The other night, I attended an anniversary party-- hundreds of enthusiastic fans, along with local sports celebrities and sportswriters, gathered to celebrate the 10th anniversary of "Toucher and Rich," a popular morning show on Boston sports-talk radio station 98.5 The Sports Hub. As a former deejay, I know how difficult it is to get and maintain that kind of popularity, and in our modern world, where people have so many media choices, it's nice to see that radio still has plenty of supporters.
A few days earlier, with far less fanfare, another happy event occurred-- former Boston top-40 legend Arnie Ginsburg turned 90 years old. Arnie is retired and lives up in Maine, and I do hope someone threw a party for him; he was among the most popular disc jockeys during the era when AM radio was still king; you may have heard him reenact his "Night Train" radio show on the "Cruisin'" series of recordings-- he represented what top-40 sounded like in 1961, and you can read the liner notes from that CD here: http://www.reelradio.com/rj/cruisin/cruisin61.html
And then there was the recent news story about a young man named Adnan Syed: convicted in 2000 of murdering his ex-girlfriend, his case became the topic of Serial, a highly-acclaimed podcast produced by Chicago's public radio station WBEZ in 2014. Syed has long claimed he was innocent, and thanks in large part to evidence presented during the podcast, a judge has now agreed that Syed deserves a new trial.
Once upon a time, radio was unique. It was powerful. It was dominant. When it came onto the scene in mid-1920, it quickly began to make a difference in how people lived. Radio was the first mass medium to bring the audience to an event in real time, as it was happening. Radio transcended race (anyone who had access to a receiver could listen, and no matter what color you were, if you had talent, you had a chance to become a radio star); it also transcended social class (people who lived on the farm or in poor parts of town had the same opportunity to hear the biggest names and most popular shows as people who were rich and powerful).
And while radio was initially a source for music, it also became a source for news: back in early February 1922, then-President Warren G. Harding installed what was undoubtedly the first radio set in the White House (he was a big fan of the new mass medium), and reporters covered it like a news story. By 1924, political candidates realized they could not ignore radio if they wanted to run a successful campaign: increasingly, politicians (from local mayors to presidential candidates) took to the airwaves to reach out to voters; and while today we take this for granted, in the 1920s-1930s, it was something quite new. To this day, students learn about how President Franklin Delano Roosevelt became a "radio president," using his Fireside Chats to speak to, and comfort, the nation during the Great Depression.
Radio created national hits and it created national stars-- both performers and announcers. It helped blind people to gain access to everything from baseball games to music concerts; it helped homemakers to learn new techniques for cooking great meals; and it helped the elderly to continue to hear religious services. There were even educational programs, providing college-level courses to anyone who wanted to listen and learn. In that golden age, there were amazing radio dramas and comedies, as well as cleverly produced programs for kids. Radio's ability to entertain provided a very effective escape from the Depression, as well as source of encouragement during World War II; and the gradual rise of news networks enhanced the public's ability to stay informed.
When TV came along, the common wisdom was that radio was finished-- but that proved to be untrue. Radio reinvented itself, and thanks in large part to the rise of rock-and-roll, top-40 radio ruled. Many of us Baby Boomers grew up idolizing our favorite deejays and dreaming of being on the air at our favorite station someday. And when FM radio finally took hold and weakened the influence of AM top-40, many Boomers migrated to FM, where we could hear album-rock, and later other new formats like urban/dance or modern country.
These days, radio is no longer unique, and it is no longer dominant. Few young people listen to it passionately (or even listen to it at all), the way we Boomers did-- in fact, when I ask the students at the university where I teach, only a handful have a favorite station or can name a deejay they like. In our internet and social media world, most of them get their music from Spotify or Pandora or YouTube, rather than waiting for their favorite on-air personality to introduce them to new music.
I find that disappointing. While it's nice to download a song, I still like that human interaction. At its best, radio can still be a friend, a companion, a source of information and entertainment. And yes, at its worst, it can be a lot of noise-- with deejays who talk too much, the same few songs over and over, too many commercials, or formats like political talk that focus on everything that's wrong and provide endless examples of anger and outrage. It's a far cry from when radio used to be live and local and reach out to the community; a time when it tried to provide a balance of opinions, and stations of all formats focused on making their listeners feel they were part of a welcoming community of fans.
And yet, despite endless predictions of its demise, radio lives. Today, on National Radio Day, I want to salute the stations which remain live and local, the ones that remain active in their community. I salute the stations that work tirelessly for charitable causes, and I especially salute every deejay who makes time to talk to the listeners in a way that makes them feel appreciated. Whether your station plays the hits or talks sports or reports the news, radio still matters. It can still unite people and make them feel more connected; those radio voices can still reach out and make people feel a little less lonely. I found this to be true when I was a deejay in the 1970s and 1980s, and it's still true today.
While I no longer broadcast full-time (and I miss it every day), I am sometimes a guest on talk shows, on stations like WBZ Radio in Boston (a station whose night-time signal reaches more than 30 states and parts of Canada). It's still amazing to be part of a conversation with callers from so many distant locations; these are people I might never have the chance to talk to, if it weren't for radio. And while I understand that most of today's young people don't have radio dreams the way I did, that doesn't mean radio has stopped being important, and that doesn't mean radio is no longer relevant. When done right, radio can have a positive impact on a community; it can introduce new music, or new ideas; it can help solve problems, or just provide some harmless escape for a while. And for some of us, with fond memories of meeting our favorite deejay, winning a contest on our favorite station, or attending a great station event (remember record hops?), radio is a part of who we are. So, on National Radio Day, here's my wish: long may radio survive and long may it continue to thrive. To me, radio is still a magical medium, and it's one that changed my life for the better.