by Ed Orzechowski
[Life After 50, The Springfield Republican April 7, 2008]
The knob turns with a satisfying click. A tiny bulb illuminates the far side of the dial, and a quiet hum indicates the tubes are warming up. Maybe tonight I’ll pick up the Top 40 from Sandy Beach on WKBW in Buffalo. Or the Orioles on WBAL, fading in and out from Baltimore. Or, if conditions are right, even some foot-stompin’ bluegrass on WWVA, all the way from Wheeling, West Virginia.
As a kid growing up in the Pioneer Valley, I used to love reeling in those distant AM radio stations, tweaking the tuning knob ever so slightly right and left to catch those waves bouncing off the ionosphere, zeroing in on the signals between the static.
Sure, today’s digital world of laptops, cell phones, and flat screen TVs is wonderful. But radio is still magic.
My dad used to tell his unbelieving father, “Dad, one day you’ll be able to see pictures on the radio.” Of course, he was talking about TV, which my grandfather couldn’t fathom. But you really can see pictures on the radio. Snapshots taken with words and sounds, and developed in the darkroom of the mind.
As an early Baby Boomer, I was too young to experience first-hand some of radio’s early pictures: The flaming carnage of the 1937 Hindenburg disaster in Lakehurst, New Jersey, relayed in the quavering voice of reporter Herb Morisson as he sobbed, “Oh, the humanity!” An overseas city under siege, conjured by Edward R. Murrow’s signature greeting during the dark days of World War II, “This … is London.”
But I’ve listened to recordings of those broadcasts, and can understand why families sat in their parlors some 60 and 70 years ago, staring into the speaker cloth of floor model Philcos, and seeing images of FDR and Churchill – men whose voices had the capacity to convey comfort and courage through the crystals of a microphone.
In 1938, fictional, glowing Martian cylinders unleashed real Earthly panic in listeners tuned to Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater on the Air Halloween production of H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds.” That sort of live radio drama is all but gone today. But you can still hear its echoes in the wonderful world of Lake Wobegon and “Guy Noir, Private Eye,” on National Public Radio’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” where Garrison Keillor and his cast each week recreate a bygone era.
The shooting star of television with its grainy black-and-white images had already eclipsed The Golden Age of Radio when my dad gave me my best Christmas present ever – a shiny chrome transistor Motorola that brought the radio broadcast world into the palm of my hand.
By then, shows like “You Bet Your Life” with Groucho Marx and “The Lone Ranger” with that most thrilling of theme music from the William Tell Overture were being swept into the corners of radio, while Top 40 stations like WHYN in Springfield – “The Big 56,”and WDRC in Hartford – “The Big D,” were cranking out lyrics of fast cars, heartache, and rebellion to this pre-teen. And I was listening to those commands.
Little did I realize that a bit farther down the road, my own voice would be coming through the radio.
In the meantime, five-minute, top-of-the-hour newscasts were a staple of the AM radio format. At “The Big 56,” HYN’s Durham Caldwell and Action News Central delivered the news with a sense of urgency – “Around the Corner, Around the World, Around the Clock.” And DRC newscasts ended with a booming, authoritative, echo-chamber male voice – “Repeating, the Big D Big Story …”
On the lighter side, there were weekends of polkas on WACE in Chicopee, with Andy Szuberla, “Your original Polish rhyming announcer.”
And, of course, the Red Sox and that diamond gem called Fenway Park. On a summer night out on the front porch, if you looked carefully into the radio, you could see Yaz shagging flies deep at the base of the Green Monster. Baseball remains today the best game to “watch” on radio.
As a commuting UMass student, my first car was a ’57 Ford, a four-door, nine-year-old black box, but it had that all-important accessory – a radio. Sure, it was only AM, and, sure, it had just one speaker mounted in the dash. But that radio was as essential as gasoline to operation of that motor vehicle.
Upon graduation, I became an English teacher, but radio was still playing in the background. I moonlighted as a DJ and newsman. First at WARE in Ware, where the Sunday morning shift started with The Polka Party and ended with the Red Sox. Then at The Big D in Hartford as news anchor.
Today, as I write this column on my laptop, a vintage RCA Victor floor model radio – complete with AM, FM, and shortwave – stands in the corner of the room.
I wonder what’s on tonight? The Lone Ranger? Glenn Miller or Tommy Dorsey? Maybe even Ed Murrow from London?
Radio waves from over a half century ago. They’re still out there, you know, somewhere in the ether of deep space. Maybe … if I just tweak that knob …