BUT I DIGRESS: Tuning into my clear memories of classic radio (and its place today)
As we approach Christmas with lightning rapidity, some of the more impressive gifts of Christmases past have been drifting through my brain transom. The kickass ‘50s style baby blue bike with a “gas tank” and fins that I eventually learned to ride on. Also the kickass Apollo 5 speed “muscle bike” that weighed as much as a Volkswagen and had a proprietary shifting system that I actually learned how to repair and service… by taking it apart and screwing it up. I was on foot for a month with that little experiment, but I figured it out!
The Super Nintendo that I stayed up until New Year’s playing at my mom’s house (she bought one for herself when I took it home because she, too, had become a vidiot). The massive Gateway desktop with the room-consuming huge cathode ray monitor that I discovered the joys of free porn and blogging upon.
There was even this bitchin’ programmable vehicle called “Big Tack” you could torture family pets with, and a glorified 8-track player shaped like a robot that taught you stuff without you knowing it called 2-XL (“To excel,” get it? Clever fuckers).
But one Christmas gift, a stocking stuffer found while passing through J.J. Newberry’s to get something else, an afterthought of a gift, has made one of the most lasting and dearest impressions.
My little blue Lloyd’s transistor radio (this is the exact model):
There are a few moments that I can trace my weird obsession with radio back to.
The first I can remember is playing alone in the living room of my grandmother’s house in Mayfield while my grandmother was doing her thing in the kitchen.
She had a beautiful, full tube amplified console stereo (as did my maternal grandparents at their house), a gorgeous piece of furniture filled with a brilliant piece of audio engineering.
You’d turn the wide, flat dial at the bottom to the right one click for the radio, two clicks for the turntable. And when you did, you waited for the little blue-green indicator strip to light up, from the center outward. And when it was completely lit, the tubes were warmed up enough and you’d get the deepest, richest, most wonderfully colored sound!
I still swear to this day that the little indicator strip was a tiny cathode ray tube. I’ve never seen anything else that illuminated like that, an almost organic expansion of light that grew from the center to the edges. As you can seem some 40 years on, the impression it made upon my wee psyche is still vivid.
I had a personal favorite LP I liked to listen to, “The Fleetwoods Greatest Hits,” as well as a favorite cut on it, “Come Softly to Me.”
Gary Troxel’s opening “Doobie dum, dum dum dah-do duh dah umm doobie doo” and Gretchen Christopher and Barbara Ellis’ literally sublime harmonies that followed over the top has, despite outward impressions, shaped what my idea of brilliant songwriting is.
It wasn’t until years later that I discovered that they had penned the song themselves and recorded the vocals a capella at home, with instrumentation being added later in the studio. If you listen closely, you can still hear Troxel shaking his car keys to keep in time.
But this day wasn’t an LP day. Whoever had last listened to the “hi-fi” had been enjoying AM radio, and that was the first thing that I heard that day – the creepy, captivating hiss of the medium wave bandwidth on a blank frequency.
I decided I’d give it a little tuning in and, after some fidgeting with the dial, I came across a signal from an oldies station, many miles away. (The reception on this behemoth of a stereo was better than anything anywhere in the modern world). A bit more noodling with the fine tuning dial and I heard, for the first time in my life, Johnny Mathis singing “Chances Are.”
The sparse, yet grand piano opening, the echo chamber vocals, the melancholic yet hopeful melody… I was captivated. And what made it more amazing is that I knew that somewhere out there was a person who had placed a needle on a the groove of that record and was blasting it, silently, into the ether and I happened to be one of those lucky enough to be tuned to exactly the correct frequency to receive this gift of song from a stranger far, far away.
The entire concept blew me away. I’ve been fascinated and obsessed with real, over-the-air radio broadcasting ever since.
I’m not sure of the actual chronology of this next event and am tempted to say that it first occurred before Johnny Mathis casually strolled into my living room. However, it happened with relative regularity for quite some time and the when isn’t nearly as important as the what.
Again, at my paternal grandmother’s house. We actually lived there intermittently throughout my childhood, as well as my maternal grandparents. I’m lucky enough to be the grandson of immigrants whose families weren’t desperate to run away from one another. Funny how the sudden need for Prozac seems to correspond to the media-sponsored notion that living at home with an extended and tight support system wasn’t cool. Although, it totally is easier to get laid if you have your own pad, so there are pros and cons for both schools of thought…
Dammit! I lost my place! Oh, yes…
As I said, again at my grandmother’s house. There was this gray radio with what, to me as a kid, was a massive dial face! Numbers everywhere and all staggered and confusing. But my dad knew how it worked!
