It’s 1966 in Redfield, New York (Population: 400). My mother is fourteen years old, and she’s listening to the radio. The radio is both a comfort and a thrill; it’s there to keep her company and give her a glimpse into the world outside of upstate New York dairy farms. Sometimes, at night, listening to her transistor radio tucked under her pillow, she hears the music coming in from stations in Chicago and Detroit and delights in listening to songs no one else she knows has heard yet.
Songs take a while to get to Redfield in 1966. Take “Eleanor Rigby,” which my mother is hearing for the first time. Ah, look at all the lonely people… The strings and the harmonies and the lyrics suit her mood perfectly. She has felt lonely many, many times, but she’s never heard a song on the radio talking about loneliness, about other lonely people, and from the Beatles, too! Her favorite Beatles song has been “Ticket to Ride,” but she doesn’t have a ticket to ride right now. She has very little control over anything in her life. Loneliness, living in a dream, waiting at the window, darning socks…these are things she knows well and someone else, her favorite Beatle, Paul McCartney, no less, knows them too and wrote a song about them and now it’s playing on the radio in between songs about love and romance and freedom.
The radio is both a comfort and a thrill; it’s there to keep her company and give her a glimpse into the world outside of upstate New York dairy farms.
Before the song is even over, she starts pleading. “This song is so good. THIS SONG IS SO GOOD. I hope they play it again. Please please please please let them play this song again…”
The deliciously maudlin flourish of strings fade and dead air takes over. She keeps her ear to the speaker, waiting waiting waiting. After a few seconds — an eternity on the radio — the flustered DJ comes on and says, breathlessly, right in her ear, “Wow! What a good song! You know what, I liked that song so much that I’m going to play it again!”
Ah, look at all the lonely people…
My mother jumps out of bed. It worked. The radio has granted her wish. She is powerful and in control and intimately connected to this DJ, who is also alone and, possibly, lonely.
My father started out making recordings in his bedroom in Lexington, Massachusetts, imitating the DJs on the radio: Arnie “Woo Woo” Ginsberg, Juicy Brucie Bradley. He went on to get a degree in Radio Production at Syracuse University, where he (1) met my mother and (2) became a DJ on his college station and, eventually, three different New Hampshire Top 40 radio stations in the ’70s and ’80s.
My father’s mother had a very thick Boston accent, and eventually it occurred to me to wonder why he didn’t have one as well. His radio voice was always smooth and formal, and his regular voice is only slightly less so, with nary an accent to be heard. “I did have that accent!” he told me when I finally thought to ask. “I worked hard to get rid of it; there was no way I could be on the radio with that kind of voice.” I wish the recordings he made of himself as a kid pretending to be a DJ were still around; I’d love to be able to hear my father dropping his rs and honking out big, broad as.
He had the night shift for the first few years of my childhood, which meant he slept for much of the time I was awake. I’d listen to him before I went to bed on WGIR, the Top 40 station of Manchester, New Hampshire, cuing up “Night Fever” by the Bee Gees or “Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart” by Elton John and Kiki Dee and reading advertisements for the Mai Kai Restaurant and Chalifour’s Flowers. Sometimes I’d feel shy when he’d wake up for dinner, suddenly nervous to have to talk back to the man I spent so much time just listening to.
Years later, when my father was no longer a DJ and I was starting seventh grade in Swanzey, New Hampshire, my English teacher looked up at me after she read my name on the first day of school and asked if anyone I was related to was ever “a DJ on the radio.” Baffled, I told her that my father was, and she actually let out a tiny squeal. She was from Manchester, and she used to spend hours listening to my father on the radio with her sister, calling in to request songs. “Ask your father if he remembers Kathy and Susan! Oh my God!”
She was actually blushing. She had announced her first name to the entire class, something teachers never did, as well as the fact that she was a kid at some point and she had a crush on my father. I was mortified. But slightly pleased and proud, too.
I love listening to the radio. I’m not talking about satellite radio, when you pick a station that is tailored to specific listening tastes via algorithms, or “radio stations” created via Pandora or Spotify, which use personal data and your own musical history to present you with a nearly flawless selection of songs — though I love those types of radio, too. What I’m talking about is taking what you’re given when you’re listening to the radio, for better or for worse. I love that serendipity. I love putting up with half an hour of dreck to be rewarded with one perfect song, my song, showing up and making my day.
