Tag Archives: radio

Radio On* (or, The Eternal Dream of Sound)

Image from the Sublime Frequencies website: http://www.sublimefrequencies.com

One of the great things about having a 15-20 minute commute to work every morning is that it allows me to spend some quality time with my radio. I usually use my commute to catch up on news and current events, but recently I’ve needed a break from the comforting voices of 90.5, and I’ve even skipped over my second favorite radio station in favor of finding out what the kids are listening to these days on the more popular radio stations. What I’ve discovered: 1) Morning radio DJs are obnoxious, but good for keeping oneself in the celebrity gossip loop (did KStew really cheat on RPatz?!), 2) Auto-tune is still a thing, 3) I occasionally pretend to be a music snob, but the latest Katy Perry and Maroon 5 tracks are super catchy and have been stuck in my head (mashup style) the last two weeks, and 4) there are a lot of commercials on commercial radio.

Interestingly enough, this got me to thinking about one of my favorite record labels, Sublime Frequencies. As suggested by the label’s name, SF specializes in the foreign and far-out, with albums from international stars unknown stateside, such as Omar Souleyman and Van Shipley. They also have albums of radio collages from India, Palestine, Algeria, and Morocco, to name a few. For some reason commercials are far more fascinating in a foreign language. If your recent dreams of foreign travel have been thwarted, I suggest checking out a few Sublime Frequencies‘ albums from the library–if you close your eyes you’ll get to experience the (aural) texture and ambience of foreign travel, but without the added jetlag or baggage fees.

So how ’bout you? What have you been listening to on the radio lately?

And 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6! I’ll let Jonathan Richman take it away:


*Title inspired by both Mr. Richman and Sarah Vowell


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A Few Words About Audio Books and Readers

Audio books are great for providing entertainment for those weary of just sitting in traffic and listening to the woes of the world on news radio, bored with the nattering talking heads mouthing the same opinions over and over; or crazy from the popular songs that you just can’t get out of your head because that’s all the radio is playing these days. Audio books fill the bill and are especially great if you are on a long car trip, alone or with your family. Over the years a reader’s voice can become like an old friend.

Oakland Marker 376

Not going anywhere for a while? Try an audio book!
Image © Andy Field, 2002

Professional book readers can make or break a story. Most readers are actors, some very well-known film and TV performers, and others from the stage and regional theater. Some have made quite a lucrative profession out of reading books and are just plain excellent. Oft-lauded readers include Jim Dale, who has read the whole Harry Potter series, and Simon Vance, who brought the Swedish characters in Steig Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy to life. They excel at providing just the right voices to match the various characters.

I recently had to return a CD to the library without finishing it. I could not get into the Kate Burton version of Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta, as she just could not portray the characters as distinctly as Kate Reading’s interpretation of the voices of Kay, Benson, Lucy and Marino. It was making me crazy because I could never tell which character was speaking. So, listeners, be warned! Sometimes there are two different versions of the same book from different audio producers and with different readers. Also, be sure to choose the unabridged version of the audio book or you won’t get the full story.

Another audio book problem can be the author’s deciding to read her/his own novels. Some are better than others, and some much worse. One of my all-time favorite authors is Harlan Coben. He decided to read his comeback novel in the Myron Bolitar series, Promise Me, and it was such a disappointment. He just could not give voice to his great characters–Myron, Win, and Esperanza–the way that Jonathan Marosz, Scott Brick, or Steven Weber have done for other titles in this series.

When I recently found out Jane Green was reading her own story, Another Piece of My Heart, my own heart sank. Green’s chick-lit has morphed over her last few books into women’s fiction about more serious subjects. This story is about the joys and sorrows of a stepmother who wants a child of her own, but must make the best of it with her husband’s children from a previous marriage. However, the teenage daughter just hates her. Listening, at first, it was hard to adjust to Green’s very British accent speaking for a very American family. But she pulled it off! Without doing voices per se, she knew the characters so well that she imbued each with personality and passion. A job well done for an author/reader.

