Is there anybody out there? transistor radios and invisible neighborhoods.

I received the love of my life in fifth grade: a transistor radio.

It was your standard little pocket Sony. I’ve worn out many radios since then. Maybe “worn out” isn’t the right phrase. Maybe “snapped off the antenna and can’t tune anything in now” is better.

I don’t know how many people still listen to transistor radios. There are car radios, and radios that play overhead in a restaurant. There are websites and apps on your phone that can stream radio. But what about this humble little old-fashioned chunk of plastic?

I have a need that no Ipod or app or streaming or I Heart Radio can fulfill. Because with those, you know what’s coming up next. It’s like listening to a CD. You know the playlist, ergo you know the next song. This can serve a purpose; maybe you really like a new album, or you want to reminisce. Maybe you want to be the one to choose the soundtrack for your own life. I respect that. I prefer to let Muzak decide.

But in all seriousness, an unexpected song can flood you with memories from the time period in which you listened to it. It can hit you so strongly, almost with real physical force, a rush of creative energy and compulsions, nostalgia, and a reawakening of powerful dormant emotions that can even punch you in the gut. But when you play an emotional song deliberately, it feels too contrived and the real poignancy of the song just isn’t there. Maybe streaming is like a radio? I have no idea. But to me, it lacks the tangibility of the radio itself, and there’s so many options to the point where impact is deadened and unpredictability becomes boring.

Songs have their own colors, textures, emotions, and they even occupy dimensional space in the mind. The radio, in my opinion, exploits this beautifully. Different areas of the dial form little “neighborhoods.” A cluster of classic stations huddle between two statics, followed by a boisterous rock and rap block. Visualize the shifts and changes of this topographical map of frequency waves, bearing music and voices, as you move in any direction away from a single radio…. An invisible map drawn between signals, stations, and towers, fully tangible only in the plastic form of the radio when you turn the dial. I personally recommend headphones. You enter the world more fully alone, I think.

Even in the dark, you don’t need to see the dials or the frequency in order to navigate. Only move slowly across, listen to the patterns of sounds, let your mind’s eye look around, and you’ll know the neighborhood you’re  in.

Distant signals struggle with laryngitis. Strong signals bully the weak, breaking through with a static army; so territorial sometimes that they dominate both ends of the dial. Invaders from other cities, even states, with your station’s frequency number try and shock you into believing that your favorite station has been replaced, but belie themselves when they reveal their foreign call letters.

Little-known, local stations with a weak signal are like holes-in-the-wall down a side street. Sometimes refreshing amateurs share songs you’ve never heard before. Or you hear serious intellectual talk among grown-ups, not vulgar disk jockeys. Sometimes there’s no host at all, just a mysterious never-ending playlist. There’s a bittersweetness in the enjoyment of them because you feel like you’ve discovered a secret between just you and the station, but it can be mildly devastating when they disappear, depending on how attached you got to the playlist.

It’s also disappointing to lose track of a song you love and never learned the name or artist of. But be careful–if you google lyrics, the mystery will inevitably be ruined. Even seeing a video thumbnail can kill it. God forbid you watch it—and irrevocably destroy the video you directed in your own mind. All those years of  experiences, memories, and emotions, layered one upon another, ruined with a single YouTube view. But if you choose to lose it and let it go, it will make it all the more exciting and meaningful if you should unexpectedly bump into it again.

Eventually, your body will become an antenna itself. You’ll know just where to cradle the radio against your body, even in your armpit if need be, or where to wave the radio and hold it in midair with a certain corner of the radio pointed towards a certain cardinal direction. (When this happens, it’s always a forgotten favorite you haven’t heard in about a decade and now you won’t get any enjoyment out of it.) Whipping around the headphone cord works too. Don’t let anyone see you do this stuff. Trust me.

So when you turn on the radio, you’ll step into a neighborhood that is not defined by streets or city lines, but signals and waves. There are people nearby you, too, whom you can’t see but are inhabiting the same space as you are. You share space with others in the internet as well, but when spread out all over the globe, the idea of neighborhood sort of loses its meaning. With radio, the others by definition are geographically nearby and limited in number.

The internet reminds me of those time-lapse videos of New York City but to the nth power. The connections are overwhelming. Real connection always starts with a one-to-one connection. Maybe it’s in our nature to desire that first connection between two people. That’s the foundation upon which everything else human beings do is built. One person speaks to another, and perhaps another joins in, and a web of connections grows, until we have a worldwide network called the internet; and then all becomes lost in the noise, and we once again crave that first intimate connection.

Here comes the paradox. Technically speaking, you can’t really communicate or converse with the other radio listeners or the station itself (unless you’re one of those people who call in to win tickets). But there’s a certain mystique involved in not knowing who else is there. Maybe it’s the wee hours of the night, and you can’t sleep, and you’re lying in the dark, and maybe they can’t sleep either and they’re driving around, yet you’re both together somehow. Therefore, paradoxically, the inability to actually spark the connection increases the consciousness of our desire to connect, and the knowledge that global networks do not answer those yearnings.

Unlike those of us who aren’t isolated to begin with, many people have been shocked to find out what their life consisted of before the quarantine. There’s no way to count how many posts and articles and videos have been posted about the sudden loneliness, the realization of the need for personal contact, and the mental health ramifications of isolation. Some people were surprised that being connected to possibly thousands of people every day is not real connection, and they flocked to Zoom to see their friends and family. It takes a rare person to be alone with their thoughts without wanting to share them with someone else.

Ironically, we can encounter radio silence the more we try to fill it.

P.S. I was only talking about FM in this post, not AM. I am younger than you think I am.

Tell me that transistor radios are not just the province of old men over sixty-five (no offense to individuals of that group). Does anyone else still use them or do you find better advantages and qualities in other types of devices? How does your listening style impact your emotions and sense of connectivity to other people and to your own creativity?

6 thoughts on “Is there anybody out there? transistor radios and invisible neighborhoods.

  1. So damn thoughtful. Sheesh, you need more readers to enjoy such insightful musings.

    > play an emotional song deliberately…

    “OK, here it comes, ‘When the lights go down in the city…'” Does certainly defused the electric juicing one gets from a spontaneous listen of a decades old song.

    I use Pandora, 100 channels all on shuffle and I hear songs I haven’t heard for years. But it’s not the same as radio, not by a long shot.

    Not that I was old enough to hear Wolfman Jack, but the movie American Graffiti portrays radio music as a thread that joins thousands of young folks out enjoying the night. When Josie is hearing Teen Angel, so are you. I hadn’t thought of that before but there is an unspoken connection in that, a cosmic one I suppose.


  2. You know, Queen’s Radio Ga Ga suits you I think after reading this post.

    I had wonderful memories of radio. In my boarding school of horrors, we used to hear cricket matches on it, or just listen to the songs to pass the time.

    But now? Those stations are nothing more than ad filled junk. You listen to a song which is cut short, and then ten minutes long break, another cut song, and continue this all day long.

    Liked by 1 person

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