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David Bouchier: Wireless memories

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A hundred years ago America went crazy for radio. In 1922 there were about 100,000 domestic radios in use, and 30 broadcasting stations. A couple of years later there were half a million radio sets and over 500 stations. Radio just kept on growing from there.

Most people of my generation grew up with radio — or the wireless as we called it. We had no TV, just a big old valve radio with an antenna on the roof which tended to blow down on windy days.

Radio was our window on the world, which sounds strange because there was nothing to see. But with medium, long and short wave reception we could travel anywhere on those complicated old radios. Rome, Dusseldorf, Algiers, Moscow — they were all in the magic box.

In the early days too there were plays, soap operas, comedies, classical music and serious documentaries all over the dial. American kids had their special on-air heroes like The Shadow, Buck Rogers, The Green Hornet. Parents in those days worried about kids listening to radio too much, just as they worry now about the effects of TV and videogames. But with hindsight, we know that they needn't have worried, because radio develops the imagination instead of anaesthetizing it. It allows every listener to create the action and the characters in his or her own mind, just like reading a book. People sat around the radio, literally, sharing the experience.

When television began to take over in the 1950s, Gracie Allen said sadly: "It seems like nobody watches the radio anymore," and she was right. For a while, radio was in danger of being wiped out entirely by television. Commercial radio stations scrambled to survive by switching to simplified, low-cost programming, paid for by advertising and driven by the demands of advertising. That’s why so much radio today consists of pop songs, traffic and weather, tabloid-style news, and angry call-in shows. You get what you pay for — or rather you get what advertisers find it profitable to pay for.

Quality radio in America was rescued from oblivion by the establishment of listener-funded non-commercial National Public Radio in 1970. Down at the bottom of the dial you can now find something more interesting — good music, reliable and balanced news and commentary — just like the old days.

Some European countries have equally excellent programming because it’s paid for by — guess what? — a tax. Everybody must pay whether they listen or not. We have an altogether more democratic system, an honor system. Those who choose to listen choose to pay. What could be fairer than that?

Copyright: David Bouchier