Sometimes a story is just confusing on its own, and the best of readers can have problems. An example of this is The Expats, by Chris Pavone. Reader Mozhan Marno portrays the story of a young couple who moves to Europe when the husband accepts a position as a bank security guru, and the wife leaves behind her secret career as a CIA spy/assassin. Her suspicious nature leads her to doubt every aspect of their lives together. I told my friend, who recommended this audio version, that the book was like Pavone wrote the story on index cards and tossed them up in the air. Time shifts constantly: to the distant past, the recent past, days ago, and now. People, locations, and events are in flux, and it is almost impossible to hear from the reader’s tone where we are in this complex tale. I stuck with it, though, and was happy I did.

Here are three other recent audio books I heartily recommend that would be great for a road trip. The readers are excellent and keep these very different stories moving along.

Sophie Kinsella’s laugh-out-loud I’ve Got Your Number, read by a gravelly-voiced, expressive Jayne Entwistle, is the story of a bride-to-be who appropriates an abandoned cell phone when hers is stolen, so she can continue to plan her wedding. She soon insinuates herself into the life of a handsome, successful businessman and his corporate shenanigans.

Lisa Gardner’s Catch Me is read by steady Kirsten Potter. It’s the latest in the D.D. Warren series where the Boston PD detective is Catch Meapproached for help by a woman convinced that she will be murdered in four days. As the clock ticks on this suspenseful story, the women desperately try to identify the potential killer.

Rolins Devil ColonyFinally, for those who love complex thrillers with a historical twist, try James Rollins’s The Devil Colony, read by Peter Jay Fernandez. Here the expressive reader sustains the plot’s actions that jump from location to location and–incredibly–concern the Great Seal of the United States, the Anasazi Indians, the lost tribes of Israel, Mormon settlers in the west, and nanotechnology! It’s a typical roller coaster of a story in Rollins’s excellent Sigma Force series.

Some final hints about audio book readers: if you listen to a reader you like, you can always check the catalog under their names as a keyword search (editor’s note: an author search works too). Sometimes you will stumble across other great stories that they have read. Or you can check out what readers have won the annual Audie awards, And remember, audio books come in several different formats: CDs, downloadable e-audio, and Playaways. Some older stories are still available as cassette tapes as well (a different editor’s note: Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh no longer carries cassettes, but we can borrow them from other libraries for you). Choose the version that best suits your needs.



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Radio China

Radio waves from North Korea are penetrating your body!
It’s true! And scores of other countries are in on the act. State and privately operated radio transmitters are sending out special radio signals designed to travel vast distances, across oceans and between continents.  Thankfully these waves are only floating out there for the enjoyment of listeners worldwide.  So take off the tinfoil helmets and relax.
I am talking about shortwave radio, also called world band radio, and it is a very engaging pastime.
It may be difficult now to imagine, but before  the Internet, we were fairly limited in our sources of information on current events. You had your major media outlets on TV and radio and newspapers, and that was more or less it. For news junkies and people interested in other cultures and music, shortwave radio was a fantastic source.  I can remember my brother and I sprawled out all over the floor with our G.I. Joes while my Pap would tune into the international BBC broadcast on his shortwave set.  I will never forget the BBC’s announcers’ formulaic delivery, heavy with grave formality.  It was soon forgotten as my Pap would set the dial to stations in South or Central America for a program of his beloved salsa. His love of Latin music overcame his staunch anti-communism when it came to music broadcasts from leftist regimes. Meanwhile, Cobra Commander would suffer the indignity of being gunned down to the beat of a fiery rumba.
Of course, a random encounter with a book in the stacks reintroduced me to shortwave. The Shortwave Listening Guidebook is a great primer for understanding how it all works.  Even I could understand the technical parts.
Passport to World Band Radio is a fantastic resource as well with tons of reviews and fun articles about broadcasters all over the world.
Why bother with radio? We all have the Internet right at our fingertips, endless news and entertainment.  But radio has a certain romantic, guerrilla quality that is appealing to me. In reality, most people on the earth don’t have easy access to the Internet, and most people don’t have smart phones. Not the workers at Foxconn, certainly. So shortwave and radio in general represents a medium of news and information with a real global reach.  And radio is different kind of experience.  The Internet is a whole big thing; you sit there before the altar and click click click. The radio is simply tuned in and goes on, leaving you free to work on something else.  Basic no-frills shortwave radios can be very inexpensive and of course, the programs are free.  And Google doesn’t know when you tune in or what you are listening to.  Don’t want to bother with the radio? A great deal of these international broadcasts can be found streaming online, anyway.
I have been listening to shortwave on a tiny, cheap, hand held receiver for a few weeks. It is great fun to slowly spin the dial, pausing to hear snippets of Spanish, Italian, Russian, Romanian, etc…  So far I have had the most luck tuning in to programs from China. The propaganda element has been lamentably absent. I haven’t learned anything about Mao or Marx or so much as a peep on collectivization.  In all seriousness, China Radio International is waging a global charm offensive, broadcasting in 60 different languages while shortwave programming from Europe and the U.S. has been declining.  Last week on one of their cultural programs, I learned about Uighur singing. Consider me charmed.  I still can’t get over the neat-o factor of the whole thing, working in my basement while a tiny plastic box powered by two AA batteries lets me listen in on the world. Awesome. And all from finding a book in the stacks I wasn’t looking for.


