Going Down the Old Mine with a Transistor Radio by
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(25 Stories)

Prompted By Remembering Radios

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Dick Biondi

For what it’s worth (Hey, that would be a good name for a song!), there is no way that Van Morrison could take his Brown Eyed Girl down in the old mine and listen to the transistor radio.  The radio signals can’t penetrate below the earth.

If he wanted those cows milked, it was going to happen with the radio on.

I think I was in third grade before my family had a television, so radio was the only electronic information source we had.  (The lack of television, along with a mother who read books to me, might be one reason why I was able to read by the time I first sat in a reading circle in Miss Goodwin’s first grade class.)

Radio has always been a close companion.  After we moved out to the farm, when I was in fourth grade, I had the job of milking the cows every morning and night, usually just two of them but occasionally three, all milked by hand.  (When I got to high school, I could put the football players on the ground wrist-wrestling.)  While I was milking, the radio was my entertainment.  My dad insisted that it disturbed the cows and caused them to give less milk, but I didn’t much care what he said about that – if he wanted those cows milked, it was going to happen with the radio on.

In late elementary schooI, I got my first portable transistor radio.  It was a cheap one, two transistors.  In those days, the bragging rights went to the kids whose radios had the most transistors.  I remember K__M__, who had a ten or twelve transistor set.  That was something to be envied!  I spent that summer glued to my little radio hoping that the next song to come up would be “Breaking Up is Hard to Do” by Neil Sedaka.  “Come-a come-a down dooby doo down down…” There’s an earworm for you!

In those days, in the hills of southeastern Ohio, the only stations you could get were AM stations, but at night, when the AM signals could bounce off the ionosphere, you could get some really good stations.  My favorites were WLS in Chicago, and WBZ in Boston.  The most famous disk jockey on WLS was Dick Biondi, known for the jokes he told between songs.  One day he just disappeared from the station. The apocryphal story that circulated at that time was that he was fired for introducing one record by saying “Here’s one for all you virgins”, and then playing “It Only Hurts a Little While.”  I just discovered on Wikipedia that he is still alive and active at 88.

We finally got an FM station in Logan, my home town, around 1965, and that was a vehicle for all the teenagers to call in with their favorite songs to be dedicated to their boyfriends and girlfriends.

Then it was off to Cambridge, where I discovered the real FM radio scene, DJs with deep voices doing long introductions to more serious music.  One of my best friends had a late night show, midnight to 3 am, on the college radio station during my senior year, and I would go to the basement of Memorial Hall and run the controls for him.  The station would get dozens of vinyl LPs every month, and he would bring some of them back to the dorm and introduce us to the newest music before it actually hit the airwaves.

After I got out of college, I listened to a lot of country music.  The late 70s were just not a good period for rock and roll – remember disco?.  But now that I was in the workforce and actually had to get up in the morning, I depended on the clock radio to get my rear end up and my feet onto the floor.  I still remember one glorious morning when, after a really good night of sleep, the first thing to hit my ears was Linda Ronstadt singing “Long Long Time”.

From 1979 to 1981 I was the assistant to the vice-president of mining operations for American Electric Power.  I would get up at 4:30 am every Monday morning and drive to his house, then the two of us would head for West Virginia, either southern West Virginia where three of our coal mining companies were located, or northern WV, where another two companies were located.  I would drive and he would sleep, but in the afternoons he would turn on this new experience, for me at least, and we would listen to “All Things Considered”.  If we happened to be making the long drive from southern WV to the northern operations, he would occasionally fall asleep again and I would switch back to a country station, but then he would wake up and it was back to NPR.  Since that time, I have been a dedicated NPR listener and contributor.

I do not think I could live in an area where I could not listen to NPR, although streaming now makes it available almost anywhere.  It is my main source of unbiased information, the long explanations that can’t be derived from the 30-second sound bites on broadcast news.

I love radio.

Profile photo of Jeff Gerken Jeff Gerken


Characterizations: been there, funny, right on!, well written

Comments

  1. Laurie Levy says:

    I really enjoyed your tribute to radio. Thanks for those earworms, however.

