Ever given the radio much thought? To be honest, I haven’t. Sure, we have all heard of the “golden age of radio,” but now it’s just the standard device in all vehicles that give us something to do while driving. Or to turn on while we have company over to our house to fill the space with pleasant music. It’s nothing fascinating or new. It’s just, well, there.
Susan Douglas, author of Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination, reminds us of a time when the radio was indeed new and “miraculous.” The first chapter “The Zen of Listening” introduces the power of the radio by exploring the auditory experience. Obviously, we rely on sight a great deal. We live in a very visual culture, where “seeing is believing.” If something can be seen, we are assured of its existence, its tangibility. We can go back and point to it as proof.
Our auditory sense is much more instinctive. Sounds come to us and demand to be interpreted; we can shut our eyes, but not our ears. Often, sounds are able to evoke a deeper and more emotional (even primal, Douglas argues) response from us than what we see. Sudden sounds like a glass shattering or piercing scream move us to immediate action or reaction, and soothing sounds can likewise help us settle and relax. Sounds are also deeply connected to memories. A certain song or type of music can evoke a strong feeling, a clear memory, or even vivid image of something past.
Not only do sounds have the ability to evoke strong feelings, but active listening is a way by which the imagination can be exercised. When listening to a story that is being aired on the radio, the mind is able to create the world of the story within itself. The mind is engaged by remembering the placement and relationships of people and objects within the three-dimensional world that is being described. All of this is lost when the same story is viewed on television or in a film, where the images are already provided. In these mediums, the mind is restricted much more.
These aspects of the auditory give the radio much of its power, Douglas points out, as well as allowed for its initial popularity for decades. A sense of nostalgia began to surround the radio as time passed. People fondly remembered their youth when their favorite song came on, or recalled how the family had gathered around the radio and listened to the programs and news reports together for the entire evening. And while the radio may not specifically do these things for some of us, the many sounds that we hear do cause us to feel acutely than what we see. So, close your eyes and open your ears. Actively listen and allow yourself to be carried away, either on waves of emotion or to another space and time. Remember, seeing is not always believing.