Best Worst Year: Episode 37 (Or, Radio Radio)

Maybe LL Cool J said it best, “I can’t live without my radio.” The true touchstone of a rewind generation and all teens prior, a solid radio station was the analog soundtrack of growing up, getting on, and figuring out. Before SiriusXM, before Pandora, before our earbud fascination iPod nation, a strong signal, a dj with omniscient timing, and cheap speakers spoke the news of teenage hearts. When we confused lust for love or ennui for inspiration, the right song made a good night great and a great night legendary. Coming of age in the premature burial of vinyl, radio static replaced the LP hiss and pop. There was a kinetic energy to radio–the random selection, the waiting all night to hear your request. It was a live wire to a street pulse you held onto and completed the circuit.

Radio shaped what a voice could be. Growing up with a broken throat and a tin tongue, I felt more awkward because I had to go to speech class. I don’t remember what early teenage summer Sunday it was but I know I was washing the car and listening to the Phillies game when I was struck by the play by play of Harry Kalas and Richie Ashburn. There was something going on in their announcing that went beyond hits, runs, and errors. They were storytellers. They were poets. A game of summer leisure had an unfolding drama to it–not because it was Game 7 of the World Series but because each inning, each out, each game was a little life of its own with a story to tell wholly unique to that crowd and me, ear pinned to radio voices.

I became obsessed with the shape of my voice–how could I ever have that richness and depth of life to what I said? I wanted big, deep, and profound. I had soft, mumbly, and a lisp. I wanted a radio voice and spent a lot of time alone in my room practicing the “FM voice.” Twenty odd years later, I’m still spending a lot of time alone in my room working on my voice. It’s never effortless and even when it sounds broadcast friendly it’s a fight not to immediately undercut a compliment with my own anxiety.

So all those years later I am getting to produce a radio show for WUIS that is a companion piece to the literary journal I edit. It’s one thing to talk about poetry and prose, but to have the ability to create a program where you hear poetry and stories with an accent of music is a dream come true. I think it’s easy to say that radio’s shine has been dulled by the glut of technology and varied listening options we have that make what we listen to a more singular event rather than a communal experience. What it does mean is that we have to look harder for that magic. To some degree it probably makes some of us overly nostalgic for radio stations that really didn’t play The Cure 24/7 or perhaps we re-write our first heartbreak to not correspond with Phil Collins but with Jeff Buckley. We all don’t have surgeon hands when it comes to the doctored revisionist history of personal mythmaking. We don’t need to–it’s heart of the moment we pass to one another in such transplanted memories and share stories which truly matter. The detail is in the act of connection.

For me that spark was always left of the dial. I was just barely in range to get WCLH 90.7fm–Wilkes College Listening Headquarters. WCLH wasn’t playing anything that looked like the classic rock meat and potatoes of the local commercial stations, nor was it concerned with Casey Kasem’s’ Top 40. The music was random and strange–the dj’s sounded even more awkward than I did. Between false starts, dead air, and the fact that the only place WCLH’s signal came in real strong was a hill on the outskirts of town (being rapidly developed into McMansions for the coming real estate boom), I fell in love with songs a few months before the burgeoning alt nation would foist them upon MTV Gen Xers. Mudhoney, Teenage Fanclub, Matthew Sweet, Tad, Liz Phair, and the Afghan Whigs were college radio sweethearts which made me dig deeper and gave way to just missing The Replacements boat as well as Husker Du and The Stone Roses. Between college radio and Muggsy’s Discount Records in Bloomsburg I received all the formal education I needed to become an extra in High Fidelity (or even Empire Records).

What made it more crystalline with the randomness of these discoveries–they were in many cases, my first real brushes with the synchronicity of life. (“All I Want is You,” “Black,” “Mr. Jones,” and “Runaway,” all have faces, names, and vivid watercolor locales in me I could never give to anyone else.) At the time I was less aware of how much of an impact radio was having on me. All those dj’s who are as anonymous to me as I probably was to those listening (or not) to my own radio show at WCLH a handful of years later gave shape and intent to life. In the montage sequence of weekend days and nights spent hammering out my escape plan from small towns or feeling hopelessly hopeless or being smitten with every winking flirt I thought was true love, there was radio bringing moments into sharp focus–a celluloid kodachrome moment which has turned out to be all the difference in how I hear the world.

_________________________

Jim Warner is the Managing Editor of Quiddity International Literary Journal and Public Radio Program at Benedictine University and the author of two poetry collections Too Bad It’s Poetry and Social Studies (Paper Kite Press). His poetry has appeared in various journals including The North American Review, PANK Magazine, and Drunken Boat. Jim received his MFA at Wilkes University. He lives in Springfield, IL and never travels far without a little Big Star. For info on Quiddity (the magazine and the public-radio show): http://quiddity.ben.edu

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