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Long Live Radio

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About a month ago, as we were first descending into Covid isolation, I received a text from a friend in Canyon in the form of a simple website link. The link led me to something called the Radio Garden, and more specifically to FM90 in Amarillo, a radio station I DJed on in the mid-nineties.

The Radio Garden is a tool that allows you to play Radio God, in a sense, spinning the earth and listening to radio stations from anywhere on the planet in real time. It was the perfect thing for me, a guy who has moved away from the High Plains to live in Portland, Maine, but still finds himself missing the all-night radio stations of the flatlands.

Spinning the globe on the Radio Garden, I discovered treasure after treasure. As anyone who knows me will tell you, I’m obsessed with winter and cold weather. So, I found myself looking around the icy top of the globe, listening, listening. I listened in to the “Voice of the Common Man” in St. John’s, Newfoundland. On “Apparatio” in Reykjavik, I heard a haunting Icelandic band called Samaris. And I listened to Anarchy and Angels, a radio station in Inverness, Scotland, blasting the Dead Kennedys. The Radio Garden reminded me of just how much I love radio, this scrappy medium that refuses to die.

Over the past couple of months, I read two books about radio for HPPR’s Radio Readers Book Club: The first, Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism, illuminated what a powerful tool radio was in the fight against the Nazis. The second book, Border Radio: Quacks, Yodelers, Pitchmen, Psychics, and Other Amazing Broadcasters of the American Airwaves, reminded me that, since its inception, radio has often been home to the people who reside on the fringes of life.

These books showed me that radio can be powerful, but it’s still endlessly quirky.

There’s something magical about radio. I remember, as a kid, driving across the High Plains with my dad, scanning the AM band. In the nighttime, we would pick up stations from as far away as Denver and Chicago—getting a giddy sense that we were eavesdropping on faraway cities, on distant lives very different from our own.

I still have my grandfather’s old transistor radio, too. My grandpa died when I was five, but some of my earliest memories revolve around that radio. The old man was blind, and I remember sitting in the evenings in his kitchen, listening to Texas Rangers broadcasts with him, though I had no idea what was happening in the game. I did my best to pretend, making a serious face and nodding in approval when he did. I still love AM baseball broadcasts—baseball is, to my mind, perfectly suited for radio, allowing listeners to arrange the field of play in their minds, advancing the runners and remembering the count, strategizing along with the managers. When I drive long distances at night in the summertime—something I love to do—one of my favorite things is to pick up baseball broadcasts from as far away as possible and listen to them until they vanish into the crackle and hum of the ether. Then, I continue scanning until I find a revivalist preacher or an old Hank Williams song.

I have friends who’ve gotten satellite radios installed in their cars. Most of the people I know listen to Spotify playlists while they drive. But I’m still a radio guy. Sometimes, technologies don’t need updating. I scroll through, listening to oldies and country, metal and jazz, continuing on when I hear a song I don’t like—or when the dreaded commercials come on. It’s a game I play, listening for what the universe wants to serve up to me. Radio may be a moribund technology, but it’s part of the old America that I love. And, despite repeated predictions of its demise, radio is still hanging on. I’m grateful for that.