Why radio is still the best medium

By Caitlin Kelly



Some of you might be old enough to remember Radio Caroline, the British pirate radio station that recently celebrated its 50th anniversary — it began broadcasting, from an offshore ship, on March 27, 1964. It was the UK’s first commercial station and challenge to the BBC.

My earliest media memories are of lying in bed in the dark, around age seven, listening to — what else? — the Beatles on my transistor radio.

I’m bereft without the radio.

In Nicaragua, in the village with no electricity or running water, there was, even there, a transistor radio hung on a large nail. At night, it played a politician’s speech for hours, and, in the morning — in the native tongue, Miskitu — familiar Christian hymns How Great Thou Art and What A Friend We Have in Jesus.

Long before the Internet or television, radio linked us. It still does.

Here’s a review of the 2013 film, La Maison de la Radio, about Radio France, which I saw last year and enjoyed.

I’ve done a lot of radio interviews about the subjects of my two books, one on guns in America and the other on low-wage retail work. When discussing my gun book I was invited onto NRA radio as well as NPR; it was interesting explaining each side to the other!

I listen to a great deal of National Public Radio, especially topic-specific shows like The Moth (story-telling by regular people); The Brian Lehrer show (NY-area politics and economics), the Leonard Lopate show (culture); Studio 360 (ditto), This American Life (three segments on a theme), RadioLab, Fresh Air  and The Diane Rehm Show (smart, long-running interview shows hosted by women), and others.

This American Life, with 2.2 million listeners, is now considering handling its own distribution. I was heartened to read here, that I’m not the only fogey still using an actual radio:

While online and mobile listening are growing rapidly, particularly among younger listeners, “there’s still a lot of listening going on in radio,” said David Kansas, chief operating officer for American Public Media, whose other offerings include “Marketplace” and “Prairie Home Companion.” Distributors, he said, do not just provide technical support, they also work with stations to raise the visibility of a show in local markets: bringing in program hosts, creating content related to local issues and helping with live events.

I also like Q, an interview show from CBC’s Jian Ghomeshi.

When I have an hour in the morning, I listen to BBC World News and always hear stories I never would know about from American media. You might also try the Canadian evening national news show As It Happens; when I lived with my father in my teens, every dinner began with its theme music.

I love being able to iron or cook or clean or just lie on the sofa in the dark and focus on the music and words; television tethers me to a specific spot and steals all my attention.

Do you listen to the radio?

What sort of shows or music do you enjoy?

What are some of your favorite shows — and where can we find them (streaming on-line)?

39 thoughts on “Why radio is still the best medium

  1. Julia

    I love radio too and have many fond memories of listening as a young child and teenager, in the kitchen to my parents choices and on my own in my bedroom when you could get far away stations at night, as far as Detroit and Wheeling West Virginia. My dad taught me how to make a crystal set from a kit. Radio has now time shifted with podcasts and so forth so the world is changing in a good way. One thing I would like to mention is that we have a “wind up power” radio with an arial so that on the few occasions so far that we have been without electricity (most recently the ice storm at Christmas 2013) we can wind it up and tune in to whoever is broadcasting locally.
    Have you heard Eleanor Wachtel “On the Arts” or “Writers and Co”? (CBC, natch)

    1. Oh, I remember those distant stations…amazing! Van Morrison has a great song about the wireless and he names some of the ones he could hear.

      I think I’ve heard both of those on visits home; my Dad’s radio is always on. I wonder if (?) radio is a very Canadian thing…

  2. Long live radio! NPR is a top pick–many of the programs you noted. I listen to our wonderful classical music station and a jazz station daily, as well as a smaller Portland independent station. I enjoyed reading my poetry on the last. We didn;t even have a TV until my teens and we rarely watched it but alway we had either the stero on or the radio! My brothers made a radio that was pretty good. Great post–I now have a couple new programs to discover.

    1. Thanks!

      The first thing I do when I wake up is put on the radio — now listening to WGBO, a NJ jazz station. I totally forgot to name (!!) — and WKCR (Columbia University) which is terrific — all reggae on Saturday mornings (89.9 FM) and WFUV (90.7), Fordham University, which is just about all I listen to now for music; WQXR is our only classical station. I like it, but they play far too many waltzes for my taste.

  3. As a morning radio show host, I’m encouraged to hear that people still enjoy listening to the radio! I’m entering my 24th year at my current station and while the industry has undergone tremendous changes since I first stepped behind the mic, I still believe in the power of the medium. I enjoy listening to just about anything on the radio – music, sports, interviews, news.

  4. mhasegawa

    I listen to the radio a lot. Public Radio and the colleges around Boston also have stations that play interesting music and lots of jazz. I remember that cable was supposed to kill radio (as was TV before that), but radio is still alive.

      1. mhasegawa

        Especially Harvard! which has no worries about money. I love the jazz show where they have young student announcers who are talking about performers who played long before they were born as they struggle to pronounce names. Of course, it also makes me feel old!

