Last week, the word wireless took on a whole new meaning for me. Well, not exactly new—in fact, a bit old. In fact, before-I-was-born-old. Today, wireless is something none of us can live without, but if you’re over 40 (and British) you may remember your parents using the word in a completely different context. Okay, maybe your grandparents—whose living room perhaps still had one; a wireless, that is.
The wireless was a radio, so-called not because it didn’t have wires—it did—but because the information came wirelessly into your living room by means of an enormous bakelite box easily the size of a flat-screen TV today. Think sideboard meets jukebox, with art deco styling. And for the first three decades of the invention of radio, in 1887, it remained a wireless.
If you grew up in London in the mid-1950s, wireless was still a term in use, but in our designer-y home, which had stripped wooden floors and central heating, it only conjured images of wartime families huddled around their enormous boxes listening intently to a king abdicating, or news of the war, or the Goon Show. And that image, of people huddled around this vital link to the world, is exactly where I was last week when the power went down in New York City.
We have two radios in our Manhattan apartment, neither bigger than a paperback, and we carry them from room to room as we move about. Perhaps because we don’t have television, the radio plays a bigger role in our lives; essentially, it’s on from waking-up to out-the-door and from coming home until supper time, so it’s a fairly constant companion. I miss the BBC, but National Public Radio here switches to an hour of BBC news on weekday mornings (not to mention that I can listen to it on my computer any time).
In any case, for what’s going on here and now, and partly through necessity, I’ve grown used to—even fond of—my local NPR station, WNYC. My particular hero is Brian Lehrer, who has a slot from 10 to 12 every weekday. His beat is newsmakers and experts about current events and social issues, and his usually smart and well-informed listeners call in with their two cents. His tag on WNYC is “It’s your neighborhood, your city, your country, your world, and now your website. Brian Lehrer delves into the issues and links them to real life.”
Listening by candlelight
During the recent hurricane Lehrer was indeed heroic: he was there in his usual morning slot (which was upped to three hours in the wake of the hurricane) and there again that evening, having never left the station, I assumed, as it would have been difficult to get home and back from Englewood, New Jersey, where he often mentions on the air that he lives. And he was there again the next day, too. Walking home in the evening from brightly lit midtown to pitch-black downtown (newly renamed SoPo, “South of Power”) seemed like re-entering a ghetto where nothing worked. It was scary to be in the middle of a world where suddenly there was no food, no way of keeping food, no shops, no cafés, no restaurants, no Internet, no laundry, only cold showers, no way of getting about other than walking, no elevator to our 30th floor, no gym (Stairmaster made instantly redundant).
But there was radio. And when it was dark and cold and there was no hot water, Lehrer was all calm and no-nonsense, fielding tips and facts and updates from experts and listeners alike—about the most comforting thing there could be (other than the power coming back on and a hot bath). By day two it was routine, as we sat around the radio with our visiting evacuee (unlike him, at least we had water and a few neighbours!), listening by candlelight. It was a kind of wartime. And so 1940s.—LUCY SISMAN