Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Excerpt: 'Something in the Air'

The Magic of Radio

The summer I was twelve, I spent hours walking along the beach on Long Island, transistor radio in my hand, listening to the most popular station in the nation. I didn't much care for the songs on WABC; I particularly despised Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Alone Again (Naturally)," a whining ballad that somehow swelled my adolescent frustrations and made me want to hurl the radio into the sea. But I couldn't do that. Nor did I turn the dial on the cream-colored plastic box — notched black dials for volume and tuning, smooth ribs of plastic over the speaker, a single nine-volt battery inside, the whole package a bit larger than a pack of Marlboros. That radio stayed with me all day; each night, I slipped it under my pillow.

I kept that radio tuned to the Top 40 station because the next song might be Billy Paul's "Me and Mrs. Jones," which I couldn't get enough of, even if I hadn't the slightest idea what the song was about. I kept the radio tuned to Musicradio 77 because I was twelve, this was America, and that was what I was supposed to do. I listened because the deejays were fast and fevered, because there was nothing else moving at the frenetic pace of my mind and emotions. In the voice of my favorite deejay, Dan Ingram, in his six-second antics sandwiched between ads and pop songs, I heard freedom and passion, everything a kid wants to think is out there somewhere, just beyond his reach.

In New York City, where I grew up, WABC was the sound that poured out of car windows, storefronts, beach blanket transistors, and even some of those hip hi-fi stereos the older kids were buying so they could play their albums — albums WABC assuredly did not spin. Every big city had a similar station — WLS in Chicago, KHJ in Los Angeles, WRKO in Boston, and on and on across the land, the deejays shouting, the hits repeating, the jingles and contests and promotions and ads flying out of the speakers, a locomotive of a generation. Nobody talked much about radio then; it was just there. The songs and jingles embedded themselves in our memories, linking to moments magical and painful, connecting to events, places, people. Americans who grew up in the 1950s, '60s, '70s, and into the '80s received the blessing (and the curse) of a common soundtrack, not only in popular music but across all of radio's programming — the rock and the pop, the deejays and the news, the all-night talkers and the FM fringe. For a few brief decades, pop culture brought the nation together into a sense of belonging, a deep belief in the great American myth that had powered the nation to victory in World War II and propelled the economic dynamo of the 1950s and '60s — the deeply felt conviction that we were one community, one generation. We grew up dancing and dreaming to the same soundtrack, and we were therefore somehow united. That sense of belonging molded our expectations in politics, work, home, and school. Until the Great Unraveling of the late 1960s and early '70s, this shared pop culture was a meeting ground for our nation, a commons that we only years later realized we had lost.

Radio — at least in its traditional AM-FM incarnation — has seemed like a fading technology of late, but it's a big piece of how we got to be who we are. And if the history of changing technologies teaches us anything, we should know better than to write radio's obituary. Listening to Americans talk about radio over the past few years, I've heard one story after another about the voice, program, or music that changed a life. Almost everyone has a radio story — of a road trip on which they first heard the blues or zydeco, of an all-night talk show that lured them into the mysteries of the JFK assassination or the deep unknowns of cosmology, of a deejay who talked them through a teen romance gone bad. When I met Michael Freedman, who rose to the top of CBS Radio News, he pulled open his desk and cradled in his hand the transistor radio he had kept under his pillow decades ago to listen to the ball games and newscasts that shaped his future. George Michael, the great Philadelphia and New York Top 40 deejay who later became a nationally syndicated sportscaster, reached into his top drawer and let me hold the stopwatch he used four decades ago to time the introductions of each pop hit so he could talk right up to the first syllable of the song's vocals. I've been taken into basements to see treasured jukeboxes, into back offices to hear an old tape of a cherished but long gone Top 40 station, into kitchens to pore over scrapbooks of concert tickets, programs, and song surveys featuring the swinging all-

American deejays of one boss rocker or another. Each visit brings back my own memories in rushes of sound muffled by the passage of time: the velvet tones of Clarence Rock, the all-night newsman on all-news WINS; the wild conspiracy theories and classic carny pitches of allnight talker Long John Nebel; the tinny tunes of distant AM pop stations as I faded to dreamland.

