Sweetheart of the Radio

On any road trip, there are a minimum of two places involved. Here and there, beginning and end. But if you’re in your vehicle for any length of time, say over three hours, a third place emerges: the car itself. It’s a bit of a purgatory, alternately boring and frustrating.

Mostly, though, it’s sterile. The driver picks exactly how much of the outside world to let in. Re-circulated air becomes stale and unnatural. Choosing to stay on the interstate yields a highlight reel of America’s Guardrail Industry. Even music is now totally at the whim of the driver, and it’s easy to go multiple hours and hundreds of miles without ever hearing a song you don’t like.

While that’s sometimes a benefit, I’ve lately been choosing to let more of the outside world into the sealed bubble of my car. And I’ve been doing that with radio. If you’re in the car alone, it’s still the best road-trip companion anyone could ask for.

Our digital lives mean that songs rarely surprise us anymore. Even when our devices are on shuffle, we can’t really be shocked when a certain song comes on because we have already chosen to include it in our music libraries. But having a total stranger select and play a favorite tune is one of life’s few remaining unpredictable pleasures. When it is so easy to control our experience, there is something refreshing about letting someone else take the reins. The sense of anticipation as the DJ announces what’s coming up next, or the split second of silence after a station ID have no counterpart in the digital world.

Scanning the FM band on a long drive also gives an abstract sense of the territory you’re passing through. Radio stations are aural postcards, allowing you to temporarily visit all of the places you’ll never stop. One Sunday morning, my radio picked up a polka show driving through Hartford, Connecticut, which told me more about the city than stopping there for an hour to stretch my legs could have. Sometimes at work, I stream a station based in Fredericksburg, Texas, a place I will never have any conceivable need to visit. In between outlaw country tunes, I love to listen to the weather reports or to the local car dealer’s jingle. If I close my eyes, I am no longer in my office, but in the middle of the Texas Hill Country, where, I assume, everyone gets their boots at Yee-Haw Ranch Outfitters (“look for the big black bull!”) and enjoys $4.99 fried catfish specials for lunch. Or so the radio tells me.

When I’m on the road, listening to one station fade out in favor of another on the same frequency always feels like a border crossing. The mysterious excitement of Spanish-speaking stations in major metro areas gives way to corporate country in the suburbs and ultimately to radio preachers in the truly rural areas. Sometimes these border crossings are peaceful, with one station getting gradually softer while another fades in. Other times the stations crash up against each other, yielding unstable musical fusions that last for a moment and then expire.

It fascinates me that these changing sounds always revolve around the same numbers. When I was a kid on family vacations, I would punch in my favorite radio frequencies from back home to see what they sounded like in this new place. It was—and is—strange to me that a single person can have such different feelings towards a series of digits on a dial. I used to listen to 97.7 all the time in high school, but I wouldn’t dream of touching it where I live now. This 97.7 has nothing in common with my 97.7, and I will always view it as an imposter. Similarly, I could never stomach 102.3 when I was growing up, but now it’s the third preset on my radio. Sometimes I think about stations I have listened to in the places I’ve lived—the ghosts of presets past. I wonder when I revisit those places if I will be able to remember the good stations, or if they will still exist at all.

There is an undeniable satisfaction when returning to those old presets—like putting on a pair of broken-in shoes. When I drive to my parent’s house, I don’t consider myself home when I cross the state line, or when I exit the highway. I’m home when I can hear the radio stations I grew up with again, and there’s no sweeter sound than that.


Next Road Trip, Call in These Requests:

“Far Away Eyes,” The Rolling Stones (if driving through Bakersfield in the early morning)

“Turn it Up,” Robert Plant (if somewhere east of Tunica)

“The Weight,” The Band (if in downtown Nazareth)

“Memphis in the Meantime,” John Hiatt (if leaving Nashville)

“You Ain’t Goin Nowhere,” The Byrds (if stuck in traffic, anywhere)