I’m a TV addict, love movies and books, and I thoroughly enjoy the Internet. But my first and most enduring entertainment medium was and is radio. Radio’s effect on me is unique—a feeling of home, warmth, connection over long distances—and the feeling is strongest at Christmas.
Jean Shepherd’s perennial A Christmas Story is a humorous and accurate depiction of post-World War II Midwest life. Change the Hammond Indiana setting (filmed in Cleveland Ohio) to Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, cast me as Ralphie’s younger brother Randy, and you have some of my first remembrances of my early life and the role radio played in entertaining us.
“Good morning Breakfast Clubbers, morning to ya. We woke up bright and early just to ‘Howdy do’ ya. First call to breakfast for all of you out there. America awaits, the Breakfast Club is on the air!”
Don McNeill’s Breakfast Club, a morning program of live music and comedy from Chicago was on as I had breakfast and my mother began her daily housework. It’s my earliest radio memory. Fran Allison, well known for her children’s television show Kukla, Fran and Ollie, was a regular Breakfast Club performer as the humorous gossip Aunt Fanny. Although I probably didn’t get much of the humor, I laughed at her delivery. McNeill would actually have the hotel ballroom audience get up and march around their breakfast tables at the beginning of each fifteen-minute segment of the one-hour show, and I would do so, too! It was silly fun, and a then unselfconscious America was unembarrassed to enjoy it.
After Breakfast Club, radio soap operas played as Mom went on with her day. I don’t think she paid much attention to them; they were mostly background noise, company to her as she worked. I didn’t pay much attention to them, either. Some of the soaps didn’t make the transition to television and the titles of a few—John’s Other Wife, Ma Perkins, One Man’s Family, The Romance of Helen Trent, and The Second Mrs. Burton—probably tell us why.
As noon rolled around Mom would say, “Let’s go to Grandma’s and eat lunch,” and she, my sister Susan, and I would make the short walk over to my grandparents’ house. Sometimes we’d have lunch there and sometimes we’d meet Grandma Jones at her sister’s house a few doors farther down the street. My grandmother, great-grandmother, and great Aunt Clara did follow the soaps and they conversed at length and with seriousness about what was going on in the characters’ lives. Their talk had me wide-eyed until I understood that their conversations weren’t about real people.
My grandfather worked rotating shifts as a steel mill electrician and his radio listening habits revolved around the news and Pirates baseball games. KDKA, not only Pittsburgh’s but also the world’s first commercial radio station, was Grandpap Jones’ station of choice.
It was through my grandfather that I came to appreciate the gravelly-voiced play-by-play commentary of Bob “Gunner” Prince, the instantly recognizable Voice of the Pirates and, in my opinion, one of radio’s all-time best sportscasters.
When Grandpap wasn’t working the day shift, noontime would almost always find him at his kitchen table listening to KDKA’s noon news. News was something he took seriously, and he provided his own commentary as he listened whether anyone else was in the room to hear him or not. I remember one such occasion following some war news during the Korean War. Grandpap looked across his kitchen table at me. “Let me tell you something, Professor,” he declared. He often called me “Professor” when he was going to make a point. “Let me tell you something, Professor. That whole damn bunch over there isn’t worth one good American boy! And don’t you forget it.” I didn’t forget it, not because it made an immediate impression, but because he often repeated the admonition to me throughout the Cold War era and the Vietnam War. At the risk of sounding xenophobic, I have to say that I agree with my grandfather’s opinion. On the one hand, I understand the decision to commit troops to combat is far more complex than that. But on the other hand, I wish our Government and the American people would take the time to consider whether it really is worth one good American man or woman before these decisions are taken, not after.
Late afternoons and evenings provided radio westerns, comedies, mysteries, and dramas, many of which would soon move to the fledgling television medium. I spent enjoyable hours listening to programs such as Jack Benny, The Cisco Kid, and The Lone Ranger.
I well remember, too, the opening lines of The Shadow. “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” Thus would begin another episode in which wealthy Lamont Cranston assumed the identity of The Shadow, a crime fighter with the hypnotic power of seeming invisibility and a telepathic ability to read minds. Only his girlfriend, Margo Lane, knew of Cranston’s crime-fighting alter ego, and the listener could almost bet that most episodes would end with Margo in grave danger and Cranston/The Shadow coming to her rescue.
Inner Sanctum was a forerunner of television’s Tales from the Crypt. A spooky organ, a turning doorknob, and a creepily squeaking door opening to the Inner Sanctum of the show’s ghoulish host Raymond would begin another scary story worthy of Edgar Allen Poe. Raymond, a master of story-related puns and gruesome humor, provided understated comic relief at each episode’s opening, commercial breaks, and ending. If you’ve ever seen the work of Elvira, “Mistress of the Dark” or (John) Zacherley, “The Cool Ghoul”, well, their shtick owes much to Inner Sanctum’s Raymond.
Anyone who enjoys reading fiction would immediately appreciate the appeal of radio drama. Both the reader and the listener, forced to use their imagination, provide for themselves the details of the characters’ appearance and story scene settings. Radio storytelling is a mostly lost art form, and that’s unfortunate because it truly was Theater of the Mind.
In today’s time-compressed society, preparations for Christmas begin as soon as the last Trick-or-Treater’s candy bag is dumped out. And you can count on at least one station in every radio market to start broadcasting non-stop Christmas music before what’s left of the Thanksgiving turkey clears the table. By the time Christmas finally arrives, who of us doesn’t fear that one more playing of a song about a poor little boy asking a stranger to buy a pair of red shoes to place on his mother’s grave might drive us into the depths of a depression from which there will be no return? I’ve heard happier music at a wake!
In contrast, the Christmases of my youth were anticipated and savored. Santa Claus made his first brief appearance at the end of the Thanksgiving Day parade. And the radio stations waited until two or three weeks before Christmas to begin filtering into their playlists an occasional Christmas carol or other Christmas song, gradually increasing the frequency of Christmas music play until reaching a crescendo on Christmas Eve. What songs they were, too! Little Jimmy Boyd sang about seeing his mommy kissing Santa Claus. Gene Autry sang Here Comes Santa Claus and told us the story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in song. Bing Crosby had us wishing for a White Christmas. And Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxwell’s Silver Bells described a beautifully decorated city full of people of good cheer. In whatever circumstances we found ourselves, radio in those days helped put us in the mood for Christmas—a Merry Christmas!
I developed allergies that resulted in respiratory problems, and Pittsburgh’s air quality from the steel mills wasn’t helping me any. Dad worked as a crane operator in one of the mills, but temporary layoffs, strikes, and shutdowns were frequent. He took other work, too, but could find nothing that offered stability or advancement. Because of these circumstances and maybe others that I still don’t know to this day, we moved almost four hundred miles away to New Jersey.
When old time Pittsburghers talk about any other city, they call the city by its name as we all do. Chicago is simply Chicago. Dallas is simply Dallas. But when they talk about Pittsburgh they say, “The City of Pittsburgh.” Maybe it’s just an oddity of speech. Pittsburghers are famous for them. Or maybe it’s because Pittsburgh is someplace special; something I certainly believe and also a tagline that KDKA adopted. I’ve lived overseas and in various parts of our Country and I’ve found nice, friendly people everywhere. People in the New York City metro area aren’t nearly as abrupt and cold as they’ve been made out to be. Southerners are neither backward nor bigoted. But Pittsburgh—Pittsburgh is special. When God took His jars of civil manners, sense of humor, the ability to laugh at ourselves, generosity, and friendliness and sprinkled the contents out across our Country, I think He must have had about a half-jar of each left over and He dumped them all out on Pittsburgh. At least, that’s my story—and I’m sticking to it.
Paterson, a New Jersey paper mill town, was no Pittsburgh. My sister Susan and I were miserable and, although I was careful not to be too vocal about it, I blamed Dad for our being there. It was a bum rap that he didn’t deserve. Paterson would provide needed job stability while he went to night school to be able to pursue a good career, one that would dramatically improve life for all of us. He did what a man was expected to do and, I realized before I became fully grown, what I would have done in the same circumstances.
Susan and I had a new baby brother now, David, and we spent our summer vacations from school in Pittsburgh with Grandma and Grandpap Jones. I was over at Aunt Clara’s one afternoon and found my older cousin Jack listening to the new doo-wop hit, Earth Angel, on the radio. A clean-cut looking teenager who looked good in his tee shirt and jeans—Pittsburghers called them dungarees—Jack was standing in the slightly bent-kneed, slouch-shouldered manner of James Dean, and I noticed he was tapping the heel rather than the toe of his shoe in time to the song’s beat. I had never seen anyone do that before, so I asked him why. Jack said that toe tapping was what old people did, but that heel tapping was cool. I wanted to be “cool,” too! I liked this new music he was listening to and who, I thought, could possibly be cooler than Jack? I was only eight years old, but I did my best thereafter to try to imitate both my cousin’s look and his heel tap.
Back in New Jersey, I discovered Your Hits of the Week hosted by Peter Tripp, the self-described “Curly-headed kid in the third row,” on New York’s WMGM radio. Music contending for the definition of popular ran the gamut of genres in 1955. Prez Prado’s Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White, Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock, and Mitch Miller and the Sing Along Gang’s Yellow Rose of Texas occupied positions one, two, and three of the same pop chart! I loved it all—well, most of it.
I had my own room in the third floor attic of the two-family house we shared with Dad’s stepbrother and his family. The room’s isolation was nice, but a little scary at night. It was here that I discovered the effect of atmospheric skip on AM radio after dark. Boston came in loud and clear at 1030 on the radio dial. And if I just slightly turned the dial to the left, there at 1020 was KDKA Pittsburgh and the sound of people speaking in the unmistakable accent unique to that one city; an accent I was rapidly losing. The radio reception faded for several minutes at a time and then came back strong for several more. I didn’t care. I could hear Pittsburgh at night, and that was good enough for me.
We moved to a development in suburban Haskell, New Jersey when I was nine or ten. Paterson never looked better to me than it did disappearing from the back window of our car. I liked Haskell. We had a lot of nice neighbors and many of their kids became my friends; some of whom I’ve stayed in contact with for over forty years now. Our life in Haskell also saw the birth of the last addition to our family, my sister Robin.
I was about eleven or twelve when I got a “rocket ship radio,” a tiny crystal radio housed in a red plastic replica of a World War II German V-2 rocket. I think I sent in a cereal box top and fifty cents for the thing. A thin pair of twisted wires connected to a hearing aid-like earpiece exited the rocket’s tail, as did another thin wire connected to an alligator clip. I found the radio didn’t work very well in the house, but if I went to the telephone pole at the end of our driveway and connected the clip to a metal conduit that went up the pole from a fire alarm box, I could receive New York’s WABC just fine. I would go out to the pole with my radio every morning and listen to WABC for about fifteen minutes before my buddies showed up to walk to school with me. I probably looked stupid doing this at any time of the year, but I really must have taken the “dweeb” award for standing out there in two feet of snow in January, all bundled up against the cold, and holding that silly red rocket!
Either out of the goodness of their hearts—or embarrassment at the sight of their son listening to a rocket ship by a telephone pole—Dad and Mom gave me a portable radio for Christmas when I was thirteen. This was the same year the transistor was invented, so pocket-sized transistor radios had yet to arrive on the scene. The radio I received was a nice one, but like all radios then, it used vacuum tubes. It probably measured more than a foot in length, almost a foot in height, and maybe four inches in thickness to accommodate the tubes, wiring, tuner, speaker and, of course, the batteries. Ah yes, the batteries. It took two batteries, a ninety volt and a seven and a half volt that together took up about half the radio’s interior space. The batteries didn’t last long, maybe twenty hours of radio play, and they were expensive even by today’s standards. Luckily, the radio also operated off house current, so I didn’t play it on battery power very often.
I had that radio all through high school and for some time thereafter, and it was during those years that I discovered Bruce Morrow’s “Cousin Brucie” afternoon program on WABC. Cousin Brucie wasn’t quite as wild as Wolfman Jack, but he was very popular throughout the New York City metro area.
Rock and Roll was by then the undisputed definition of popular music and, as far as I’m concerned, that ten-year period between 1957 and 1966 was rock’s golden age. Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Elvis, the Beatles, the Stones, the list goes on and on. My radio played them all, and it was a great time to be growing up.
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There’s a saying that home is where the heart is. I suppose that’s true . It’s our strong connection to a place, people, or both that instills in us our feeling of “home”—where our heart is.
My most enduring radio memory goes back more than fifty years.
We were on our way from New Jersey to my grandparents’ house for Thanksgiving. Dad drove all night, and we kids slept in the car’s backseat for most of the trip.
I woke up just as we came out of the Squirrel Hill tunnel, coming into Pittsburgh from the east. It must have been about six or seven in the morning, and light snow fell from a leaden sky. It wasn’t much longer until I saw the Monongahela River, and the U.S. Steel works belching smoke that disappeared into a low blanket of clouds. I watched a slag car train make its way slowly along the tracks near the riverbank. Finally, the J&L Steel mill where my grandfather worked appeared in the distance on the slate gray river’s south bank. It wouldn’t be long now! We’d be crossing the bridge to my grandparents’ neighborhood, what Grandpap Jones often referred to as “dear old South Side.”
Dad turned the car radio on and Perry Como crooned, “I met a man who lives in Tennessee, and he was heading for, Pennsylvania and some homemade pumpkin pie ….”
It was as if KDKA played the song just to welcome us back.
We were home.
Copyright © 2009 by Gary Stephens
Gary Stephens is a retired U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer and the author of the 2007 techno-thriller, Epiphany