Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Turn It Up, Radio...

by Sean Chercover

My love affair with radio began when I was about seven or eight years old. My father bought me a build-it-yourself crystal radio kit, and we built it together and set it up in my bedroom. My dad climbed the TV antenna on the house next door to fix the longwire antenna that led to my bedroom window. And with that, we were in business, as my dad used to say.

The crystal radio is an amazing thing. Just a copper wire wrapped around a tube, and a metal bar that you slid along the tube to select which AM frequency you wanted to tune into. The real mind-blower, to me, was that it had no apparent power source. It drew power from the very radio waves that hit the antenna.

To me, that was magic.

My dad used my fascination as an opportunity to teach me about radio frequencies and electricity and so on, and I spent countless hours sliding up and down the dial, catching radio signals right out of the air.

After a while, my ears began to hurt from the headphones, so he took me to Radio Shack and we bought a little tweeter, and wire and whatnot. At home, we built a little box and Dad drilled holes in it, and we mounted the little tweeter inside and wired it up, and - voila! - we had a speaker to hook up to the crystal radio kit.

Of course, we had "real" radios in the house that got better reception and, being powered, offered far better sound, but they weren't magic like the radio we built ourselves that needed no power.

Fast-forward to summer, 1977. I'm 10 (and-a-half) and my sister is 13. We lived on the back porch that summer, listening to 1050 CHUM on a little transistor radio, and we strung a telephone out on the porch.

CHUM was running a contest, calling people at random. If you answered the phone, "Hello," you didn't win. So all that summer, Holly and I answered the phone "I listen to CHUM!" Which probably annoyed our parents to no end, but it payed off. Twice. The prize was a record of your choice. Holly won first, and picked WINGS OVER AMERICA. After she won, she graciously let me answer the phone whenever it rang. And, just a few weeks later, I won too. I chose ROCK AND ROLL OVER, by KISS.

Going to the radio station to meet the DJ and pick up your prize was exciting as hell. There were rumors of degenerate disk jockeys seducing young girls with drugs and booze, but I think all Holly experienced was gentle flirtation.

Nobody overtly flirted with me when I picked up my record, and I didn't get to meet a DJ, but the pretty receptionist smiled at me, which made me feel ... unusual.

That was also the year of my first concert - KISS, with CHEAP TRICK as the opening act. The pot smoke was so thick you could hardly breathe (and thus, I got my first contact high at the tender age of 10). The guy sitting behind me was tripping on something, and bit his phosphorescent necklace open and spat glowing green stuff all over me. Gene Simmons spat blood and breathed fire, and people in the audience filled their mouths with vapor from Bic lighters and breathed fire right back, and one guy set his hair on fire. Rick Neilsen played a six-neck guitar and was all kinds of awesome.

But I digress...

As a grown-up (heh...) I became fascinated by DX (distance) AM, and bought altogether too many radios and antennas, experimenting with different combinations until I could listen to Cubs games from Chicago and the Atlanta radio stations we used to listen to when in Georgia, all the way in Toronto.

And then there was Shortwave. I loved the hunt - late at night, playing with the antenna, scanning through the static, finding stations in Africa, China, Norway, Israel, Iran, Russia. One of the really cool things about Shortwave is that it was the favored medium for government propaganda. Voice of America, Radio Havana, and so on. Each country, arguing its case in the marketplace of ideas, sending signals over the airwaves...

The magic was back. Also great for getting the News from the perspective of so many different countries.

But with the growing popularity of the Internet as a radio delivery medium, people just aren't listening to Shortwave in the numbers they once did, and many countries are abandoning their Shortwave service.

Which brings me to now.

I recently installed two radio apps on my iPhone, and they are incredible. The first is WunderRadio, which carries over 39,000 radio stations from across the globe. It has apps that work on all the Apple products, plus Android, BlackBerry, and WindowsMobile.

The other is TuneIn Radio, which carries over 40,000 stations, but only works on the Apple products (iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch).

They're both terrific. As I write this, I'm listening to Voice of Barbados. I spent most of the morning listening to WWOZ New Orleans (the best radio station in the world). Last night, I set the sleep timer, and we fell asleep listening to BBC Scotland. In the last 24 hours, we've listened to radio from DR Congo, Afghanistan (not very good - smooth jazz crap, mostly), Iraq, Taiwan, Norway (they dig really good jazz in Norway), Radio Margaritaville (Parrotheads Unite!), and so on.

It's amazing. But is it magic? Not really.

Magic, is a radio that you build yourself and that has no apparent power source. Magic, is surfing through the static to find messages from a far-off-place. There's romance in the static. The world is a very big place, and foreign cultures are truly foreign.

There's no romance in this new technology. But it is convenient, and it sounds clearer, and I love it for all that. There's no denying that it is an improvement over the past, even if the romance is lost.

I wonder if the romanticizing of old technology is applicable to the resistance to ebooks...

I don't own an ebook reader, and I'm in no hurry to get one. I will, I'm sure, in time. And I see the benefits. Convenience, speed, and the saving of trees, chief among them.

But there's romance in a book that simply does not exist in an ebook. I'm not anti-ebook. They'll never completely replace dead-tree technology, for me, but I can see how they'll fit into my life, as a compliment to "real" books. Just as these iPhone apps fit into my life as a compliment to "real" radio.

We read books, primarily, for the stories within, just as we listen to the radio for the shows being broadcast. The delivery device is an important part of the experience, but it isn't the primary part of the experience.

That's all I got. If you dig radio, check out the links to the apps above. You'll thank me later.

Oh, and buy books for Christmas. By which, I mean, "real" books.

21 comments:

John Purcell said...

I get it. You can't curl up with a good...electronic ink device.

However, I wouldn't mind a gift certificate from Barnes and Noble for Xmas, one I can use to add books to my Nook.

BTW. Do you still have that radio, Sean? It might be worth something.

Anonymous said...

Hi Sean,

I was at that veand same concert and can't believe my dad let me go, in retrospect.

Dream Police are coming to arrest me, oh no.

And how about those horrible KISS solo albums from back in the day?
:)
I know you would know of them if you were fan enough to go to the show.

Another show from the time: Styx with Canadian rockers Streetheart opening, their only hit a remake of Under My Thumb.

I also grew up with CHUM AM, listening on a little Radio Shack transistor under my pillow at night. John Major was my hero.

Often feel I haven't evolved as much as I should have since then.

Good trip down memory lane...
:)
Graham

Sean Chercover said...

John - Wish I still had that radio, but like so many things, it disappeared after I moved away. I like to believe that my dad sent it away to live on a farm. Enjoy curling up with a good Nook this Xmas.

Graham - You were at the same concert?? Kitchener Memorial Auditorium? Crazy small world. Yeah, the solo albums sucked (I didn't buy them), but in retrospect, the KISS albums weren't so great, either.

None of us have evolved as much as we sometimes pretend. As Jimmy Buffett said, "I'm growing older but not up."

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