Friday, September 02, 2005

r a d i o


WHEN I was little, very little, my mother and I used to have a daily ritual: Every evening, after she returned from work, she'd plug in the radio and we'd listen together to classical music.
I can still see the little white box that always seemed to take ages to warm up, a few tentative notes slowly floating out, a slow crescendo before the full piece would burst into our living room.
One evening, tiny impatient Mike just couldn't wait for his daily dose of Bach and Beethoven and decided to get started on his own. I guess I figured it would be easy: Just plug the cord into the wall. You guessed it: I got zapped, surviving (obviously) but still leery today, many years later, of plugs and sockets.
The radio I still love, with a passion -- AM, FM, and more. Shortwave I discovered one summer in Legazpi City when I was sent there for a vacation with one of my father's business associates. They had one of those clunky but powerful radios (I'm imagining it now looming as large as a television set), with a dial that had all the different wavelengths. I was mesmerized by the way you could tune in to the entire world.
We didn't call it surfing then, but surf I did, from one end of each bandwidth to the other, across the exotic cacophonies of alien tongues and music, pausing occasionally when I'd hear some English.
It was the height of the Cold War so there were enough of these English broadcasts vying for young gullible minds like mine. Voice of America (VoA) had the strongest signals since it had relay stations right here in the Philippines. Radio Moscow came through, too, made all the more significant because our neighborhood grocery had started selling Sputnik, a Soviet propaganda magazine, which offered schedules for Radio Moscow, as well as lessons in the Cyrillic alphabet and stories about Soviet achievements. I was so impressed by their story about Laika, the Soviet astrodog, that I named one of our dachshunds after her.
When martial law was imposed, together with media censorship, shortwave became useful as an alternative source of news. By then a University of the Philippines student properly initiated to the politics of the Left, I had stopped listening to VoA, convinced it was nothing but US imperialist propaganda. Instead, I tuned in to the British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC). While one could have argued this was the voice of British imperialism (I learned only recently that the BBC World Service was once called the Empire Service), they at least used the King's English.
Radio Peking (it wasn't Beijing then) was another favorite. Somehow, the Chinese had found a way to get Tagalog broadcasts in through the edge of the AM frequency, with weak but audible signals. In retrospect, it was a rather dull station but there was a bit of a thrill listening in because technically it was considered a subversive activity. There were rumors, too, that the broadcasters' flawless, albeit formal Tagalog, had been trained by Filipino political activists who had gone into exile in China.
As television sets became more affordable, there were predictions radio would disappear. That hasn't happened. I still tune in quite often to AM stations, especially for their live coverage of breaking news, from the EDSA People Power revolts to attempted coups and political crises and natural disasters.
Sadly though, the fare on both TV and radio have deteriorated over the years as stations turn to tabloid formats of shrill sensationalized news and really bad music. It hasn't helped that the only classical musical station in the Philippines, dzFE, has been reducing its broadcast time.
Fortunately, new technologies provide us with fresh alternatives for listening to radio. The Internet now allows us to tune in to radio stations from around the world. I can be in Manila listening to a classical station in San Francisco, or to BBC, which is generally more critical and comprehensive in its coverage of news, whether cloning, the Iraq "wo" [war] or the archaeology of music. Conversely, one midnight, sequestered and homesick in the middle of a lake in Italy for a conference, I actually derived comfort listening to Metro Manila morning traffic updates on GMA Network's radio station dzBB, a link to which you can find on the Inquirer website.
Internet radio does have its limitations: Unless you have a high speed connection like DSL, listening to these broadcasts can become an ordeal, with constant interruptions and repeated attempts by the computer to unscramble the digital data.
An alternative is satellite radio. As far as I know, there's only one company doing global transmissions of this type, and this is Worldspace. You need a special radio, selling from 100 to 200 dollars, to pick up several radio stations beamed out through satellite. You can get more information on this service, including dealers who distribute their radios, on www.worldspace.com. (There are no local distributors yet but I got a good deal from a retailer in Thailand.)
The selection is quite good, from BBC and CNN to classical to African pop and Latin music, the broadcasts coming in crystal clear and in stereo. The only drawback to Worldspace is that you have to position a small satellite dish (about five inches in diameter) out in the garden or on the roof, making sure there is nothing, not even a tree branch, to interfere with the satellite signal.
You might ask why anyone should bother listening to BBC on the radio when you can get it on cable television. Well, with radio, you can continue working, as I am doing now, while getting the latest news or listening to a concert. There are times, too, when radio is more appropriate for unwinding, ending a day well spent, as my mother and I used to do when I was a child.
There still is room, certainly, for improvement. I can imagine writing, maybe in the year 2030, about those good old days when we listened to radio through incredibly slow high-speed Internet, or the times I had to climb the roof to install and, later, adjust the Worldspace satellite dish, my dogs watching from the ground apprehensively, whining away almost as if to warn me of the time when a much younger Mike got into trouble, all for radio.

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