“When we were kids on the farm, long before the days of rural electrification, we owned a battery-powered Philco radio. It was a prized possession, and we cared for it with tenderness.”
– Joy Higgins, Warsaw, Kentucky
Ah, the good old days of radio in rural America … there was just nothing quite like it.
My great-grandpa was a big fan of the comedy radio shows, and he would plan his day and evening around making sure he had a little bit of porch time reserved to catch his favorites.
The plug-in route. When electricity came to his neighborhood, Grandpa Charlie decided it was unnecessary. He felt that he had perfected his wind-powered generator, and his wife was determined to not spend a nickel that didn’t need to be spent.
This snowy-haired fellow with the sparkling bright blue eyes even went so far as to chuckle at neighbors who went the “plug-in” route, reminding them that every time they listened to the free radio airwaves it was now costing them money.
Turning point. So, imagine his great chagrin when, on the night of a big turning point in the story line of Fibber McGee, Grandpa Charlie’s radio fizzled out from lack of power.
When Fibber McGee opened his closet door and the noisy avalanche tumbled over him, the radio signal started to wane.
Grandpa Charlie realized his own words were tumbling down on him. If he wanted to know the rest of the story, he was going to have to go, hat in hand, and ask a neighbor with the plug-in power of radio to fill in the blanks.
Right at home. The radio was the central place in the homes of yesteryear.
My dad recalls coming home from church on Sunday, and after a hearty and satisfying noon meal, the family gathered around the radio for entertainment and news.
It was there, in that living room with the bay window and the incredibly high ceilings, on a Sunday afternoon, that my dad heard the horrible news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
But most of what radio brought to a home was light-hearted and vivid and fun.
Radio, with its incredible writers, allowed the listener to paint the pictures of each of the characters and their props, creating vivid imaginations and interesting exchanges as family members compared opinions of various characters.
Children could listen to the Cisco Kid, galloping and gallivanting under blue skies and wide-open spaces and pretend that they were riding right alongside him on the horse of their choice.
The big arms of an over-stuffed chair could serve as the saddle, a little bit of rope or twine could turn in to reins and a lasso. It was nothing short of magical.
One account. In the book We Had Everything But Money, one account is told by Albert McGraw of his memories of the first radio he laid eyes on.
“When my aunt moved from Texas to Alabama in 1930, she brought along the first radio most of us had ever seen. It had a separate speaker on top and was powered by at least three batteries, one of which looked a lot like the batteries used in cars.”
He tells that when neighbors heard about the fascinating contraption, some traveled more than 25 miles to come and see it.
“Many of our visitors came on Saturday afternoons, and most of them were uninvited, but that didn’t matter to my aunt. She loved company, and she certainly enjoyed showing off the area’s first radio.”
He tells that the biggest crowds flocked to their home on Saturday night for the four-hour Grand Ole Opry program.
His aunt and uncle came up with a solution to the overflow crowd. Every Saturday, they would move every stick of furniture out of the back bedroom where the radio stood, and move their chairs and benches and even a few nail kegs to accommodate those who came to listen to their radio.
What a different world it was then! If you would like to share your memories of rural radio, I would love to hear them.