Going, Going, Gone

Tim Marrs

Sailing down the northern Italian autostrada across the Dolomites at warp speed in a Volkswagen Sharan TDI early one evening last summer, my family and I were plenty impressed. Not just with modern diesels and mountain-climbing gobs of torque, and not just because we'd never before clapped eyes on the spectacular Alpine range we were passing through, with its steep, craggy slopes and chiseled precipices of sun-bleached stone papered heavily with hundreds of thousands of tall, thin, spiky, green trees and laced with ambitious, architecturally wondrous bridges and elevated highways. It reminded us of the wonder of nature and the resourcefulness of man, especially the oft-forgotten skill of Italian engineers. It also reminded me of a certain oft-forgotten 1979 Triumph I own, whose namesake, I recalled for the assembled more than once, was these self-same mountains. I'm told I can be a little dull that way.

As impressive as the sights were, the part of this drive that really stands out in memory was perhaps even more personal. We were on our way out of Trento following a fine dinner when I abruptly paused conversation so I might listen more closely to the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball game streaming live into the car's multispeaker sound system through my smartphone and the MLB.com app. Suddenly, it dawned on me: I'm listening to a Pirates game. While speeding through Italy. Not everybody in the car thought this a good thing, but I had to pinch myself.

It's hard to explain to young people what it was like to be a die-hard Pirates fan in northern New Jersey in the 1960s. Pirates broadcasts were savored and cherished, as we couldn't pick up KDKA Pittsburgh's AM signal from its distant broadcast towers. There was no cable TV and no Internet, which meant that, season in and season out, what Pirates-viewing pleasure there was for my household -- save the ultrarare Game of the Week appearance on national television -- was to be found only on WOR-TV/Channel 9, the flagship station for the New York Mets, when the Buccos came to town. Or vice versa. Radio-listening opportunities (on WHN/1050 AM) were identically sparse. And if you went far enough away from New York, all access could be denied.

Except when it wasn't. One of the greatest discoveries my dad ever made in what's been a lifetime of canny observation was that on occasion you could pick up the signal for Pirates games in the car when you were far, far away from Pittsburgh -- indeed even farther away than New Jersey. Back in the day, as now, some radio stations had stronger transmitters than others, and KDKA, reputedly the first commercial enterprise to broadcast a radio signal (and still in business today), had one of the strongest, although we couldn't pick it up through the static fog of the AM radio dial at home.

The big breakthrough occurred in the summer of 1967 on a family vacation to Cape Cod. Outside the cottage we were renting, while sitting on a hill in our almost-new Volvo 122S wagon with Bendix push-button AM receiver, Dad was able to tune in a Pirates game. He further learned that moving the car might improve reception, although often only temporarily. It was like fiddling with a household antenna, except you used first and reverse plus a little steering to adjust the imaginary rabbit ears. I fondly remember those evenings, during the so-called Summer of Love, spent with my dad in the Volvo, slowly creeping around the scrub pine, moving ever so slightly for a better chance to hear Willie Stargell's at bat. It was kind of perfect; my mother and sisters stayed inside the house, with only the occasional headlamp shining through the windows to bother them. Out in the car, the mellifluous tones of Pirates announcer Bob Prince crackled from the radio, and we hung on his every garrulous word.

In the years that followed, we'd discover similar anomalies listening to Pirates games in the Volvo in Virginia or at a state park by the shore in Amagansett in eastern Long Island. For whatever reason, we could sometimes lock in KDKA clear as a bell -- even though back at home and closer to Pittsburgh, nada.

Such were the vagaries of radio waves, a kind of entertainment crapshoot roughly akin to the one we have today with spotty cell-phone reception. But it's not the same. You experienced a special frisson of joy when you picked up a ball game from afar, one I hadn't felt for years, until that moment when I realized that I was listening to a Pirates game on the Italian autostrada. It's the same thrill, as much the forbidden but exceedingly wholesome pleasure today as it was when I was nine.

Thanks to modern telecommunications, the microchip, and a bunch of other things you've probably heard about, we can go pretty much anywhere in the world and listen to anything we'd like to be listening to, anytime. On, as they say, demand.

However much I like that, I say there's still something special about AM radio, a warmth of sound that is not reproducible. For every wonderful thing new technology brings us, it seems like we lose another. I have to be careful lest I start sounding like the guy who rhapsodizes on the wonders of vacuum tubes over solid-state circuits and vinyl versus streamed MP3 files, but AM car radios in their heyday sounded pretty good, and -- counterintuitively -- their reception was much, much better than in most new cars today. New cars all seem to retain an AM radio function -- presumably for the day the nuclear weapons go off -- but almost all of them suck. I kid you not. I get dramatically better reception in my 1962 MGA and my 1963 Jaguar Mark II than in the $127,000 BMW M6 convertible I drove last week. The BMW is not alone.

My suspicion is that the reduced quality of terrestrial radio units makes you more likely to appreciate the myriad trendy audio technologies your new car has. Maybe new-car manufacturers are not trying very hard, maybe they're cutting costs where they think they won't be noticed, or maybe it's simply the old phenomenon -- when they're done with something, they'll make sure you're done with it, too, an adjunct to the old imaginary Northwest Airlines slogan, "Because we're not happy until you're not happy."

So high-quality AM radio reception may be the province of old-car geeks now. But some things do stay the same: the Pirates blew it again this year, going from first place in July and sixteen games over .500 in August only to wind up at .488 and eighteen games back, with their twentieth consecutive losing season etched in history. That doesn't sound good on any device.

Ian Porter
Hi Jamie. I think Renault has stolen a march on the AM radio issue. We rented a Megane in Tasmania over the New Year break and drove virtually right into the Dunalley bushfire when we were returning from the Port Arthur convict prison site.  The Megane only offered FM radio and, in Australia, that means only non-stop teenage music and wall-to-wall old time rock and roll. Our national broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Commission, is the station to go to for warnings on fires, weather of all kinds and catastrophes in general. Unfortunately, it is  principally an AM service, which is why we passed within 200 metres of the seat of the Dunalley fire on the only road out of the peninsula. Having watched the billowing smoke clouds for around 20 minutes, we were still frantically switching between the only two FM stations we could find in the Renault when someone said "isn't that fire on that hillside over there?" Hours later the road was closed, and more that 100 houses incinerated.  Thanks for nothing, Carlos. 

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