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Confessions of a Radio Junkie

By Nicholas S. Racheotes | Illustrations by Lucy Mashburn

Imagine you are in a meeting of the support group Listeners Anonymous. You might hear something like this: “Hello, my name is … and it’s been fifteen minutes since I scanned the dial for a decent song.” This is the tragic story of my failure to recover from the illness known in medical circles as “radio hyperactivity.” It manifests itself as an irrepressible craving for broadcast sound—AM, FM, Internet streaming—it makes no difference; it has nearly ruined every human relationship I’ve had.

The whole thing began when I was eight and was sharing a bedroom with my three-year-old brother. Between our big-boy beds was a DuMont or Philco tabletop radio. It was gorgeous with its illuminated dial, those gold-on-black numbers spanning the distance between 530 and 1600 kilohertz. That a record player for 78s was built into its top wasn’t important to us. We also didn’t care that it was constructed of more oak than the paneling in the bar of the best hotel. What mattered most was that we could fall asleep to The Lone Ranger, Dragnet, or the Stan Freberg variety show as the last days of radio network drama and comedy were drawing to a close.

We thought we were getting away with something. I tried to turn the volume up just loud enough for both of us to hear but low enough for our parents down the hall not to notice. It never worked.

vie magazine radio junkie illustration

Down to our door would come the clomp, clomp of Dad’s footsteps and the chilling interrogation, “Aren’t you guys asleep yet?” Snap went the dial, and a curtain of darkness fell on another episode of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. If I felt really brave, I’d listen to my little brother who never got spanked, and I would stealthily go for a second act. The consequences of this transgression were too dire for me to recount here.

Then came the revolution in two stages: rock ’n’ roll and the Japanese transistor radio. The new music needs no explanation, but the transistor might. A little bigger than a deck of cards and covered in leather-like plastic, sometimes even with its own earphone, the transistor was custom made for undercover listening. Oh, the guilty pleasure of it all: late-night baseball play-by-play announcers from hundreds of miles away heard in the wee hours, switching quickly away from news to keep the music flowing. But the parental unit soon smartened up. Every time I wanted an advance on next week’s allowance for batteries, they would ask, “Why are you going through them so quickly?”

Have I forgotten to mention my penchant for radio hooliganism? Across AM and FM, the goal was to get two or more jocks who took requests on separate stations to play the same tune at roughly the same time. The bandits of the broadcast band knew this as a “blanket.” Even today, I fantasize about posing as a socialist and evoking a rant from a right-wing “opinionator” on a talk show or about straining the politeness of a National Public Radio hostess with a dose of Tea Party dogma. Forget sports talk; eliciting a shouting match from that corner of radio heaven isn’t even a challenge.

This is the tragic story of my failure to recover from the illness known in medical circles as “radio hyperactivity.” It manifests itself as an irrepressible craving for broadcast sound—AM, FM, Internet streaming—it makes no difference; it has nearly ruined every human relationship I’ve had.

Today, things have gotten so much worse for us audio addicts. Hundreds of stations are bouncing from the satellite to the car. Hundreds more are in my computer favorites. I’ve become my own DJ with a few programmable sites. Earbuds have widened my auditory canal. High-quality, ambient noise-killing headphones have created noticeable indentations on both sides of my noggin. There’s a radio in the office and in every room of the house, including the bathroom. Won’t somebody help?

Wait, my tickler file tells me that a Brahms symphony is being featured at nine; no, there’s a rebroadcast of Springsteen live in Jersey. How about a recording of the Grateful Dead from an old concert in Atlanta? Jazz from the Village Vanguard in New York? I have it! I can watch Monday Night Football while listening to the radio play-by-play.

This is your radio junkie, signing off and tuning in.

— V —

Nick Racheotes is a product of Boston public schools, Brandeis University, and Boston College, from which he holds a PhD in history. Since he retired from teaching at Framingham State University, Nick and his wife, Pat, divide their time between Boston, Cape Cod, and the Western world.

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