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Prompted By Remembering Radios

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This is it!

Of course, as usual I start from way out in left field.  Seeing the prompt, my first thought was a Sesame Street clip from long ago that always cracked me up: Martians Radio.  My sons loved this; like many Sesame Street clips it resurfaced regularly.  I don’t know whether my boys loved it more for its intrinsic content or for its effect on me.  Same experience with the Swedish Chef on the Muppet Show (bork! bork! bork!). *

I particularly liked the weekly feature from StoryCorps, personal stories narrated by one family member to another.  Probably no surprise to this crowd.

 

Anyway, the featured image is the exact model of my first radio.  Late ’50’s.  A true portable but of a different stripe: this was a tube radio, not a transistor radio.  And it was indeed portable but could also be plugged into a household outlet.  The configuration was a bit strange: there were “D” cell batteries inside the case and the “portable” mode was activated by plugging the line cord into an outlet within the innards of the radio.  Bizarre.  But it worked.

In those days my sole listening activity was sports.  There was a local community college that was a national powerhouse in basketball.  I listened to most of their games.  We had a minor league baseball team in town, the AA club for the Yankees, at the time.  I followed most every game.  I have no idea what became of my radio; might have just worn out.  More likely was replaced with a smaller transistor radio before too long.  I note that there are at least a few for sale now on Ebay and other sites; the going price seems to be about $165.  Clearly the retail price for mine was just a fraction of that.

Of course in my teens the choice was Top 40 (did we call it that, then?). Still AM radio. The local choice was WENE. Or as their DJs would say it, “Wubyaee’nee”. I suppose I listened at home but predominantly this was a driving thing. My mom’s car, a convertible. Top down. Radio blaring.

I had a great summer job during my college years and earned enough to pay my share of tuition etc. and still purchase a car. Still WENE around home, but on my trips to Cambridge I looked forward to picking up the preferred Boston station (WRKO? 680?). I remember that when I got to Sturbridge on the Mass Pike I’d usually pick it up for the first time.  It meant I was almost back, a happy moment because I loved being in Cambridge.

In my early working years in Connecticut I had a driving commute.  No more Top 40.  It was Imus inbound; NPR’s All Things Considered outbound.  For the last six years of my Connecticut time the commute was an hour each way so I heard plenty.  NPR talks about “driveway moments”: the times when one has reached home but the current segment hasn’t completed, so you stay in the car to listen. I found it astounding how often that happened.

In Chicago my commute was by train.  I don’t remember listening to radio at all during my working years.  When I began consulting from my home office, however, my listening resumed, this time coincident with my morning workouts.  NPR and Morning Edition. I particularly liked the weekly feature from StoryCorps, personal stories narrated by one family member to another. Probably no surprise to this crowd.

Over the years, as I moved, my NPR station of choice changed. I don’t remember what it was in Chicago. In the Adirondacks it was Vermont Public Radio; reception was better than from North Country Radio. When I moved to the Hudson Valley I was out of range of metropolitan stations and connected with Northeast Public Radio, a subnetwork out of Albany. Northeast was founded by an academic, Alan Chartock, who taught political science at SUNY New Paltz. Chartock was THE expert on New York State government. I believe he had regular commentary over the airwaves and wrote a number of columns on the subject. Truly a brilliant man. But.

As you know, the bane of NPR listeners existence is the periodic Pledge Drive.  A necessary evil, yes.  Taken to new heights by Chartock, who insisted on moderating these two-week marathons himself. None too pleasing of voice, in the first instance, his “patter” left a lot to be desired.  Over the course of the two weeks it became harder and harder to listen.  I don’t know many how many times he told and retold and retold the story of his founding of Northeast Public Radio. Ouch.  I remember in 2013 suffering through the spring Pledge Drive until the final Friday.  Now, I regularly contributed to my local NPR station over the years, but this year, in a fit of pique over Mr. Chartock’s performance I held back.  Until then.  Unable to stand it any longer I capitulated and phoned in my pledge.  The pleasant volunteer took my information and then sweetly informed me that the station was doing an informal survey, and “would I care to tell them what prompted me to give to NPR today?”.  “Stockholm Syndrome”, I replied.


* Probably this comes as no surprise after my last story, “Twice- (Thrice-? Umpteenth-?) Told Tales of the Great White North.”

