Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Waste of a perfectly good radio

When my hands held it again for the first time in decades, I felt the electricity that made it such an exciting gift for an 8-year-old.

A radio I could hold in my hand — pop music, sports, news — all at my command in a genuine leather holder.

By appearance, that radio — a Sun Mark 8 — emerged in near-perfect condition when I pulled it out of the time capsule of a long-undisturbed childhood drawer.

As anyone would, though the battery surely had been dead since Nixon's administration, I tried it. No dice.

Surely it had other issues. Surely the battery had corroded and left an inoperable mess. I pried off the back of the radio. There, looking pristine as if it had just come off the hardware store shelf, a yellow-and-red Ray-O-Vac 9-volt gleamed. That noble battery had served its purpose and over all the years had not spoiled its nest.

I inserted a new 9-volt, not really expecting to hear anything when I turned on the thing on. It was, after all, nearly 50 years old. The first pop I heard was a revelation of life. So, I searched the dial and found . . .

Rush Limbaugh.

And not just on one frequency. He was on three. Whatever else was to be found in a search on the dial was all a mumble. About pork bellies, maybe. Sigh

But why the surprise and disappointment? This priceless heirloom was an AM radio. The AM radio which once upon a time enunciated more than political monotone has gone the way of popcorn poppers and 45 rpm records.

Realizing how functionally worthless my prized transistor radio had become, I was reminded of another radio that showed up once upon a Christmas stocking. My Rocket Radio was red and shaped like a spaceship. It didn't need batteries. You just had to find some metal onto which a wire to the rocket could be affixed with an aligator clip. Then you got radio.

One catch: You couldn't choose the station. You got whatever station on which the Rocket homed in.

Sadly, that just about sums up AM radio, circa 2009, regarding information and commentary. Whereas just about any newspaper opinion page will avail a variety of opinions — if not in syndicated and staff offerings, then among the letters to the editor — today's AM talk is all hard-right talking points, all the time.

The unimaginable tempest over Barack Obama's education pep talk to school children had the taint of AM talk hype all over it. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called it "silly." Most times one can appreciate Obama's above-the-fray composure in the face of such slights. But at times one wishes that for once Team Obama responded with the kind of fire the Limbaughs and Savages of the airways issue forth.

Call the uproar moronic — much AM ado about nothing.

The fact is, a lot of what keeps AM talk so revved is the taking of nothing and making it into something, particuarly if self-serving or party-induced.

For instance, right-wing talkers have gone on and on about the threat posed by Obama to their First Amendment rights should the Fairness Doctrine be reintroduced. What has Obama said? He's said he doesn't support any such thing. Just as he's said he doesn't support a government takeover of health care or policies that take away one's coverage or choice of physicians.

Doesn't matter. Listen to the crackling on the AM dial.

I don't know what to do with my perfectly good AM transistor radio. Maybe I should put it back in the drawer with the pristine-looking Ray-O-Vac battery in it, to inspire someone's wonder when, plugging a new battery into it decades hence, it works like a champ.

I bet it will. But considering the downhill trajectory of AM radio, I'm not anticipating that my descendants will get anything worth hearing.

John Young is a columnist for Cox Newspapers. E-mail: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.

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