“I read the news today, oh boy.” – from “A Day in the Life” by Lennon and McCartney
In an article for the New York Times, Michael Levenson forecasts what may be the end of AM radio due to “carmakers reporting that electromagnetic interference causes static and noise on AM transmissions, annoying customers.”
Upon reading the preceding sentence, the lyrics to Elvis Costello’s song “Radio, Radio” sprang forth in my mind:
Radio is a sound salvation
Radio is cleaning up the nation
They say you better listen to the voice of reason
But they don’t give you any choice ’cause they think that it’s treason
So you had better do as you are told
You better listen to the radio
Although I’m rarely given to nostalgia and I had toggled the switch over to FM by my teenage years and I rarely turn on the radio anymore at all, reading of the potential death of AM radio left me trying to imagine a world without it and fondly reminiscing about how it had provided the soundtrack to my childhood. My next thought was that I needed to blog about how this tragic demise of radio is yet another indicator of the continual decaying of the fabric that once bound us together as a community who listened to, sung, hummed, and whistled the same songs we’d all heard on AM radio stations. I wanted to extol the patience and perseverance we showed back then while waiting for our favorite song to be played. Whereas, today we, like a child or Pavlov’s dog, demand immediate gratification. Perhaps, we’re the ones “being played” by the inhuman algorithms and the targeted ads the streaming services send our way.
My second blog idea was to respond with whimsical memories of falling to sleep in the top bunk, next to the southward facing window, in the second floor bedroom, of my childhood home while gazing at the beacon on top of the WLEC radio tower blinking red. I wanted to support Costello’s exclamation of the “Wonderful radio. // Marvelous radio. // Radio, radio.”
If we kept the volume low enough so that our parents didn’t hear it, my brothers and I might listen to WWWE 1100, where Pete Franklin was trailblazing sports talk radio, or to WLEC 1450, where DJ Dickie Schock would play a song we actually requested (We’d almost always request “Running Bear” and giggle uncontrollably over the double entendre of the word “bear”/bare.). We’d be giddy with joy over the power we had to influence what would be transmitted through the radios of whoever happened to be tuned in at that moment. If we were in the mood for pop music, we’d turn the dial to 800 and listen to top-40 radio on CKLW all the way from Detroit. Or, if the Tigers were playing on the West Coast, we’d nudge the dial down just a bit to 760 and listen to Ernie Harwell and Paul Carey calling the ballgame on WJR, and it felt like the day wasn’t ending but just beginning. I don’t remember who ever turned the radio off in the middle of the night after we’d all been lulled to sleep, but I imagine it was my mother, who knew all along what we were thought we were getting away with.
Anyway, social commentary was my first intention; nostalgia was my second. But as I am wont or cursed to do, I soon found my thoughts turning deeper and beyond a relatively benign discussion of the “good old days” to philosophical rumination. I began to associate the demise of radio with the explosion of choices we have today in a wide variety of areas compared to those simpler days when AM radio ruled the airwaves and much of the zeitgeist. Back then, our choices in most areas were few or made for us.
This proliferation of choices the modern world offers us often results in a “paralysis by analysis.” In other words, there are so many options to choose from, we feel overwhelmed and incapable of choosing any of them. For example, how much time do we spend scrolling through our preferred streaming option for a movie or show to watch and end up not choosing any? How long does it take us to choose an artist from our Spotify or Apple Music library? Have you ever seen the menu at The Cheesesteak Factory?! It’s voluminous and intimidating even for an English major, like myself, who has pored through War and Peace, Infinite Jest, and Moby Dick . . . Twice! After a half hour of perusing the menu, I always end up just ordering the same thing I always order: turkey club. And don’t get me started on blue jeans.
Another and I’d argue healthier way to look at the abundance of choices we have at our disposal is to embrace the choosing as an act of existential definition, not as a cause of existential angst. What an opportunity it is not to be a slave to some DJ’s taste in music or to three network channels or a chef’s lack of imagination: “Cheeseburger. No Coke!” We should appreciate and feel empowered by the freedom to choose and the notion that the choices we make define us better than any demographic, church, political party, or organization to which we may belong. I love the idea that we can find meaning, define our own purpose in life, and pursue happiness by and for ourselves beyond what any parent, teacher, peer group, online influencer, or holy or “how to” book may advise. The caveat, of course, is that eventually we do have to accept the burden of making choices. And, once made, we can’t blame anyone but ourselves for the outcome.
The way I see it is that, in the end, if I’ve made poor choices, in the words of Frank Sinatra, at least I will have done it “my way.” I can live (and die) with that.
In his song “Radio Nowhere,” Springsteen sings, “Radio nowhere // Is there anybody alive out there?” Of course, the question asks the listener to differentiate between simply existing and truly living. Those among us who belong in the latter category are those who refuse to live on auto-pilot or to allow Jesus or anyone else to “take the wheel.” Instead, they take control of their own lives by bravely making the choices they need to make in order to live a life of their own imagining rather than one that was planned out for them or shoved down their throats. Those choices may not be the safe ones or the popular ones; in fact, they rarely are either of those. They’re the choices that bring a unique and special meaning and purpose to the life they are living, a life that has never been lived before and will not be lived again.
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