I am writing a story about someone in distress and pleading into a microphone for a rescue. Their only hope is that someone will hear and act to save them. And the whole scenario got me thinking about the basic nature of that act – to broadcast one’s voice and hope to generate a response – and the early days of radio. I’m not talking about the “business” of radio and payola and all that garbage or even Jack Benny and countless radio serials that played during the golden age of radio. I’m talking about something more primal, more innocent: a radio station in the middle of nowhere, sending out a signal to countless listeners – or no one. This is such an irresistible and evocative image for me.
Even though I have what can be described as a “radio voice”, I have only been inside the control room of a radio station once and that was because I had a friend who was a late night DJ. The pay was notoriously bad and after understanding that there has to be FCC licensing and all that, my urge to actively pursue a career as a radio personality was pretty much quashed. But there was still something about the idea of being a lone voice in the night, smoking a pack of cigarettes through the shift, all the while saying whatever came to mind and playing whatever I wanted to listen to that I found immensely attractive. The reality is that radio stations have historically been the dirty little tax write-off secret for many wealthy owners looking for a money loser. Now it’s about ratings and demographics and I doubt I have the type of personality that could consistently hold a listening audience, because at the heart of what I want to do is whatever I want to do. And today’s radio is so automated, so format driven that the type of radio existence I longed for is a very rare occurrence.
But I still remember a 1960’s television spot for Radio Free Europe of a Hungarian-speaking DJ spinning a vinyl LP of The Drifter’s On Broadway and speeding through the intro in Hungarian until he emphatically ended with “Un Brrroodvey” (trill your r’s). I would have killed to have a job like that! I used to listen to Art Bell. I look at Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly album cover and think about Wolfman Jack out in the Mexican desert broadcasting and shake my head, wondering what it would be like to live like that. I’m sure the reality falls short of the dream, but what a dream. What a dream, indeed.