  2. Great set of experiences, Jeff. Certainly you’re right about Van Morrison and his wondrous, rock-defying transistor radio. However, I wanted to give you a shout-out regarding cows, milking, and the radio. I grew up in farm country in New England and every farmer I knew (plenty of ’em — I went to school with their kids) had a radio in the barn. Cows love music!

  3. Marian says:

    Good for you to play music for the cows. After all, if plants like music, cows must. Yes, the Neil Sedaka earworm is going strong for me right now. And fascinating how you got introduced to NPR and All Things Considered.

  4. Suzy says:

    Great story, Jeff, from your observation about the impossibility of Van Morrison’s lyric, to your intro to Breaking Up is Hard to Do, to the joy of waking up to Linda singing Long, Long Time. Now I have all 3 of those songs swirling around in my brain.

    Interesting that you end with how important NPR is to you. I may be about the only person on Retro who doesn’t listen to NPR (except for the Sunday Puzzle with Will Shortz). For me, radio is about music, not talking.

  5. Betsy Pfau says:

    Your story is jam-packed with interesting information, Jeff. Love all your song references, and being able to out arm-wrestle the football team due to all your cow milking. Wow, that took strength and sounds like you needed the company that your radio gave provided. Did you ever see the documentary about Linda Ronstadt? She really could sing any genre and had a phenomenal voice. Very sad that MS has robbed her of that now.

    My older child came home from grad school with an “FM voice”; I totally get the reference. Those DJs do sound different; really chill with their deep voices. And if you read my story, you’ll find that I, too, am a devotee of NPR, for all the reasons that you mention. I love the way they give you so much information. Thanks for sharing your radio journey.

  6. Thanks for this, Jeff. It prompted me to recall “Clear Channel” stations – those given protected frequencies from which to transmit at significant power to reach areas that would otherwise be without. I, too, picked up distant stations at night. In checking it was as I thought: WLS and WBZ were both Clear Channel stations.

  7. Wonderful Jeff, I enjoy your stories below or above ground, country or town. My dad was also raised on a farm and remembered aiming the cows’ milk straight from the udders into the mouths of waiting barn cats!

    Us Boomers seem to agree that in this age of TV, streaming, social media, and 24/7 news cycle. – “all things considered”, we like radio best!

  8. The cats were certainly more appreciative Jeff!

    And thanx Suzy for the utterly helpful spell check, I knew it looked wrong!

  9. John Shutkin says:

    Good point about “Brown Eyed Girl,” Jeff. I am a pedant for such things, and am amazed that it never registered with me that you could never get transistor reception in a mine. Now I’ll never be able to listen to that song the same way.

    And I really did enjoy your description of your radio listening habits over the years. It is probably not surprising that for many of us there was a very similar arc: from Top 40 to NPR. Though I must admit that your foray into country music is a bit of an exception. You are forgiven.

    • Jeff Gerken says:

      I still love REAL country music. Alexa proposed a selection of the 100 best country music songs a few days ago, and I was right there with her for about twenty songs before I had to go on to some other activity. Today’s country rock, though – MEH!!!

  10. Khati Hendry says:

    And I always thought it was “going down the old road” until I looked up the lyrics–that would have made more sense. We would also sometimes get WLS in central Michigan, and the big city radio was more exciting than our local station. Linda Ronstadt is great (though I think her voice was stilled by Parkinson’s, not MS)–a “long, long time” was fantastic. I really like the Spanish language songs she did too. Good memories.

    • Jeff Gerken says:

      I have the CD of “Canciones de Mis Padres”. I saw her in concert at the Back Bay Theater in Boston when she was the lead singer for the Stone Ponies, opening for THE DOORS!

      I was driving our youngest daughter and her friends around our neighborhood a dozen years ago when one of the friends was talking about the bands she had seen. I just said “I saw The Doors” in 1967, at which the young lady stopped for a moment and then said “I can’t top that”.

  11. Dave Ventre says:

    Great story. I also used a Van lyric as my title for this prompt.

    If your story about Dick Biondi’s joke is true, it echos what happened to NY weatherman Tex “Uncle Weatherbee” Antoine. I think his joke was worse, though.

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