PENOBSCOT — The radio broadcast of the Indianapolis 500 on Memorial Day was a listening ritual for my father, but it had as much to do with radio broadcasting as it did with auto racing.

Robert C. Nelson broadcasts in Buffalo at WBEN. His broadcast journalism career grew out of years of tuning in to adventure series, comedians and reportage over the AM airwaves. Photo courtesy of Todd R. Nelson

Having covered the race as a newspaper reporter, Dad loved to give the visual details corresponding to the sounds from the radio as cars screamed past pit row, down the straightaways and around the two long, banked left turns. The whole treble aura of the race was intensified by the AM tonality of the Indianapolis Radio Network – tens of stations, Dad explained, allied once a year to broadcast the “greatest spectacle in motor racing.”

I am always reconnected to Dad’s lore of radio’s former imaginative power. For him, radio had been journalism, oral history, storytelling and distinctive voices and personalities. He came into radio consciousness hearing Fred Allen, Jack Benny, Abbott and Costello, the Green Hornet, “Jack Armstrong: All-American Boy” and the reportage of Edward R. Murrow. Listening to radio in his bed at night, he heard broadcasters calling out to Amelia Earhart, her plane overdue, presumed lost in the Pacific Ocean. And it was his tuning in to the allure of those voices that eventually coalesced into a career in broadcast journalism.

My own son attained radio consciousness listening to both ends of the FM band: National Public Radio and the local rock and roll stations. I was amused when, at one point, Spencer began tuning in to an oldies radio station, and called the station to request the same songs we play constantly at home. For some reason, hearing it on a CD is not as exciting as hearing it over the airwaves, by request.

The fact that he requested some of the first songs I heard on my first radio intrigued me. I can’t imagine why they call them “oldies.” “Classic rock” sounds much more appealing, since the music carries vivid memories of not only old tunes, but also of my first radio, my first radio station, even my first favorite disc jockey. This was an important threshold in my development: A new world was out there awaiting frequency-modulation reception.

I tuned in on an old Zenith, large by today’s standards: wooden, with gold cloth covering the speaker; a distant ancestor of my present sleek, black, digital tuner. It had two knobs: volume and tuning. Its tubes made it a primitive, technological bivalve. I promptly covered it with aqua paisley contact paper – shiny and psychedelic to match the music I had found at 104.1 FM in Boston.

WBCN was a “concert music” station that had just changed format to “album-oriented” rock and roll. Stephen the Seagull was my DJ, and I called him to request “Crown of Creation,” by Jefferson Airplane, the band that evolved into Jefferson Starship, and finally just Starship. Of course, the original members of this band have children who are themselves of childbearing age; Starship, the next generation, must be tuning in all over again, on sleek stereo components, and wondering about their grandparents’ early gigs in the days of amps with tubes. This, too, is radio lore.

Though Spencer’s first radio had the latest technology, was not a hand-me-down like mine, an interesting thing happened when his grandfather gave him an old-fashioned crystal radio set as a gift: It thrilled him.

This even-more-primitive technology edged closer to the magic of radio: He had in his hands the secret of music seemingly out of nothing. He had wound the very coils that plucked radio signals from the air. Here was the elemental lore of radio: voices coming from nowhere, through copper wire coiled around a cardboard tube, connected to an earplug by a small crystal diode. The crystal radio was the intersection of science, how things work, and communication, listening and talking to others. Here was the spectacular essence of radio: foreign, remote sound appearing out of thin air … like the magic of an Indy car roaring into a kid’s ears and imagination on Memorial Day in Maine.


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