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Keep it Alive: An Ode to Radio

Illustration by Sabrina Shaffer

About a year and a half ago, I was given my first car. Nothing special of course, but my 2007 handed-down Toyota Prius with 180,000 miles that smelled like my cousin, uncle, and grandfather, was mine. With it came all of its quirks, one being its inability to play music through my phone while charging it. Consequently, I often traded off between playing through an auxiliary cord, and giving in to listening to the radio. Back and forth between rock, jazz, classical, rap, pop, sports, the radio was an immersive and nostalgic experience. It made me think back and appreciate the effect radio has had on music, and the reasons we cannot let it die out.

Radio was elevated into the mainstream during World War II through talk shows, like FDR’s Fireside Chats, and the reading of books like The War of the Worlds. As the United States entered the 1940s and 50s, music on the radio garnered attention. Radio completely changed how people listened to music. The days of being limited to live performances were over, and music was now accessible to everyone. Radio, in a sense, became the picture in which you can see the Mona Lisa, without having to step foot in the Louvre. Because of this novel accessibility, listening to up-and-coming artists became easier than ever before. This also dramatically shifted what was deemed “mainstream music.” From jazz and classical came the rock and roll and blues scenes, events that were only possible through the exposure early bands got from playtime on the radio.

In the 70s and 80s, radio can be credited with bringing disco, soul, and eventually hip hop into the mainstream. Continually, the music being played on the radio created new movements. As artists were previewed on the radio, their broadcasted performances seeped into pop culture long before their records were sold in stores.

Although radio was a significant unifying force, it highlighted examples of the US’s pervading issues with racism. Music on the radio quickly became segregated, and many smaller white artists received more playtime than the most popular black artists. But it didn’t matter in the long run, because there was plenty of room for more radio shows. Radio shows in Chicago, Atlanta, and Cleveland, all provided the best of Motown and soul, and allowed icons like Nat King Cole to rise to stardom. While radio was impactful for all, it helped black people reach the level of music recognition that white people had tried to stop them from getting. Ironically, a plethora of white artists, like Elvis Presley, began to love black music so much that they began to appropriate musical styles of black artists.

That same opportunity to explore the depths of music still live and thrive through streaming services like Spotify. Much of the benefits layed out already by radio, have also been improved by streaming services. The ability to hear artists by simply searching them grants listeners great autonomy. But there’s something more personal about listening to the radio. Genuine radio hosts have worked endlessly to curate day-long playlists of music that come with stories that would take eons to tell. The very decisions to put certain songs following others, creating a mood or trend through several songs in a row, are all made by people who did it for a reason. There is no shuffle; every song is put there for a reason, and you’re tasked with listening through or jumping to another personal playlist of a different genre on a different station. On a community level, someone right next to you could be listening to the same exact song as you and feeling a completely different way. Communities have been brought together to listen to radio shows, a beautiful background to any neighborhood or friendship. The rock stations of New York City were just as iconic as those in upstate New York or Long Island were. The radio icons, hosts with dynamic personalities, had large followings of people curious to hear the hosts’ opinions of a song or artist. The one-on-one feeling of today’s podcasts are emboldened by radio hosts of yesteryear opening the stage for music analysis, entering a level deeper than simply listening to a song. Radio truly curated music in its own way.

But is the answer to stop using Apple Music? No. Never before have we had access to artists like we do now, especially with the ability to pay subscriptions to switch songs, play them on repeat, and jump around on an album. The answer is not to gatekeep radio either, leaving it to just indie music nerds to appreciate. But let’s keep radio alive. Let’s continue to search endless channels to find a vibe that fits a long drive home, or a late night study session. Appreciate the musical talking heads behind the beautiful transitions between unknowns and classics. Even here on campus, dabble in Georgetown Radio (WGTB) and check out what your fellow students are playing. Radio is an experience like no other, putting the hands of the musical wheel of another driver, and simply being an audience member to a show. Every so often, be the audience member, and enjoy the show.


Anthony Bonavita is the Reviews co-editor and a sophomore in the SFS studying Culture and Politics.


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