When I was a kid, I loved staying up until eleven on school nights to hear the end of the Top 10 at 10 on WKNE out of Keene, New Hampshire, my radio tucked under my pillow so my parents wouldn’t know that I was awake and listening to the radio. I loved following along with the dedications on the Top 10 at 10, hearing someone named Kristie’s dedications to someone named Brad go from “How Will I Know” by Whitney Houston to “Secret Lovers” by Midnight Starr to “Take My Breath Away” by Berlin to “On My Own” by Patti Labelle and Michael McDonald, all in the course of a month — I knew nothing else about Kristie and Brad, but thanks to the Top 10 at 10, they were my own soap opera to obsess over as I drifted off to sleep. Sometimes I would make dedications to friends and crushes, but I’d always use my initials, “KC,” too shy to really join in the drama and proclaim my feelings via song for the whole world to hear.
I miss the ritual of taping songs off the radio: looking for a fresh blank tape, Scotch-taping over the holes along the top to render it able to record again, and situating myself in front of the radio, waiting waiting waiting for the DJ to play my favorite songs.
I miss the ritual of taping songs off the radio: looking for a fresh blank tape, not finding one and having to choose which cassette to sacrifice to the cause, Scotch-taping over the holes along the top to render it able to record again, and situating myself in front of the radio, waiting waiting waiting for the DJ to play my favorite songs so I could record them to listen to later. Patience and choosiness was key—there was only a certain amount of space on each cassette and I wanted to fill it up with the songs I liked most. After an hour of mediocre offerings, it was easy to get discouraged and start settling. “Well, this one’s pretty good,” I might think as “All I Need is a Miracle” by Mike + the Mechanics started up, not realizing that the DJ was finally going to play “Papa Don’t Preach” right after, but now the tape was used up and there was no way my parents were going to get me “True Blue” for my birthday because Madonna was singing about sex and teen pregnancy and now I had to decide if I was going to rewind, tape over “All I Need is a Miracle” and miss the first verse of “Papa Don’t Preach,” or quickly flip the tape over, only missing a few seconds of “Papa Don’t Preach” but taping over “Word Up!” by Cameo, which I liked almost as much and they don’t play it on the radio as often, so who knew when I’d get a chance to tape it again?! There was also the issue of the DJ talking over the first part of the song, often right up to the second the singing began. “Papa Don’t Preach” had an especially long introduction and controversial subject matter about which certain DJs liked to make winky little comments, so it was especially difficult to get a clean copy of that one.
It was important to know songs’ idiosyncrasies in order to get the best possible recordings. I was playing Monopoly with my neighbor Amy in her room while she taped songs off the radio one Saturday afternoon; we were listening to WKNE, as usual, and at one point, churchy organ music started up. We looked at each other, puzzled…was it a commercial? What was happening? Suddenly, the organ drone ended, replaced by the unmistakable, spritely guitar intro to “Faith” by George Michael. We screamed. Amy jumped up and ran over to her boom box to push record, but she had missed the guitar intro as well as the song’s first saucy line: Well I guess it would be nice…if I could touch your body… We had never heard the extended “church music” introduction to the song before and had no idea it was a prelude to one of our radio favorites. After that, I was careful to listen for “church music” while taping off the radio so I’d be ready to record “Faith” for my very own.
At the School Show — an annual tradition at my elementary school — we would all stand on a set of bleachers onstage at the local high school and sing songs. Classes would come down to the front of the stage and perform together, sometimes with simple dance steps and hand motions, and there were group songs and solos for which the music teacher held cutthroat auditions, as well as a big dance number that was generally the highlight of the show — unless there was a breakout solo performance from an especially good singer or particularly hammy performer.
When I was in fifth grade, the theme was the music of the ’50s, and my class in particular responded enthusiastically and embraced the era for our own. I’m not sure if this was because of the ’70s version of the ’50s that most of us knew and loved via Grease and reruns of “Laverne and Shirley” and “Happy Days,” or the fact that the songs were often about the fun of being a teenager and we were closing in on being teenagers, but whatever the reason, we became obsessed. We started dressing in greaser outfits and poodle skirts that we were supposed to save as costumes for the show, we practiced the Jitterbug and the Stroll at recess, and we became devoted listeners to Jukebox Saturday Night, a syndicated radio program that played on WKNE.
