Celebrating a lifelong, evolving love of radio [Unscripted column] | Entertainment

Celebrating a lifelong, evolving love of radio [Unscripted column] | Entertainment


In 1967, when I was in fifth grade, I had an especially memorable Christmas. That was the year my parents brought me one of my all-time favorite holiday gifts: a transistor radio.

Finally, I no longer had to wait till my parents — not fans of anything resembling rock ’n’ roll — were out of earshot of the living room to get my musical kicks. I had previously depended on my family’s hi-fi — a living room behemoth that took several seconds to warm up and hum to life when I pulled up on the power knob — to listen to our local AM radio stations.

My transistor radio, with its handsome black leather case, its expandable silver antenna and its monophonic earphone, transported me to another world. I could lie in bed and listen to the local “Groove-ology” show, and fall asleep to the sounds of Motown and movie themes and other Top-40 delights.

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The thrill wasn’t merely in getting to listen to the music I chose whenever I wanted; it was the radio itself — the DJs’ personalities, the local commercials for pizza parlors and record stores, the giveaways and the news.

In third grade, on a local radio station, I’d been one of a handful of elementary students chosen to be recorded answering questions about what we liked about school. I felt like a celebrity as I heard my voice coming out of those hi-fi speakers.

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When I bought my first tape recorder with my babysitting money, I created my own radio shows on cassette, including song intros, sound effects, commercials for local businesses, soap operas and “interviews” with celebrities — their “answers” to my questions consisting of a couple of sampled lines from their songs or comedy albums.

I showed up at remote radio broadcasts to grab a free ABBA album or a “Tooth Fairy Radio Ranger” T-shirt — based on one of the syndicated superhero radio spoofs produced by Franklin & Marshall College alumnus Dick Orkin.

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I had grown up knowing the radio was my Depression-era parents’ form of entertainment in their homes. They had told me stories about the sound of “Fibber McGee and Molly’s” possessions crashing out Fibber’s overstuffed closet, and how TV shows like “The Jack Benny Program,” “The Lone Ranger” and “Gunsmoke” had begun on the radio.

I was so interested in their stories that I chose to do a large project in junior high about the history of radio shows. I’ve loved “old-time radio” ever since, seeking out vintage episodes of “Sherlock Holmes,” “The Shadow,” “A Christmas Carol” and plays by Shakespeare.

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While visiting relatives in suburban Washington, D.C., over the years, I fell in love with “The Big Broadcast,”

a collection of 1940s and ’50s radio show episodes that air Sunday nights on public radio station WAMU. My current favorite serial:

A melodramatic old chestnut from the 1950s called “Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar,” about an insurance adjuster who solves mysteries as “the man with the action-packed expense account.”

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As I watched Ralphie decode “Little Orphan Annie’s” message on the annual TV broadcast of “A Christmas Story” last week, I identified, again, with the kid’s passionate relationship with the voice coming out of the radio.

Ten years after I got my first radio, and the year before I decided on print journalism as my college major, I read a regular news summary and an occasional opinion piece on my dorm complex’s radio station. I knew that while my voice was being broadcast in the dining hall, my fellow students were talking and eating dinner and mostly likely not hearing a word I said. But I loved being a small part of the radio world for several months — because there’s something about radio that’s always been so special to me among the types of entertainment in my media diet.

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I became a member of our region’s public radio station, WITF, back in 1988 after having listened to the news programming on the station for more than two years. Before I could tune in public radio shows via a website, app, smart speaker or podcast I used to have to turn my clock radio upside down and sideways, and drive my car slowly around parking lots, to hone in on a clear signal from Philadelphia’s public radio station, WHYY, so I could hear public radio shows like “This American Life.”

Since WITF switched from classical music to a news and information format in 2012, I’ve been able to revel in those “driveway moments” — where you don’t want to turn off the radio and get out of your car because the show or segment you’re listening to is so compelling — without the radio gymnastics.

It’s fitting that, in the senior-citizen years of my print journalism career, I find myself a part of the radio sphere once again in the form of WITF, which took over ownership of LNP Media Group over the summer. The radio hosts I’ve been listening to for years are now my work colleagues.

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I pretty much geeked out as we LNP staffers got our initial tour of the station’s public media center in Harrisburg.

It took me right back to 1967, putting that transistor radio earpiece into my ear for the first time, and opening my heart to a lifelong love of radio.

Mary Ellen Wright is deputy team leader for life & culture for LNP | LancasterOnline. “Unscripted” is a weekly entertainment column produced by a rotating team of writers.

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