A Love Letter to the Radio
I spent the all-request lunch hour just before her party frantically dialing 1-800-242-0100—digits I still know by heart from the number of times I tried to win tickets to see Bon Jovi or Green Day, or called the late night DJ from a sleepover to see if he’d put my friend on the air if she did a weird enough voice, or requested dedications or songs or shout-outs. We demanded a lot from our DJs.
They gave us a lot in return—like a song dedicated to Charlotte from the bunch of us, which I taped and gave to her.
I don’t get the technology blues when thinking about my childhood very often because, for the most part, every advance improved my life by leaps and bounds. It was unthinkable that I had ever lived like a barbarian with a Walkman once I got my Discman. God, rewinding? So eighties. I can skip to the beginning of the next track—oh, excuse me, you still call them songs?—with one button. And repeat? I can put this on automatic repeat? For hours? Yes, doing so will probably damage key neural synapses in such a way that my adulthood will include days of listening to a single two-minute song on a loop, but man, this Discman is the coolest.
Other things whose obsolescence doesn’t really cause an aching in my guts: vinyl, Gameboy, beepers, dial-up internet. But the radio, and the way it functioned as my cool older sister, that I miss. And now I’m going to write a sentence that will make me sound half “Get off my lawn!” and half “When I was your age…” but I’m just going to go with it: it makes me sad that the radio doesn’t mean to kids growing up now what it did to me then.
The burden of lameness that comes with being the oldest child of parents who count Asia’s eponymous album among their deadly serious all-time favorites is a hefty one. This, coupled with the fact that they didn’t let me watch MTV during my formative years, left me treading water in a sea of Jon Secada and Juice Newton and Huey Lewis and Rod Stewart and Jefferson Starship albums. I wouldn’t even have had a cooler musical island to swim for if it wasn’t for their love of listening to the radio in the car. They were channel hoppers, too. The Temptations cause as much nostalgia for my childhood as Tears for Fears.
When I turned ten or eleven and got my own stereo (and by “got my own stereo,” I of course mean “inherited my dad’s eight-track playing dinosaur that picked up about three stations”), DJs became my coolness sherpas. Elvis Duran on Z100 fed me the songs I’d have to know for school dances. X107 (an “alternative” station whose format change to exclusively country I still lament with such intensity it might as well have been a boyfriend who left me for another girl) gave me the first rock bands I ever listened to and loved. Luck is growing up in era when rock stations still existed, and they played bands with chicks in them. It’s not a stretch to say that X107 made me the kind of girl I am.
The internet makes musical Magellans. They’re explorers. But growing up on the radio, I swung my antennae around like a dowsing rod until music found me. There was something fated and intensely personal about the way a song faded in from static until it was clear, filling your room with a voice that hadn’t been there, that you didn’t know would be there just a second before, that might never be there again, that someone else had chosen for you to hear and so you were listening, responding to the DJ’s Hey, try this nudge.
It was just as likely for Boyz II Men to materialize as some weird folk recording on WFUV, both of which I would rush to tape record for later listening.
I think the thing that makes me sad when I think about fewer kids depending on the radio the way my friends and I did, as a lifeline, is the loss of a musical home base. And I know that I’m probably not even lamenting this for “the kids,” but for me. This is not to say that everything (or anything, at points) on the radio was good. Circa 1995, when I was thirteen and listening to every song I could tune in, I happened to love Del Amitri’s “Roll to Me.” This was a terrible song. Like, really horrible. But I liked it, and my friends all knew it, and the words were as familiar to our mouths as our own teeth for those couple of months when it was everywhere.
Now I (and everyone I know, and my younger brothers, and their friends) find music online and listen to it on headphones. I’ve become a creepy hoarder, stacking albums like old newspapers in the smelly basement of my personal taste. The experience of listening to music out loud and knowing that everyone has heard it—on the same station, at the same time—is all but gone.
I used to do this thing when I was feeling either very hopeful or very heartbroken, mostly about some guy, mostly who I’d never spoken to, where I’d turn on the radio and pick a number—say 3—and the third song that came on would have deep cosmic significance. Maybe that song would be Pearl Jam and I would take to heart the lyrics about not finding a better man. (To stare at. In pre-algebra.) It was just as possible that the song would be “Footloose” by Kenny Loggins and I try to wrest some meaning from the line about kicking off my Sunday shoes or life not passing me by.
It was load of horseshit.
That I still try to do with my iPod on shuffle, but it’s not the same because I’ve personally loaded it with every song possibility.
The radio, though—it’s mystical. Particularly for idiots like me with streak of sentimentality that can’t always be reined in.