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What’s your story?

CLP StoryCorps

When I drive to work in the morning I listen to NPR,which means that every Friday at 8:30 am, I am going to cry. That’s when the weekly StoryCorps segment airs. As soon as I hear the intro music, I know my mascara is doomed.

In the StoryCorps recordings, everyday people conduct interviews with friends and family, resulting in intimate, honest conversations that express extraordinary humanity. It doesn’t matter how different the person’s experiences are or how long ago or far away they happened; the stories they tell are incredibly moving. Some that have recently started me sobbing are:

Did you know that Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh has its own StoryCorps archive?  As the page explains:

In 2006, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh partnered with DUQ 90.5 FM to become the first library to host a StoryCorps Mobile Booth recording studio. The StoryCorps oral history project allows everyday people to share and record their personal stories for posterity and is the largest oral history project ever undertaken. Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh was host location and received digital copies of these stories to share. These files are also archived at the Library of Congress. More than 150 local stories are available for your listening pleasure.

This is wonderful. Not only can I seek the same inspiration among my neighbors that I experience from the national radio interviews, but my inner nebby Pittsburgher can scan through the pages hoping to find someone I know.

Here are some of the CLP StoryCorps episodes I’ve enjoyed (interviews are listed alphabetically by the subject’s last name):

  • Lillian Allen talks about: Alaska, beauty shop, United Airlines, Bali, biography
  • Deborah Brooks talks about: bike riding, God nature, Adirondacks, self-taught painter
  • Ali A. Masalehdan talks about: Iran, Farsi, San Francisco, English, revolution
  • James A. Ryan talks about: spirituals, black history, parenthood, marriage, pastor

These interviews dedicate the time and attention to people close to us that we normally reserve for celebrities and cultural heroes. Listening to them reminds me to treat people with a little more compassion and to take a little more interest. Every person is walking around with a story inside that is rich in history and full of heart.



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Disco Sucks!

I grew up on Long Island in the late 70s/early 80s, when one could see that slogan in graffiti everywhere. My friends and I were firmly in the “rock” camp, although this did not preclude me from surreptitiously seeing Prince’s Purple Rain or purchasing an Adam Ant record. One friend was a Rolling Stones fan, another, a Jimi Hendrix aficianad0, and still another was constantly blasting the Doors from her HUGE boom box. My favorites at first were Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, and later Frank Zappa and King Crimson, which I listened to through my headphones on my stereo system in my room.

