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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

McCallum: Creating Closeness

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the first radio FM broadcasting system was unveiled in January, in the dead of winter, when life turns inward, isolated by cold and dark. The year was 1940, and today, seventy -six years later, the country has more than 9,000 FM stations – with public radio on 900 of them. In the urban area where I grew up, radio was for music going down the highway with the windows wide open. But when I moved to Vermont thirty years ago, radio became my source for news, weather, talk shows, classical music in the morning and jazz at night – in other words, for company and a sense of community.

My old black transistor radio from the eighties sitting on the pantry counter brought the world to my kitchen while I stirred the soup and did the dishes. And now, after three decades of listening, I’ve come to understand that radio is even more intimate than that. The voices I hear through the kitchen radio and the one next to my bed and the one in the car are so familiar that it feels like we’re friends - just me and that voice in my ear.

Artist Ann Hamilton listens while she works alone in her studio and she says that sharing the experience with thousands of others listening at the same time, creates an event that’s both intensely individual and powerfully communal - many people occupying the same audio space together even while they’re alone. TV and radio host Rachel Maddow calls television the “one-to-many” form, while listening to radio feels more “one-to-one.”

“Driveway moments,” are those times when we arrive at our destination before a story has ended and we’re compelled to remain inside the bubble of the car until it does. But I suspect that many of us can also claim “mattress moments” as we listen at night, snuggled under the covers like children. Familiar voices in soft conversation emanating from the iPod or speaker next to my pillow can lull me to sleep more reliably than any sleeping pill - the same technique that helps a friend of mine achieve the same elusive state of slumber.

And this leads me to imagine hundreds – even thousands - of us nestled in beds in rural houses and city apartments alike, sheltered from the cold and dark in a great web of connectedness, touching though apart, listening to the same quiet voices.

The only downside is that sleep often arrives before the end of the story.

Mary McCallum is a freelance writer and former prison librarian who now works with Vermont elders.
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