Like the Top 10 at 10, Jukebox Saturday Night was a request and dedication show, but all of the songs were from the ’50s and early ’60s. My parents were big fans, and we’d often spend Saturday nights listening together in the living room while we played games, read, or chatted. It turned out that other kids came from Jukebox Saturday Night families as well, and word about the radio show that played the original versions of the songs we’d learned for our School Show spread throughout my class. The host must have been baffled as to why a bunch of 10- and 11-year olds were suddenly calling in to dedicate “Peggy Sue” and “Sh-Boom” for one another. Along with six other girls I had been selected for a group song, “Moments to Remember,” a song I had never heard before. I called Jukebox Saturday Night to dedicate it my fellow singers. When the finally song came on, I was surprised to hear that it was sung by a group called The Four Lads—boys! I had just assumed that we were singing a song by girls. Shocked, I listened extra closely to the lyrics about life in the ’50s: tearing the goal post down, winning ballroom prizes, and going to the drive-in movie “but somehow never watching the show.”
For the first time in my life, I was experiencing nostalgia. It was a sort of false, misplaced nostalgia, of course, as it was brought on by a song about the joy of being a white teenaged boy in the 1950s. I was not yet a teenager, and I would never be a boy in the 1950s, but pressed up close to the speaker, I felt the song to my core and found myself drawn in by the promise of one day not only having good times but looking back on the good times later. I didn’t know the word “nostalgia,” but the radio was teaching me what it was anyway, making me aware that time passed and one day, I would have my own moments to remember.
I meet up with my old friend on Christmas Eve. We’ve known each other for over twenty years, and we originally met because we both had radio shows on our high school’s radio station that barely broadcast to the end of the block. High-school style, he has borrowed his parents’ car to pick me up from work so we can go get a burger and talk. His parents’ car doesn’t have an iPod adapter, and we no longer carry around tapes or CDs, so we listen to the radio instead.
This is a throwback to when we first knew each other; when we would aimlessly drive around in my parents’ car with five other people and a broken tape deck, furiously smoking and flailing and yelling over each other, forced to listen to whatever radio stations we could pick up in very rural Northfield, Massachusetts. One hot June day, days before our high school graduation, we skipped school to go swimming. The radio would only pick up an oldies station, and it played “V-A-C-A-T-I-O-N,” an aggressively wholesome ode to summer vacation sung by Connie Francis with lyrics like We’re gonna…grab a bite at the pizza stand / Writin’ love letters in the sand! and We’re gonna…mashed potato to a jukebox tune / park your car ‘neath an August moon!
We all groaned: so cheesy! My love of ’50s and ’60s music and the glimpse it gave my fifth-grade self of what it would be like to be a teenager hadn’t lasted into my actual teenage years. Those songs now seemed too innocent, too goofy, too old. Connie Francis doesn’t show up on the radio so much these days; she’s too old even for the oldies station. But as the song twinkled on, we went from singing lyrics like the weather’s warm but we’ll play it cool! and V-A-C-A-T-I-O-N! And the world is ours! with less sarcasm and more glee until we were happily yelling out the lyrics, our fists raised in victory. It’s hard to resist a bouncy, shiny song about the cliché of being young and free in the summer sun when you actually are young and free in the summer sun.
I’m always going to love driving around and listening to the radio, hoping for good stuff, getting a mixed bag, waiting waiting waiting for my song, the perfect song, to come up next.
Twenty years later, here we are again, driving around in my friend’s parents’ car listening to the radio. We tune it to Emerson College radio, but we don’t pay much attention to the music, as we haven’t seen each other in years and have a lot to discuss. We aren’t smoking, yelling, singing, and laughing anymore; things get serious quickly—somehow, we’ve become people who are personally acquainted with heartbreak, disillusionment, bad jobs, money problems, bad backs, death, on and on and on. How did we get here? Who are we?
We’re reassuring each other that we still look great when the neglected radio makes itself known with an abrasive sound collage suddenly creaking and belching out of the speaker: George Bush making fart jokes; Martha Stewart describing a recipe for road-kill stew; garbled psychedelic guitars screeching over more fart jokes; a children’s story about going to the moon interspersed with swears, sex noises, and animal sounds—just about the most college radio thing I’ve ever heard. We start laughing, and get practically hysterical when the deadpan DJ finally figures out how to turn the mic back on and informs us we’ve just heard selections from “the one and only Wayne Butane” from his 2004 album “Wayne Butane Sucks Big Time.” Wayne Butane is probably not going to grow on me, Connie Francis-style, but now I’m never going to forget him. I’m always going to love driving around and listening to the radio, hoping for good stuff, getting a mixed bag, waiting waiting waiting for my song, the perfect song, to come up next.