The Wonder of Radio

LISTENING to the radio broadcast of the Indianapolis 500 on Memorial Day was a ritual to my father. But it seemed to have as much to do with radio broadcasting as with auto racing.

Having covered the race as a newspaper reporter, my father gave us the visual details corresponding to the sounds we heard as car after car screamed past the microphones placed along the pit row, the straightaways, and the two long left turns. The whole treble aura of the race was intensified by the AM tone of the "Indianapolis Radio Network": Tens of stations united once annually to broadcast the "greatest spectacle in motor racing."

More than just the track conditions, the high speeds, and the drivers' superhuman reaction times that galvanized me, this event was a ritual of the airwaves and a reminder of radio's former imaginative force.

Of course, much of my enthusiasm for radio coverage came from the radio lore conveyed by my father, for whom radio had been oral history, storytelling, and distinctive voices, as well as an introduction to journalism. When my father recalls his boyhood radio days, with a nostalgia I can share, they sound so different from my own. He came into radio consciousness hearing the voices of Fred Allen, Jack Benny, Abbott and Costello, the Green Hornet, "Jack Armstrong - all-American Boy" and Edward R. Murrow.

Listening to the radio as he fell asleep, he heard the broadcasters calling out to Amelia Earhart, her plane lost in the Pacific Ocean. Hearing tell of this story was my personal link to one of the great mysteries of my own boyhood reading.

My nine-year-old son has recently come into a new radio consciousness. Unlike me, he has been listening to radio since infancy, having grown up at both ends of the FM band: National Public Radio and various local rock-and-roll stations. At an early age, he even recognized his favorite Talking Heads song when it played on the car radio.

More recently, Spencer has been tuning in to an "oldies" radio station, here in San Francisco, and has even called the station to request some of the songs we play at home.

The music carries vivid recollections of not only old tunes, but also of my first radio, my first radio station, my first identification with the FM band, and even my first favorite disc jockey. This was an important threshold in my development: A new world was out there waiting to be discovered.

BACK then, my parents had an old wooden Zenith radio with gold cloth covering the speaker - large by today's standards - that they passed along to me, once it was clear I would not dismantle it for "airplane parts." This radio was a long way from my present sleek black tuner that offers radio, CD player, cassette player, and VCR options, to say nothing of stereo and graphic equalizing.

That first radio had two knobs, volume and tuning, one of which also adjusted the treble and bass sound levels. I promptly covered it with shiny aqua-paisley contact paper to match the psychedelic music I had found at 104.1 FM in Boston.

The station, WBCN, had just changed format to "album-oriented" rock-and-roll. One of the new DJ's was "Stephen the Seagull," and I called him to request Crown of Creation, a song by Jefferson Airplane, a band that evolved into Jefferson Starship, and then into just Starship. As Jefferson Airplane they can still be heard on classic rock stations; and as Starship, they get played on contemporary rock-and-roll stations. Of course, the original members of this band have children who are themselves of childbe aring age.

Spencer's first radio was a brand-new Sony clock radio in the shape of a cube. It gave him music in his own room - which he found exciting - and control, more or less, of volume and tone. But, and this was curious to me, when his grandfather gave him a crystal radio it thrilled him even more.

Spencer loved the crystal radio for its primitive technology and magic: He now had his hands on the secret of music ex nihilo, having himself wrapped the coils that plucked radio signals from the air. Here was the other, more-elemental lore of radio: From seemingly nowhere, voices came through copper wires coiled around a cardboard tube and were connected to an ear plug by a small crystal diode.

Of course, radio still means music to him, as it did to me.

The crystal radio is, however, the intersection of science, how things work, and communication, listening and talking to others. It is an invention from the past that, in the end, captures the essence of radio: sound breaking out from where it is least expected, but has a very logical right to be.

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