Radio: Then and Now

In an essay in the November 11th New York Review of Books, Bill McKibben reminds us how extraordinary radio is today and the way it has been transformed by the digital age. Yet it is rarely discussed and not much is written about it. I grew up with the radio and I have grown old with the radio so I appreciate how right he is.

Television was still several years away when I was a child and so my early experience with the media was exclusively an auditory one. As a result it was also an imaginative one. There was nothing to look at, no images before me, and so what traveled through my ears took me to my own places, my own mental maps. I had an RCA flip top radio that turned on and off by lifting a horizontal lid covering the dial, at that time exclusively AM. Somewhere on the box Nipper, the legendary RCA dog, was peering into a large speaker searching for his master’s voice.

I listened, if you can believe it, to Stuart Hamblin who sang country music and ran for president on the Prohibition Party ticket, Arthur Godfrey who had a morning variety show, the Lone Ranger, Dick Tracy, Hopalong Cassidy, etc. And on Sunday nights, instead of peering at 60 Minutes on the tube, we sat around a huge radio cabinet listening to the comedians of the day--Jack Benny, Fibber McGee and Molly, Edgar Bergen, Abbott and Costello, Fred Allen, etc. These are people you may never have heard of but they were wildly popular during what some have called golden age of radio.

I still listen to the radio and I do so far more often than I watch television. McKibben cites some intriguing statistics on radio listening today. He notes that in terms of frequency of listeners, Rush Limbaugh is number one with 14.25 million listeners, that’s 14.25 million listeners, during an average week. But surprisingly Public Radio is not far behind.

“National Public Radio’s flagship news programs, Morning Edition and All Things Considered, featuring news and commentary alongside in-depth reports and stories that can stretch over twenty minutes—are the second- and third-most-popular radio programs in the country, each drawing about 13 million unique listeners in the course of the week.”

In my view Terry Gross’s Fresh Air is far and away the number one program on NPR. I listen to her relentlessly perceptive and intelligent interviews when I workout and the moments pass by in a flash. I’ve never heard or seen an interviewer draw out a person better or get to the central issue faster than Gross and she’s been conducting the show for nearly thirty-five years. McKibben reports Fresh Air is syndicated to more that 450 stations and can claim of average of nearly 4.5 million listeners each week.

Every time I listen to National Public Radio I am struck by the range and originality of its programming. I often wonder why that kind of programming can no longer be brought to television? There was a time when it was on Omnibus during a nine-year period beginning in 1952. I must have seen almost all the hour-long shows that aired on network television each Sunday afternoon. They featured theater and opera performances, literary readings, interviews with celebrities, scientists and artists and some legendary concerts accompanied by lectures from Leonard Bernstein.

Once in a while, programs like these can be found on the Web. Why not TV? Yes occasionally there are comparable programs on cable TV but unlike those early television programs or those on Public Radio they are not given away for free.

Perhaps the most remarkable event that has come to radio during our time is the development of podcasting and radio Apps. Countless programs can now be listened to on iPods or other comparable devices. And the equally numerous programs that can be streamed to a radio station App have rewritten the rules of radio listening. I can listen to Fresh Air on WXYY, classical music on one of several stations, as well as programs that range from Ira Glass’ unusual This American Life to Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now! news hour on the Pacifica Network.

As McKibben says, “…this is the perfect moment to be a young radiohead.” I might add, there’s nothing wrong with being an old one too. Sue Schardt, executive director of the Association of Independents in Radio said it well, “It’s a transformative and exciting moment, a huge revolution.”