An over-the-air connection becomes a personal one

The kid on the phone said he'd fallen out of a tree. He'd hurt himself badly and was laid up in bed. Mummified in a body cast, he had trouble sleeping, so he listened to the radio for much of the night.

I was skeptical of his story at first. But I heard sincerity in his uneven, strained voice; I could imagine him lying alone in a room bathed in night, the rest of his family asleep.

Mine was the voice coming from his radio.

I was the host of a late-night alternative-rock program. A real one, I'd like to think, before alternative rock became just another flavor of commercial rock. And it wasn't on some lame college radio station. No, this was a National Public Radio affiliate, WICN in Worcester, Mass. – one of the few NPR stations, if not the only one, that aired rock programming in the 1980s.

I was sure I was it.

"Positive Noise" was the name for the entire block of nightly rock programs. I was a neophyte, so after a brief training period, I was offered the 2 a.m.-to-6 a.m. shift on Sunday nights (or Monday mornings, depending on how you look at it). The prospect of staying up all night simply added to my excitement.

Soon I slipped into a routine: I'd arrive at the station at midnight with a crate of records carefully selected from my personal collection. These ranged from relatively obscure bands like The Jazz Butcher and Camper Van Beethoven to alternative-rock staples like Elvis Costello and Kate Bush.

I'd grab what I wanted from the rock section of the record library, then check for new arrivals and give them a test listen. Five to 10 seconds was all the time a song had to grab me – if it didn't, I would plop the needle down on another random track on the same LP.

I'd later discover that I'd tossed aside worthy records in my haste. And there were countless times I gave a song airplay after my cursory screening, only to discover on air that it wasn't quite up to my standards.

But however often I missed the mark, I took the job seriously. My goal was to play a blend of the best and quirkiest, the most surprising and innovative, new and "classic" alternative rock music I could lay my hands on.

I had callers, some of them strange. I appreciated the calls, however odd the person on the other end of the line was. It's a bizarre feeling to sit in front of a mike at 4 a.m., announcing and editorializing to an unseen audience.

In the wee hours of the morning, belief in the existence of listeners often amounts to a leap of faith.

Sometimes I'd conjure up images of those receiving my message: a truck driver on an all-night journey, his loneliness muted by the screech of the Dead Kennedys. A carload of university students making their way home from a party or concert in Boston, music blasting from the car radio like cold wind through the windows keeping the driver from dozing. But keeping a teenager in a body cast company throughout the long night.... It had never occurred to me that I was providing such a philanthropic service.

It was during my final show that he called. The last one for a year, anyway. In a few days, I was leaving for England, where I would spend my junior year at the London School of Economics.

Now it was the caller's turn to be skeptical: "London, England? No way."

"Really," I said. "I'll be back in a year."

"Send me a postcard," he said. "To prove it."

I took down his address. And I sent him a postcard soon after I arrived in London, just to prove it.

Back in Massachusetts a year later, I went to a summer party. It was at the house of people I didn't know – they were locals, not college students. A friend introduced me to her friend, who introduced me to the guy she was with, a tall, brawny, healthy looking guy who appeared to be in his early 20s.

"You wouldn't happen to be the Aviva on the radio?" he said.

Was I pleased! This was the first time I'd been "recognized." For a moment, I felt like a celebrity, as if there were a body of people out there that might be referred to as "my public."

"I'm the guy who fell out of the tree," he said. He remembered that I'd promised to send him a postcard from London, and that I had. It had meant a lot to him, he told me.

I don't remember much about the party. What I do remember is the glow I felt: A seemingly insignificant act of mine had made a difference to someone – someone for whom the monotony and isolation of endless nights was punctuated by a simple acknowledgement, a small promise kept.

In my own way, I also knew how lonely and long the night could be.

I never saw him again. And it wasn't until years later that I realized I should not simply have accepted his thanks. I should have thanked him in return.

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