When I was twelve, my mother, who claimed she had no luck in contests, won a transistor radio in a raffle and gave it to me. This was a fancy model. With AM, FM, and shortwave bands, a folding antenna, an earphone jack, and a lighted dial, it was perfect for tuning in to exotic locations at night when I was supposed to be sleeping. Voice of America, BBC, Radio Free Europe, were all within reach. So was Fresno. For some reason, I took a shine to a radio evangelist who came on the air every Sunday night at 10:00 from a station in Fresno.
I don’t remember exactly why I liked him. Perhaps because he was livelier than the minister at the family church – “Can I get a Halleluljah?” At the same time, he delivered comforting messages. One night he explained why scripture promised there would not be a nuclear holocaust. This was a timely message during the Cuban missile crisis. The guy up the street was digging a fallout shelter in his front yard. At school we had hydrogen bomb drills (get under your desk and cover your head), but I took it all with calm indulgence. The worst was not going to happen. I had it on good authority – the man of God in Fresno guaranteed it.
I spent the next six years deeply engaged with radio. I got my ham license and was active until I went off to college. Half a century ago it shrank time and space like the internet does for us now. I thought of that radio recently when I noticed myself scrolling through international news on my smart phone. I’ve always loved my gadgets, but I realized the phone lacks the magic of distant stations coming in through the static at night on the glowing radio dial. It also lacks the assurance I found on that Fresno station on Sunday nights. Nowadays, most of the people quoting scripture are scary, and for all we can find online, it’s hard to find a convincing voice saying everything will be all right.
My favorite radio memory is the long ride home to Minneapolis from Chicago after visiting relatives in the summer. We would listen to Suspense Theatre and Sherlock Holmes and Dragnet. Great times.
We use audio books that way now. The last trip up to Yosemite and back, we listened to an unabridged Agatha Christie, which made the drive a lot of fun.
Shortwave memories made me think of late night, under the covers, going up and down the dial to see what I could find. It was kind of like opening a box of Cracker Jacks with a surprise hidden somewhere inside. I take surfing for news and info on my phone for granted. I know it’s there, no great surprise.
I think the imagination was much more involved. Not just the heightened senses of childhood illicitness, but the way radio can evoke images. One comment here mentioned old radio serials. I can still remember my mother and grandmother, who could, at the drop of a hat, sing the theme of “Little Orphan Annie,” off-key, and wind up in howls of laughter. Part of the charm of Prairie Home Companion, too.