Tuning in

Making a small world bigger and the big one smaller

So much of happiness, I’ve realized, depends on getting tuned in. When he was a young married, my father used to tune in the console radio in the living room of the Krohe family mansion on Manor Avenue to the live broadcasts of big-band music “from the beautiful Blue Room in the Roosevelt Hotel” in downtown New Orleans. He was able to be in two places at once thanks to WWL-AM, whose 50,000-watt clear channel signal was beamed north. For all I know, while he tapped his toe on the sofa in Springfield, Inuit couples were jitterbugging to the same tune on the tundra.

For Springfield teens in the 1950s and ’60s, getting a chance to listen to what kids in bigger cities had already decided they liked was important. WCVS-AM was just crawling out of its cocoon, having crawled into it as a country station and emerging as a rock station – although in the late ’50s there wasn’t that much difference. “Rock ’n’ roll” was, in stations like WVCS that catered to mostly white markets, rockabilly and pop-ish country ballads. (Geezers will recall when Brenda Lee was, briefly and laughably, marketed as a rock artist.)

For Top 40 music, as for so many other things, if you wanted to get the really good stuff you had to go to the big city. Around here that meant WLS-AM, WCFL-AM out of Chicago (whose Ron Britain made Soupy Sales look, or rather sound, like Noel Coward), and KXOK-AM out of St. Louis. George Lucas’s American Graffiti brilliantly captured the ways that car radios, transistors, radio stations blaring over PAs in drive-ins, permeated the bubble in which teenagers then lived.

Later I learned I could hear WBZ out of Boston if I acted as the antenna on my transistor. (“Turn on, tune in, drop out” to me meant losing the signal when I lighted a smoke.) WBZ was one of the first stations with the newest 45s from Britain, which allowed us yokels to hear The Yardbirds while the records were still on their way to Midwest stations by stagecoach from Boston harbor.

During the years before WSSR (today’s WUIS) went on the air, Urbana’s WILL-FM was the only public radio station in this part of Illinois. Its programming was largely classical music, and we lovers of concert music tuned in as avidly as Soviet citizens tuned in Radio Free Europe, for news of a civilized world beyond their borders. Their radio hosts – it seems demeaning to call them djs – were wise men from the east bringing tidings of great joy, like what a Shostakovich quartet sounds like. Roger Cooper became the station’s morning classical music host in 1979. Michael Rothe, who came to WILL-FM in 1984, had tastes that allied with mine, such as 20th century composers whose names did not end in -ich or -ski or –eff or –ok.

Rothe went to Chicago, to WFMT-FM, where I was able to hear him when I lived up there. I left for the West Coast, where I was delighted to tune in the classical music station in Portland and hear – thanks to the miracle of WFMT’s satellite syndication – Michael Rothe. I began to imagine Rothe as my own North Star, a bright light that was always in the same place no matter where I was in the hemisphere.

The invention of radio was a miracle, on which today’s digital telecommunications are merely improvements. The presets on my home Internet radio include stations from London, Paris, Berlin, Munich, Ibiza (sometimes even wise men need to dance; it’s what keeps us wise), and campus stations in Chicago and Berkeley. But I had first experienced the amazing-ness of making such connections in one’s own home – very like one’s first sex experience, really – more than 30 years earlier, thanks to my new Panasonic 8-Band Short Wave Double Superheterodyne RF-2200. Music Box on Fifth Street. Around 1980. I paid maybe 50 bucks for it.

I bought that radio so I could hear soccer games from England via the BBC World Service, but I quickly put it to use listening to the BBC Proms and to assorted news and talk shows. (It was and is also a superb music radio.) Radio fans describe the RF-2200 as “legendary,” “the Holy Grail” of AM Analog portables, “the best AM portable radio ever made,” a “Major League Hall of Famer.” However, it was as an FM radio capable of finding FM signals in crowded big-city airspace that are (as one admirer put it) “buried under splatter from other stations” that the RF-2200 earned my gratitude.

That radio made Springfield seem not at all a small place. Tuning in left the ignorant more informed about the world and the bored more reconciled with Springfield. An alert city council would have bought an RF-2200 for every house in town. When I die I’m taking it and some fresh batteries with me – you never know.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at KroJnr@gmail.com.

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