Last fall, my roommate and I sat on our front porch and smelled the breath of thousands, the musk of beer and the must of peanut shells. We saw a sea of fans on their feet and the green field on which baseball is played. We saw the World Series while watching an empty street.
We sat quietly and admired this vision, a sketch of the lightest colors, scrawled by the skinny sound of a short-wave radio sitting between us.
At that moment, I was re-introduced to the wonder of radio. And then Friday, when UW-Madison's student station WSUM began broadcasting on the FM band, I was surprised at my renewed excitement.
I was reminded again of the miracle of this old technology, so simple yet ceaselessly mysterious, that still captivates in a world wrapped in Information Age webbing. Why does radio endure in a land laced with fiber optics and DSL and cellular networks?
Radio mystifies me. In times of distress, in war and under storm, people rely on the radio. For millions, radio is the alarm that wakes them'the first thing they hear after sleep's hours of silence. For the weary traveler, still seemingly miles away from home, the sound of his town's station'at last'assures him he will soon be in a familiar bed. And, as UW-Madison journalism and mass communication Professor Jack Mitchell reminds us, people still spend more time with the radio than with any other mass media'including TV.
But we take radio for granted. Citizens who live in less-developed countries or under more repressive governments do not have this luxury. For years, U.S.-funded efforts such as Voice of America and Radio Free Europe have spread news or the values of democracy and freedom to places in the world starved for them.
In a less political way, Larry Meiller, a UW-Madison professor of life sciences communication, has crossed the world bringing radio to developing areas. While at the University of the West Indies, he helped Caribbean countries establish radio stations, train technicians and talent, and develop programming. He has done similar work in Nicaragua and assisted in the founding of a communications department at a Pakistani university.
Fast and affordable, radio finds its way into the lives of local peoples and speeds development, Meiller observes. In the early morning, announcers update villagers on the price of goods at market. Health information spreads quickly to those who need it most. Community calendars alert scattered farmers of coming social events. Over the airwaves travel the sounds of singing schoolchildren.
Meiller, who serves on the WSUM advisory board and hosts \Conversations with Larry Meiller"" on Wisconsin Public Radio, says radio makes a difference.
""It really helps you feel like you're doing something worthwhile,"" he said.
Jack Mitchell, looking back on his 21 years as director of Wisconsin Public Radio, would agree. Radio, he says, builds communities. He notes that we identify people more often by the stations they listen to than by the TV channels they watch. As radio content specialized over the years, different segments of the population identified with'and became loyal to'different stations. The label ""A Z94 listener,"" for example, conjures an immediate image and identity to mind, whereas ""a Channel 3 viewer"" does not. Mitchell gravitated toward public radio, and in 1970 he became the first staff member at National Public Radio.
While radio links like-minded people over wide areas, a tight personal relationship also forms between the medium and each listener. Elvis Costello captures the intense intimacy of that bond in the opening lines of his song ""Radio, Radio:"" ""I was tuning in the shine on the light night dial / Doing anything my radio advised / With every one of those late night stations / Playing songs bringing tears to my eyes.""
That emotional connection is what makes radio an irreplaceable form of communication. Mitchell argues that the special bond between the radio's voice and the listener is one that other mass media cannot produce. Radio touches us because, as Mitchell points out, we usually listen to it when we are alone.
""It can always be with you, without taking over your life,"" he says.
Doesn't that sound like a best friend of sorts? It's a steadfast someone with whom we can always agree and who will always come when called upon. Its sounds fill our emptiest moments'when commuting, folding laundry, washing the dishes, driving at night with nothing but taillights in darkness. Radio stands in, essentially, as a surrogate human companion. Radio can be, in Mitchell's words, ""a third roommate.""
And not just any roommate. A roommate with delightfully good taste in music. And who shows a flair for painting the most magical scenes we'll ever hear.