Radio lends itself to nostalgia, to a pining for the innocence of a summer's night listening to baseball from a far-off city, the signal fading in and out, the crack of the bat sometimes lost in the sizzle of static from a distant lightning bolt. Or the longing could be for radio's lost edge, for that moment when you first heard a certain Dylan song, or the whole A side of Sgt. Pepper's , or National Public Radio's coverage of the fall of the Berlin Wall, or Art Bell's midnight conjuring of too many coincidences surrounding the official explanation of Area 51. But far more than nostalgia, the story of radio is the story of imagination in American popular culture. It is Richard Dreyfuss in American Graffiti picturing Wolfman Jack as a pirate of the airwaves holed up in some Mexican hideaway, illicitly pumping out the cruising tunes that kept the Strip hopping each night. It is Rush Limbaugh thumping his desk and grandiosely describing his vast Excellence in Broadcasting Network headquarters even as he delivers his talk show from the luxurious splendor of his South Florida home. It is thousands of college kids playing radio, summoning a fantasy world of their own, as I did in the late 1970s, when I took listeners to my all-night show on an aural tour of a towering "Holder Broadcasting Complex," "twelve great stories of radio," with live reports from our beleaguered weatherman calling in from his outdoor perch, our stentorian but oft inebriated sports reporter, and our officious and incompetent newsman — all me, of course. Finest moment: a listener called and asked if tours were available of the "complex," which was actually a decrepit studio in the sodden basement of an ancient, deteriorating dormitory.

Radio, not even a century old as a mass medium, has already evolved from plaything of hobbyists and tinkerers to source of the first truly national pop culture (the Golden Age of radio network broadcasting in the 1930s and '40s) to its first brush with death (when TV hit a majority of U.S. homes in the early 1950s) to bonding agent for a generation of American youth (the Top 40 era and the rise of rock and roll) to messenger of the counterculture (the rise of the FM band and free-form radio) to vanguard of niche specialization (the triumph of market research and the perfection of satellite technology) and finally to this moment, in which radio is widely groused about and dismissed, yet remains a constant companion for nearly all Americans — in the car, at home in the morning, in the background at the office. Like most old media, radio defies predictions of its death at the hands of new technologies. American radio — like the pop culture it has helped to create, like the country it speaks to — is ever adapting. As it ages, radio absorbs the new, co-opts the rebellious, and reinvents itself every step of the way.

The first national broadcast reached a relative handful of homemade radio sets on July 2, 1921, when RCA arranged for a live description of the heavyweight boxing championship bout between Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier. The match took place in Hoboken, New Jersey, where a commentator's remarks were transcribed and telegraphed to KDKA in Pittsburgh. Around the country, boxing fans and the plain old curious paid a few pennies admission to gather in firehouses and social halls where volunteer radio hobbyists had set up their receivers.

"Never before has anyone undertaken the colossal task of simultaneously making available a voice description of each incident in a fight to hundreds of thousands of people," wrote the RCA house magazine, Wireless Age. The event was deemed so important that each person who set up a receiver and pulled in the broadcast could receive a certificate — signed by Jack Dempsey and Franklin Roosevelt, a former assistant secretary of the Navy who was then president of the Navy Club, which helped organize the fight — thanking the listener for his role in "the successful promotion of amity between the nations." Within a few months, radio had so captured the American imagination that a song swept the nation — on sheet music, of course. People called it simply "The Radio Song":

I wish there was a "Wireless" to Heaven,

And I could speak to Mama ev'ry day,

I would let her know, by the Radio,

I'm so lonesome since she went away.

Radio became a truly mass medium after the first reasonably affordable sets came on the market in 1927. The Sears catalogue that year featured a $34.95 table radio and advised that "no family should be without its untold advantages." A catalogue from the Radio Specialty Corp. made the Sears pitch seem shy: "When the forces of the Almighty Creator of the Universe and the skill and genius of Man so combine to bring you untold blessings which may be yours to enjoy without even the asking, we ask you in all seriousness why you should not at once show your gratitude and appreciation and accept that which is so freely offered?"

Radio quickly became essential to daily life. The dance bands and other musical acts of the 1930s gave way during the war years to a more ambitious menu of news, dramas, comedy, and variety shows. The great networks — huge concerns created in the late 1920s to link the nation's local stations by phone lines — had symphony orchestras and creative staffs teeming with serious playwrights and fine actors. Radios were the new hearth, their baroque design reflecting the im- portance of the object and the hours that families spent with it. Radio inspired new kinds of communities, liberated from geography — clusters of Americans who shared the same musical taste, political philosophy, or sense of humor. In a country with distinct regional sensibilities, radio was something universal.

