The Curator’s Office – The Spirit of Radio
“I’m in love with the radio on,
it helps me from being alone late at night,
It helps me from being lonely late at night,
I don’t feel so bad now in the car
Don’t feel so alone, got the radio on,
like the roadrunner. That’s right”
“can you feel it out in Needham now?
out on route 128 by the power lines
it’s so exciting there at night with the pine trees in the dark
it’s so cold here in the dark with 50,000 watts of power
we go by faster miles an hour with the radio on”
Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers (1975)
Jonathan Richman, who knew a thing or two about THE SPIRIT OF RADIO, wrote Radio On around 1970, when he began performing it in public, aged 19. Former bandmate John Felice recalled that as teenagers he and Richman “used to get in the car and just drive up and down Route 128 and the Turnpike. We’d come up over a hill and he’d see the radio towers, the beacons flashing, and he would get almost teary-eyed. He’d see all this beauty in things where other people just wouldn’t see it.”
When I was young, around thirteen or so, I received a birthday present that would be my most treasured possession. Very quickly it became my closest friend and intimate; a reassuring voice throughout the perplexities of adolescence. It was only a cheap transistor radio but, through its single earphone, I heard nothing less than the essence of existence. The radio, embedded beneath the pillow and muted through soft down, with it’s signal fading in and fading out, told me everything that I had long suspected was true. There was life going on out there; beyond my moonlit bedroom walls, down the streets, past the shops and far from my town. Life was elsewhere. “Is there anyone out there?” my young inner-self asked. The spirit of radio entered my room and whispered in my ear through crackling transistors and thin wires. Yes there is, and you know, we’ve been waiting patiently for you (and just for you) to tune in.
It was only pop music but we were meant for each other. Therein lies the dichotomy of radio. It is broadcast to the many for the benefit of the individual. It enters your home, sits down, makes itself comfortable and relates to you the speak of the worldwide parish. It’s a voice that you can trust and it tells you things you want to know. You hang upon its every word. It’s a comfort whenever you feel that burden of too much knowledge and not enough information. It understands you. Out there, in the pine trees and the dark, you’ll never be lonely with the radio on. You’ll never be sad while your favourite songs blanket you in their unconditional love and affection. It’s only pop music, but the best of it comes straight from the heart.
Since that birthday, I’ve seen pop music diversify and grow exponentially alongside various incarnations of the personal delivery system. What began with clandestine listening beneath the covers developed into the brazen Walkman, and quickly evolved into the soundtrack to your life in an electronic capsule. What do you need the radio for? Surely it’s redundant now that you set your own choices and need only listen to your own inner voice for advice and affirmation?
The radio in 2012 is for the herd who safely graze in fields of Golden Oldies and munch mindlessly on the doomed shoots of stunted micro-celebrity. That isn’t radio: it’s what’s left over when the spirit of radio has been crushed and violated. In the UK, broadcast radio isn’t fit for purpose. It serves no one except salary men and women and has deserted its duty of care to its public. Nevertheless, I do believe that radio is not dead yet, I think that it’s only sleeping.
The advent of internet radio has to some extent filled the void left by old school broadcasting, but it is no panacea for a deep malaise. It’s transmitting from the basement where it’s confined by space and the limits of its resources. It has created and amplified a kind of niche radio that is merely a conversation between an educated janitor and a gaggle of attentive sophomores.
Down there, among the pipes, the wires and the ducting are powerful generators, but only the mere spark of radio. You need to feel 50,000 watts of power not marvel at bit rates. That is powered as much by human feeling as it by electricity. It is only when we harness that power in order to reach out, to share and to empathise that radio truly flickers into life. It’s light is bright and you glow inside with the comforting knowledge that you are not the only one who thinks this way, sees this way and really hears those songs that way. Far from it.
The cult of puddle-deep celebrity has threatened to suffocate radio. The DJ will never be the star no matter how far he talks over the intro. There have always been prating fools hogging the mic, but broadcasters who were born into the medium are still around. Some of them are elderly, but they are young at heart and they know that popular songs are more than just idle ditties. They know that songs are the connective tissue of popular culture, personal identity, memory and love. These soft-spoken confidantes are singular people who talk comfortably to the masses as if talking to a neighbour over the garden fence. They sit alone and talk to the air in blind faith that they will always have words to say that people will want to hear. That’s why we listen to the radio. Somebody, somewhere knows you and wants to take care of you. You’ll never be lonely with the radio on.
Now that communication devices and attendant software are attempting to govern our lives, you may feel that you will be fortunate to have any time to yourself at all. Social media and its associative algorithms are now so pervasive and invasive that privacy itself may yet become a subscription service. There is no need either to go in search of the found object. Now, all you need to do is scroll down the never-ending playlist until you find your genre profile and choose Your Data. The most searching question you need ask now is, “Are my eyes really brown?”
Little wonder that it feels like something is missing. I’ll tell you what it is.
When you are young and the world is a mystery, everything you hear is a surprise and every new (old) song is born anew by the fresh hearing of it. You hear voices talking to you in ways that you never heard before, but you understand every word that is being said or sung. Every note has meaning and hidden secrets that one day you are destined to discover. At first, you don’t want to share any of this with anyone, least of all Ma and Pa. Later, you realise that this new-found information is part of a flowing river that gathers up everything and pours it out into the world ocean. Before you know it you are out in that world yourself; raw, exposed, and often all at sea.
What would you give then to slip beneath a blanket with only a tiny radio for company and a single ear-piece connecting you to a still, steady voice of calm? Isn’t it only human to hear such a voice intone that perennially humane phrase, “For all those of you out there tonight…”?
I think it is that voice that is missing from they way we hear songs now, and a contributing factor to the decaying signal coming from radio. I cannot say whether it will be ever be properly recovered. Today, we can find anything, anywhere and at anytime. Perhaps that is one reason why we are not so able to stumble upon the startlingly unexpected. We are no longer exploring the airwaves simply for the sake of travelling. We are not meeting anyone on the way who can be a guide and a host across unfamiliar topography. There is no dial to turn on an Apple Mac, and no means of serendipitous navigation.
Once, when I was young, the radio was my Good Companion, and I can remember well the fork in the road where we were forced to part company. Perhaps, we will meet again someday, but somehow I doubt that. I think the best that we can hope for now is that we will always crave that companionship. It is more likely that we will construct a sort of ersatz radio experience using audio samples, and referencing timeless phraseology to give us the flavour of radio.
It might be that local internet stations can yet achieve cult status through electronic word of mouth. However, I foresee that we will choose our fellow travellers from amongst our own closest peers; broadcasting all-night radio to our grandchildren with letters and songs and stories to keep them up at bedtime and lull them to safe sleep. It will be a part of their education that truly cannot be found in books.
Until then, the glowing screen of the ipod beneath the blankets will remain a poor substitute for a human voice introducing the most wonderful song you never heard before. A voice that made you feel as if you were the first person on the planet ever to hear it.
(video by heraldstreet)
The Curator, June 2012