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WOSTER: iPods can’t compare to that AM radio static

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opinion Mitchell, 57301

Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

Terry Woster, Daily Republic Columnist  When people grow to be a certain age — about my own, surprisingly — they tend to get all choked up and teary eyed when someone mentions a favorite AM radio station from the past.

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Do I? Sure, I do. I’m human. I grew up in the 1950s when AM radio was pretty much all a kid could find on the dial, and pretty much all he ever tried to find. I had a cast-off radio-phonograph in my upstairs bedroom for a while when I was about 15 or 16 years old. It was about the size of the first CRTs, the cathode ray tubes I wrote stories on late in my Associated Press career. A CRT in those days was about the size of one of the roll-top desks that South Dakota legislators use in the House and Senate in Pierre.

The CRT we got in Pierre was cast off, an early version from Atlanta Bureau or maybe Chicago Bureau, where the switch to electronic news reporting had taken place sooner than it did in the Pierre Bureau.

That’s another story, though. I was just trying to provide a size comparison for my cast-off radio-phonograph.

The thing had an FM setting on its dial. In the Chamberlain-Reliance area in the ’50s, an FM setting was about as much use as power steering on a saddle horse, but every now and then I’d set the machine to FM and ease ever so slowly through the numbers to see if I could catch a station somewhere. I did once catch some sound, but as I listened, it seemed to be an airplane pilot somewhere. Freak of nature thing, I guess.

As the name says, the set had a phonograph feature, although the turntable had quit working, which is the main reason it wound up in my bedroom instead of downstairs in the living room where it once sat.

I worked and worked on that turntable. Once, for some reason I never did figure out, the thing began to turn.

Wild with excitement (hey, I was 15 or so and it was a simpler time), I slapped an old Harry James and His Music Makers platter on the turntable and dropped the needle arm. It took about four bars to realize the thing was spinning at about half the desired rate. Harry James’ trumpet sounded a lot like the Creature from the Black Lagoon. I was exploring the inner workings to see if I could speed the thing up when it gave up the ghost and quit running again.

So, FM was useless. The phonograph was out of commission. Still, it was a nice piece of furniture, and it did have that AM setting. AM radio stations were all around in those days. When I say “all around,” I mean I could get four or five, depending on the weather, humidity, barometric pressure and several other variables that impacted reception from evening to evening.

One night I might tune in the Del Rio, Texas, station — XERF, I think, and if I recall, it actually broadcast from across the border in Mexico — and have a sound as clear as a bell and as close as the next room. The next night, nothing.

Most nights I could get KOMA from Oklahoma City with not more than a bit of static. For a kid who didn’t know radio existed without static, that was a pretty good deal.

The station played all of the top rock and roll hits of the time, and the teenagers in my part of the country practically welded the dials in their bedroom sets and their folks’ automobiles to 1520 on the AM dial.

I was a pretty low-key lad for a teenager, but still, I swear some evenings the only way I kept my sanity was to crank on KOMA, open the west window and crawl onto the porch roof to lie on my back, listen to the tunes and study the stars in the endless night sky.

These days, if I were young, I suppose I could crawl onto the porch roof with an iPod and ear buds.

Somehow, it doesn’t seem the same.

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