on the radio

Internet radio!
(Internet Radio Station, Beacon, NY)

I found this in a folder on my desktop called “working on.” It’s about radio and it’s better than I remember feeling it was when I was writing it. It’s charmingly dated–pre Obama election (you’ll see it mentions the campaign, months and months before the election happened), I was living in Canada, I had just devoured Late Nights on Air, which had won the Giller Prize. It’s unfinished, but here it is:

My father and I have been bickering about the National Research Council official time signal. “The beginning of the long dash, following ten seconds of silence, marks the beginning of ten o’clock” the man says, “that can’t be ten seconds” my father says, “that’s only four or five seconds!” They wouldn’t lie to us, I say, it has to be ten seconds. My father tells me to listen with a stopwatch tomorrow, but tomorrow I’ll be in Toronto, where the announcement is at one, and I’ll be at work and I won’t remember anyhow. It won’t be until two weeks later, while I’m drinking coffee on a Sunday afternoon, having just listened to Stuart McLean, when the short beeps begin and the announcer begins his spiel: “the beginning of the long dash….” I look at my watch. I count ten seconds. I call my father.

According to the CBC website, the official time signal is the longest-running feature on CBC radio.

Lately, I have been thinking too much about radio. Partly because I have been doing a lot of listening: to As it Happens in my home as I make dinner, to WNYC podcasts on my headphones at work, to the snatches and snippets of country music and American election talk in the car as I was driving around New York and Maryland and Pennsylvania over my winter holiday. More so, it’s because everything I read seems to be about radio.

The start of this wave was Rick Moody’s short story, “Pirate Station” published in the 2006 edition of The Best American Nonrequired Reading. It begins:

“For the first twenty-four hours, the pirate station broadcasts the sound of someone cough nervously. An august beginning. It’s not the dead air of the rural FM dial. It’s someone coughing nervously.”

The Pirate station goes on to play 6 solid days of improvised jazz by people who have never before picked up insturments; a bird-call request program, a study of whistles, and several weeks of the sound of southwestern cacti “until, by general assent, it is agreed that cacti make no sounds”

(It goes on. It is wonderful. It’s short. You should read it yourself. Or let Rick Moody read it to you: http://www.ubu.com/sound/moody.html)

Everything I think that I know about Pirate Radio comes from watching Pump up the Volume as a teenager. It is a movie of high school students, in their bedrooms with tiny pink radios or in groups gathered in parking lots, listening to the seditious sounds of Happy Harry Hardon tell them that the world is messed up and adolescence is hard, but they are not alone; he swears through the airwaves, plays Leonard Cohen, and encourages his audience to “talk hard!” What they don’t realize, of course, is that Harry is actually the shyest, most anonymous boy at school, ignored in the daytime only to be worshiped at night. And this is what radio is–it is superhuman, it is a cyborg, it is an individual enhanced by machine to be something powerful and unifying that exemplifies the hope of possibility. This true for Happy Harry’s midnight broadcasts, and for Moody’s tituar Pirate Station, but it is also true for the more quotidian radio; the radio of the National Reserach Council official time signal, weather reports, and news.

This year a book about radio won the Giller Prize, and as of this writing there are 1617 holds currently on the 299 Toronto Public Library copies of Elisabeth Hay’s Late Nights on Air, the story of certain set of characters working at the CBC in Yellowknife in the 70s. The book deals with the conflicting ideas of isolation and intimacy, both in the Canadian north and is the radio booth, where you sit alone yet talk to everyone. It is about a quarter of the way through that Gwen, who has driven 3000 miles in pursuit of her northern radio dreams and has been given the night shift, begins to experiment with Pirate Radio-eque tactics:

“She experimented with sound. “Can you identify this bird?” she asked into the night, playing a persistent, rather eerie bird call she’d recorded through an open window in the early morning hours, not expecting an answer and not getting one either. She recorded Eleanor’s impish, girlish, delighted laugh. She recorded a Venetian blind clicking in the wind and Bill Thwaite typing in the newsroom.”

Here is the secret about radio: it’s always about somewhere.

If I were going to finish this, the last line might go away. I would write about listening to podcasts while I walk around New York, about moving to a new city and adapting to a new morning voice on my alarm, about about listening to CBC Sudbury on the internet in order to hear Tracy read the news.

What I didn’t get to in the essay was something about Sarah Vowell’s Radio On, especially the part where she goes on a trip with her grad school class to new mexico, and she takes her portable radio and listens to the radio of that place, on the bus, walking around, looking at landscape art. I was amazed by this description (the book is from 1995); these days you can listen to New Mexico radio from anywhere, like I listen to Sudbury from Brooklyn. And this was written before Satellite Radio, which really is from nowhere.

All to say: there is more to say.

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