NEAL CONAN, HOST:
Today is World Radio Day, so designated by UNESCO to celebrate the key role this medium plays in organizing and informing communities. For much of their lives, your parents or maybe your grandparents looked at the world through the radio.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDINGS)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Here he is in the motion. There's the wind-up. Here's the pitch. It's a slow curve, low and a base swing. It's a long one, a long one going up toward right center. Dengler's backing up against the wall. He can't get it. It's in there. Another homerun for the Bambino.
KING EDWARD VIII: I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as king as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love.
BUD ABBOT: Well, let's see, (unintelligible) on the bags, we have Who's on first, What's on second. I Don't Know is on third...
LOU COSTELLO: That's the same thing you gave me in 1938.
ABBOT: It's the same...
COSTELLO: I'm still trying to find out.
ABBOT: It's the same name.
COSTELLO: All right. Now, who's on first?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Oh, the humanity...
PRESIDENT FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT: This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.
CONAN: And we want to hear from you. What's the radio moment that changed your life? 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Let's start with Terry(ph), and Terry is on the line with us from Astoria in Oregon.
CONAN: Hi, Terry. You're on the air. What's the radio moment that changed your life?
TERRY: My big moment, and I'll never forget it, was when Pearl Harbor was bombed and I was a child playing in the basement of New York. And suddenly it came over the radio, Pearl Harbor has been bombed and my family started running around the house and - in panic. I crawled underneath the table and put on my mother's spaghetti colander for my helmet and...
TERRY: ...and shot people as they went by the table. And they were just, you know, getting more and more panicked. And then FDR came on and said we are at war. And it was...
CONAN: That was the next day, yeah.
TERRY: Yeah. And I will never forget that whole time, and it made such an impression on me and my family. And it totally changed our lives, of course.
CONAN: It's interesting you mention that. As a boy maybe a little bit older than you were at Pearl Harbor Day, I remember sitting in my kitchen, my family's kitchen in Englewood, New Jersey, and listening to John Kennedy give the Cuban missile crisis speech on the radio...
CONAN: ...and trembled a little bit.
TERRY: And I heard that one too, but it wasn't quite as impressive as when Pearl Harbor got bombed, for some reason.
CONAN: Sure. Sure. Well, Terry, thank you very much for the call. Appreciate it.
TERRY: OK. Thank you.
CONAN: And an email. This is from Hank Kelly(ph). He too remembers December 7, 1941. I lived in the Bronx and was listening to the Giants/Dodgers football game. Yes, those were football teams as well. The game was interrupted with the announcement of the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor. I left the apartment and went to the corner candy store, where my older sister and her friends hung out. There were quite a few young men who were about 17, 18 years old. I informed them what I'd heard. I always wondered what happened to those young men whom I'm sure eventually went into the armed forces.
Let's see if we go next to Dave. Dave is on the line with us from Salt Lake City.
DAVE: Hey. Thanks for having me on.
CONAN: Sure. Go ahead.
DAVE: My profound time radio is a little more recent than that. It was 2006. It's the third week in November, and I was listening to this program, to SCIENCE FRIDAY with Ira Flatow.
DAVE: For years I had been - my only link to, you know, the science world was Friday afternoons. And I was frustrated. I was working construction at the time. I was going through a divorce. I didn't have a place to stay. And I would set aside my Friday afternoon, and I was just sitting in a parking lot listening to Ira interview Sylvia Earle. And it was just profound to hear Dr. Earle talk about the science that's just - also the passion of our world and how beautiful it is and how to see it with new eyes. And from that second on, I went back to school. I finished two undergraduate degrees, and now I'm just finishing up a master's in Earth science.
CONAN: Well, congratulations.
DAVE: Thanks. It just comes down to that one particular moment.
CONAN: Well, we're never going to tell Ira because it'll just go to his head.
DAVE: That's all right.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call.
CONAN: Speaking of scientists, of course, the medium is indebted to scientists. When we talk about the invention of radio, the names you always hear are Guglielmo Marconi and Nikola Tesla. And it's true, they invented the first radio transmitters and receivers in the 1890s and launched years of patent disputes among them. Well, we think of radio broadcasting, though, a single message, voice or melody carried by radio waves and heard by many people. That would not come until after a series of inventions claimed by many scientists. Reginald Fessenden widely credited with transmitting the first radio broadcast - Christmas Eve 1906 - but there's still some question as to what he broadcast and whether he did it in the way described. We'll never really know.
Today, according to the CIA World Factbook, there are 44,000 radio stations worldwide or thereabouts. Radios are everywhere. UNESCO estimates 75 percent of households in developing countries have radio. Let's go next to John(ph), and John is on the line with us from Sioux City.