Ah, those were the days of the vinyl record, when you could lie on the floor and study the relatively large album covers. I use the adjective “vinyl” before the word “record” so that you, the reader, would know what I mean; in those days we just said “record” and knew what that referred to. We were all so righteously against anything “pop.” We deplored the Studio 54 club scene and its clothing style. Yes, I felt this way too, even though one of my very first record purchases was the seminal Saturday Night Fever, when I was twelve.

Then the music video revolution came along. I still remember the very first videos I ever saw. I slept over at a friend’s house to watch the movie Woodstock on HBO.  Right afterwards two videos from Devo aired: “Satisfaction” and “Jocko Homo” (Are we not men?).  We were dumbfounded. Not only did we not have the words “music video” in our vocabulary, but we had never heard music like that before; we talked about how weird it was for weeks. MTV exploded all over America, even making its way to a TV installed in our local deli/hangout, “Eat Joe’s Hogie” [sic]. A clever friend dubbed it “MTVoid” and thought up alternate lyrics to songs we were subjected to over and over, such as “We got big feet!” for the Go-Gos’  “We Got the Beat,” and other less blog-friendly quips.

While disco evolved into MTV new wave, we anti-pop-rock kids were developing a taste for hardcore punk or prog rock. Your high school years are often the ones in which the music you listen to defines you as a person. While I enjoyed going to CBGBs in the city with my punk rock boyfriend to see his band play with bands like The Cro-Mags and Agnostic Front, I retained my own musical identity by keeping my hair extremely long, wearing deliberately unfashionable clothes (hip-hugger elephant bell bottoms), and listening to jazz fusion and prog rock bands like Return to Forever, Gentle Giant, and Gong. I was always amused that a group of people so adamant about saying how non-conformist they were actually conformed just as much to their punk style as any other adherent of any other musical style. The girls in the bathroom didn’t talk to me until I let my friend’s sister’s boyfriend give me a mullet.

A good twenty or thirty years later, I am nostalgic to hear any disco, new wave or classic rock song that comes my way, regardless of the genre, and I happily sing along to old songs to which I mysteriously know every word.



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Don’t believe everything you hear on the radio.

Electromagnetic Spectrum

An invisible audience. A seven second delay. Waves that travel worldwide through the air, unseen. A spectrum that includes audible sound, sunlight and the rainbow. Radio is already pretty mysterious, but on October 30, 1938, Orson Welles and The Mercury Theatre on the Air made radio history with its live broadcast of The War of the Worlds.

According to the recent Radiolab episode focusing on the radio play, “The The best of old time radio starring Orson WellesWar of the Worlds is believed to have fooled over a million people when it originally aired, and it’s continued to fool people since–from Santiago, Chile to Buffalo, New York to a particularly disastrous evening in Quito, Ecuador.”

Equal parts brilliance and mischief, Welles’ and The Mercury Theatre’s adaptation of H.G. Wells‘ classic science fiction novel both entertained and wreaked havoc upon its audience. Some listeners, who believed the The broadcast / Eric Hobbs, Noel Tuazon.invasion to be real, responded with such fright that the event has inspired a study on the psychology of panic.

The performance’s unintended consequences have only made The War of the Worlds more popular, inspiring numerous adaptations and spin-offs. (But we’re not going to talk about the terrible 2005 film adaptation, okay?) Even a 1960 episode of The Twilight Zone called The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street seems strikingly similar to the Martian hysteria that followed the broadcast. In it, a power outage on a seemingly idyllic suburban street leads to suspicion and chaos (though Rod Serling, with the added influence of the McCarthy trials,  takes the tale in a much darker direction).

A new addition to the The War of the Worlds canon is Eric Hobbs’ graphic novel The Broadcast, which tells a fictional story from the perspective of people in a Midwestern town who believe that the Martians have really landed.

So if you love The War of the Worlds, there are plenty of derivative titles to entertain you, and if you never heard the radio play, you’re in for a treat. Tune in, carefully.

– Renée


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