The voice in your head
Radio I always loved radio.
I remember getting a transistor radio for my birthday when I was eight.
AM only - but in those days what else was there?
We were in California for the year and my brother, sister, and I would listen to that radio together during the day. At night I’d plug in the earphone and place it in my ear and often fall asleep with the radio in my ear.
Yes, a long white cord plugged into the radio at one end and to a single earphone at the other end. You choose left or right.
That was 1968. I was eight years old in third grade.
A couple of years later I was given a clock radio and a couple of years after that I appropriated the family’s portable “outdoor” radio. It was covered in a tan, water resistant fake leather and got AM and FM.
FM was a whole new world for me.
Progressive radio was just beginning with provocative slogans that I’m sure I didn’t understand like “Go to bed with a friend.”
And so I went to bed with Pete Franklin’s sports talk or a game on the AM radio while listening to music stations on the FM. Two radios on at night at the same time.
I loved listening to the jocks.
I made tape recordings of the breaks - the dj’s coming out of music into commercials, time checks, weather, and most of all the music starting under them and them talking over the intros right up to the post in the music where the vocals or a key instrumental came in.
The high energy of the hit radio station and the laid back style of the progressive stations.
My dad wasn’t a huge fan of what I was listening to but he gave me amazing advice that if I was really interested in radio - and I was - that I needed to vary my listening and listen to it all.
This connection to the people on the air continued even as my taste changed.
I did college radio in high school in Oberlin and in college at Brandeis.
I was derivative and trying to sound like a real radio person.
It took years of practice to learn to not sound like a radio person but to sound like myself.
After college I started waking up to NPR and morning edition. Even though Bob Edwards and Carl Kasell had beautiful voices, they were just talking.
And they were talking to me - like I was in the room with them.
The NPR gang was talking to the whole nation but they were talking to us one at a time. They were talking to me.
Maybe it was important that I know something about the supreme court. They called their friend Nina over to explain it to me.
There was always somebody at this party who could explain what was going on in just the right way.
In the afternoon there were longer pieces on All Things Considered. In addition to the conversations, there were produced stories with sound and commentary built into a story.
I had no idea how hard it was to do all of that work - they made it sound so off-the-cuff and easy.
But I began to note how I listened to radio. In my car. In my living room. In my bedroom. In headphones.
With television I was aware of watching something somewhere. With radio somehow the movie was playing in my head.
Audio producers talk very visually about painting pictures - but it is the audience who supplies the paint.
There’s something about radio that is communal and shared.
While we listen to the same show, I might be getting up while you’re already at work, but we’re both listening at the same time.
That’s just not true anymore.
VCRs changed that in television. You could record and watch later.
You could buy the DVD’s and watch a whole season at once or whenever you wanted.
Streaming means that when a new show drops I don’t know who has watched it when.
And the same is true for radio. Most of the shows that I consume are through podcasts.
I don’t wake up and turn on my radio. I wake up and play through some of the podcasts I downloaded last night.
If there’s a story I don’t care that much about, I might even fast forward through it.
With radio, I listened or changed to another station.
I don’t know why audio and radio in particular was so important to me.
I also worry about how important radio stations and newspapers will survive.
It turns out - that isn’t new.
On March 15, 1968 the Boston Concert Network was running out of money. They were selling no ads from 10 pm til morning and were on their last legs. They went from all classical to mixing in music of your life but that wasn’t helping.
As a last ditch experiment they turned the station, WBCN, over to Rock and Roll overnight. The money started coming in so rock took over weekends as well. Last night I watched a reunion / birthday celebration from many of the station’s personalities over the years. One was able to say definitively that by the third week of May 1968 they had switched completely.
MLK was killed in April 1968. Bobby was killed in June. The Chicago 7 and the DNC protests were in August.
I didn’t get my first radio until that September. I think my introduction to radio would have been quite different.
By the time I got to Boston in 1977 to go to college, radio was magic.
There were so many great radio stations spanning many more formats than I’d known in Cleveland. I listened to so many of them and learned from them all.
But I wanted to be like the jocks at WBCN. They weren’t just announcers - they were personalities and they were talking to me.
I was never that good.
I was ok on-air - I wasn’t great.
That didn’t matter. I loved it. I loved connecting to the music and the listeners but I was never in that class.
I’m ok with that. In fact, let me end with a quick joke.
A friend wrote to me last week suggesting I do something.
It was a really nice gesture. They were looking out for me and trying to help me find my “next thing.”
So I told him this old joke about a guy who makes enough money that he buys a big yacht.
He wears a captain’s jacket with matching white pants and buys himself a cap to go along.
He invites his parents to join him for a little cruise out on the lake. As they come on board he says to his dad, “look papa, your son is a captain.”
His dad looks at him and says, “son, to me you’re a captain. To your mother, you’re a captain. But to a real captain, you’re no captain.”
Essay from Dim Sum Thinking Newsletter 51. Read the rest of the Newsletter or subscribe