How Radio Changed My Life, Part II.
Dear Reader, in part one of this missive I told you a little bit about myself and the discovery of my 1930’s radio. You may be drawn to the conclusion that the discovery of my wooden friend was the nidus for my moving into science. That only would be partially true. I was already making the transition from right brain to left brain, as I was attempting to understand myself and how I fit into the world. In those days I believed that science was the key to everything. The most basic building block of everything, I thought that if I understood science, I could understand everything. I was wrong, but that will need to be explained in a different post.
With that said, my radio did push me forward in that arena; Over time I moved from fixing radios, to building radios, to eventually obtaining an Advanced Class Amateur Radio License.
Dear Reader, something else happened to me that was more important than understanding the significance of capacitance, or the reflective properties of the ionosphere. That life changing event happened when I moved the radio upstairs, attached a length of bell wire to its antenna terminal, and turned it on.
But first, I must digress and confess to you that I was an odd duck growing up in my Chicago blue collar neighborhood. I was big and strong looking, visually perfect for sports. Physically, I was weak and clumsy. I lacked a mentor to teach and improve me, and so I avoided sports at all costs. In addition, I seemed to like things that my peers could care less about. My favorite television show was Mr. Wizard, where Don Herbert did science experiments using household items. I was different. I had difficulty with the awareness that I was different. I had difficulty accepting myself.
Let me get back to my main plot line…
Please remember that times were different in the 1960s. Television consisted of a handful of channels, people made long distance phone calls to herald holidays or deaths, and the most comprehensive information source for a young boy like myself was a 20 year old copy of a discarded encyclopedia.
There was no Internet, smartphones, or YouTube. The household calculator didn’t even exist. It is with that backdrop that you should appreciate the gravity of the discovery of my radio.
In the 1960s most radios had become disposable fodder. Poorly crafted devices that yielded tinny sound and lackluster performance. Designed to receive local signals, and not much more. Their engineering based on price point, rather than on innovation. After all, radio was supposedly dead, television was the new kid on the block.
My radio was built in the 1930s, a time when radio was king. Build to perform, built to last.
My radio had two bands, AM and shortwave. FM radio had been invented by Edwin Armstrong in the 30’s, but it would be decades before it would become popular.
I started to play with my radio as I tried to understand what all of the dials did. In that process I I strayed slightly away from WLS, Chicago’s Top 40 station, and picked up another signal that was weak and undulating That station was WWL. I was listening to a local station from New Orleans, and I was in Chicago!
So started a nightly vigil of acquisition and discovery. Dozens of signals explored. Most from the US, some from Canada, and even a few from Mexico. The 1960s was a time before mass syndication and robo-stations. Plugging into signals all around North America allowed me to plug into local music and local culture. From my old radio I was able to not only visit these places, but I was also able to connect with the local people, some who were very different from the people that I was growing up with.
Then there was that mysterious shortwave band, and its discovery led to fundamental changes in the way I thought about the world, and the way I thought about myself. For those of you who have never heard of this slice of the radio spectrum, allow me to offer this brief tutorial:
The shortwave spectrum lies just above the AM radio band (also called the medium wave band) and just below the FM radio band (also call the VHF band). Radio signals in this part of the spectrum have a unique characteristic in which that can use the earth’s ionosphere like a mirror and bounce off it. Because of this, these radio signals can travel around the world. With the discovery of shortwave I now had access to the world.
This region of electromagnetic spectrum had all sorts of interesting stations. Amateur radio stations, time signal and beacon stations, spy number stations, pirate radio stations (illegal radio) and my favorite, international broadcasting stations.
If a country wanted to have a seat at the international table it likely had a shortwave radio station, and many of those countries had full or partial services in English. The BBC, Radio Moscow, Radio Warsaw, The Voice of Vietnam, Vatican Radio, The Voice of South Africa… and on and on.
From my bungalow in Chicago I could listen to cooking shows, quiz shows, story hours and much more, but my favorite shows were news shows and commentary shows. Here I would hear the same news told on US stations, but with a different slant or perspective. This may sound trivial in the new millennium, but it was earth shattering for a young mind in the 1960s. I started to understand that there was more than one way to think about things. I started to understand that being different wasn’t a bad thing. I started to appreciate that someone could be different in one place, but completely mainstream in another place. The world was full of different. Different became exciting. Different became OK.
Once I accepted myself, I found that I could move forward. Once I accepted myself I could also accept others, even others who were different and out of the mainstream. Radio allowed me to do these things. Radio changed my life.
Less you think that I am some grandiose narcissist, please allow me to say that there were plenty of kids in my blue collar neighborhood that advanced and grew. There were plenty of kids who were more ambitious, smarter and even nerdier than me. The problem was that I had no way of finding them. I was unaware of clubs, there were no meetups, no Google searches and no YouTube channels where I could connect.
As I sit typing on my Macbook, other thoughts cross my mind. My radio was a useless piece of wood and wires when it sat unused in the basement. Yet, it served as a vehicle of profound transformation once it was given a chance. It was there, waiting. Waiting for me to find it.
How many times do we have solutions to problems right in front of us, but we ignore them? How often do we think that something new and shiny will change our lives, only to realize that what we already have is just what we need? How often do we expect someone or something to fulfill us or solve our problems, when we should be accepting or changing ourselves?
We live in a disposable society of quick, but inadequate, fixes. We all have our “basements” filled. Some things need to be thrown out, but other things need to be fixed, cleaned up and listened to. The answers to our personal happiness lies in ourselves, not in an external person or thing. With that said, we can use those connections as tools to move ourselves forward. A forward of acceptance. A forward of growth. A forward of change. … move forward with me, find your radio.