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Spinning the radio dial at Harvard

“Radio Contact: Tuning in to Politics, Technology, & Culture” is on view at the Harvard University Science Center. Above: A mock-up of a ham radio shack.Samantha van Gerbig/Harvard University

Is there a stranger term than “terrestrial radio”? Oh sure, it distinguishes traditional radio from the satellite kind. But radio, with its plucking of sound from the ether, is the least terrestrial of media. For that same reason, it’s the most magical. That sense of magic is there in the most common early nickname for radio, “the wireless.” No wires is even better than no strings. We can hear an echo in today’s “wireless technology.”

“They told Marconi/ Wireless was a phony.” Ira Gershwin, “They All Laughed”

The magic begins with technology and extends far beyond it — to inside the listener’s head. Radio has a unique capacity to evoke. