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Domestic Bliss


"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

A few years back, every night, after my sons had fallen asleep, I sneaked into their rooms and quietly switched off the radio. One of them was generally tuned in to a rock station at medium volume. Another preferred his nighttime radio switched to oldies, barely audible. I was compelled to turn off the radio because I feared nocturnal brainwashing. The stations, after all, 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 my oldest son would nod awake when I switched off his radio and would quietly negotiate with me. He agreed to tune in to the classical station if I'd allow him to keep the radio on. I turned the knob down to the lower call numbers, assured that this variety of brainwashing was good for him as opposed to the crass, commercial other. When I'd go to wake him the next morning, however, I'd inevitably find the radio turned back to his head-banger station.

Admittedly, I was uncomfortable with the self-imposed role of radio police and have almost given it up now that my boys have grown older. 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 Susan Douglas' 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 assured voice that delivers me the news of the world every day. When I was their age, I lived by radio, measuring popular trends, keeping up, learning to dance, singing along, using the radio as a backdrop to all my personal drama.

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. Number one was "Yesterday." I've kept the list all these years and think of it now, every time another "top 100 all-time great songs" marathon is broadcast.

On trips to Texas taken once or twice a year, my sons and I pass Sunday mornings on the long, dusty road listening to Casey's countdown. We are transfixed waiting to see which tunes will enter the sacred hierarchy. The boys argue loudly between tunes, spouting off arcane anecdotes about the lives of the featured recording artists and the quality of their music.

Throughout our trips, the radio plays. Bouncy tejano tunes, wailing country, slammin' rock, ads for hardware stores, public service announcements for potluck dinners at the local VFW, evangelists praying, a wavery organ melody hovering in the background. We sing along to oldies helping each other to stay awake. We laugh at dumb lyrics, fight over the controls. When the radio is off, the car feels like a moving tomb, wrapped in fuzzy silence.

When my sons are sleeping, I think of all the times I've traveled alone over thousands of miles, the radio my only companion. I remember the comfort gleaned on a dark night, gliding through the middle of nowhere toward an unknown motel, hearing the enthusiastic voice of a sportscaster, the buzz of the crowd in the background, tuning in to a baseball game broadcast from Chicago or Cincinnati or Detroit, as I negotiate unfamiliar roads in the middle of America, trying to stay tuned in as the feed grows weaker and weaker.

I won't bug my sons about radio anymore, I've decided. I'll relinquish my power to the voice in the dark, speaking to them in mystery tones while they sleep. I'll remember the comfort I've drawn and continue to enjoy from my old friend, static and all. We are radioheads and we need to listen.


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