Nightrider

When I was a kid, I can remember thinking that there was something romantic about a radio station at night. Geek that I was, it wasn’t the romance of listening as much it was the romance I imagined in being the jock on the air. It must be quite a feeling, I thought, to ride the ether by night, to reach into all those cars and bedrooms, into listeners’ lives from out of the darkness. It was romance by the old-school definition: something exciting, mysterious—and idealized.

Eventually I learned that the reality was, as reality tends to be, far more mundane than my imaginings. In the days before digital technology, you were busy getting records and commercials ready, you had to run to the newsroom to rip and sort copy from the wires, you had read transmitter meters, answer the phone, and deal with the routine trivia that’s part of every job. There was not a lot of time to think about the places your voice was reaching, or who might be hearing it, or how they might be responding to it. Now, when digital technology has rendered records, commercial cartridges, news wires, and even transmitter meters obsolete, pondering still comes fairly far down the list of tasks you’ve got time for. And when you’ve been around radio as long as I have, you understand that “romantic” is fairly far down on the list of things radio is.

But not off the list entirely.

Not long ago I was working late, walking down a darkened hall between the office the jocks share and the studio. In the distance, echoing from the speakers down in the reception area, I could hear the station playing. The building was mostly deserted, as it tends to be at night. Several of the stations in the building run on auto-pilot after dark, only a few have jocks on duty, and the lights were off in the unstaffed newsroom. I stopped at a window to watch the night for a moment, and suddenly where I was and what I was doing felt just a wee bit romantic. Not so much the excitement and mystery of reaching into homes and cars and convenience stores and connecting with people I don’t even know, but a different meaning of romance: ardent emotional attachment. It was the sense of being precisely where I wanted to be and doing precisely I wanted to be doing, and being glad of it—a trifecta that’s far less common in our lives than we’d like it to be.

I couldn’t savor the feeling for very long—I had to get back to the studio before the song I was playing ran out; in other words, one of my mundane responsibilities intervened. And I know from experience that it’s a fragile feeling anyhow—it’s never long before it slips away and you’re thinking about the raise you asked for and never got, or you’re wishing for a snack, or the next jock comes in and wants to talk about his weekend or something. But it’s a feeling that leaves a mark. So the next time I’m working late, I think maybe I’ll try to hit that same spot in the hall at about the same time of the night.

Last Week at WNEW.com:
Today in Rock History: All-Birthday Edition
Rock 101: Star-Spangled Banners
Founding Father: Jerry Wexler

Last Week at Popdose:
One Day in Your Life: August 20, 1969

I had the Electric Light Orchestra on the brain this past weekend. Thirty years ago, just before I went off to my freshman year at college, I saw ELO in concert here in Madison. They might have played the tune below that night, or they might not have—the sound was so awful I didn’t know what they played until I found the setlist online last year. It’s still the most disappointing concert experience I’ve ever had. I hope the people in Boston enjoyed their show more.

“Nightrider” (live in Boston, March 1976)/Electric Light Orchestra (bootleg)

2 thoughts on “Nightrider

  1. From the other side of the speaker, as a listener I recall so many times, driving late at night, no other cars on the road, and it was as though that DJ and myself were the only people in the world. It was almost as if we were there for each other and no other reason.

    Nice piece.

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