We would do random, fun stuff whenever he had a spare moment, as he was in a doctorate program and studying artificial intelligence and sociolinguistics. As a result, any time we got to spend together was precious to us both. This, in no small way, has contributed to the lasting impact of this memory.
One of those random, fun things was to take that radio onto the big back porch that literally overlooked the entire Lackawanna Valley – to the north, you could see the top of the hill in White’s Crossing, and to the south, you could see the broadcast antenna atop the Scranton Times building. When it was trussed up as a giant candle for Christmas, as it is at this moment, it served as a beacon for my wee heart, pining away for Santa’s arrival… but I digress.
As my dad would slowly turn the knob and the indicator would creep across the face of the dial, suddenly, out of the crackling speaker would appear voices, speaking in exotic tongues! My dad explained that these people could be as far away as the literal other side of the world, yet here their voices were, speaking to me as if they were down the street! I was mesmerized! This, he explained, was shortwave radio. And I was hooked.
If it was one of the languages he’d studied being spoken, my dad would interpret and I’d hear the local news from Stuttgart or Minsk or Prague! It was overwhelming to me that something I couldn’t see, couldn’t even hear without a radio receiver, was circling all around me at all times, and coming from every corner of the Earth. Television never had the same hold on me and, because it did your imagining for you, never would. That’s not to say I don’t love me some boob tube, but it was never magical! Radio is magical!
Back to my Lloyd’s transistor!
I had unwrapped it with more than mild curiosity. I was actually looking forward to using it but prepared for the worst, as I’d had radios before that simply didn’t perform. My little blue Lloyd’s, however, was one of the good guys.
In the evening on Christmas day (the traditional Polish Christmas celebration, or “Wigilia,” takes place on Christmas Eve, so our Christmas day is pretty laid back), as everyone sat watching TV or playing pinochle, I decided to give my new treasure a try. It came complete with a single mono earphone, since it was an AM-only set and AM doesn’t broadcast in stereo (usually, and never at that time). For those of you too young to know what I’m talking about, here’s a picture:
One of the joys of these little beauties was snaking the cord through your sleeve and propping your head up with one hand and catching the game or some tunes while pretending to listen in class.
I popped the phone into my ear and settled down at the abandoned dining room table.
After one, possibly two seconds of tuning, I was blessed with my first-ever hearing of Elvis’ “Blue Christmas.” To this very day, whenever I hear that song, my entire being is transported back to that Christmas and that little Lloyd’s radio, and I always will be.
Radio announced snow days in the kitchen of the little apartment my mom and I had over in Calico Lane, after which, we’d bundle up and go sledding together! Precious, rare moments for a kid and his mom who had to work two jobs. It was that same radio where I learned that Terry Kath had accidentally shot himself in the head and where I learned to sing, “I’m a lucky girl, hooray, oh boy!” and another jeweler’s jingle how one local business was both “overlooking the mall” and “overlooking them all,” depending on your perception.
There was my grandfather’s space-aged looking clock radio, the very first digital clock I would ever see in my life. It was a piece of ‘70s art/home decor that has never been recaptured, despite the retro trend attempts.
It had a timer, and you could listen to it for a whole 59 minutes before it would turn off… by itself! You didn’t have to push a button or nothin’! He’d put me in the big, high early 20th century bed and put the bench seat from the vanity up against the side facing the room so I wouldn’t roll out onto the floor; dial in the station that played the big band, swing, and American Songbook standards; and set that timer. Then he’d say, “Now, if you fall asleep before the time shuts off, let me know and I’ll give you a buck.” Since I was always asleep before the timer, he’d owe me about $372 if it weren’t for the “tell me when you fall asleep” caveat.
Then, in junior high at a brand new apartment building my mom and I moved into, I discovered “CBS Radio Mystery Theater,” with host E.G. Marshall.
You can listen to many episodes (of varying quality) here. I highly recommend that you do.
Having listened whenever we could find a classic radio show with my gramps – “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” “Fibber McGee and Molly,” “The Shadow,” “Buck Rogers” – I’d already developed a pretty intense love of radio plays.
But “CBS Radio Mystery Theater” was new! It was a first-run show and current! It featured stars like Fred Gwynne (whom I knew from “Car 54, Where Are You?” and “The Musters” and you’ll know as the judge from “My Cousin Vinny”), Ed Ames, Ralph Bell, Joe Campanella, Richard Crenna, and tons more as voice actors. It was a glorious discovery, and the station it was carried on was a country format in the evening leading up to the show, which aired at midnight (I’d have that earphone in, sneaking a listen to avoid an ass whoopin’, and fully prepared to be draggin’ ass the next morning!). Since I always tuned in early so as not to miss the creaking door and “BUM BUM BUMMMMM” opening, radio is also where my love for outlaw country was born.
