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David Bouchier: Out Of Thin Air

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In 1922 there were about 100,000 domestic radios in use in the whole United States, and 30 broadcasting stations. By 1924 there were half a million radio sets and over 500 stations. Radio just kept on growing from there.

Most of us older folks grew up with radio as our main home entertainment. For me it was the BBC in London, a national non-commercial network that offered plays, soap operas, comedies, classical music, news, and documentaries all day long. There was plenty of stuff for kids, too. I was captivated by a radio serial called Dick Barton, Special Agent, and by The Goon Show — a wonderfully anarchic British radio comedy that turned some kids quite peculiar, although fortunately it had no effect on me. My mother and grandmother were addicted to a ghastly soap opera called “Mrs. Dale's Diary.” Everything in the house had to stop when that came on.

American kids had their radio heroes too — 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 they needn't have worried, because radio develops the imagination instead of replacing it. It allows every listener to create the action and the characters in his or her own mind, just like reading a book. For thousands of years before print came along, the human voice telling stories and reciting poems was the only form of public entertainment, apart from the occasional tribal war.

When television arrived in the 1940s, 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. That’s why the FM band today is mostly pop songs, and the AM band is mostly traffic and weather, tabloid-style news, and nasty call-in shows full of spite and envy. You get what you pay for — or rather, you get what the advertisers are willing to pay for.

Sometimes we forget what we almost lost. Quality radio in America was rescued from oblivion by the establishment of National Public Radio fifty years ago in 1971. That’s why we can still hear calm, non-commercial broadcasting: real news, clever quizzes, thoughtful commentaries and all kinds of good music. You may be driving, or on the beach, or hiding in quarantine, or even in the shower, and these intelligent programs come to you out of thin air, or so it seems. Who knows or cares where they come from, or how they’re paid for?

Many European countries have excellent non-commercial radio 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. It just goes to show what farsighted, thoughtful and honest people we are.

Copyright: David Bouchier

  

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.