30 April 2020

Radio shorts

The soundtrack to my life up until college was Top 40 radio. During college, my favorite radio program was CJRT's "Music to Listen to Jazz By." Later, in our Richmond, Indiana, years, I listened to "Mama Jazz" on WMUB, and the blues programming on WVXU. In the early 1990's, I also listened to shortwave radio, especially the BBC. The radio was never far away.

And then ... goodbye, radio! With the advent of the Internet and MP3 players, my interest in broadcast radio as entertainment slowly faded, to be replaced by Internet radio (classical stations such as NRK Klassisk and Radio Orpheus), podcasting (The Bible for Normal People and Political Gabfest, among others), and my own MP3 playlists. Now I rarely even think about my radio experiences of my past, but during a recent Internet search I came across a treasure trove of old booklets and old memories -- the Gernsback Library, archived as PDF files, that suddenly and vividly led me back to my first experiences of radio.

Sources: diagramdiode  
I had originally found those booklets in my father's old childhood bedroom in Oslo, Norway, back in 1963, and brought them back with me to the USA. I could not wait to build the crystal radio described in one of the booklets. Within a few days, I had built my first radio. I cheated a bit -- I bought a manufactured 1N34A germanium diode instead of using a galena crystal rock and a cats-whisker wire as shown in the booklet. To my delight, the thing actually worked, and the audio in my headphones was quite loud. No matter that it only received WJJD, Chicago's "Country Gentlemen" C&W station. The song "Flowers on the Wall" may have been my introduction to irony.

For my second radio-building attempt, I added a variable capacitor to the circuit and was then able to receive TWO stations -- WJJD, as before, and the Top 40 station WCFL (the "Voice of Labor," for the Chicago Federation of Labor). Taking advantage of my parents' near-total neglect, I started listening to WCFL at every free moment, on my home-built radios and then on the 6-transistor radio I got for Easter one year.

(The radio had originally been intended as a Christmas gift, but when my parents began suspecting that we kids had found their hiding place for Christmas gifts -- and they were right! -- they punished us by not giving us those gifts. At Easter they relented.)

In our hermetically sealed, alcohol-dominated home, WCFL was almost my sole connection to the wider world, until my sister and I rehabilitated an old television. (I did go to school, of course, but, until my last two years of high school, I was usually intensely private, afraid of being asked awkward questions about my family. I never went to dances, parties, athletic events, or any after-school activities.)

WCFL's tightly packaged pop-rock-soul formed my musical tastes in those years -- with one important exception, my early love for classical music. In my earliest years in Norway and Germany, my grandparents always had classical music playing, for which I'm now very grateful.

WCFL didn't usually stray from the formula used by its peer stations nationwide, the forty or so most popular "singles," mostly safe, non-controversial rock music, soul music, novelty records (Sam the Sham, "The Hair on my Chinny Chin Chin") and occasional cross-overs from blues and gospel (B.B. King, "The Thrill Is Gone"; Slim Harpo, "Baby Scratch My Back"; The Edwin Hawkins Singers, "Oh Happy Day.") With rare exceptions, these stations did not play tracks that went beyond three minutes. Life at home was always like walking on eggshells; WCFL's constant jingles and relentless cheerfulness suited me just fine at the time.

Otis Spann; source
I credit one WCFL personality, Ron Britain, for my life-long interest in blues. Even as a Top 40 disk jockey he was unique, using one-and two-second comedic sound clips to amazing effect, even during scripted ads, obviously playing with the limits of the formula. (Listen to the show here for typical examples -- I actually remember this specific show!)

To go beyond the formula, however, he had to persuade the station to give him an extra slot, named the Subterranean Circus, to present non-mainstream artists' music, along with his interviews, and tracks that were over three minutes long. He probably introduced Jimi Hendrix to Chicago audiences. Among other artists on the Circus were blues icons Albert King and Otis Spann, and suddenly the normal Top 40 fare seemed very pale.

UPDATE: Ron Britain took his own life in October of this year. Please read Robert Feder's tribute.  

Black churches have had an important role in my Christian development, and one in particular is linked with radio station WCFL: Chicago's First Church of Deliverance, whose services I listened to faithfully (and secretly) every Sunday at 11 p.m. It wasn't just the music, although that was important ("Jesus Is a Healer"!). I was equally fascinated by the prayers and sermons of Clarence H. Cobbs, the founding pastor, who began his ministry in 1929 and was still going strong when I was listening to him in the late 1960's. I can't exactly explain what drew me to these broadcasts; my own conversion was still years away, but I'm sure the inner work had begun.

Being the "Voice of Labor," WCFL presented other non-Top 40 content regularly, particularly on Labor Day. One special broadcast, a speech by Floyd McKissick to the American Bankers Association, made such a deep impression on me that I copied it word for word in my diary, using the recording that I had made on my little Concord reel-to-reel tape recorder. Near the start of his speech he said:
Last year the main topic of discussion ... the fad was the President's Report on Civil Disorder, a report which warned that America was becoming two separate nations -- one black and one white. I think we spent -- this is not in my prepared text -- I think we spent over a million dollars to get this information, and any kid that's fourteen years old, that's black, in St. Louis, New York and Chicago could have arrived at the same conclusion.
Reading this blunt speech now, fifty years after it was given, it's hard for me to believe that McKissick, the former head of CORE, was a Republican.

(For the full text, see the scans below, following this week's selection of links.)

Andrea L. Turpin takes C.S. Lewis's sermon, "Learning in War-Time, and re-reads it in today's pandemic context.

Frederica Mathewes-Green on not-so-doubting Thomas.

Micah Bales on the Kingdom of God and why it has no heroes.

Michael Fowler, the Dougherty County coroner, on the reopening of Georgia.

Martin E. Marty on hope in apocalyptic times:
Even with all the talk about “returning to normal” sometime in the (hopefully near) future—something I admittedly hope for—it is also very likely that the world to which we will “return” will not be the same one we “left.”
Are pro-Kremlin disinformation outlets becoming disenchanted with the coronavirus?

Albert King, with a song that Ron Britain played on his "Subterranean Circus."


Bruce said...

Amazingly, I was just thinking about the crystal radio I built as a child, two or maybe 3 days ago. Eventually, I became a ham radio operator, which I still enjoy (and was experimenting with this morning.)

Johan Maurer said...

My dream was to get my license and become a ham radio operator. I read everything I could get my hands on concerning the rules and equipment. I spent hours listening to my father's Hallicrafters receiver. In the end, it remained a dream, though I was a listener right up until radio stations began streaming on the Internet.