I love radio. There’s an immediacy and singularity about it that TV or internet video streaming can never match. And certainly not Pandora or its multiple offspring – with their endless, depersonalized music. Listening to radio creates a personal connection – a one-on-one relationship with the talk host, the news anchor, the DJ or the music. And it also works the other way. When I’m doing radio news — or just talking into a live mic – I feel like I’m in someone’s home or car. Having a conversation. That connection never quite carried over to TV. Although I’ve always tried to imagine someone I actually know behind the camera lens – watching the screen.
I started my on-air career in radio as a Boston teenager and after decades of on-camera TV reporting and anchoring, I’m back on radio doing business news. And back to that personal connection.
So why am I writing all this? Isn’t radio so last century? Certainly CBS thinks so – putting up it’s iconic radio stations for sale.
Well – I got an email today from a very good friend. Who has had a similar career. And whose memories of growing up in radioland reminded me of mine.
Like my friend, I had a cheap plastic table radio in my room. Which somehow pulled in New York’s legendary WNEW in all its Make Believe Ballroom glory whenever the clouds provided a decent enough bounce for the AM signal. My parents were musicians with ties to the big band era and Broadway musicals. WNEW played The Great American Songbook. William B. Williams and his fellow hosts made even commercials interesting. I listened well into the overnight – (Remember Al “Jazzbo” Collins?) pulling my little radio under the covers so my mother wouldn’t hear. Once it was dark out and the daytime stations were gone from the airwaves, the signal was often as clear as if it were coming from next door.
Beyond my own little radio, we had a big old standup radio (like the one above) in the foyer of our apartment. In the back was a shelf for a long ago junked “victrola”. But in the front was a magic dial. 2 of them actually. One selected the radio band. Short wave, medium wave, local. The other slid the selector across the dial. When the radio was set in short wave, all kinds of foreign languages flooded in. Medium wave usually brought in stations from the West coast – unimaginably far away to a little girl who had never been further from Boston than New Hampshire. And if I was allowed to stay up late enough I could sit crosslegged on the floor in front of that radio and hear broadcasts of the remaining big bands from the few 40’s style ballrooms still standing. Pure magic.
When I was 14 I talked a small Boston radio station into broadcasting a weekly show hosted by me and my locally well-known pianist father. It was a clash of generations. I played my teenage music; he played his swing era, Boston Pops favorites. I think it lasted for at least a year. The first of several weekly radio shows I talked that station into broadcasting – all built around music. Then I discovered jazz and in college did shows for the 2 college owned FM radio stations in Boston. And as many of you know, I eventually spent 10 years as a CBS Radio Network news correspondent until I migrated to TV news.
Now in my car, I too listen to satellite radio. Mostly the audio of the TV news channels. I feel like a traitor. But when something big happens, when there are major snow storms or high winds or floods I fall back on AM radio. When I need a traffic report I switch between the 3 news stations which have them (Sirius’s is always very out of date). WAZE is useful but somewhat distracting when you’re driving. Traffic and weather together on the 8’s. Or the 11’s. Or the 5’s are still a commuter’s best friend. Along with the top local stories.
There has been talk of radio’s death for decades. It’s always survived. But the Millenials and Gen Y think radio is preceded by Apple. And they’ll be running things soon. Most local radio stations are now just automated clones, owned by a couple of giant companies loaded with debt and interested only in extracting whatever revenue they can to make their quarterly reports look better for Wall Street. The CBS radio stations and the network which distinguished them may soon be among that group.
I love the new tech. I live on my iPhone and iPad. I try tons of new apps. But when I need to know what is breaking right now I turn on the radio. Or, if I’m anywhere but in the car or at home I stream from a radio app. Real radio app.
Some day – when real radio has been destroyed and a huge hurricane knocks out the power for weeks as Sandy did almost four years ago – we’ll need local radio to hold communities together and tell a frightened public where to go for food and shelter and help. But radio will be gone. And there won’t be anything to replace it. Because without power, the internet and broadband won’t work. And even the battery-backed-up cell towers fail after days with no electricity.
Good luck world.