Radio, Radio

“I was tuning in the shine on the light night dial.” Elvis Costello, “Radio, Radio”

I acquired my first radio when I was 14 or so, an antiquated amplitude modulation model.[1]  I’d listen to it for hours at a time until the radio’s vacuum tubes would overheat, which necessitated removing them with a damp wash cloth. I’d hold the terry-cloth-shrouded tube in my hand until it cooled and I could reinsert its delicate prongs into the semi-circular holes from which they’d been extracted. Although I possess the fine motor skills of an untrained seal, by necessity I became adept at removing and reasserting the tubes, sometimes having to adjust slightly a prong that had been bent in the operation. Usually, the radio was tuned to the Mighty WTMA – Tiger Radio – whose premiere DJ, the late great Booby Nash, entertained the Charleston area with his repertoire of monologues, skits, fictitious call-ins, and playlists.

Nash in the 60s (image via WTMA Pictures)

In fact, Booby Nash was the first person I heard employ the phrase “late great.” 

“And here’s an oldie but goldy,” he’d say in his easy-on-the-ears baritone, “the late great Sam Cooke’s ‘Chain Gang.’”

Click for a snippet of Sam singing “Chain Gang.”

Ignorant, I didn’t like most of the oldies; they were unfamiliar. I’d much rather hear Marvin Gaye’s contemporary 1967 cover of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” than the Shirelles’s 1961 rendition of “Tonight’s the Night.” In my estimation, WTMA played too many oldies. I wanted to hear the Beach Boy’s “Sloop John B” or Bobby Fuller’s cover of “I Fought the Law,” not Elvis’s or Chuck Berry’s antediluvian 1950s tunes.

Like I said, I was ignorant.

Milo Hamilton with Henry Aaron

In the summers, before there was such a thing as cable, I’d listen to the Atlanta Braves on that radio, the broadcasts fading in and out as competitive wavelengths waxed and waned, which could be, shall we say, a tad frustrating at times. The Braves’ play-by-play announcer Milo Hamilton might have Phil Niekro checking a runner at first when suddenly scratching static would avalanche over the play-by-play as some other station butted in with forty seconds of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.”  By the time Milo’s voice reemerged from the deep, the runner at first had scored, and now runners stood at second and third. And, of course, the radio’s tubes could go on the fritz at the most inconvenient times during those Braves Baseball broadcasts.

Still, there were some stations like WNOX in Knoxville whose 50,000 watts provided better wavelength stability. That’s where I first heard “heavy” bands like Cream and Grand Funk Railroad.[2] In Chronicles, Dylan describes staying up in the wee hours listening to distant niche radio stations that provided him with an invaluable education in Americana music. By the way, I highly recommend Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour where he plays a DJ doing an old-time radio format. Although the program’s now defunct, you can still catch his whiskey-themed broadcast here. Dylan’s knowledge of the history of American music is encyclopedic, and listening to these broadcasts is highly educational if you’re into popular music.[3]

Eventually, alas, that old radio kicked the bucket, and I can’t remember if we replaced it or not. I think probably not. My father, though, rigged half a stereo system with an amp, turntable, and one speaker he encased in a fabric-façaded cabinet so I could listen to mono LPs. Thanks to my impatience and lack of fine motor skills, the mid-side songs I’d manually re-cue on the LPs would end up scratched and with their pop and crackle replicate the static of nighttime am radio listening.

I actually used to claim that a record doesn’t have character if it hasn’t been scratched. 


[1] Better known in its abbreviated form am.

[2] WTMA didn’t stray from standard Top 40 fare.

[3] Of course, he had a staff but still.