By Frank J. Dinan
Radio plays a second fiddle role to television these days. People still listen to radio for music, and news in their cars, but it no longer plays the uniquely powerful role that it once did as a source of drama, information and comedy. Some would say this is because radio lacks TV’s images, but for me, radio carried its own set of powerful images that it created in my mind.
The word fan derives from “fanatic,” and that word describes what I am, a baseball fanatic. I love every aspect of the game and have since I was about 10 years old (a mere 74 years ago); radio played a huge role in developing my love for the game. I grew up as a devoted Buffalo Bisons baseball fan, and delighted in trips to Offermann Stadium to see my heroes play, but the next best thing was listening to radio broadcasts of baseball games. Radio was the king of the hill then, there was no TV coverage of games, but that didn’t in any way lessen the drama that each game held for me as I sat riveted to spoken accounts of the action.
Then, skilled announcers broadcasting a road game could take a Western Union message that said only “6 to 3” (baseball shorthand for shortstop to first base) and turn it into vivid drama: “The shortstop ranges far to his right, barely reaches the sharply hit ground ball, whirls and throws it across his body on one hop to first base, where a nice scoop catches the runner by a single step. What a great play!” Accurate, maybe not, but dramatic, definitely. It created mental images for me, and they were beautiful.
I recently tried to explain radio’s power to our middle-aged children, and they couldn’t believe that I could enjoy these semifictional accounts of games. That was what radio was all about; it was, above all, theater of the mind.
As a child, all of my friends and I would rush home to listen to radio “serials” like “Terry and the Pirates,” “The Lone Ranger” or “Little Orphan Annie,” or great mystery stories like “The Shadow” (“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!”) or “Inner Sanctum.” These were radio’s analogs of today’s streaming videos, and they were starkly realistic because the action took place not on a screen, but uniquely in each listener’s mind.
A fine recent novel, “All the Light We Cannot See,” by Anthony Doerr, focuses on the power that radio has to unite people separated by nationality, distance, war, gender and even the ability to see. It is set in the late 1930s, and in the early years of World War II. In it, radio waves serve as the “light we cannot see,” forming a beautiful bond between a blind teenage girl listening and broadcasting in France, and a young German boy listening and broadcasting in Germany. Radio links this unlikely pair together, leading them to meet in Normandy, France, where the German boy saves the blind French girl’s life.
I am not trying to belittle television, or its often excellent coverage of sporting events, and the arts. I love watching Yankees, Bills and Sabres games, and the fine drama TV can offer. My point is that our mental pictures, stimulated by words, radio’s “light we cannot see,” can compete favorably with the electronic images that we live with day in and day out today. This is hard for those who grew up with TV’s images to believe.
Frank J. Dinan is an emeritus professor in the chemistry/biochemistry department at Canisius College.