Radios and Radiators by
100
(119 Stories)

Prompted By Remembering Radios

Loading Share Buttons...

/ Stories

Once I figured out that this prompt was really more about radios themselves than radio programs, I had a vivid recollection of my very first radio.  Happily, I found an exact image of it on-line, right down to its bright yellow and red plastic exterior, and it is the featured image.

I had a vivid recollection of my first radio, and found an image on-line, right down to its bright yellow and red plastic exterior.

Technically, it was a “radio kit,” because it required some minimal assembly — like snapping the front of the case onto the back after fixing the wire and the earphone connections in place. My sense now, as a lawyer, is that it was (non-) assembled and marketed this way to avoid being labelled as a “radio” and subject to certain regulations, but I can’t be sure. In any event, I was ecstatic that I could put it together myself. (I was about ten at the time.)

This was not even a transistor radio.  It was called a “crystal radio” and did not require either batteries or plugging into an electrical outlet.  It provided its very own — albeit very weak — power.  Here is more than you ever wanted to know about crystal radios.

There were two unique features to my crystal radio.  The first was the yellow wire with the clip on it on the right of the image. This served as its antenna.  However, to really enhance the radio’s reception, the wire had to be stretched and then attached to a metal object.  Particularly suggested were bedsprings, radiators or the finger stop on rotary dials on telephones (remember?).  Like most kids in 1959, I didn’t have a phone in my room and my bedsprings were covered, so I attached it to the radiator next to my bed.  And, yes, it made an enormous difference in reception.  Indeed, without the radiator connection, the radio basically didn’t work — as I learned anytime the clip slipped off of it. (I eventually wrapped a bare wire around the clip on one end and around a radiator part of the other end to make the connection more secure.)

The second unique feature was the earphone on the left.  This was not simply a listening option, it was the only way that one could listen to a crystal radio with its very weak signal and no internal source of amplification.  But it had the added advantage, at least to a kid listening to the radio in bed late at night (as I almost always did), of not only not bothering my brother in the upper bunk, but not letting my parents know I was listening.  That said, I’m pretty sure my parents knew anyway and decided it was not worth calling me on — especially when I would find the radio turned off and neatly placed on my bed table the next morning when I had obviously fallen asleep listening to it.

And what did I listen to so surreptitiously?  Sports; just sports.  Even though I grew up outside of New Haven and knew I would go to another high school myself, New Haven’s two high schools both had great basketball teams and I loved listening to their games on the New Haven station that carried them (WELI), especially after one or the other typically won the area championship and played in the New England tournament.  Indeed, to this day, anytime someone mentions Hope High School in Providence, my first thought is that that was the team that Hillhouse beat to become New England champions one season.

I also listened to West Coast baseball.  Huh?  My favorite team in those pre-Mets days was the Dodgers, but they had moved out to Los Angeles the same year the Giants moved to San Francisco. Obviously, I could not pull in West Coast stations on my little crystal radio.  But, on clear nights, I could get the strong signals from New York stations.  And one of them — WMGM, I believe — carried “recreated” Giants games for a while.  The station received real time ticker tape updates on every pitch in Giants games and then the announcer in its New York studio (a guy named Les Keiter) would turn the updates into a play-by-play broadcast.  To enhance the experience, a 30-second loop of crowd noises would play over and over again in the background — with no regard to whatever was supposedly happening on the field at that time.   Plus, Kieter or someone else in the studio would hit a  fixed wooden stand next to a microphone with another piece of hard wood to recreate the sound on a baseball hitting a bat.  (Again, the sound bore no resemblance to what was really happening on the field; a bunt sounded exactly like a home run.)  In any event, while I didn’t care about the Giants, they played the Dodgers a lot each season — there were many fewer teams then — and I always tried to listen to Giants-Dodgers games.  The main problem, of course, was the time difference; those 8:00 night games in Los Angeles and San Francisco began at 11:00 on the East Coast. I doubt if I ever stayed up until the end of a game.

*    *   *

Fast forward, radio fans, exactly ten years later.  It is now 1969, I’m at Harvard and Harvard is on strike over the Vietnam War and assorted other issues. By now, I am listening to radio on a very nice wood paneled Zenith clock radio my parents gave me when I was in high school.  This is exactly what it looked like:

 

Though I still listened to some sports on radio, I was, age appropriately, now much more into FM classic rock stations.  First, New York’s fabled WNEW -FM when in high school and, once in college, Boston’s almost equally fabled WBCN.

But at this moment, during the 1969 strike, my radio attention shifted as it was announced that, for the very first time, a Harvard faculty meeting to discuss the strike would be broadcast live by WHRB, the Harvard radio station.  WHRB is and was primarily an FM station.  However, unbeknownst to most of us, it also broadcasted on a “closed circuit” AM frequency as well.  And how did that broadcast signal get transmitted? You guesed it (maybe) — via the radiators in Harvard buildings. At first I thought that this was just urban myth — like alligators in the New York sewer system — but some of my more techie pals assured me that this was actually the case.

The Harvard  faculty decided, though it would allow broadcast of its meeting, that it would only go out on WHRB’s AM station.  Since that station had a very weak signal, it could only be heard if one were actually in a Harvard building — i.e., adjacent to the radiator “transmitters.”  So this would effectively ensure that only the Harvard community could have access to this oh-so-important but oh-so-private meeting.

The good news is that the technology worked exactly as planned.  With my roomies, I tuned in my radio to this obscure AM frequency and voila!  —   there was WHRB broadcasting from inside the faculty meeting.   But the bad news is also that the technology worked exactly as planned.