  5. Oh yes! I love radio! As a writer/blogger, I find good radio an invaluable source of inspiration for my musings.

    Interestingly, I find that I need an actual radio. I have tried to tune in from my computer, but the simplicity of just flicking on the radio, already tuned to my station, makes for much more listening. I was happy to pick up a perfectly working and charmingly retro little clock radio for $3 at a sidewalk sale a few months back. I’m usually tuned to “As it Happens” while making or cleaning up from dinner!

    I miss commuting to work in the car where I would listen to NPR. When we lived near Montreal, we listened to Vermont Public Radio, which I really loved.

    Now that we are in Toronto, I am slowly getting hooked on CBC, but I will admit it has taken me 7 years of living in Canada to switch over from NPR to CBC–I really held to NPR as a connection to my homeland.

    1. Our radio (!!!!) isn’t working and I am having a terrible time without it. I’ve been listening via computer and in the car, sometimes sitting in it for 40 minutes in the parking lot…

      I totally get the wish to cling to familiar sounds and voices. If I move anywhere else, I would really miss my fave NPR shows.

  6. Good topic. Yes, I listen to the radio a good deal. Classical music station in the house generally as I like the ambiance it creates. Talk radio in the car unless I find the topic boring and then I’ll flip between satellite stations til I find something I like … Usually 70s genre or classic rock or good clean comedy. … I do remember Radio Caroline. I also remember a night time show called “Music Your Mother Wouldn’t Like.” Since my mother was an opera singer my rebellious self made a point of listening to that program whenever it was on. Memories … 🙂

  7. Did you see the film “Good morning England (the boat that rocked)”? Personally, I was too young in 1966 but my sister in law lived the same: hearing the Beatles in secret…

  8. I love NPR. Radio Lab, TAL, and a program (the name of which I misremember) that does live readings of short stories and chapters of books are my favorite. I also love Freakonomics and Planet money, I’ve learned more about economics from them than I ever did at school. The majority of my iPod use these days isn’t for music but for podcasts of radio programs. One podcast you may like the Dinner Party Download, by APM

    1. Selected Shorts…it’s usually taped live here in NYC at Symphony Space.

      Planet Money is awesome. I forgot Marketplace which is excellent and fun on all things business.

      I never do podcasts. For some reason I like the notion of appointment radio. Thanks for the suggestion!

  9. sunnykay

    I listen to the radio a great deal. In Kenya, most phones come with an inbuilt radio, and some even come with a flashlight (even basic handsets). I catch local radio in transit, and often start the day with a click-on to radio. There is something timeless about radio, and I believe we will have it for a long time yet.

  10. i love radio too. i used to listen when fm came into being and djs would play an album side, etc. no top 40 list. these days it’s npr, i love the news, the info, the interviews, the games, etc. also love our local station, the hosts play what they choose, and understand the background and the musician’s history. they are involved in the community and feature shows like ‘acoustic brunch’ on sundays, where they choose only acoustic music for 3 hours, and host musicians in their studio when they are in town. i could listen forever –

  11. Pingback: the self-styled life’s week in review | the self-styled life

  12. The comment I left last night seems to have turned to dust from the time I wrote it to when I pressed ‘post comment’. Anyhow, LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this post! I love radio as a medium too. It’s awesome that our eldest, 9, has inherited this love too. We are in Toronto, Canada and listen mostly to jazz fm 91.1, Sunday am Jessica M & John P’s show is fab. They are a married couple whose camaraderie is gorgeous. I also listen to anything on the CBC. I like Q, but I’m not faithful. I also love Sook-Yin Lee’s DNTO. ‘New Tech City’ is my newest addiction: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/new-tech-city/id561470997?mt=2&_ga=1.105592963.183162224.1396449037

  13. lrose

    If I was at my grandmother’s house in the summer, it was whatever baseball game was on. One of the most comforting sounds to me to this day is to tune to a baseball game on the radio.

    If it was family vacation in the mountains, I used to love to listen to the local broadcast. There was something about the primary host that was so quiet and soothing. I guess it was a pleasant change from the chaotic noise assault by the big-city commercial stations.

    If it’s a weekend of errands, chores or, years ago, lonely hours as the only shop clerk, it is NPR. I miss Selected Shorts and LA Theatre Works these days. Both now run at late/odd hours in my market.

    If it’s the morning alarm (my trusty, ancient clock radio) and the commute to/from work, it’s NPR as well, unless I’m in a happy/goofy mood. Then it’s channel surfing through Top 40. Sometimes in the morning I tune to a local goof-ball morning show, but all the hosts are 50+ years old and are a very sharp, witty bunch. Goofy as all hell, of course, because its morning showtime, but so sharp.

    If it’s work hours, then it’s the other NPR affiliate in my market that runs a jazz program from 9a-3p. I have to keep that at a very low volume, of course, but jazz is the only background vibe that keeps me motivated, but doesn’t distract.

    If it’s bedtime and I can’t sleep, then its whatever NPR is airing 10-11p. Then it’s As It Happens, followed by Diane Rehm, followed by BBC….and then finally zzzzzz….

      1. lrose

        I know, I know…I just haven’t changed with the times. Gotta develop new habits to fill the old ones, I guess!

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