Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Really Good Radio

by Pa Rock
Radio Listener

Back in the 1950’s Marilyn Monroe sought to energize her acting career by posing nude for a calendar.  Facing reporters not long afterward, she was asked by one grinning inquisitor, “Marilyn, what did you have on during the photo shoot?” to which the coy actress replied, “The radio.”  And that was probably a true statement because radio had a prominent place in American society from the 1920’s through the 1950’s.

Some of my earliest memories are of listening to radio programs with my mother in the evenings as we waited for my dad to get home from work.  We had a large wooden radio that stood on the floor and was about three feet tall.  In those pre-television days, that radio was a natural gathering point in the house.  Mom liked “Inner Sanctum,” as eerie precursor of such television programs as “The Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits.”  I was more into the comedies and remember well the antics of “Our Miss Brooks” and “Fibber McGee and Molly” among many others

Most of the really good radio programs were gone by the 1960’s, but we still had that big old radio (it was in my room by then), and it consumed my evenings with popular music and a sense of independence from the television that tended to keep the rest of the family in the living room.  I listened to two very powerful a.m. radio stations.   My favorite station was WLS out of Chicago whose transmitter was able to reach much of the central United States.  It was a loud and very clear channel that made the station’s main evening disc jockey, Dick Biondi, a household name among me and many of my friends.  I also liked WHB in Kansas City.  One of their most prominent disc jockeys was a fellow named Bob Hale.

A local radio station in Springfield, Missouri, KICK, provided the musical backdrop for my college years.  I knew people who knew people at KICK, and was at the station on several occasions.  In fact, I even remember (barely) being there the night of my 21st birthday.

But in the years after college, as I matured and the connection between me and contemporary music began to blur with age, I lost interest in radio – at least until “oldies” programs and stations began emerging in the 1980’s.  Music those stations classified as “oldies” constituted, in large measure, the soundtrack of my youth.  A friend once described music of that era as being songs a person could actually sing along with.

Now the age of “oldies” programs seems to have also slipped by, although 80-year-old Dick Biondi, the “wild I-talian” apparently still broadcasts an “oldies” program out of Chicago.  (Hang in there, old man!)  But as that door closed, another opened.

Fifteen years or so ago I discovered Garrison Keillor’s wonderful “A Prairie Home Companion” which airs on most NPR stations every Saturday evening for two hours – and is usually repeated on Sunday mornings.  Keillor modeled his show on radio’s iconic “Grand Ole Opry.”   It is a special blend of folk music, humor, radio drama, poetry, and a variety of other things that the host (Keillor) opts to throw into the entertainment mix.   Some of his fictional sponsors include the “National Catsup Advisory Board,” the “Professional Organization of English Majors (P.O.E.M.),” “Bertha’s Kitty Boutique,” and “Bee-Bop-A-Ree-Bop Rhubarb Pie.”

“A Prairie Home Companion” is based out of the Fitzgerald Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota, but it also travels from city-to-city much of the year.  It is always performed before a live audience who hoot and holler at the performances and are sometimes invited to sing along with the performers.  Political discourse on the program is decidedly liberal and always funny. 

Regular features on “A Prairie Home Companion” include “Tales of the Cowboys,” the chronicles of Dusty and Lefty – two cowboys who are endlessly herding cattle to cities where the show just happens to be playing, “The Adventures of Guy Noir,” a low brow detective whose cases will never elevate him into the big leagues of private detection, and Keillor’s signature monologue “The News from Lake Woebegon,” an hilarious send-up of the quirky characters and oddball situations that arise in Keillor’s fictional hometown where “the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and the children are above average.” 

“A Prairie Home Companion” is really good radio.

Radio and I have both changed over the years, and although some might regard us as increasingly irrelevant, we both have our moments.  Getting to them just requires patience, careful listening, and an occasional bit of fine-tuning.

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