Killing Radio

My clock radio is Philips brand; it falls off the shelf when I roll out of bed in the morning. It is light but resilient. It has a small green LED display and an array of cheap-feeling buttons on top. This hunk of plastic is always tuned to WOBC, 91.5fm Oberlin college and community freeform radio. 

{are we really ready to pull the plug?}

    I grew up in a single-parent household for most of my life. When the house was empty, I would tune the radio to WNYC, 93.9fm New York City's NPR station. Conversations about sports, politics and pop culture kept me company. 

    I have been told radio is a dying medium since I first began listening. Even back in the early 2000s, I was the only teen I knew who still listened to baseball games on the radio. In 2004, local reporter Fiona Morgan wrote,  "radio is dying (and it’s about time).” In her article, she argued that satellite radio and the exciting new medium of “podcasting” were poised to deal traditional radio its final death blow. In her eyes, on-demand content was going to take us in new direction, towards an new and exciting future for the sharing of ideas. But what about all the fun times we had with radio? All the fireside chats, the baseball games, the breaking news and the public conversations! Should we be willing to give up the medium so easily?

. . .

    In 1925, Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier told a large audience that "the modern city is dependent on infrastructural systems of ‘water, electricity, gas, and radio.’” Le Corbusier was arguing that radio is an essential utility for modern life. He could not imagine a modern city that could afford to forgo this revolutionary communication technology. Now a hundred years later, the FCC is faced with pressures to classify the internet as a utility, in an effort to affirm its necessity to modern life. The case has been made that the internet is integral to modern communication elsewhere, and for the sake of brevity I will accept this argument as fact. The question remains, are we ready to discard radio in favor of internet communication? What can radio offer that the internet cannot?
    First, your internet could be cut at any time. Even if a solar flare wiped out every piece of electronics we own, the radio space lives on, waiting for a young tinkerer to tune in on her unpowered crystal radio set. More importantly, radio is tied to local community. As a kid, my mom and I would go on long car trips between New York and Ohio to visit my grandmother. Driving down I-80, we would sample the local culture through the radio dial, hearing accents change from typical east coast gruffness to midwestern sweetness.  As we sped through the expansive state of Pennsylvania, we were able to "listen live" to the voices of each community we passed (provided we could find the right station!). It is a simple beauty of traditional radio that you can only hear it "here" and "now." The "call-letters" of a popular local radio station are an arguably better indicator of a local than their zip code.
    This is where the internet fails. It may facilitate communities but these communities are placeless, native only to the internet space. Radiophonic space, on the other hand, is always tied to place, and more specifically to local community. For that alone, we should not pull the plug on radio.

But who is to say we even could kill radio if we wanted to?

. . .

    Like many “inventions,” radio was not invented but discovered. Guglielmo Marconi, oft credited with the invention of radio, in fact invented a sort of wireless telegraph, using gigantic sparks to send messages across the Atlantic. The real advent of the radio came along with the installation of the modern telephone grid. In the [year] Thomas Watson, assistant to Alexander Graham Bell, was testing a prototype telephone connected to a test grid, formed by a half-mile of “no.12 galvanized wire,” connecting prototype telephones around London. During the day, the grid was populated by the voices of other operators but when they went home for the night, Watson stayed. In the dead of night, whistling & chirping sounds leaked through the telephone lines. Night after night, Watson listened, slowly convincing himself the sounds were communications with (an) earthly god(s), or undead spirits. His mind running wild with possibilities, Watson began a book titled, “From Electronics to God: A New Conception of Life,” in which he put forth a natural theology of sorts based around radio and these newly audible vibrations. In the book he writes, “every electron and every atom of the earth, from its center to the farthest list of its atmosphere, is alive and sings its part in earth’s stupendous music."
     It is now clear that what Watson heard a century ago was a phenomenon known as natural radio. The half-mile grid of “no.12 galvanized wire” had served as a radio antennae, transducing the radio frequencies produced by an electrical storm hundreds of miles away. These days, radio stations are all 24/7 and it is nearly impossible to hear these natural phenomenon over the sound of human radio's constant babble. Watson was lucky enough to be listening to radiophonic space, unpopulated by modern interferences. His wild speculation about the provenience of these unearthly sounds further underscores that fact that radio is in fact an accidental discovery of a natural phenomenon, one that we are temporarily occupying, rather than an impressively technical invention. 
     If we admit that radio is natural, that radiophonic space exists outside of human technology and that we have only gained access to it through our technology, then we cannot hope to kill radio. In the same way that we cannot "kill" earth but only pollute and degrade it until it becomes unlivable for us, radiophonic space will survive us.

Postscript:
three transcribed sound bites from my current place, Oberlin, at various times:

“The thing that makes Instrumental Surf Rock unique is the amount of reverb. That’s that wet drippy echo you hear right now.” - WOBC radio DJ at 8:59pm on Tuesday night (“Surf Radio”)
"God Bless America and no one else" - WOBC radio DJ at approx. 4pm on Monday (unknown show)
"Yeowomen's Softball had a rough time of it this week at Rhodes College, dropping both games of the afternoon double-header" WOBC radio DJ at 8:46am on Monday morning ("Sports Talk")

    

Click for Natural Radio courtesy of NASA

End Notes:
-Radio is dying (and it's about time). Article for Durham North Carolina publication, Indy Week (November 2004). 
By Fiona Morgan
article link: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/radio-is-dying-and-its-about-time/Content?oid=1193854

-Earth Sound Earth Signal: Energies and Earth Magnitude in the Arts. Book published by UC Press
By Douglas Kahn
Background on radio and fights to classify it as a utility. Chapter 1.
ISBN: 9780520257559

-High Atop Wilder Hall. An essay in Oberlin’s Alumni Magazine (Spring 2001)
By Michael K. McIntyre
General details about the magic of WOBC
article link: http://www.oberlin.edu/alummag/oamcurrent/oam_spring01/high_atop.html

-Making Radio a Tool for War. Essay published by the  University of Wollongong, Australia (1996)
By Mary Cawte
General information about history of radio.
article link: https://www.uow.edu.au/~bmartin/pubs/peace/96Cawte.pdf

-Buckminster Fuller Inc.: Architecture in the Age of Radio. Book published by Lars Müller Publishers, Zurich (2015)
By Mark Wigley
Quotes from Le Corbusier about radio. Page 36.
ISBN: 978-3-03778-428-0