 

 

Profile photo of Tom Steenburg Tom Steenburg
Retired attorney and investment management executive. I believe in life, liberty with accountability and the relentless pursuit of whimsy.


Characterizations: well written

Comments

  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Great first radio and use of the Muppets, Tom. We all loved the Muppets. I, too, listen to NPR now as I drive, though I don’t do much driving, but, like you, I will stay in my car to listen to the end of a story. My husband can hear the garage door open if he’s in the den, watching a movie (as he often was during the pandemic) and would query me about what took me so long to get into the house. I replied that I HAD to hear the end of the story! Of course!

  2. Laurie Levy says:

    So interesting to follow the evolution of your radio tastes from all things sports to Top 40 to NPR. I think many of us can relate to this, although I passed on the sports phase.

  3. Marian says:

    This is great, Tom, with your radio experiences waxing and waning. Love that strange hybrid radio you had, and I believe that they really did call the music the Top 40 back in the day. My former husband had a piece of furniture that contained a telefunken (spelling?) set, which partially worked. My first experience with tubes.

  4. Suzy says:

    Wonderful featured image, and thanks for describing the complicated way it worked. I never listened to sports, it was always Top 40, and yes, we certainly called it that – the internet tells me the term “Top 40” for a radio format appeared in 1960. Love that when you drove to Cambridge, picking up Boston stations around Sturbridge was the sign that you were almost home. Finally, thanks for the phrase “driveway moments.” For me it is always waiting until the end of the song, since I don’t listen to talking on the radio.

    • Thanks, Suzy. As it happens I drove to Boston yesterday to have lunch with my son Charlie. My route to Boston is not what it was when I was a student but I do get on the Mass Pike at Sturbridge. It didn’t even dawn on me yesterday to spin the dial to see if my recollection of the call letters and frequency were the same.

  5. Khati Hendry says:

    The story of the pledge drive was really funny–I could relate. I have had to find alternate channels during some of those times. You are not the only one to mention listening to baseball over the radio. I think there is something iconic about having the ball game on for hours during the summer, a backdrop to life, with moments of excitement bursting forth. I am in awe of the play-by-play broadcasters who can use their words to recreate the game in our imaginations.

    • You’re right about baseball, Khati. While my focus in those years was our local minor league team, occasionally atmospheric conditions were right and I could get distant stations. I remember picking up Harry Caray broadcasting Cardinal games; it was fun to hear one of the icons of sports broadcasting. Caray eventually became a fixture in Chicago both with the White Sox and ultimately the Cubs.

  6. You have great recall Tom!
    And I agree the radio pledge drives are annoying, but the causes are important and so we call in and we donate!

  7. Best last line ever, Tom!

    I can’t help thinking of all of us in our convertibles, top down, radio blaring. Probably dancing in our seats. You always felt like anyone watching would share your enthusiasm, when what they were undoubtedly thinking was “What an idiot, turn down your !@&*#! radio!”

  8. John Shutkin says:

    Really enjoyed this story, Tom,. And, not surprisingly, it closely followed the arc of my own radio listening over the years — though I admit the Sesame Street song didn’t ring a bell (so to speak).

    And, much as I love (and support) public radio, I share your dread of their fund drives. I will typically listen to WCRB, the Boston classical music station, while I’m in the shower, and I have seriously considered simply not taking showers during its drive. And then, of course, I still make a pledge myself — though I plan to steal your “Stockholm Syndrome” line next time I do.

  9. Had to laugh out loud at the Martians’ taste in music. One would have hoped that a society advanced enough for interplanetary travel would have better taste! Ah, well, go figure.

    I was struck at how well you described how your radio choices and preferences changed as you walked your way through life’s changes. A familiar feel, knowing you were “getting there” by the radio stations you could tune in. For me, it was Wolfman Jack showing up on the dial as I made several east to west coast journeys in the 1960s. And yeah, I agree, some people are better at fundraising radio raps than others.

    • Thanks, Charles. Well, after all, they are extraterrestrials. From our standpoint. I recall they had other featured bits, including the telephone. They all date from the mid ’80’s at the latest, well before current technology. I have no grandchildren so I am far removed from Sesame Street and don’t know whether the Martians have continued. Would love to see them contend with current technology and social memes. Swiping on Tinder, for example.

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