Recently I was asked to produce a series of cowboy programs for Sun Sounds, the radio service for the visually handicapped.. I was delighted for the opportunity to do my schtick on the radio once again. My radio career began long ago and far away…..
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The engineer lowered the needle to the record and a momentary scratch and pop was followed by the tremulous guitar notes of the Ventures playing “Apache.” I spoke into the mike. “This is 1450 AM RADIO KENA Mena, Arkansas and you’re listening to … the Bearcat Prowl.” The year was 1967 and with several schoolmates I was hosting a weekly radio show of news and events that we judged of interest to students in our little mountain town of 3,000. I would pore over the teletype paper spooled on the floor for unusual and quirky news items to read. Our broadcast rolled out across rumpled mountains and trickling streams, the chugging freight trains and buzzing highways. The mystery and romance of my voice coupled with compelling music traveling the invisible air waves to unknown recipients was sublime.
In my childhood living room stood the upright Philco, tall and round shouldered like the refrigerator’s little brother, housed in a fine wooden cabinet with a huge green eye for a dial and an open back that revealed a tiny dusty mechanism of wires and glowing tubes. We listened to Fibber McGee and Mollie, Gunsmoke, Lum and Abner and Gangbusters. There were many live music shows including the Grand Ole Opry and the Big D Jamboree broadcast from nearby Dallas. I recall tense moments as we gathered around the radio and tracked the progress of a tornado through little Texas towns like Wink and Grit and Idalou, all the time the airwaves were crackling and popping in concert with the storm’s electrical activity.
When the sun went down border stations like powerful XERA used transmitters as strong as 500,000 watts to blast their messages north from just inside Mexico. Their signal was potent enough to make headlights on parked cars glow and people reported picking up transmissions on farm gates, iron bridges and metal fillings in their teeth. Luminaries such as Mother Maybelle Carter sang “Wildwood Flower” and offered baby chicks with guaranteed live delivery. Dr. Brinkley revealed the miraculous possibilities of his goat gland operations for men with flagging libidos. Wolfman Jack began to channel the dark textures of Muddy Waters and Lightnin’ Hopkins from out of the chaos and weave a new story with rock-a-billy and western swing.
Mama’s radio sat in the kitchen window. Once white plastic, it had yellowed to an even tan, but it faithfully delivered the pleas of radio evangelists like Brother Ray T Pedigo, Missions to Japan . Mama drew comfort from gospel songs like “How Great Thou Art.” Mama would mail off her dollar in a folded envelope addressed to Box 54 Dalhart, Texas.
Sue and I spent a winter living off-grid with the two small children in an old school bus in the remote woods of West Virginia. Once a week I would start the engine and run it a few minutes to keep the battery charged, primarily so we could listen to the AM radio. The Wheeling Jamboree delivered bluegrass and country tunes. I was impressed with the powerful performances of Mollie O’Day, then in her 80s singing “Tramp on the Street” live from Huntington. Snake handling preachers chanted in a bombastic tongue that was often unintelligible. Outside the bus the creek gurgled and the screech owls hunted meadow mice in the fragrant dark.
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