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No. 195:
Radio Days

Today, some thoughts about radio. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

oldradioset.jpgI was in grade school in the late 1930s. My family would gather around the radio in the evening. It was just a simple wooden box with a rounded top. But I'd look in the back and see its bright glowing tubes -- a kind of miniature Christmas tree with the mysterious power to pluck adventure out of the sky and drop it into our living room. After school we'd listen to "The Lone Ranger" and "Jack Armstrong."

But in the evening we had to listen to the grownup stuff: Jack Benny, Fred Allen, all kinds of good music -- and the October evening my father tuned in to the Mercury Theater. He caught it just a minute or two late. An agitated network announcer was telling about a huge meteor that had landed in central New Jersey. Then he switched to a mobile unit. Something strange was happening. Something was coming out of the crater -- something alive!

And the game was afoot. It was, of course, the most famous radio show ever broadcast -- Orson Welles's version of H.G. Wells's story, The War of the Worlds. By 7:15 the full fury of the invaders from Mars was clear. They were moving across America, toward my gentle home in Minnesota, killing everyone and everything in sight. When the station break came, I laid my delicious thrill of terror before my father. Was this real? I asked. He smiled and said, I don't know. We'd better stay tuned. I was almost disappointed when it turned out to be make-believe. Earth was safe -- at least until World War II.

Radio was what Grimm's fairy tales had been for children before me. It stretched my mind. It showed me the world of good and evil, honor and deceit, pain and pleasure. It sketched the story and let my mind fill in the details. I heard Joe Louis -- larger than life -- destroy the Nazi champion Max Schmelling in two minutes of the first round. In 1937 I heard the announcer when the Zeppelin Hindenburg suddenly caught fire. His voice rose over the crackle of static and flames while he watched what no human being should ever have to watch. I learned the difference between fantasy and reality when he broke down and wept, Oh, the humanity, the humanity!

There's not much of that anymore. Commercial radio is for commercial messages. The trick is to fragment our attention span -- whatever falls between commercials has to be simple. The radio of my childhood was more naive. It copied the stage -- the theater -- the town meeting. It engaged us, it led us into our right brain, it touched our hearts, and it made us free. It did what Public Radio does today.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

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This episode has been greatly revised as Episode 1780.