JOHN: Hello, Neal. Thank you.
CONAN: Sure. Go ahead.
JOHN: Hey, although my story is - when I was 14, riding my bicycle by a neighbor's house with a funny looking tower in the backyard, he was outside. I asked him about it. He told me it was a ham radio antenna. He invited me to his basement. We got on this big, old, tube-style radio sets, and we talked to somebody in Australia. I was hooked. On my 16th - when I got a ham radio license, then on my 16th birthday, I applied for a job at a radio station, worked there until I finished high school and to college, law school, part-time radio, came back, got a job, found partners, got in the radio business and have - with partners, been in the radio business 35, 40 years, I guess.
CONAN: And are you still a DXer?
JOHN: Am I still a ham?
JOHN: Oh, yes. Yeah. I do that every weekend.
CONAN: Well, we're going to rely on you in case of emergency.
JOHN: You know, there is - I tell you what. When you talk with Congress about demands for spectrum, they leave the hams alone because they know that. The FCC knows with my car battery and a wire in the trees, I and folks like me are, indeed, their last line of defense.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Tim(ph).
JOHN: Thank you.
CONAN: So long. Oh, it was John. Excuse me. Let's go next to email, and this is Alyssa(ph) in Hollywood, Florida. I heard Peter Jay(ph) of NPR affiliate WLRN in Miami on the program "The Story," recognized him from WLRN, contacted him and eventually married him. There's a story of how someone's life changed on the radio. Let's see. We go next to Kaye(ph), and Kaye with us from Rosenberg, Texas.
CONAN: Hi. You're on the air, Kaye.
KAYE: I was at the assassination of John Kennedy. I was standing at the triple underpass, waiting for the car to come under the triple underpass. When the car did come under and there was a guy standing on the back of it, and we didn't know what was happening. We hadn't heard anything. Finally, we got back. We just assumed that maybe Jackie's hair was blowing or something that we got back in the car and turned on the radio and discovered that there had been an assassination.
KAYE: Yes. Yes.
CONAN: And you - did you - you had no idea you were so close to it.
KAYE: No. We didn't know what was happening. And I couldn't believe it later, but that's exactly what it was. And, of course, we went home and turned on the television, and it was Walter Cronkite who told us that he was dead, but we didn't know anything about it until we got in the car and turned on the radio.
CONAN: OK. Thank you very much.
CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Mary(ph). Mary on the line with us from Cheyenne, Wyoming.
MARY: Yes. Hi, Neal.
MARY: I was in - I'm in international development work, and I appreciate your shout out to how important radio is in the Third World, in developing countries. I was in the high Pamir region of Tajikistan on September 11, 2001 and right on the border, right across the river from Afghanistan. And it was late at night, and I was trying to tune my shortwave to the BBC so I could just catch news. I had no idea what had gone on yet. And then I just picked up a little trace of a signal because we were so remote. And I heard a quip of a British voice saying the Twin Towers had been attacked. I dismissed it at that time, thinking it was sort of an Orson Welles radio play. And then the next morning, early in the morning, outside my door, there were a number of local Tajiks who were lined up to offer their condolences.
And I was only intending to stay - I had a six-week assignment in Tajikistan. I ended up staying 11 years in part because of, well, the people were wonderful but also sort of, you know, the geopolitics of the region changed. Tajikistan, suddenly, was on the map and as a buffer for Afghanistan, and a lot more development money flowed in. So it really was a career change for me based on that incident and the way I found out about it through the radio.
CONAN: And do you travel still to places like Tajikistan?
MARY: Yeah. Actually, I just returned from Tajikistan in November, and I'm on my way next week to Mauritania.
CONAN: Well, have a good trip and be careful and take your radio.
MARY: I will do that. Thank you very much.
CONAN: Thank you, Mary.
CONAN: One of our old colleagues has been involved in international radio development for many years after leaving National Public Radio. Bill Siemering was among the founders of NPR back in 1970. And he was then a founding member of the NPR Board of Directors and came up with much of the ideas that animated a program called ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Here, he describes some of the goals of radio as he learned them as a child.
BILL SIEMERING: And the original meaning of broadcast is to scatter seeds. And this remains my favorite metaphor for our work.
CONAN: Bill Siemering, one of the fathers of NPR. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's see if we go next to Pat(ph). Pat on the line with us from Hickory in North Carolina.
PAT: Hi. Mine is not as devastating as anything like Pearl Harbor. But when you're 6 years old, I think that's how old I was, in New York City, "Big Jon and Sparky" was one of our favorite radio programs on, I believe, every Saturday. And one Saturday, thinking that the mic was off, Big Jon, mouthed off and said something like, that ought to hold the little - he didn't use buggers, but you can imagine - for the week. And "Big Jon and Sparky" was never on again.
