When I was a kid staying with my grandparents in South Dakota, I had a radio with a lighted dial. It sat on top of the metal rail headboard of my bed, leaning for support against the wall. From there, its gentle celluloid glow illuminated my face and my hands. I would lie in the dark in the annex room we called “the little kitchen,” windows on three sides, a wood stove at my elbow, and tune gradually across the AM band, looking for signals from far away across the great plains.
I could nearly always hear WLS from Chicago. Sometimes a signal in Spanish fought through distant thunderstorms. I remember best WSM from Nashville on Saturday nights, hearing Roy Acuff and Minnie Pearl, and having my musical ears opened by Grady Martin playing “Down in the Henhouse,” a guitar instrumental — the first time I ever heard fingerpicking. And yes, I do remember that name right all these years.
When I rode home with my parents in the long dark back to Minneapolis, Dad would find the CBS network on the car radio. We listened to “Johnny Dollar,” to Jack Benny, and inevitably, to the soothing rhythms of a baseball game. We had no team of our own, and it didn’t matter. The sound was everything, the murmuring sussurus of the crowd, the pop of ball on leather or hickory, the meandering, discursive style of the announcer.
In junior high school, I listened to a Zenith Space Band radio that my Dad had bought back in his college days — big as a black valise, with a five-foot antenna and shortwave bands, too. It’s a collector’s item today, 35 years after my mother disposed of ours for two dollars in a garage sale. On that radio, I discovered — as did much of the country — the music of Charlie Byrd and Stan Getz, and bossa nova, and Joao Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim and Laurindo Almeida (that finger style guitar again). I only found out years later that I must have been listening to a syndicated show from Washington, D.C., most likely Felix Grant’s on WMAL.
By then, I had begun to play guitar myself, and, as happens, the more you play, the more you listen, and the more you notice. I found myself waiting eagerly for, of all things, a Miller High Life commercial (“The champagne of bottle beer”). It had a beautiful jingle, beautifully produced, and sounded so good because of a truly superior radio mix. It simply glowed.
A busy youth followed, with lots of musical work, and much personal distress, and ended with a crash when my kidneys failed in 1975. Then the radio soothed me again in the long, sleepless nights dialysis patients suffer. Many nights I listened all night long, tuning across AM and FM dials, looking for something, anything. I have heard at least 200 of the numberless taped talks of Zen guru Alan Watts, and endless looniness from Pacifica. I listened to Larry King hundreds of times post-midnight in the days before he cleaned up his act and achieved his present vapid eminence on CNN. King’s call-in listeners responded, more than to any other guest, to two, whose gentle, grainy voices sounded much alike: to Arthur Ashe, and to Peter Jenkins, the author of A Walk Across America. King cold-shouldered rock singer Anne Wilson of Heart, who was evidently a fan of his, offering up adoring riffs on some of King’s repeated radio themes. King would have none of it, one of the meaner things I ever heard. Winter and summer in Los Angeles brought two divine sportscasts, Chick Hearn’s of the Lakers and Vin Scully’s of the Dodgers.
Nowadays I sustain myself mostly on talk, and I’m grateful for it, especially the best of it, like Rush and Howie Carr and John Batchelor. But I still miss the old “live remote” feel and the shows there used to be. You can find only a few nowadays. I used to listen to a half-baked jazz oldies station with a weak signal in Boston’s south bay area just to catch the weekly hour-long live broadcast of a big band from a hotel on Michigan’s upper peninsula. The band was led by a good clarinetist who periodically soloed on tenor, inappropriately playing the same fussy, embroidered lines that sounded so good on the smaller horn. By the time we left Boston in 2000, the show had disappeared from that affiliate. You can find a Kroger-sponsored hour of live country from somewhere in Georgia, a show with a house band, just like the old days. At least I found it once, when we lived in New Jersey.
I have tagged myself an old fogey, I know. Someone will tell me about Internet radio or shortwave or satellite radio. But I listen to radio in bed, as I imagine tens of millions of people do. It’s the way I’ve always done it. I’m searching for a good bedside radio that looks the old way, with a lighted dial. I’m tired of the spacey anonymous pods sold at drugstores and Wal-Marts. I can’t imagine keeping a shortwave log or a running a laptop in the dark on my bedside table. And as for satellites, well, they’re everywhere and nowhere. Sorry. It’s too much fun to explore, to wait for a local commercial to find out what you’ve got. I miss the way it used to be. I miss hearing a bandleader introduce a tune, then the off-mike countoff, and the band swinging into it. I miss the clink of glasses and the murmur of a crowd getting up to dance. I miss an unexpected guest calling an unexpected song, and listening to a skilled house band find and fake its way through it.
I still miss the lambent glow of celluloid.