BY KEVIN WILLIAMS
Some of the coldest air I’ve ever encountered was one frigid January morning in Des Moines in the early 1990s.
I was in town to do an interview on WHO radio’s Jan Mickelson Show (which to my knowledge is still broadcasting). The air was so cold that the moisture in the inside of my nose froze as I walked from my car into the spacious WHO studios. There are other TV and radio stations in Des Moines but, at least in those days, WHO was the only one that really mattered. Soon it was time to take my spot behind the mic and Jan and I bantered about Amish culture and cooking (hard to believe I was talking about the same topics way back then), took some listener calls for an hour, and that was that. Jan’s welcoming, warm personality had melted away the icy air and I had introduced Iowans to The Amish Cook column. But I doubt I’d make a special trip to Des Moines today (unless I was running for President). Like every other media landscape, radio has morphed into something unrecognizable from what it used to be. The cold air in Des Moines has been replaced by the hot air of political polarization. Seems like most of the airwaves are filled with political talk of one stripe or another, but it didn’t used to be that way.
So, does anyone- besides those tuning in to political shows - still listen to AM radio?
Other than an occasional baseball or football game, I just don’t listen to it anymore.
Radio is a medium of imagination and a skilled host weaves a tapestry of story with oratory and information, inflection and emotion. When I was in high school I went to sleep every night with a crackling transistor radio at my bedside. Often I’d fall asleep to the booming baritone of Reds Hall of Fame announcer Marty Brenneman calling balls and strikes or spinning stories about Johnny Bench and Pete Rose. For a socially struggling high school student, radio knew no nerds, everyone was welcome.
My hometown of Cincinnati used to be a cauldron of on-air AM talent (sorry for being so local, but our Cincinnati readers may remember greats like Jerry Thomas, Rich King, Alan Browning, Dave Lee). The booming signal of “The Big One” 700 WLW could be heard in most states at night. I remember once driving at dawn on the northern tip of Newfoundland some 1900 miles from Cincinnati and hearing the crackling signal of 700 WLW on my car radio. It was comforting in that cold, desolate, lonely Arctic-scape. And I remember my father talking about Cincinnati station WSAI’s signal being audible on board his navy ship somewhere in the Atlantic when he was in the service, connecting him to the Queen City’s quirks if only by signal.
There are other great stations. Fort Wayne has 1190 WOWO radio, St. Louis has KMOX, and Louisville has 840 WHAS.
When I was a teenage drifting to sleep, I’d slowly turn the fat knob on the transistor radio and in would crackle Louisville or Philadelphia, or New York. WBZ in Boston was a favorite. I’ve been a guest a couple of times on Jordan Rich’s show on WBZ, the last time about 10 years ago. I thought maybe I was the only WBZ listener in Ohio but when I gave a talk the next day in Zanesville, a woman in the audience had heard me the night before on WBZ. Radio is a medium of shared experience that knows no boundaries. I've been a guest on many radio and TV programs, but I always enjoy the warm of the airwaves more than the harshness of the camera.
In addition to the local hosts, there were national talk shows that I’d tune in to, long before radio’s landscape became so political. Bruce Williams doled out financial advice ( I should have listened to it more), Sally Jessy Raphael was great on radio and the late Dr. Joy Browne dished out relationship advice. And local radio hosts doled out personality and vanilla, welcoming warmth. I miss those old-time radio hosts who gradually seemed to be replaced by more shrill “talk radio” types. The shared experience of those genial radio hosts are fragmenting as people seek validation of views in podcasts and politics.
Meanwhile, I’m not sure what happened to my transistor radio. My social life improved and the need for that connection diminished as I pursued more typical high school activities. But the memories of those AM radio hosts with their mix of music and mirth remains a fond, if distant, memory.
So did I leave out any big stations that should have been mentioned? Anyone remember a favorite radio host?
Panasonic transistor radio!! And WOWO..it came in here in PA..and I listened to it a lot!! Ahh..memories...
Wow, Barb, didn't realize their signal was so strong!
Hey Kevin I grew up in south Carolina and still live here..I grew up listening to the radio and not transistor at first either.I listened to country music on a cincinnatti station don't remember letters .also wowo.radio was good because it took us to place far away and unknown like ohio and Indiana and tenn.lol.on the stories on radio you ould make them look like whatever you wanted like reading a book.I think we have lost out a lot,I still read a lot and a lot of amish fiction.r pray for all in the path of matthew.I live almost 200 miles inland but if you look back to Hurricane Hugo in 1989 it did a lot of damage in our area, have a blessed day ms Patricia McCurry York,s.c.
Hope you stay safe, Patricia, keep us posted!
I always loved Steve Kirk and Dusty Rhoades. WING radio in Dayton was a favorite.
Ah, Sherry, yes, I remember Dusty...I think he eventually moved to a Cincy radio station...for Dayton I was always a fan of WHIO AM radio...
I remember the radio in 1945 that was all we had. Lots of stories I would listen to. No TV back then. If there was TV it was for the very rich but just don't remember anyone having one.
Wow, Helen, thanks for sharing the perspective, if you remember that far back, you have witnessed so many changes in communications, media, etc....quite incredible
I loved Casey Kasem. I listened from Fairmont, WV as a teenager and the transistor radio was under my pillow to listen to every night to fall asleep. My mom would come in and turn it off after I fell asleep sometimes so the battery wouldn't die. Sweet memory!
Yes, I did love Casey Kasem...he and Dick Clark really personified American pop fora generation...I miss them both!
I lived in Northern Ohio and remember listening to CKLW out of Windsor or maybe Detroit. It was great. I had a small blue transistor and would ride my bike with it hanging on the handlebars listening to sounds of Motown and DJ Dick Purtin ( I think that was his name). I still have a transistor and carry around the house and into the garage. Now living in Cincinnati it is mostly on WLW (which I heard one night driving across Alligator Alley in Southern FL)
CKLW is one of the stations I was going to mention, I love listening to them just because it's kind of cool to hear the Canadian perspective on things...But I can only usually pick them up on my car radio during the day once I get north of Dayton...