Real Radio

A man I met recently offered to send me a bunch of old radio equipment to help decorate the milk room at the New Enlightenment Radio Network barn. He’s collected old radio receivers—table top models, even console sets that have their own value as living room furniture. The first question I asked was whether any of the old tube-type radios still work. In the center of the question I did my best imitation of the way the signal tended to drift in and out of clarity with a kind of brrrrrrrr-iiich “This is Berlin” sound.

Today’s communication systems are so reliable that they have made us forget the miracle that radio once represented. Person A speaks a sentence into a clunky microphone in London and over the English Channel in Paris Person B hears a squawky, staticky, barely perceptible simulacrum of that sentence. The human voice was attached to something called radio waves (way over at one end of the spectrum) and somehow it rode those waves (like a bucking bronco) to the destination.

One of my intellectual interests is the birth of broadcast news in the late 1930s. Edward R. Murrow and one of my heroes William L. Shirer (author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich) made the first news roundup broadcast during the Anschluss (the German absorption of Austria) on March 13, 1938.  You can hear it at any time on the Internet, an infinitely more reliable medium, but also one that involves none of the romance of radio. To make that first historic broadcast from several European capitals, Shirer and Murrow cobbled together fledgling communications technologies so primitive that it’s astounding that they pulled it off: short wave, long wave, state owned telephone trunk lines you had to an armed nerve center to book, all without rehearsal or any backup plans. And when they finished the thirty-minute survey of European reaction to Nazism’s latest aggressions they were 100% unsure that anyone back in the United States had heard a word they said—because the short wave radio signals from London to New York were subject to skip and atmospheric interruption.

When I was a boy I became a ham radio operator. My call sign was WBOCED. You start with a novice license, which permits only Morse code, and move your way, by tests, up to general, advanced, or Amateur Extra status. I built my first transmitter on a six-inch piece of Plexiglas, with a few resisters, a capacitor, and wire that I wound around plastic pill bottles. I called it the HB-17, Home brew, seventeen watts of broadcast power, and from my basement lair in Dickinson, North Dakota, I tapped out code conversations with amateur operators in 37 states, five Canadian provinces, and four or five European countries. Then, after a summer of hard labor, I built a Heath kit SB102, the best voice transceiver available to the lumpen middle class at the time. On Friday nights, while my classmates met at gravel road crossroads to drink bear and hope for dalliance, I sat at a gray metal table worthy of Warsaw and said things like, Roger that, Alpha Tango Foxtrot. That’s a 10-4. The technology was always infinitely more interesting than the discourse, which—I need hardly report—had little to do with Chaucer or Biblical hermeneutics.

Eventually, in the time-honored Pauline way, I put aside childish things, and hauled all that glorious equipment to the attic. Sometimes I miss it—the annual hamfests of other pathetic nerds, paging through the Heath kit catalogue with painful longing, a weekend five of us once spent at the precise border of three states—North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana—with a broadcast array set up in a green canvas Montgomery Wards tent, and a quarter mile long wire antenna fastened to a rock on the side of a nearby butte.

When my shipment of old radios arrives, I’m going to set them up here in the barn, and turn them on sometimes, just to smell the tubes—a glorious hot metallic odor—and try to tune in 650 WSM on a Saturday night to hear the Grand Ole Opry, as I did countless times, well five times, during my misspent youth.

I love it that you are hearing this—and I’m happy enough that the digital technologies of dissemination are so automatic and reliable. But the great romance of radio is over, and with it a kind of innocence and sense of wonder. A Tweet by #45 is not a fireside broadcast by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. You see those photos of whole families huddled about the radio set listening to the only good news they could hear in an exceedingly troubled world, and you just want to cry.

"WBBR Radio Transmitter [radio station with three towers]" from the New York Public Library Digital Collections.