In my apartment in West Scranton, a trove of many of my fondest memories, my best friend Melania (affectionately known as Bubba and mom to my son Gideon’s BFF, Daphne) listened to the low-speed O.J. Simpson chase and ensuing trial on the radio. We didn’t even own a TV. Not that we were being smug “progressive” douchenozzles; we simply didn’t own a TV for years and, when we finally did get one, it’s because our pal Iggy’s mom got a new one and didn’t want the gigantic console anymore. We never did get cable.
We were actually in a now defunct Woolworth’s and heard the verdict over the piped in local station there.
We also heard new releases from Nirvana, Rage Against the Machine, Tool (whom we also saw on the small stage at Lollapalooza ‘93, but that’s a story for another time), and other now mythical bands.
It was here that I was also turned on to the mighty Art Bell and his bizarre and hysterical paranormal show in all its iterations – “Coast to Coast AM,” “Dreamland,” and “Somewhere in Time,” his fancily titled rerun show.
We had a radio in every room, tuned to the same station, so as you flitted about the house (which was actually only three rooms and a crapper), you could always hear with equal clarity. There was talk radio during the day, which we would occasionally yell back at the set because of. The sanctimonious Dr. Laura Schlessinger, whose judgmental ass got caught with its trousers removed. The kind, wise Dr. Joy Brown, who shared often how her hair frizzed on humid days, and my personal favorite, G. Gordon Liddy, whose experience and wisdom tempered his political views, unlike many other rhetoric spouting right-wing loons of the day.
Radio was our window to the world, our only source for news and entertainment. It’s always struck me as odd that our partnership as roommates began to dissolve only after we acquired that blasted television! Coincidence? Yeah, probably. But still…
Finally, I’ll leave you with this…
During our tenure on South Garfield Avenue, there were many memorable radio spots, broadcasts, and jingles. But one in particular I had always remembered because it made me laugh out loud. Shortly after hearing it the first time, I realized why – it was the voice of none other than the great Robin Williams.
I had wanted to see if I could find the audio ever since the dawn of the Internet a few years after the last time I heard it, and I was forever unsuccessful. Myself and Bubba had both tried in vain for over a decade to not only locate the clip, but also to try and remember exactly what organization the PSA had been in support of. Years of occasional and intense Google searches ensued, all to no avail.
However, last week, as I tuned into a radio app (I use only to hear vintage broadcasts that are not available on terrestrial radio!) to hear vintage Art Bell weirdness, there was a sound I recognized as the feed began.
How could this be? They carefully edit the old, era specific advertising from these clips in order to avoid confusion. Yet this clip survived!
It was the voice of Robin Williams! But not just a Robin Williams clip – the Robin Williams clip!
I quickly paused the audio feed and opened my voice recording app, pressed record, rewound the audio stream, and captured it, finally!
Now I knew why this clip had zero web presence! The organization being represented (the National Cultural Alliance) became defunct at the same time the Internet was beginning to proliferate and had been replaced by a new organization (Americans for the Arts), rendering it a useless radio castoff in the new Internet age.
My years of searching had finally paid off (I’m pretending it wasn’t just a lucky break, help me out, yo). And, as a friend astutely observed, it was as if “an itch had been scratched.”
Here is the very lo-fi clip in question:
So, you see, without exception, every facet of my life has revolved around radio. Today, I do long distance listening with fancy sets with digital tuning and single-sideband capabilities, I construct complicated antennae, and have ever-increasing frequency-specific sets cluttering my three-room hovel.
Every night, I go to sleep to the far-off strains of WSM in Nashville or America’s Truckin’ Network on WLW in Cincinnati. I have my morning coffee in Mandarin with Radio China International, and I listen to the World Cup in Portuguese from Brazil.
There is nothing magical about satellite, about cable, about streaming. It’s all just science. Zeroes and ones flying past a green screen at breakneck pace, the sound and vision of machines.
Radio is different. It’s organic. It’s unpredictable. It’s permanent. It has never stopped being relevant, and you can be sure that if it ever does, it’ll be back at the first hint of trouble on the grid.
Radio is magical.
So this Christmas, don’t just listen to your carols online. Tune in and hear a variety you’d never have thought of yourself. Enjoy something free for a change!
Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all of you wonderful bastards.
Uncle Fuddy signing off from WFUD.
John "Fud" Zavacki has been a working musician since the age of 15. He owns well over a thousand LPs in every musical genre and erroneously presumes this makes his opinion noteworthy.