Sunlight Shining Through Cloud

The 17-Transistor Radio

Posted on: February 13, 2011

Somewhere between the living room radio console with its huge tubes, and the slick component stereo system with its big speakers lived the transistor radio.  This was in the fifties and sixties.  AM stations were king.  FM radio as we now know it was soon to be born.

My mother likes to tell a story set in my first-ever home; a 5-story walk-up in the Bronx.  She says that I would take my portable transistor radio into a closet along with a soup spoon.  There, using the closet as a sound studio and the spoon as a microphone,  I would mimic the words I heard spoken.  I was two and a half.  This was the beginning of a life-long love affair with radio.

New York City was Mecca in so many ways, but none more profound to me than its powerful radio stations.  This was true in my young life, and grew into the teen years.  There was WABC, first and foremost – the station playing top-20 hits and had the best DJ’s around: Herb Oscar Anderson, who would open his morning show singing his own song, “Hello again, here’s my best to you.  Are your skies all gray?  I hope they’re blue”;  the always-upbeat “laughin’ and scratchin'” “Big Dan” Ingram (“Hi, Kemosabe”, meaning ‘faithful friend’ in Potawatomi); “Gravelly-voiced human rock encyclopedia Scott Muni (“The Professor”); and the legendary “Cousin Brucie”, Bruce Morrow who’s show was a daily must-listen for teenagers.

WABC had a number of infamous competitors, among them WINS, WOR, and WMCA.  All had memorable personalities at the helm, and all had devoted listeners.  All claimed sponsorship of The Beatles to America and, in varying degrees, all of them did.  It was a great time for music and a great time to be a kid.

I heard the hits and absorbed every spoken syllable with my brown leatherette-clad 9-volt battery-powered transistor radio which was not much larger than a than a pack of cigarettes.

I couldn’t sleep at night for fear that I would miss something.  Like so many other kids, I hid my little radio under the pillow.  I had one of those early-model earbuds so no one could hear it.  I slowly, carefully turned the dial to see what distant stations I could pick up from my northern New Jersey home:  Boston, Detroit, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Richmond, Charlotte.  I didn’t even know where some of these places were, so, I thought,  they must be very far away.

I watched “Murray the K” demonstrate how a professional turntable works during a segment of TV’s Wonderama.  Few books about contemporary radio were available at that time.  What there were, I read.

It was around 1967 that I began to hear a different kind of voice.  WNEW-AM had morning funnymen Klavan & Finch, then Julius LaRosa and William B. Williams who weaved stories of Americana and celebrity between songs that grownups liked.  I began to take notice of talk show hosts like Barry Farber, Joe Franklin, Jean Shepherd, Long John Nebel and John (rambling with) Gambling.  The seeds  of talk were by now deeply planted in me and would germinate later.

It was also around 1967 that popular music took a turn for the serious.  The happy hit songs were slowly overshadowed by the events of our times: race riots, women’s rights, civil liberties, the moon landing and Woodstock.  The Beatles were, themselves, partly responsible for bringing this metamorphosis about: Sergeant Pepper… and The White Album signaled a change in musical sophistication and in the influence music would have on a generation.

Along with the change in music came a change in radio formatting.  A new kind of presentation was necessary for the new music; ‘Freeform’ came first, then ‘Album-oriented rock’.  These formats called for an eclectic mix of longer songs and longer non-stop music sets from artists who gave us folk and jazz fusion and hard rock.

The station that did this first and, in my opinion, best, was WNEW-FM led by now-ex WABC DJ Scott Muni.  He gathered around him the top air talent of the day; talent that knew the music, knew the industry, and knew, personally, the artists.  Bands would visit the station frequently for interviews and live performances.  It was quite an intimate experience, these visits, and engendered strong listener loyalty.

Muni himself formed a deep friendship with each of The Beatles and especially with John Lennon until his death.  That “Roscoe” Bill Mercer broke the color barrier was insignificant to us; he was the evening voice as smooth as the smokiest jazz and he loved reading poetry and he liked playing the longest records.  And there was Alison Steele.  Oh my god, how sexy can a woman sound.  There wasn’t a young man for miles who wasn’t smitten by “The Nightbird.”

I was, by this time, the proud owner of a 17-transistor radio with a black leatherette case and eight D-cell batteries.  Somewhat larger than a book, it was the biggest portable radio around.  It was also my first-ever AM and FM-stereo radio.  The quality of the music was important to me.  Equally important, though, was the air talent.  Every time a microphone opened, I listened with rapt attention.

A mic opening meant that something important was about to be said.  A mic opening meant that I had another opportunity to learn something.  The intimacy of the radio medium was at its apex.  The industrial truth, ‘speak as if you’re talking to only one person’, was on prominent display.  This, I knew, was the best radio could be.

Talk radio became my primary focus.  I studied the way the host thought, the way he spoke his thoughts, his tonality and temperment, his ability to reach only me.

I wanted to learn it all because I’d need to know this stuff when it came time for me to open a mic of my own.

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