Franklin Roosevelt was the first president to understand how to marry the listeners' imagination to a distant voice. When citizens visited their president's home each week for his fireside chats, they had little concrete sense that Roosevelt's hands shook as he stood before crowds, or that braces held him up on legs crippled by polio. On the air, there were no tremors: Roosevelt's voice was clear and strong, and he used radio as an instrument of power.

During and after World War II, radios expanded beyond the living room to every corner of the house.With more and more urgent news coming over the air, Americans wanted to be near a radio. Clock radios came on the market, and soon the radio was waking commuters for the workday. Kitchen table radios meant that news and music became companions while dinner was cooking. By 1940, there were even rudimentary "portable" radios, bread-box-sized units that looked like small suitcases and weighed more than five pounds. In 1946, playwright Norman Corwin wrote a script for CBS called "Seems Radio Is Here to Stay."

The clearest way to understand a culture, Marshall McLuhan said, is to examine its tools of conversation. Radio, from its start, was something magical, a stunning turn in the popular culture from centuries of writing and reading back to the roots of human communication: voice and listening. All of a sudden, one could speak to many — unseen, unknown. The broadcaster could be whoever he chose to be, and the audience assumed new identities too. The president might call you "my fellow Americans." A commentator such as Walter Winchell might address "Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea." At home, you could say to yourself, That's me he's talking to.

At first alone, and then in ever larger communities, listeners bonded through their appreciation of characters, shows, phrases, songs, all the bits and pieces of sound that add up to a shared culture. The tools were ancient, biblical — repetition, formulaic expressions, parables — but they were adapted to the new medium in the form of jingles, hit songs, time and temperature, slogans, radio storytellers, and midnight talkers. The result was a people with a common set of references, ideas, and beliefs.5 Then came television. Whenever a new communications medium arrives, the first wave of hype informs us that the old ways are history: radio will kill off newspapers, television will eliminate radio, the Internet will obviate the need for TV, bloggers will supplant professional journalists. But the real story of how media evolve is much more interesting than any on-off switch model of replacement. It is a story of belonging, of how we cope with being alone in a crowded world. Today, radio seems clueless. One-third of the recorded music sold in this country falls into categories that barely exist on the radio — jazz, classical, Broadway, bluegrass, zydeco, trance, New Age, the vast spectrum of American sound. An Andrea Bocelli CD outsells Elton John five to one but is not heard on the radio. The Welsh classical singer Charlotte Church outsells Sheryl Crow three to one; again, radio silence. The soundtrack from the Coen brothers' movie O Brother,Where Art Thou? wows the buying public and sweeps the Grammys, but listeners turned on to bluegrass find no place on the radio to sample the genre. Some of the top-grossing concert acts each summer are Jimmy Buffett and Steely Dan; it takes patient dial-scanning to find the specialized station that might perhaps play one or two of their biggest hits.

Radio's audience has been in decline for more than a decade, as the advertising load each hour soared toward the thirty-minute mark. Among Americans age eighteen to twenty-four, the folks advertisers most love to reach, radio listening has dropped by more than a quarter just since the turn of the century. How did something that meant so much to so many become such a neglected corner of the popular culture? How could such an intimate medium come to be governed by impersonal and corporate forces? Why have we allowed radio, which brought together the most influential generation of the past century, to splinter into so many niches that it now divides us from each other more than it binds us in song or any sense of common cause? For all our technological prowess, we seem to be moving back toward the kind of lives our great-grandparents led in the days before radio — apart, atomized, in our own worlds, Googling in countless different directions. Technology and culture went micro, and now each of us has access to our own portal, our own America. That is surely a grand gift, but something is missing. America's sense of unity through mass media started with radio. Radio popularized the idea of being part of a generation. When radio lost its way, those grand, enveloping ideas seeped out of our cultural vocabulary. The bonds that radio seemed to cement were always artificial, taking on different meanings in each individual. But radio gave us a starting point for conversations about community. For all its artifice, its deejays with fake names, its sameness and phony familiarity, radio gave Americans what his job and the road gave Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman: a persona, a foundation. This book is about what that time of community felt and sounded like, how it came to be, why it all collapsed, and what we will listen to next.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit