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Stringing Readers Along
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We've just sent out, and placed online the 53rd issue of our e-zine The Orphan Scrivener. There's a lot of news this time about various essays, reviews and interviews we've done. Mary has a fascinating look at steam trains, Soot and Cinders. As for me, I write about radio from long ago:

Stringing Listeners Along

I don’t listen to music on the radio any more. The short snatches I’ve heard recently seem to consist of homogenized play lists of commercially successful songs (few of which appeal to me) interspersed with D.J.s straining to sound loud, frantic, and aggressive.

There was a time when I had the radio on a lot. I grew up carting plastic transistor radios around on summer days and with crackly car radios accompanying me everywhere. It was important that a stereo system include a good radio.

During the fifties and very early sixties I only liked novelty songs. My parents had record albums but what did Ray Conniff, Frank Sinatra, or Perry Como have to say to a kid? (Except, maybe, “get lost so the elders can be alone”?) Fortunately the radio stations displayed better taste than mom and dad, playing classics like Alley Oop, Purple People Eater, Little Space Girl, and the whole brilliant oeuvre of David Seville and the Chipmunks.

By the time I was in college my friends and I disdained AM radio, which is where popular music lived in that era, because the Top 40 never contained enough “good” music. In particular, radio lacked the Kinks who didn’t have many American hits. How we reveled in those few weeks when Lola neared the top of the charts and “our” sound was heard in the land.

FM was where it was at in those days. I recall driving at night, headlights illuminating a winding two-lane back road, one hand on the wheel, the other on the tuner, turning the dial back and forth, trying to hold onto a distant FM station which kept threatening to drift out of range. More than once I pulled out of the depths of the night some weird, seemingly endless, psychedelic opus. The title, artist, and station were lost in the deep space radio noise that kept washing up over the music. I never heard those songs again. They might as well have been broadcasts from another world, received only on the tinny radio of the old Plymouth as it rumbled past black empty spaces that were fields, shadowy mountains of discarded coal ash, and dingy houses, one window in each filled with a television’s wavering blue glow.

Long before that, when I was still into novelty songs, my friend Bobby and I decided it would be fun to have our own radio station. We were sure our younger brothers would love to tune in to our station, if they knew what was good for them.

As I recall, the station’s music library consisted of one badly scratched 45 rpm of See You Later Alligator by Bill Haley. For variety we also featured the Chipmunks’ version -- the same record played at 78 rpm. The song is actually about a rough patch in a relationship The singer sees his baby “walkin’ with another man” and nearly loses his head, but it turns out to be a misunderstanding. We didn’t give a 'gator’s tail for any of that. All that interested us was what she says in the chorus:

“See you later alligator, after 'while, crocodile.”

It sure was a catchy chorus, and suitably ridiculous.

“See you later alligator, after 'while, crocodile.”

You can’t listen to it just once!

Simply sitting beside the ancient record turntable and listening does not a radio station make. The magic of radio is that you can’t see where the noise is coming from. Or so we reasoned. In order to create a realistic radio experience we took the turntable down into Bobby’s basement which featured a window level with the lawn. Since we weren’t planning a television station, the window interested us only because we could open it a crack. Then a couple of paper cups attached to either end of a long string extended outside made a transmitter with a broadcast radius of over twenty feet, sufficient to reach our audience at the base of the maple tree. We could have reached the back of the basement but unfortunately our show didn’t have listeners in the oil furnace area.

This worked decently, but not well enough. Almost immediately we switched a more sophisticated broadcast technology -- an old garden hose. Once you put the hose up to your ear -- and shook the water out of your ear -- you could hear what was going on in the basement much more clearly. The depth of sound was superior to the cup and string, especially in the bass register. The equipment even added echo to music, rather advanced for the time.

The audience did have to trade the radio receiver back and forth. And it was necessary to clamp a hand over the ear that wasn’t pressed against the nozzle so as to block out the sound coming naturally through the partially closed window and ruining the effect. But why would our audience need a free hand to enjoy hearing See You Later Alligator over and over? Our demographic was too young to drive, obviating any need to hold onto a steering wheel even if the broadcast had been available on a car radio, which it wasn’t. The hose couldn’t reach the driveway.

We did our best to vary our programming. Aside from playing Bill Haley’s original and the Chipmunks’ cover, we sometimes just set the needle down on the chorus. We also introduced both versions enthusiastically and at great length, and announced the name of our station:

"You’re listening to WGTR. Proudly serving Bobby’s back yard since 2 PM. WGTR. Your only choice for the best reptile tunes. We play the scales."

We also advertised the hand-drawn comics and lemonade which could be purchased by our listeners at the end of the broadcasting day, unless they were yellow bellied sapsuckers who didn’t want to play along.

I’m sure our little brothers remember the radio station as fondly as I do. Unfortunately we only went on the air once. Afterwards, whenever we moved the turntable to Bobby’s basement our brothers never seemed to be around.

It’s too bad our station didn’t have much reach -- so far as we knew. But who can explain tricks of the atmosphere? I like to imagine that somewhere, some time, someone’s driving along a dark road, randomly changing stations and there suddenly emerges, from the hiss and crackle:

See you later alligator, after 'while crocodile,
See you later alligator,
So long, that's all,

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