Adventure on the Air

Ninety four years ago, opera star Enrico Caruso stepped up to a microphone and sang. Only a few, specially equipped headphones picked up the signal, but it was a landmark moment: the first radio broadcast to the public.

In our age of ever-present video screens, it’s hard to imagine how important radio was to the life of families for decades in the 20th century. It’s hard to picture our kids gathering with us around a radio, straining to catch the latest joke or sinister plot.

Actually, it’s not all that hard for me to imagine. We did it just the other night.

All of our children were home, including our college-age son, and we had recently returned from a trip having listened to only half of a new tape from an audio series for kids clalled Adventures in Odyssey. We are huge fans of these adventures – in fact, we’ve been listening to them since their debut many years ago. Our older kids have grown up with the characters; our youngest is just getting introduced. They've been a part of our life for so long, they feel like old friends. So, eager to hear the latest Odyssey doings, we settled into the living room with a boom box for our storyteller.

Cultivating listeners is hard. Most kids want the sensory punch of visuals, preferably with lots of special effects. It’s hard to convince them that less can be more. But listening has its rewards. Walter Cronkite once said about the days of old-time radio stories, "Listeners were a part of the creative process." Like with reading aloud, one’s mind is free to conjure up images to go with the voices. A creaky door or a creepy laugh is much more suspenseful when it is played upon the full scale of one’s imagination, without the limitation of someone else’s images attached to them.

That’s why I think the increase in video screens in cars is such a sad thing. It’s bad enough that children don’t daydream or read or talk on a long trip. Now, they’ve got to have portable movies. Even in the car, stories have to be seen and not just heard.

So, back in the 1940’s, families circled together around a radio, with nothing to look at but the old Philco and each other. Seems odd to us.

I wonder what they’d think about us staring at our screens?

Bruce Van Patter

all material ©2006 Bruce Van Patter