Radio daze

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Radio has always been an integral part of farm life. Long before the advent of the so-called internet and the so-called worldwide spider domicile, our trusty radios kept us abreast of what was happening in the universe.
That was a much simpler time, when modem meant you had cut the weeds out in the pasture and download speed had to do with how fast you could throw bales off a hay wagon.
The first radio I recall is the boxy blue-green RCA that sat on my parents’ kitchen table. A unique feature of that radio arose from its designer’s disregard for the amount of heat that would be produced by its vacuum tubes. The net result was that a small hole had melted in the top of the radio’s plastic case.
Every morning (allowing some lead time for warm-up) at exactly 6 a.m., my parents would switch on the old RCA and “The Star-Spangled Banner” would begin to play. The stirring and patriotic tune was followed by the booming voice of Bert Getz, the morning DJ at KBRK AM.
Bert was the smartest guy in the whole world. He knew everything: the latest sports scores, what the weather would be like that day, the farm markets and tasty tidbits of news from every corner of the globe.
I once asked Dad how our radio worked, and he said that a tiny know-it-all guy named Bert lived inside. As I peered through the melt hole on the top of the old RCA, Dad said, “See him? He’s turned on his light and he’s wearing a little cowboy hat.”
I eventually learned how a radio actually works but not before the old RCA died, probably due to a buildup of breadcrumbs that I had dropped into it for poor little Bert.
I met Bert in person many years later, an encounter that left me feeling vaguely disappointed. Only upon reflection did it occur to me that my disappointment arose from the fact that Bert hadn’t been wearing a cowboy hat.
As my seven siblings and I grew up and began to help with the milking, we insisted upon having a radio in the barn. This created a problem. We kids wanted to listen to our music (rock ‘n roll), while Mom and Dad wanted to listen to their music (which was hopelessly stodgy and extremely polka-centric).
We compromised by milking to the stodgy stuff (and Bert) in the morning and doing the chore time boogie to our music at night. That music now carries the stodgy-sounding moniker, “classic rock.”
None of our tractors had cabs or radios. I learned to make do while performing fieldwork by listening to the playlist of tunes stored in my mental jukebox. The trouble was that my jukebox would sometimes get stuck on one particular song and play it over and over. The longest week I ever spent was the afternoon I listened to “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree” by Tony Orlando and Dawn about a million times. I sorely wished someone would drop in a quarter and pick a new song.
I was presented with a transistor radio the Christmas when I was 11. The radio wasn’t much by today’s standards. It didn’t connect to the internet and couldn’t store any MP3s, but I thought I had the world by the speaker wire because it received both AM and FM. Imagine! All of that in a box you could carry with one hand!
Sometimes of a winter’s night, I would take my radio to bed, duck under the covers and scour the airwaves with the volume turned way down low. I discovered that AM radio waves can skip off the ionosphere, enabling the receiver to pull in stations from far, far away.
My little transistor radio would pick up signals from such exotic locales as Chicago, St. Louis and Little Rock. I would sometimes even hear voices that spoke French or Spanish fading eerily into and out of the ether. I felt like a voyeur, peering into foreign windows in distant lands. I was traveling without leaving the warmth of my bed.
These days, radio is alive and doing quite well despite the advent of such innovations as streaming services and Sirius XM. One day our youngest son, who was a teenager at the time, asked me what I thought of Eminem.
“Well,” I replied, “I’ve always liked the peanut kind better than the plain.”
He shook his head and walked away, muttering something about someone being hopelessly stodgy.
It’s comforting to know some things never change.
    Jerry is a recovering dairy farmer from Volga, South Dakota. He and his wife, Julie, have two grown sons and live on the farm where Jerry’s great-grandfather homesteaded over 110 years ago. Jerry works full time for Dairy Star as a staff writer and ad salesman. Feel free to email him at jerry.n@dairystar.com.

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