PAT: We were all devastated. It was devastating to a kid.
CONAN: It's one of those classic moments in radio. Of course, in those days, all radio was live and...
PAT: Oh, yes.
CONAN: ... an announcer say, ladies and gentlemen, here's President Hebert Hoober(ph).
PAT: Well, it was almost that good.
CONAN: Thanks very much, Pat.
PAT: OK. Thank you.
CONAN: So long. Here's an email. This is from Chris(ph) in Farmington, Michigan: I was 11 years old when I heard the Beatles' "I Want to Hold Your Hand" on my brother's transistor about the size of a pack cigarettes. My world was rocked and forever changed.
Let's see if we go next to - this is Hal(ph) and Hal's on the line with us from Ada, Oklahoma.
HAL: Hi there. I have a career change story. I was teaching physics at Sewanee, the University of the South in the late '70s and had a marriage fall apart. It kind of got ugly. One of student's friend's father owned a small - very prosperous small station in Anniston, Alabama. And I was kind of looking for a place off the mountain and he said, why don't you go talk to my dad? He just had an engineer retire unexpectedly. Went down there, took the job, worked there for a couple years, went on from there to 100-kilowatt FM in Dunston, Birmingham.
Stayed there by about four or five years and went up to Boston and chiefed WSSH FM in Boston, came back to the Deep South, ended up here in Oklahoma as chiefed the KATT here for a year. And it started a business of my own about 25 years ago and I've been building them and fixing them and licensing them and doing all that kind of stuff. And kind of the way I look at is it's my ham license still in activity. You know, I kept my license up, but basically fixing radio stations is my ham radio nowadays. I make a good living at it and I enjoy it. What more could a man ask for?
CONAN: We always had experiences with chief engineers that if you had a problem in master control, then summon the chief engineer. It would resolve itself magically. The moment before he stepped into the room and then gave you the evil eye for disturbing his peace.
HAL: That's because the equipment's afraid of us.
CONAN: It is.
HAL: Anyhow, I love the show and it's a good topic, and thanks for getting me on.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.
HAL: You're welcome.
CONAN: This is an email from Michael: I don't know if I could say if it changed my life. But one of my greatest memories is growing up watching Chicago Cubs games with the TV muted and the radio turned up listening to late, great Ron Santo as well as Patrick Hughes calling the game on WGN Radio. No baseball experience has ever been better, save, actually going Wrigley.
Let's go to Kyla(ph). Kyla with us from Austin.
CONAN: Hi. You're on the air, Kyla.
KYLA: Oh, hi. How's it going?
KYLA: So, yeah. My radio experience was I was in Japan doing business and I got invited over in June of 1989 to Beijing and ended up getting trapped in Tiananmen Square. I had to make a mad escape by bicycle. Nobody knew that we were there. The diplomatic compound said if you could make it here, we can try to help you. And when we came into the diplomatic compound, we all got around the radio and with Voice of America. We sat there because there was no water or food, but we had beer and we listened to Voice of America for three days until we got out.
CONAN: Difficult times, but glued to the radio.
KYLA: Glued to the radio in the dark with beer.
CONAN: Not bad.
KYLA: Yeah, it was OK.
CONAN: All right. Kyla, thanks very much.
KYLA: Bye. Thanks.
CONAN: We'll wrap up this tribute to radio with some stories from Twitter. Tom Schneder(ph) tweets: Radio changed my life December 8, 1980 when I heard news of John Lennon's death. Within one month, I left an unhappy marriage and began rebuilding.
Larry Kurtz(ph) tweets: Scott Simon announcing the Columbia disaster.
Twitter user rocksofspazhouse(ph) also remembers the shuttle disaster, tweeting: I had shared my Walkman earphones with another woman listening to the Challenger disaster news in the middle of college library.
Nefariousnewt(ph) recalls: I remember vividly listening to news of the capture of Saddam Hussein on NPR as I was driving from North Carolina to home in New Jersey.
And for Andy Budd(ph), it was news that changed things for him. It was a novelty song from 1975, Dickie Goodman's "Mr. Jaws" on WHHY in 1975, '76, stuck with me for decades. Thanks to Google, finally able to know who it was.
Thanks to everybody for sharing your stories on this world radio day. And sorry we couldn't get to everybody's story. Tomorrow on the program: torture. The Oscar nominated "Zero Dark Thirty" has revived the debate about interrogation, information and what crosses the line. Join us for that discussion. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.