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Tuned In

Recalling the romance of summer radio

 

My husband has often commented on how many songs from the 1960s and 1970s I can recognize, at least in passing. Give me just the fragment of a Top 40 hit from 1965 to 1975 while scanning stations in the car—“Wild thing . . . you make my heart sing . . . you make everything . . .”—and I can usually provide an abbreviated version of the liner notes. (“Wild Thing,” the biggest hit by the Troggs, circa 1966.)

I was a true transistor radio kid of the ’60s, and much of my learning took place in the summer. I grew up listening to the dreamy harmonies of the Beach Boys; the acid-influenced explorations of the Beatles; the sexy, cranked-up crooning of the early Rolling Stones; the girl groups—just hearing the Dixie Cups chanting “Goin’ to the chapel and we’re gonna get mar-ar-ar-ried” conjures up the chlorine scent of summer like no other sound for me—and the British Invasion pop groups, many of which would barely be recognized today, even on an oldies station.

At the same time, for reasons I can’t explain—I wasn’t born into a particularly athletic family, and I did not have older brothers who were jocks—I became a rabid baseball fan, and my earliest baseball memories include listening to Mel Allen broadcast the Yankees in the early 1960s. Baseball and a car radio in the summertime . . . There’s a reason that Meat Loaf immortalized this combination in Paradise by the Dashboard Light.

I’d like to say my fascination with radio came about because I was such a cool kid growing up, but it was actually my truly cool sister, who was in high school when I was still in grade school, who taught me all that I know about AM radio rock & roll. She was easily the most popular girl in her large suburban high school in South Jersey—she’s been known to refer to herself with no small amount of nostalgia as the class floozy, at least by the considerably more innocent standards of the mid- to late-1960s—and she pretty much spent her summers with her transistor radio attached to her hand.

We lived a short hop from Philadelphia and an easy AM transmission from the ruling Top 40 stations of Philly—where WFIL-AM was the dominant hot spot on the dial—and New York City, where WABC-AM and WNBC-AM jockeyed for the number-one listening spot. In combination, these stations had a reach through the mid-Atlantic states that brought the British Invasion to kids in small towns who might otherwise have never heard of the Zombies. And Top 40 disc jockeys such as George Michael, Bruce “Cousin Brucie” Morrow and Dan Ingram had an influence on teenagers that most parents could only envy. In South Jersey, we could also catch WIBG, which broadcast from Ocean City, N.J., and gave the big city Top 40 stations a run for their money.

This was a simpler era, filled with splash parties at the neighborhood pool and Sweet Sixteen bashes, when the kids without cars and driver’s licenses learned to ride their bikes with one hand on the handlebars and the other holding their transistor radio to their ear. So even a bratty kid sister like me couldn’t help but absorb an early education in summertime radio.

My radio habit stayed with me through my high school summers, when flipping the dial on my mother’s 1967 Plymouth Barracuda got me through the late-night drive home after closing at the restaurant where I worked as a waitress. On muggy summer nights, I’d scan the dials to see what far-off places would flow through the car radio. For some reason, the Barracuda’s dashboard seemed to be a magnet for the Detroit airwaves, and I often picked up tantalizing fragments of Motown stations broadcasting songs that sounded nothing like British pop groups.

I’m still a summertime radio fan. I love catching the 1812 Overture on the fourth of July, and listening to the broadcast of the Saturday-night Tanglewood performances on WAMC. In recent years, I’ve discovered the joy of community radio stations—best appreciated and most easily picked up while traveling by car on rural roads, because they are so few and far between and have such narrow bands—and I have also gravitated back to my early love of baseball on the radio. My husband and I actually make a point of printing out a list of radio stations that carry the Red Sox, so that we can continue to pick up a game as we move out of one reception area and into another. If you like to camp, as we do, and you love the Red Sox, as we most definitely do, then it’s surprisingly easy to trade a TV broadcast of a game for the play-by-play call while bundled up in a blanket in front of a campfire.

My favorite community radio station is WOMR 92.1 FM in Provincetown, Mass. Early last summer, WOMR held an all-night fundraiser at the Beachcomber, a slightly honky-tonk bar, music club and clam shack perched on a cliff overlooking Cahoon Hollow Beach in Wellfleet, near the far end of the ocean side of Cape Cod. Dozens of local acts from up and down the Cape turned out to play at this 12-hour bash, which started in the late afternoon and trailed off into the wee hours of the next morning. The music was largely forgettable, but the view of the surf and the cliffs at twilight, the taste of fried clams in freezing evening air and the knowledge that you could tune into the party hours later back at your own place if you still had the urge, all combined for a memorable evening. It was the beach, it was rock & roll and it was radio, and that, for me, will forever spell summertime.

—Darryl McGrath

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