One of my most prized possessions is the cabinet to an eighty-year old RCA Victor radio …and you did read that sentence correctly; it’s not the actual radio but the wooden box that used to hold a working device. It’s a beautiful example of Art Deco styling made of warm colored wood with dark Bakelite (cellulose-based plastic) trim and a large cloth speaker panel located in the center. Just below the speaker is a glass frequency gauge that would glow softly when the radio was on – and for the entire two years we lived in Anchorage it was on a lot. I listened to that radio every night without fail.
I miss AM radio – not the jungle of evangelists, sports talk and conservative ranting we have now but that magic ethereal net of music and words that held us all together years ago. It might seem that I am a little young for “the golden age of radio” but growing up in early 1960s south-central Alaska made for an entertainment situation similar to that of the nation as a whole 30 years earlier. Radio filled the void made by the lack of day-time television in Anchorage, and on the weekends stations would play repeats of the old classic radio shows like “Jack Armstrong : All American Boy” and “Dragnet”.
…and as I said, AM radio was my companion during the weeknights as well. Our home in Spenard was tiny, an older place built when the high cost of building supplies and heating oil favored small homes, so my three younger siblings and I were bunked (literally) in one small room. In that situation pushing a string would be easier than getting us to settle down at night so Mom would leave the radio set at low volume, desperately hoping it would lull us to sleep.
That worked for my three younger sisters but for me it had the opposite effect – there was too much excitement involved with the radio. To begin with there were the lights; in addition to the frequency selection bands there were two lights at either end of the preset bands, one red and the other blue all of which conspired to create too much eye candy for me to ignore.
Then there was the country and western show that came on the air at 9:00 PM. A dedicated C&W station was still at least 5 years in the future for Anchorage but KBYR’s rather eclectic format had plenty of room for such a program. The music was not particularly great but I remember two songs well:
- The show’s theme “He’s A Cool, Cool Cowboy” which leaned more toward Pop than C&W.
- A local tune, the title forgotten but the first line indelibly inscribed in my memory “I want to be in Kotzebue / where the skies are always blue”.
The physics of radio was as fascinating as the music, and I was especially interested in the phenomenon of AM radio “skip” – the way AM radio signals bounce off the ionosphere back toward Earth without being limited in range by the curve of the Earth. The anomaly allows AM radios to pick up signals from beyond the horizon, sometimes at intercontinental distances. (If you think of the radio signal as a racquetball, the court floor as the earth’s surface and the court’s ceiling as the ionosphere you’ll get a good idea of how the principle works). I would carefully turn the dial and listen for station identifications – or maybe just a business name or address that I could research the next day in our library’s collection of phone books. The whole process pales in the light of our digital world but when your results depended on the steadiness of your hand, the sharpness of your hearing, and your skill in research, it became a fascinating hobby.
Not that we got all that many out-of-state “skips”. It’s not as obvious with an atlas or map, but one look at Alaska on the globe and it is plain just how far away the state is from anywhere else. Because of that distance most of the skips I encountered were Alaskan stations – Fairbanks, Juneau, or occasional missionary stations in the Interior. Occasionally I would pick up a Canadian station but there was one time where I think I got a signal from Washington State; I never got a station I.D. but the term “evergreen” came up several times during commercials, and since the word evergreen is a favorite appellation of the Pacific Northwest I made the assumption. I also may have gotten a Russian signal once but it was too faint for me to positively identify given my scant knowledge of linguistics at the time.
Regardless – I was more interested in the local news reports. At that time all television programs were on a two week delay; which was bearable when watching entertainment but frustrating when you wanted news. Radio seemed a little more direct – it was the same information coming off the teletype but you got it right away instead of waiting until 6:00PM to watch Darryl Comstock sitting at a cardboard desk, facing the camera and reading the same stories off the teletype that the radio had been giving to us hourly for the entire day beforehand.
…or the entire evening afterwards. There was something special about listening to the regular updates to local news stories. I felt like I was part of a secret club. For example, we lived less than a mile from the railroad track and one night someone was hit by a train while walking along the track. The first report was simple: Someone had been hit while walking along the train-tracks. The update that came a half-hour later was meatier: The victim was an adult male and he’d been hit not far from our home where the tracks crossed Spenard Road. Thirty minutes later there was even more information: The man was Native American; he was seriously injured and had been wearing a dark colored coat so the engineer had no idea of his presence on the track until the time of impact.
…and so on. Each update would be just a bit more detailed, and as I listened to them my mental picture would get that much more detailed, until finally I felt like I was actually on the scene with police and ambulance drivers huddled around the prostrate form of the victim, while the street lights and spotlights from the vehicles illuminated the ever-present clouds of exhaled breath.
As a visual person you’d think that I would choose a video presentation every time but I still find myself searching out radio coverage of sports events and listening to old radio programs on YouTube. I’ve read that when a person loses their sight the other senses become much more acute in order to make up the information gap caused by being blind. It may be that listening to a broadcast instead of watching it on TV did something similar , with the descriptions and commentary traveling full circle to recreate that much, much more interesting visual picture usually found in a ten-year old’s imagination.