The Sounds I Live By

On the long ride home, driving south on the New York State Thruway, I marked the time by listening for the slow transition of local radio stations. I listened for a bit to Albany’s local NPR affiliate, but I was eager for the moment, near New Paltz perhaps, when I could pick up WFUV, a public music station broadcasting from Fordham University in the Bronx. I had only been away a short time, but I looked forward to my return, and the crackle of New York City radio was the first signal that I was close to home.

Radio has always served as a homing signal for me. I think it dates to my days in high school when I kept the radio tuned to 92.3 K-Rock (Meg Griffin in the evenings) as I toiled away on my Latin homework. The background noise helped me to concentrate, though I guess I should not be surprised that while the opening lines of the Aeneid now elude me, the opening chords of “Smoke on the Water” are still immediately recognizable.

Advertisement

I went to college in New Jersey, only an hour and a half from home, but I was displeased to find that I was in Philadelphia radio country. The difficult transition to freshman year was made worse by my inability to tune in to Alison Steele or Pete Fornatale. Later, when I moved to Connecticut for a job, I lived alone, but I could still hear WFAN in New York, which allowed me to fall asleep to Mets games or the monologues of Steve Somers. Today, I don’t feel I have arrived home from an airplane trip until I climb in a car and hear the familiar rat-a-tat-tat of 1010 WINS.

If I were in college today, I could listen to my hometown stations on my phone or laptop. Apps like “I Heart Radio” give almost unlimited access to radio outlets from across the country and around the world. Many commercial radio stations may sound similar these days, but stations like WBEZ in Chicago and WHYY in Philadelphia still offer plenty of local flavor. I like tuning in now and then, but the variety is both heady and disorienting. There is almost too much to listen to. Throw satellite radio into the mix, and the choices for today’s listener are almost limitless—Frank Sinatra radio, Grateful Dead Radio, E-Street Radio; the list goes on.

I have experimented with satellite radio, and with Spotify and Pandora too, but I find myself returning to my local radio stations again and again. One reason is habit. The radio hosts on WFUV and WNYC help to set the rhythms of my day. I also respect their judgment, whether they are picking new music or reporting new stories. Pandora is a formidable force, but music by algorithm, while enjoyable in certain circumstances, ultimately feels inadequate to me. Without a human voice to guide me through the rivers of song, I am unmoored.

So I like traditional radio because it’s tied to a person but also because it’s tied to a place. Satellite radio enthusiasts sometimes refer to old-fashioned radio as “terrestrial radio.” That is not meant as a compliment; local radio outlets are aligned with a place and are therefore limited. Their signals reach only so far. But I think that is one of their charms, and one of the reasons I keep tuning in. Listening to satellite radio I could be anywhere in the world. Listening to WFAN or WNYC, I know I am close to home.

Traditional radio is also precious because it is fragile. Your radio can break; the transmitter can be damaged. A struggling station can go off the air at a moment’s notice. But there are also moments of serendipity. Sometimes, when you are lucky, you can catch a signal from a faraway station.

This is one of the plot points of the successful novel All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr. Two characters, a boy in Germany and a young girl in France, are tied together by radio, which inexorably brings them together during World War II. Growing up in an orphanage, the boy, Werner, comes across a mysterious radio signal, and listens with rapt attention to the lessons of a nameless French science teacher. For Werner, the radio is both a mechanical object, which he learns to master, and a vehicle for grace, which opens up his life to a new world of knowledge.

Because it is portable, because it focuses attention on the human voice and because it emanates from a specific place, radio holds a special place in the crowded media landscape. It is both intimate and communal, a comforting voice in the dark and a symbol of the ways we are all tied together.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Bruce Snowden
2 years 7 months ago
I like radio too. I think I’m addicted to it. Years ago I used to go to bed with a small battery radio under my pillow, so as to listen to conversation, some confrontational between hosts and callers. My wife called the little radio, “my spouse!” Every chance I got in daytime too, I’d listen to Conservative radio talk shows, to men like Bob Grant who was as he said, given to “free and open exchange of ideas and opinions.” Didn’t always agree with him, often too bombastic, others too like Rush Limbaugh, but I liked them because blindfolds of the Politically Correct wishy-washy “see no evil, hear no evil” warriors were relegated to an obscure position and delivery of truth, the whole truth, non-clandestinely offered. It’s not that I’m a starched and stiff Conservative, being actually quite politically and theologically Liberal, but truth be told with a definite tilt to the right, because there moral truth seems more securely anchored , but not always. In life it seems to me, very little is absolutely absolute! I think my love affair with radio began when at about ten years old I used to listen to the family console with that pre-historic early 1940s “magical green eye” some kind of more precise tuning device I think, especially using short wave frequency, where could be heard the riveting musical NBC “Bong, Bong, Bong” chimes and authoritative voice of an announcer saying, “This is WNBC, Schenectady New York!” Wow! What a thriller for a ten ear old to hear someone ‘way off in the USA speaking to him in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands where our West Virginia Dad had settled following Coast Guard service, to marry our Mom of French and Danish heritage. It was all so enchanting, so mystical. Here's another radio story, loosely, or maybe not connected, but beautiful, really saintly, so I want to use this opportunity to share it. The holy American Capuchin Franciscan priest, Venerable Solanus Casey, fancied himself to be a pretty good fiddler, although in fact not so hot! One evening he came where friars were recreating, reading papers, talking, listening to the radio – no TV ‘way back then. Unsolicited the Servant of God Solanus began to serenade his brothers with his fiddle and everyone stopped to listen, clapping politely when he finished. A few days later he returned with his fiddle and once again began playing his favorite, “Pop Goes the Weasel!” This time none of the friars stopped reading, or talking and the radio wasn’t turned off. The holy priest got the message, stopped his playing and went straight to the chapel doing what only a saint would do – playing his fiddle before the Blessed Sacrament! How terrific! Knowing Jesus he probably said to Solanus, “Good Job Solanus! Thanks for stopping by, clapping as he spoke. A true and uplifting "radio" story.

Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

It is astonishing to think that God would choose to enter the world this way: as a fragile newborn who could not even hold up his own head without help.
Ginny Kubitz MoyerOctober 20, 2017
Protestors rally to support Temporary Protected Status near the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Sept. 26. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)
Around 200,000 Salvadorans and 57,000 Hondurans have been residing in the United States for more than 15 years under Temporary Protected Status. But that status is set to expire in early 2018.
J.D. Long-GarcíaOctober 20, 2017
At the heart of Anne Frank’s life and witness is a hopeful faith in humanity.
Leo J. O'Donovan, S.J.October 20, 2017
Forensic police work on the main road in Bidnija, Malta, which leads to Daphne Caruana Galizias house, looking for evidence on the blast that killed the journalist as she was leaving her home, Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017. Caruana Galizia, a harsh critic of Maltese Premier Joseph Muscat, and who reported extensively on corruption on Malta, was killed by a car bomb on Monday. (AP Photo/Rene Rossignaud)
Rarely does the death of a private citizen elicit a formal letter of condolence from the Pope.