On Christmas Eve 1906, in Brant Rock, Massachusetts, a Canadian-born professor named Reginald Fessenden transmitted what became the world’s first radio communication. The broadcast included a violin rendition of O Holy Night and a reading from the Bible, heard by sailors aboard nearby ships along the Atlantic seaboard.
The “ wireless telegram,” as The Boston Globe called it, caught on. By the time Fessenden died, in 1932, some 12 million Americans had radios in their homes, and by the end of the decade that number tripled; by 1947, more than 80 percent of Americans considered themselves radio listeners. Indeed, Fessenden’s amplitude modulation broadcast (AM radio) had become ubiquitous, a fixture in homes across America for much of the 20th century, soon adding frequency modulation (FM radio) and a generation later, XM Satellite. Some of the biggest moments in this country’s history were delivered via radio — Oh, the humanity!; the Giants win the pennant!; I Have a Dream — and today, though streaming and subscription models have seemingly taken over the world, radio remains healthy. While the apparatus itself has changed — Alexa, play NPR — its place endures, a societal element found in every country on earth.
The radio has its limits. Reception can be shaky, staticky, or flat-out unavailable. For those with auditory challenges, it can be pretty useless, and advancements for radio listeners with these accessibility needs have been well-intentioned but are far from commonplace. But with failure comes lessons to be learned. Here, it’s perhaps a reminder that not all of us can (or want) to consume media the same way. To produce a video means to include closed captioning and an accompanying write-up; to build a website means to allow screen-reader capability; and, to produce a radio show, that means creating a supplemental transcript, at least of the most important moments.
Still, if we can assess the radio, flaws and all, accepting its archaic delivery without excusing it, we can appreciate its imperfect beauty, its faults that make it an endearing medium difficult to imagine living without. And we probably never will. The radio appears immune to technology’s rapid ascent, a jar of honey with no expiration date. The radio’s staying power — and, hence, its influence — is due as much to tradition and low cost of entry as anything else. No car in the last half century has been built without radio capabilities. Every music streaming service (Spotify, Apple, Amazon) offers radio. Same with every computer and smartphone. And in many places around the world, where advanced technology is unavailable, actual radios are the primary — or only — source of information to the outside world. In Africa, a continent of 1.3 billion people (1/7th of the planet), radio dominates as the information leader, particularly in developing countries where television access is scarce and literacy rates are low. With half the world living on $5.50 per day, a worldwide shift away from radio isn’t likely to happen soon.
There’s more to it. We don’t just listen to the radio simply because it’s there. Typewriters and rotary dial phones were also there for most of the 20th century. We still listen to and seek out the radio because it remains good user experience and, frankly, is easy to consume. The radio is steady background while cleaning, driving, sitting at the DMV, relieving oneself at Yankee Stadium. It’s familiar, it’s comforting. The radio reminds us we’re not alone.
The radio does, however, ask something of us. It asks us to surrender control, to strip ourselves of the responsibility of what comes next. The radio promises nothing but assures us that everything’s fine. Our favorite song will come on soon, we have to believe that. And when it does? Oh, it’s so good. Why is that? We could just as easily queue up “Old Town Road” on YouTube or Spotify whenever we want, but when Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus show up with cowboy hats from Gucci unannounced, a tsunami of euphoria washes over. Science says it’s because humans love surprises and that dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for controlling pleasure in brains, fires at a much higher rate when experiencing the unexpected (and the outcome is positive). “The [brain’s pleasure center] lights up like a Christmas Tree,” said professor Dr. P. Read Montague in a study that examined the brain when presented with unpredictable activity. It’s not unlike being on hard drugs, the study’s researchers said, but perhaps a better comparison was that of receiving gifts on our birthday. Nice, but they pack a much bigger punch when delivered not on our birthday, when they’re unexpected. So while our brain certainly enjoys hearing “Love Yourself” by Justin Bieber when we press play on our phone, a delicious, uncontrollable chemical reaction happens when it spontaneously comes on the radio.
The radio also awakens our visual imagination. Take baseball. As someone who’s watched and listened to thousands of games over 33 years, I can say without hesitation the game is best consumed on radio. Baseball is slow. It’s grueling. It takes forever. Nothing happens…until it does. Like that unexpected dopamine hit when our song drops, baseball offers enormous payoff because of its high improbability factor. And on the radio it’s that much sweeter, because with two outs and three guys on in the bottom of the ninth of a 4–1 playoff game, a ball sent high and deep to right field suddenly becomes the only thing happening in the world. Our full attention is vice-gripped. But all we can do is close our eyes, listen, and explore our imagination of what it all might look like, mining the depths of memories formed a year ago, or twenty. Some advice: if this ever happens to you, try to avoid watching the replay on television. The book is always better than the movie.
Who knows. Maybe the numbers are wrong. Maybe the radio will go the way of floppy disks, that news and weather and sports and Hot 97 Power and Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh and the BBC and Interstate 70 and your neighbor’s goldfish and Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse and the Philly Phanatic will all get bought, dumped, and repackaged into our Amazon Prime account that then appears on our bedroom wall as an AI-powered hologram that also tells us in real-time our cholesterol levels and when we’re going to die and if it’s going to hurt. But until then, consider turning on the radio. Consider letting go of what comes next.
Originally published at https://medium.com on May 30, 2019.