger than a pack of playing cards. Every summer night I’d tuck it under my pillow and tune in a baseball game. On good nights, I’d get one of the New York stations and could listen to my beloved Yankees. Most nights, though, I’d have to put up with a play-by-play of the hated Red Sox.

Winter months were dedicated to the NHL’s Hartford Whalers, whom I followed obsessively. On nights when there weren’t sports, I’d listen to talk shows. And on those deep, cold clear nights that you only get in New England in January or February, I’d sometimes be shocked when a station from Vermont or even Canada found its way across the ether to my little bedroom in Connecticut.

I graduated to a little boom box in my early teens — again from Radio Shack, when they still sold radios and the name still meant something. It was the age of MTV; I’d discovered pop music and fallen hard. Unfortunate haircuts and even more unfortunate band names — both on the screen, and in the bands I played in — followed.

My crush on pop music blossomed into a full-blown obsession as I found college radio stations like Wesleyan University’s WESU-FM and WHUS-FM at the University of Connecticut, the most experimental stations I had ever heard. That’s when I learned about all those other bands — Hüsker Dü, Let’s Active, R.E.M., Love Tractor — that The Replacements immortalized in “Left of the Dial.” It’s an obsession that endures to this day, as evidenced by the towering stacks of compact discs, cassettes, 45-RPM singles and LPs that surround me in my home office as I write this.

These local DJs and stations were the center of my adolescent world. Not only did my friends and I rely on them for that first bit of news and weather in the morning (don’t get me started on the celebrations that ensued when snow days were announced), but they were also a source of shared experience. We’d chortle surreptitiously in the hallway over the gag Gary Craig pulled that morning, or compare awed notes on the full U2 concert WPLR had played the night before.

I’ve always imagined those DJs, alone in the dark, illuminated by a single, overhead bulb, wisps of cigarette smoke enveloping them, as they spun records for teenagers like me — also listening alone, somewhere in the dark. Both of us searching for a connection and finding one forged in the music.

This vision is a fiction of course: No one in their right mind allows smoking in a radio studio, as I learned in my on-air stints at my high school and college stations. But it captures the spirit of earnest amateurishness that pervaded the airwaves in those days, the sense that you might be surprised by the record that was played next, or that — because the stations were staffed by students sometimes just making it up as they went along — something would somehow go perfectly wrong.

I bring all this up because my job — as a political reporter for The Morning Call of Allentown, PA — requires that I spend a lot of time in the car, trailing the office-seekers as they travel hither and yon to seek votes across this truly massive state. You need a soundtrack to cover all those miles. When I was young journalist, radio often provided it.

Somewhere around my middle 20s, in 1996, that all changed. That’s the year that consolidation hit the industry, as media conglomerates with names like Clear Channel, Cumulus, and Infinity began snapping up stations with same obsessive voraciousness that baseball card and comic book collectors fill in holes in their collections.

With their combined advertising purchasing power and such cruel efficiencies as automation and remote broadcasting, which allowed DJs in faraway cities to blanket state after state with their homogenized voices, the conglomerates made millions.

But in every way that mattered, they began killing the relationship between listener and station. Popular local hosts were given their walking papers. Suddenly, there was less music and more advertising. And the ruthless standardization of playlists on mainstream FM stations meant that you were likely to only hear the same 15 or 20 songs played over and over again. Largely gone were the back-of-the-envelope playlists, the personal attachments to DJs and the thrilling chance that you might hear a song that you’d never heard before.

As the music left the airwaves, I, and other listeners, left too. I’ve lived in central Pennsylvania for more than a decade now, but please don’t ask me to name more than one or two local radio personalities.

I filled the void with mixtapes that I’d made myself or that my friends gave me. As my 20s turned into my 30s, and my 30s into my late 30s, my dial came to rest more and more often on National Public Radio stations — particularly WXPN-FM in Philadelphia. The signal originates from the University of Pennsylvania, but it’s a pale imitation of the Wild West programming I remember from the college radio of my youth. XPN, for all its adventurousness, is a professionally staffed station, with DJs who are all but indistinguishable from those on the mainstream stations at the right-hand end of the dial. If you find a student on the air, it is probably by accident.

These days, the part of me that still thinks Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity should be required reading in classrooms across this great land of ours fills radio’s musical vacuum with new media. I can twirl the dial on Sirius or XM and hear everything from Coltrane to Sonic Youth to Bob Marley and Beethoven. Or, if I want, I can plug in the little radio receiver for my iPod, hit shuffle, and get treated to the adventurous programming on WJLM, the radio station created for me, by me. And when I’m at home, I can dial up BBC-1 on my computer to see what tunes are moving our English cousins.

But that sense of community, the sense of belonging to an exclusive club made up of DJ and listener, has never left me. I’ve missed it. And I’ve taken to downloading old “air-checks” — recordings of old broadcasts from such legendary alternative stations as WPIX-FM and WLIR-FM in New York and KROQ-FM in Los Angeles — to fill the void.

There, a still-youthful Elvis Costello sings “Every Day I Write the Book,” and legendary DJ Rodney Bingenheimer plays a tune that, after all these years, I still haven’t heard before. On these recordings, many of which feature preserved commercials from the era, LPs still cost $6.99 and you can buy a pair of jeans for $25.

But I have no desire to be trapped in amber, to become one of those fogies who bemoans the state of things and longs, pointlessly, for good old days that will never return. I scour the Web for good music. I listen attentively to NPR, the BBC and such great emerging American station as WRXP-FM in New York for the tunes played by emerging artists.

And in the dark of an early October night, I found, in the shape of a rock station whose call letters now elude me, a little of that old sense of community I remembered from so long ago.

This night, the DJ sounded like he was actually in control of the songs he was playing, and he was making surprising choices — U2 followed by AC/DC and then Fleetwood Mac. And I did something I haven’t done for a while. I put the iPod away and followed the signal as it faded in and out, down Interstate 78 in central Pennsylvania.

Almost out of some long-forgotten muscle memory, my fingers spun the dial until they came to rest on a song that surprised me or maybe even irritated me. As the signal faded, the dial spun again until came to rest on a friendly sound.

So there we were — in the dark, the DJ and me each chasing the fleeting bit of music that would bring us home.

Article © 2010 by John L. Micek