Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Radio, the quintessential medium

Two major typhoons passed over the Philippines in the space of two months. The earlier one, locally codenamed "Milenyo," was the stronger one, depriving a wide swath of Philippine territory of power, telecommunications, and in some places, also water and transport services.

This column may have been written and published almost three decades ago, but what happened when "Milenyo" passed validates its timeliness.

"Impressions," TV Times, 12-18 November 1978


This would not have been written had not the superstorm come and gone, an erratic howler with superstar ways, seemingly unable to make up her mind on how to appear, when to appear, and how best to appear. In a sense, this is my very personal way of paying tribute to a medium that, on most days, plays a lonely second fiddle to its more bombastic, more colorful, more sophisticated cousin. For on typhoon days, when life is pared down to its truest essentials, when existence comes to mean only survival, nothing fits into one's shaky grip better than the transistor radio.

When I was young--in high school and totally impressionable--there was only one permanent accessory on my study table in our old house: an even older radio. It was the kind that operated only on electric power, big and bulky, mahogany brown, with round knobs on a horizontal row at the lower third of its face. I would twist different knobs to get the volume, the station, and the frequency I wanted. Every day, I would do my homework to the tunes it wafted, soft and soothing. Outside the open windows, the sweet scent of the dama de noche would fill the air. My most constant memories of those years were of quiet nights spent listening to the sounds from that old radio: the early evening soap operas, like Dr. Ramon Selga, Salamat Po Duktor, Kapitan Kidlat, Prinsipe Amante; a little later in the evening, the romantic songs of Frank Sinatra, Joni James, and Nat King Cole; and much later, those subdued and flawless melodies from violins and pianos, romantic backdrops to readings of poems and letters sent to radio hosts like the late Joey Lardizabal.

College came, and my study table sprouted an addition: a typewriter, inherited from my sister and brother. But the radio also remained on the desktop. Only, this time, the radio had changed its look. Gone was the old set. It conked out in midterm and would not rise again, whatever the challenge from the neighborhood repairman. The new radio was a pocket transistor, complete with earphones, which my father had won for being a model gas station owner in the Mobil (or had he already switched to Esso by then?) network.

As I pounded term papers and short stories, poems and personal letters, on the grey and heavy Underwood, the new and portable radio worked tirelessly with me, spinning out music and news, music and news, and every now and then, special events coverages--of fires and typhoons, elections and campaigns, road accidents and deaths. By that time, DZHP--the old, CAT award-winning DZHP--had become my favorite station, the voices of its staffers grinding familiar grooves onto my memory bank.

Later, I was to work for this very station, more by chance than by design, with some of those very voices. The radio and TV news staff of DZHP and Channel 13 (the old Channel 13) was one unit, working out of a small, crummy hole smack on the second floor of the old and historic Herald Building on Muralla, Intramuros. From that hole, which really looked more like a continuous aquarium where the news fishes swam through floods and fires, elections and demonstrations, bombings and conventions, echoed a familiar stinger during those days: "Remember, you heard it first on D-Z-H-P!" From that hole, too, came many of the intrepid reporters and cameramen whose names and voices you still see or hear today, in some manner or other, on radio or television.

Then, television--not just the medium, but the industry itself--beckoned. And with my switch to television work, I shunted the pocket radio transistor--which, by that time, I had lost anyway--aside. The new toy was a more compelling and challenging master most days and nights, week or weekend.

Our old house had since been torn down, and I myself have moved to newer quarters and more isolated surroundings. But like a persistent memory, the typewriter and the radio still stand side by side on my study table. During the day, as I continue to pound mercilessly on the typewriter, the radio plays on: still music and news, music and news. Once night comes, it is television that, by my little girl's dictum, is switched on.

Yet, when the electricity goes off, as it did during the night of the typhoon, and the television set looks like a black mass against the greyish sky, and the winds lash against the dark landscape, howling and screaming with the terrifying fury of a woman scorned, we all turn to the radio, whatever the hour, carrying it with us to all corners of the dark house, our only civilized link with the rest of the frightened city.

It may be, after all, that radio is the quintessential medium. Because when all differences are levelled, when you are not even sure the newspaper will come in the morning, when it does not matter whether your television set is big or small, color or black-and-white, because it won't work anyway, it is radio that reminds you of your true humanity, of a very real sense of community.

In retrospect, it does not matter whether the broadcasters who had gone on nationwide alert for the duration of the typhoon coverage were doing a perfect job or lousing it up. It only matters that, in a time of deep national concern, radio is the only medium that can blend the many threads of different and separate persuasions into one integral consciousness.

And as everywhere in the city, the lights went out--and television, too--on the night of the typhoon, radio continued to do what it did best, what was most vital to the community and to society. The newspapers and television would bring it to us, too--later. At the very moment it was all happening, only radio could bring it all to us.

-- NBT

No title in original published column

No comments: