January 22, 2012

A personal history of listening to music — the old radio

My memory is fading. This has to be written down. 30 years is not an awfully long time, but nothing has changed more than the way we buy and listen to music. A brief personal history starting with the radio:

My earliest memory of a music-playing device is that of our old family radio in our bedroom. I don’t know how it came to be in our house. It was either a hand-me-down from grandma, something that mom brought along when she got married or dad’s first big purchase as a bachelor. Like an old family dog, it was just there. Come evening, and it would be switched on and I’d eagerly wait for it to warm up”. A green light in the top corner would gradually come up, followed by sound.

There weren’t many radio channels in India in the 80s. The radio was permanently tuned in to Vividh Bharti. There were a handful of advertisers and the same ads would play in more or less the same order in the evening (I had the order memorised and was quite proud of being able to guess the next ad before the last one would finish — the parents proudly attributed it to the regimen of soaked almonds in the morning). The programming itself was what you’d expect from a country with strong socialist leanings. There were the evening state-sponsored news bulletins with news of inauguration of power plants and dams, visiting dignitaries, NAM summits, losses and victories in hockey and cricket and weather reports. The entire bulletin would be read in the monotone of a bored school headmaster. Then there were the short radio dramas (Hawa Mahal, whose jingle I can still hum) and some miscellaneous music programming mostly featuring songs from old and new Bollywood films.

The radio was capable of tuning in to both Medium Wave (MW) and Short Wave (SW) transmission. SW was rarely used. While the MW static was pleasing and an integral part of the texture of the sound, the SW static - a confused mess of hiss, whistle, and crackle - was almost disturbing. I later found out that the radio had a spot behind it for connecting an external antenna. Since we never had one, it was almost impossible to get a steady lock on an SW channel.

I don’t know what became of the radio. It gradually fell out of use and one day stopped working. I remember we once unscrewed the thin wooden cover behind the radio to find a fascinating world of dusty, cobwebbed vacuum tubes. One of them had gone bad and a spare was either not available or very expensive. The radio probably went for a pittance to the neighbourhood junk-recycling man on his bicycle (raddi wala).

I think I now understand the fuss audiophiles raise over their valve amplifiers. There was a certain warmth about the sound from that radio which I haven’t experienced since then. Or perhaps it’s just impossible to separate the various associations of a child of 5 - the security and warmth of being with both the parents at night, that mandatory glass of oversweet, warm milk before sleep, the hum of the fan on hot, summer nights and the sound of the radio.


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A personal history of listening to music — the record player There is a little story that I grew up listening to that is still told by mom with much relish. Many years ago, we were living in a rented house in