"Driving alone at night, in the darkened car, reassured by the night-light of the dashboard, or lying in bed tuned in to a disembodied voice or music, evokes a spiritual, almost telepathic contact across space and time, a reassurance that we aren't alone in the void."
-- Susan J. Douglas, Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination
Every night, after my sons have fallen asleep, I sneak into their rooms and quietly switch off the radio. My son Teddy is generally tuned in to a rock station at medium volume. Aaron prefers his nighttime radio fix switched to oldies, barely audible. I am compelled to turn off the radio because I fear nocturnal brainwashing. The stations, with their prefab formats, blast far more advertising than music, and the disc jockeys come across generally as a bunch of horny, sexist overgrown adolescents.
Sometimes Teddy nods awake when I switch off his radio and quietly negotiates with me. He agrees to tune in to the classical station if I'll allow him to keep the radio on. I turn the knob down to the lower call numbers, assured that this variety of brainwashing is good for him as opposed to the crass, commercial other. When I go to wake him the next morning, however, I inevitably find the radio turned back to his head-banger station.
I am uncomfortable with the self-imposed role of radio police and am considering giving it up. Just as I can no longer control my kids' choices of activities or friends, I am gradually losing the last vestige of parental authority -- the ability to control their media intake. I can express my opinion, as I do every morning driving them to school when disc jockeys crack the quiet morning air with their off-color drivel and inane commentary. But their musical choices are personal and, I understand, important to their autonomy.
Struggling with my tendency to be a radio Nazi, I recently came across a review of media critic Susan Douglas' new book, Listening In. Though critical of the reduced choices offered by today's conglomerate-owned stations, and concerned over the "models of masculinity" on contemporary radio, Douglas reaffirms the value of radio. "We want -- and need," she says, "to listen."
My children crave the musical backdrop afforded by radio, just as I crave the gentle voice that delivers to me news of the world. And when I was their age, I lived by radio, measuring popular trends, keeping up, learning to dance.
On January 1 of 1968, when I was 14, my favorite radio station staged a listening marathon over a weekend. "The greatest 68 songs of all time!" screamed the announcer in promos repeated over and over the previous week. I planned my life around the broadcast and sat for most of twelve hours on my bedroom floor, listening to the countdown. I wrote down the entire list which consisted mostly of early Beatles and Rolling Stones, Motown tunes and R&B classics. No. 1 was "Yesterday."
On a recent road trip to Texas, my sons and I spent two Sunday mornings listening to Casey's countdown. They were transfixed waiting to see which tunes would enter the sacred heirarchy. They argued loudly between tunes, spouting off arcane anecdotes about the lives of the featured recording artists.
Throughout our trip, the radio played. Bouncy Tejano tunes, wailing country, slammin' rock. We sang along to oldies, laughed at lyrics, fought over the controls. When the radio was off, the car felt like a moving tomb, wrapped in fuzzy silence.
I thought of all the times I had traveled alone over thousands of miles, the radio my only companion. I remembered the comfort gleaned on a dark night, gliding through the middle of nowhere toward an unknown motel in the Midwest, hearing the enthusiastic voice of a sportscaster from Chicago, the buzz of the crowd in the background, tuning in to a baseball game as I negotiated foreign roads.
I won't switch off my sons radios any more, I've decided. I'll relinquish my power to the voice in the dark, speaking to them in mystery tones while they sleep.
-- First published in April, 1999