We Now Conclude Our Broadcast Day
Recalling the Imperfect Radio and TV Reception of the Past
By Dana Jennings, The New York Times
- Dec. 21, 2013
I miss the television snows of yesteryear. And I don’t mean easy nostalgia for the inevitable reruns of “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
I’m talking real television snow, a longing for static, ghost images and the picture endlessly rolling and flip-flopping. While we’re at it, I ache for well-used vinyl crackling like bacon sizzling in a skillet ... and the eerie whistles and wheezes from terrestrial radio.
This eccentric pining for the primitive electric hiss and sputter of my 1960s childhood is an honest reaction to our modern culture’s unhealthy addiction to (apparent) perfection. We want it all, we want it now, and we want it sublime.
We not only demand our television, radio and music in unblemished HD on whatever device we choose, but also our weddings, children, houses and bodies. And in our heedless embrace of digital cosmetic surgery, we’ve forgotten that it’s the flaw that makes a thing all the sweeter — like the bruise on a peach.
One of my sharpest memories — HD in recollection, if not in reality — is of my father scrambling on the roof of our house in southern New Hampshire during a snowstorm, wrestling with the TV antenna. He was trying to coax a better picture from our TV for a Bruins hockey game out of Boston on WSBK (Channel 38). Both his beer and the game tasted even better after that epic and elemental struggle.
In those pre-cable, pre-digital days, the question wasn’t “Where’s the remote(s)?” but “Where’s the picture?”
Answering that query often involved the laying on of hands. After turning on the TV and waiting — waiting!!! — for it to warm up came the physical offerings to the reception gods: massaging and wooing antenna and rabbit ears, twisting coat hangers into Calder-like shapes then draping them from the TV, waltzing the box around the living room or, finally, just delivering a smack upside the tube. The latter usually didn’t work, but it made all of us feel better.
My sister and I, huddled together on the couch, blissfully watched TV in all kinds of screen conditions: total whiteout, moderate snow, mere flurries, staticky crosshatch. And, unknowingly, we developed a proto-punk, low-fi aesthetic, agreeing that monster movies (“Them!,” “Rodan,” “The Blob”) and spooky TV shows like “The Twilight Zone,” “The Outer Limits” and “Night Gallery” were far more terrifying when glimpsed and then decoded through the snow: almost like scrutinizing horrifying images from some unimagined dimension or two.
Even watching the white dot vanish after the TV was clicked off gave us a pleasurable chill.
Our on-demand world also blunts the tingle of anticipation, which is maybe why vinyl and turntables have made their modest comeback in recent years. Savoring the spit, hiss and pop of needle on vinyl is like relishing the predatory rumble of a hot rod before it peels out and lays rubber.
One of the shrewd things the rock band Gaslight Anthem did on its 2008 album “The ’59 Sound” was pepper it with vintage rasp and buzz: a punk squall that defies tame audiophile decorum.
And, as with the TV, the phonograph required touch: the piling of slick 45s on the spindle, blowing dust off the needle, taping a penny to the tone arm to keep that needle from skittering and skipping.
My radio needed the human touch, too. As I listened to Boston Red Sox night games, I’d grip the radio like a vise, its hot, orange guts stinging my hand; my skin would lobster up, but I didn’t care, because I could hear the game better. (That radio, a yellowing white Sylvania, also hummed constantly, kind of like the ringing in your ears hours after a Metallica concert.)
Then there was the utter delight of reeling in a far-away station late at night: from Montreal, from Wheeling, from Nashville. Even more bewitching were the otherworldly soundscapes to be found between station stops: eeps and boops, trills and squeals, shrill dronings from the ether that maybe signaled an alien invasion, or first contact with another galaxy.
And, to return to the blizzards of television, even better were the Saturday nights when Sis and I babysat for our little brothers. At 1 or 2 in the morning, we’d find a station that’d signed off (back when channels actually dared abandon the air for a few hours), that slept in snow mode. We’d then stare at the spectral black-and-white storm — giggling, trying to scare each other — seeking demons, poltergeists, radioactive beasts. All of it good, low-def fun, even better than counting the cars that zipped by on Route 125 or trying to make wooly-bear caterpillars race each other.
It makes me grin to think about those late nights now, and that’s why, when it comes to TV, I still say, “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!”