Something gained, something lost

Communication has changed drastically over where it was 25 years ago, and 25 years ago the same statement would have been just as true. Actually, one could easily say the same thing any time in the last 175 years or so. Telegraph, telephone, primitive radio restricted to Morse Code and developed radio which allowed both voice and music to be transmitted have traced a direct line that ends at my iPad, my Sirius XM receiver and the ability to listen to music on my iPhone. My point is that in 1837 the click of a telegraph was a wonder and stirred the imagination. Ever since, the resolution of the communication media has improved, but its ability to stir the imagination has decreased in inverse proportion.

My father listened to a crystal set during the early days of broadcasting and had the experience of picking up a distant station through the cold Minnesota nights, something that still excited him decades later, when he related these experiences to me. I should point out that nighttime, and cold weather are very conducive to AM radio reception. Using a radio receiver to bore through  the cold and dark of Minnesota winter’s night is an experience I remember fondly.

By my day, television was king and radio mostly played music and read the news. Radio dramas and other creative programming were, for the most part, relegated to the past, although there was one notable exception which surprised me to no end: A Prairie Home Companion. Garrison Keillor breathed new life into radio and had allowed all sorts of people to experience something that seemed forever lost. His success also spawned new radio programming and revitalized live radio to some degree, almost synchronously with corporate broadcasting’s strangulation of local content and local flavor in most of the commercial broadcasting segment.

Sadly, to the best of my knowledge, my father never heard Keillor and did not live long enough to have observed Keillor’s amazing success of the late ’80s. Pity that: he would have been in his glory listening to live radio programming once again.

Radio was a utility, and still is. It is a source of news and a way of transporting popular culture to local and regional listeners. But there was also a far more exciting side to radio; listening to a distant station fuels the imagination like nothing else. There is a degree of benign risk, because “pulling in” a distant station is far from a certain proposition. Enthusiasts, perhaps a form of cognoscenti, can invest in antennas along with better receiving equipment and can study radio propagation, but for most people, long distance radio reception is a matter of chance at best and quite possibly a source of annoyance.

My first “DXing” experience was modest,from Rochester, MN we used to tune into WCDO and WDGY, both Minneapolis stations. That didn’t involve much of a leap in imagination; I’d been to Minneapolis. Then, one night I dialed in WLS, a clear channel station in Chicago. Those 890 kilocycles of radio frequency energy gave wings to my imagination. As I recall, there was a somewhat controversial DJ on WLS and listening to him was an entire basket of forbidden fruit. He’d be somewhat bland in the company of today’s shock jocks.

A few years later, I owned a simple regenerative multi-band receiver which allowed me to listen to shortwave broadcasts. With a pair of simple, improvised receiving antennas I was able to listen to a South African station from an unincorporated residential area north of Denver. The song was “Little Arrows”, performed by Leapy Lee. As is so often the case, the connection was ephemeral and soon faded out of the reach. Sadly, when my parents moved to a new home a few miles away there was an AM tower quite nearby. My simple shortwave receiver was helpless in the presence of such a powerful signal and my DXing days were over

Imagination and distance

Television could deliver much more content than radio, but left much less to the imagination. In Ken Burn’s “Empire of the Air” one of the last thoughts expressed was a child being asked if television was better than radio. The child replied that radio was superior, because the pictures were better.

When one switches on a television, or any entertainment device, these days, the results tend to be predictable. I probably can’t pull WLS in over the air, but I am listening to it right now over the Internet . . . although I probably won’t listen for long, it’s a boring talk show. WDGY is playing a Monkees tune (which was probably Hot 190 chart material when I listened to WDGY as a child). WCCO seems to require an app in order to stream and that won’t be happening; I have enough apps already. KOA, Denver apparently allows you to stream without an app, but the hyperlink appears to be inoperative at the moment. Four distant radio stations and I hit two of them effortlessly, from my easy chair and without a radio. The only adventure was to be found in their website interfaces. There was absolutely nothing to stir the imagination.

Compare this to the last broadcast coming from Corregidor in 1942 and . . . well, there really is no comparison. Listening to that 74 year old message, transmitted in Morse Code is exhilarating and fear inspiring to this day. What was on local radio last night? I doubt that anyone will remember even a week from now.

Air checks are snippets of broadcasts, usually just announcer’s voices, kept for archival purposes. Listening to old air checks from stations I listened to live in the past can be fun and certainly stirs the memory, if not the imagination. I would take this to mean that distance, whether temporal or geographical, plays a role in the emotional power of radio.

There is no question that today’s technology is superior, but it is as emotionally sterile as the surface of the moon is barren. With a little bit of tinkering I can listen to almost any radio station of any size over the Internet, and there’s no need to understand antennas, etc. I’m not knocking it; I’m just stating that communications has become the equivalent of fast food. We take it for granted and, I fear, may well neglect the very technologies which got us to where we are today.

I’ve worked with Internet access for over 20 years now, from the days of dial-up to DSL, to wireless, to cutting edge fiber optic systems and I believe in all of these. But I have not forgotten that radio was a big force for development in its heyday and still can play a vital role today. If there should ever come a dark day when both of my paths to the Internet are inoperable, you can bet your last red cent that I’ll be out in the pickup, spinning the dial and listening for the familiar voice of radio to tell me what is going on.

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