We probably all know Mark Twain’s famous quotation: “It’s better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than open it and remove all doubt.”  The Harvard faculty should have followed that good advice.  Instead, as I recall, the broadcast presented hour after hour of jabbering that ranged the spectrum from pompous bloviating to trivial carping with very little of merit in between. I forget the outcome, if any, of that meeting (probably none), but the overwhelming consensus among my roomies and me was that the faculty would be wise, for its own sake, not to overshare its views with us all again.

There was maybe one more faculty meeting broadcast over our radiators, but that was it.  Then radio silence.

Literally.

Profile photo of John Shutkin John Shutkin


Characterizations: well written

Comments

  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Very interesting details of your crystal radio set, John. I’ve heard of them but never knew how they worked. And I love that you listened to sports play by play (almost re-enactment) of those baseball games. The next best thing to being there. This was really early/primitive broadcasting and you explain it well.

    Listening to tunes at Harvard, you pinpoint the best (and most famous) FM station in Boston for years. I think everyone of an age listened to that station.

    Your description of the Harvard faculty meeting during the Cambodia bombing crisis and subsequent student strike is disheartening and hilarious. But I suspect, also true to form across all campuses most of the time. Thanks for giving us this wonderful take on your radio experiences.

  2. Laurie Levy says:

    I can so relate to your using the crystal and other radios in your life to access sports. Because of my father’s obsession, that’s all I thought radios were good for as a child. Love the connecting to the radiator bit. I suspect all faculty meetings are a bit like the one you heard. Perfect description. Mark Twain was right about that!

  3. Suzy says:

    John, this is an amazing story about two different radio experiences that are totally unfamiliar to me. The red and yellow crystal radio is adorable, and I love that it came as a kit that you had to put together. And clipping it to the radiator to enhance reception. Good thing you didn’t live in a house like mine, with central heat that came out through vents in the wall.

    Then another radiator experience, with your otherwise normal Zenith clock-radio – listening to a Harvard faculty meeting via the radiator in your Lowell House suite. I certainly never knew that meeting was being broadcast, OR that the way to hear it was via the radiator. And the Radcliffe dorms might have been too far away. Great to hear your account of the meeting!

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Suzy. In fact, my mother kidded me about the usefulness of my radiator, because I always complained about living in an old house. (Though I also remember having to “bleed” the radiators now and then — what a pain.)

      My bet is that the WHRB AM station could not be picked up in the Radcliffe dorms. Yet another injustice inflicted on Radcliffe by Harvard. But, as noted, you missed nothing — except maybe disillusionment.

  4. Marian says:

    How fascinating, John, about the symbiosis between radios and radiators at such different time points. I think it would have been a blast to “recreate” those baseball games. Where can I sign up to do the sound effects? Rather like the fake crowd noise on NBA games during COVID.

  5. Khati Hendry says:

    Love the old radio pictures! And the stories, so well–told. I was surprised to hear about the radiator-WHRB-transmission of the faculty meeting event. Who knew such a thing possible? But, as you noted, only interesting in the disappointment, and unmasking of the faculty.

  6. Understanding crystal radios and wired radiators is beyond me John, but I’m reminded of a dear, late Philadelphia friend who somehow was a Yankee fan.

    He told us how as a kid he would patiently turn the knob back and forth until he was able to pick up New York radio stations and hear the Yankee game.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Believe me, Dana, I have no understanding of the science of any of radios — though those old radiators were just tubes with hot water flowing through them.

      I remember that the crystal radio picked up so few stations that it was not hard to find the one you were looking for (or realize that you weren’t going to pull it in).

      • Despite your professed limited understanding John, it was certainly greater than mine!

        And didn’t we think that with radio, telephones, and then the miraculous advent of TV, technology had gone as far as it could go! We didn’t know THAT was a simpler time!

  7. I am absolutely thrilled that you chose the crystal radio as your featured image and then gave us so many details about it, John! My husband was actually the one that suggested this prompt, and it was the first example he gave me of his own radio experience. I wasn’t sure anyone else would relate to that…can’t wait until he sees this!

    Radio silence…now that’s what I’d like to hear from [insert cough with the name I will not mention]…will he ever go away?

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Barb. I am equally thrilled that others remember crystal radios; I thought I would seem like a dinosaur, even among Retro authors.

      And I crave not just radio sience, but COMPLETE silence, from he-who-will-not-be-named.

  8. This is great John. I had forgotten that I, too had a crystal radio. Not the same as yours, though, but necessitating a radiator or the like. Like you, I grew up in a house with steam heat and had to bleed radiators. A lost art. And I remember the WHRB broadcast of the faculty meeting as well.

  9. Ah, John, a wonderful survey of the intimacy of radio. Of course, the medium and the instruments have a myriad of uses and origins, but they do seem so personal, especially post-television when the family stopped gathering around them and we ‘snuck’ off to our rooms to listen to music while we did homework.

    I had a crystal radio. It’s power sources, as was yours, probably, was a lodestone, or ferrite iron, the stuff of magnets, a natural transmitter. Quite a wonder, the power of radio coming from Earth. Also, your clip and the radiators. Hooking up to a radiator didn’t just harness the bulk of the heater itself. It hooked you into the whole plumbing system. I loved the notion of Harvard’s ancient plumbing being recruited for such nefarious purposes as exposing the Crimson faculty’s prattle on the revolution. Loved your use of Twain here!

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks for your kind words, Charles. And yes; I, too, loved the “natural” source of the power and almost mystical connection of this little device to a complex infrastructure as its transmitter. That said, there wasn’t a whole lot of juice in the whole endeavor.

      As to the faculty, I love contemplating their hubris before the meeting.

Leave a Reply