The Big Dial

When I was about 12, my parents gave me a clock-radio for my bedroom: a navy blue GE with a backlit dial and glowing clock hands.  Plus AM and FM and a wake-to-music setting for the alarm. I had it all.

This was the late ‘60s. “Personal electronics” was an AM transistor radio in your pocket.  So an AM/FM table radio was no small thing for me.  I listened to rock and pop, but really I just liked a good DJ no matter what the music.  In the morning, in the evening, whenever I wanted: the DJs’ friendly voices poured out through the speakers.  And just to me, or so it seemed.

This was, and is, radio’s secret:  When done well, no other mass medium seems so personal. Even a good podcast lacks the impact: the feeling that someone is really there, talking and doing, for you.

I’d sit up in bed at night, searching for faraway AM stations with my clock radio.  Short-wave operators do something similar; it’s called DXing, and with their transceivers and antennas they could hear and speak past the curve of the earth.  Next to them, I was  less than nothing.

But sometimes I heard far, especially at 11 or 12 on a Sunday night, when most stations shut down their transmitters and the airwaves cleared.  And then Detroit or even Chicago might loom through the static. Chicago! Two thousand miles away!

These days I can stream music from Radio Swiss-Jazz across eight thousand miles while reading email.  And it’s nowhere near the fun of DXing all night with my little GE, its dial glowing softly in the comfortable darkness. Looking for stations that I didn’t even know existed.

Broadcast radio’s not what it was:  corporate-owned, automated, generic.  You know. There are a few good stations, but — I don’t even have a radio in the house anymore.  Do you? I’m reduced to listening in the car, perhaps 20 minutes a day.  I can stream stations through my laptop.

But you can’t twiddle the dial on a laptop to DX for new stations.  Laptops  don’t have dials. You can’t find a station unless you already know that it exists.

I love radio. And I barely listen anymore. The Internet took the radio out of our daily lives.  At least, mine.

But what the ’Net takes away, the ‘Net can return.  It is, after all, nothing less than the sum total of what everyone wants it to be. A couple of weeks ago somebody on a discussion board told me I should go to a site called; radio dot garden.

Imagine a globe of the earth covered with thousands of glowing dots.  Tens of thousands.  You can spin the world like a top. And every one of those dots is a radio station that streams content to the Internet. There are no country name or city names, just the dots: clustered in mobs near the great seacoast cities, or isolated and alone in the  jungles or mountains or on remote islands.  What are they broadcasting in Northwestern Nevada, the Amazon outback, the Faroe Islands, Vanuatu? You can find out.  You can listen.

Swoop down from space like a god, and the stations develop locations, and names which you can click on.  And the broadcast begins.  Some are physical radio stations, others only stream on the ‘Net.  The URL is right there if you want to learn more, or bookmark it.

There’s KCAW, Raven Radio from Baranoff Island, Alaska.  Or JiveRadio, a brick-and-mortar station that gave up its frequency and now streams hip-but-not-pretentious country and folk to the High Sierras.  And some Quebeckers broadcasting trance music from a lonely island in the St. Lawrence Seaway.

And 70’s funk from Buenos Aires, and some folks in West Africa talking politics, And a studio full of guys at Durian Radio in Kuala Lumpur who swear that they’re discussing business news except that someone breaks out laughing at the end of every sentence.  And Radio Free Brooklyn. And on and on.

You may aske: “What’s new here? All these resources are already on the Internet.  You could already stream them.”

What’s new is that somebody gave the Internet a dial.  A radio dial. And with it, I can DX the world.  My inner twelve-year-old still can’t believe it.

I listen to radio every day now.  And I’d be open to covering my laptop’s glowing Apple logo with a GE decal.  Though nobody would understand but you and me.

3 thoughts on “The Big Dial

  1. lk

    Hey Jim,

    KPFA, KMPX, and later KSAN were the subversive stations of choice for me back in the day. My best friend in high school was the total geek about radio and came to school with stories about all the cool stations he picked up the evening before. He later got into Ham radio, of course. I vaguely recall spinning the dial and picking up what I was later told was a Mexican radio station blasting northward with several hundred thousand watts, far more power than American stations were allowed to use. Oh, one more great old station, now long gone – KPIG (a great hippie and progressive country music station, sorely missed).

    1. admin Post author

      LK, I think you mean KFAT. KPIG, or less its radio nephew, is still there; somewhat corporatized, but still worth listening to. It just put its stream behind a paywall, but I listen in my car. If you’re interested in something kinda KPIG-like online, I’d suggest a fine Americana station that’s only now gone stream only. Not a lot of DJ action, mostly just music, but good stuff. As for the old FM stations I remember them fondly. Into the early 70s they could and would play anything that suited them.

      Yeah, those high-watt Mexican radio stations were called border blasters. Wolfman Jack, who operated out of one for awhile, said that the signal was so strong it would kill birds that flew too near the transmitter tower.

  2. lk

    That’s right! KFAT transmuted into KPIG over time. I’ll have to check out the *stations* you recommend , but I agree with the point you made in this blog installment – listening to radio and listening to streaming music content from the internet aren’t the same. Also, I have to admit, while I’ve got a garage full of records and cds, I haven’t listened to them much lately. I find it a lot more fun to share music with others. CC’s hearing has gotten so poor that she no longer can hear or even distinguish what music I’m playing. Kinda takes the fun out of it, frankly.


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