Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Radio Nights

Radio Nights, 2010

A lot of people my age grew up listening to transistor radios under the covers when we were supposed to be asleep or doing homework.

I was captivated by radio. Admittedly, I was pretty naïve as a kid. A lot of what I couldn’t pick up from my friends at school—a dubious source for life lessons, to be sure—I learned from listening to the radio. It was all there. Music of all kinds, sports, news, drama and comedy.

There were a couple of old console radios in the house, the kind you see in old pictures with Grandma and Grandpa gathered around them to listen to Fibber McGhee or Franklin Roosevelt and Fala. I quickly transitioned from those to the first generation of transistor radios, which not only had the caché of supposedly being one of the first consumer products spun off from the space program, but also came with a single earphone, a distinct advantage when you’re trying to be secretive about your listening.

When I was in sixth or seventh grade I received a nice AM/FM box radio for Christmas. (If you’re a child of Depression-era parents, Christmas gifts tended to include practical things like winter coats, oranges and radios.) It was handsome and modern, encased in a rich wooden veneer the color of dark honey. It was probably the last generation of radios with glass tubes and rotary dials connected to strings behind the radio’s face that moved the little station selector up and down the spectrum. It was more powerful than any radio I’d had before and pulled in not only the rich resonance of a few local FM stations but also AM “super stations” up and down the East Coast and out into the Midwest.

In my teenage years I started doing my homework while listening to the DJ known as “Cousin Brucie” on New York’s WABC-AM, the most powerful radio station on the East Coast. Cousin Brucie was to East Coast kids what Wolfman Jack was to American Graffiti, a big loud garrulous guy playing Top 40 hits and sending out dedications to hormonal teenagers everywhere. In 1965 it was Cousin Brucie who introduced the Beatles at their famous Shea Stadium concert.

Cousin Brucie’s still around. I always pictured him as a short, rotund guy, Stubby Kaye with a deep voice. But in fact he looks nothing like that, and from recent pictures I can only surmise that he was in his late twenties when I started listening to him. These days you can hear him on the 60s channel on Sirius satellite radio, which within the musical firmament puts him somewhere between Casey Kasem and elevator music. It’s just not the same listening to him today, what without platters to spin and no dedications to Annette in Teaneck, Gloria in Brighton Beach and a girl in Norfolk who didn’t even know that I liked her.


  1. Oh, I am so smiling at this one--I LOVED my transistor radio--and yes, I would listen under my pillow as a kid when I was supposed to be sleeping. Rite of passage material there.

    Do you know I met Cousin Brucie? In high school, I was awarded this opportunity to go to all the Conde Nast publication buildings and then to see Clint Eastwood and Jane Goodall on a talk show and we met Cousin Brucie on radio--I still remember that. He was a character in person, too!

  2. I'm just a few years younger but I related to everything you wrote, including the WWII reference to "Fala", which I suspect would be lost to the younger crowd. I was also slightly geekier, but not much, as I took apart the cheaper transistor radios and would wire them up to larger speakers. I recall having one of the smallest - actually fit into the palm of my hand about 3" square and 2" thick, about the size of a nice bake-sale brownie, and likely the grandparent of today's ipods. BTW, do they still have bake sales? Haven't seen one in years.

  3. omg- I knew from the title what this piece would be about! I did the same! I had a little model, would take it to the pool and the beach, but definitely snuck under the covers at night! I listened to Cousin Brucie too, also WKBW in Buffalo, WKYC in Cleveland, and .. WLS in Chicago!! ( Art Roberts, their Cousin Brucie...)
    What I loved was the connectedness to our generation that this provided! Here I was in mid-Atlantic smalltown, and I could listen to all of these far-off places! How exciting! And only at night you know,that's when the signal came in strong enough... Thanks for the remembering....

  4. I listened to my transistor radio at night, too... and if I moved the dial *past* the last station, on some nights I could pick up ship-to-shore traffic.

  5. Ah the transistor radio and the earphone... I just found mine (the same make/model anyway) on eBay. Growing up in Chicago, I used to listen to Jay Andres and some others who hosted "Music 'Til Dawn" and Ken Nordine! I felt so gypped, having been born too late for radio drama, but these shows almost made up for it.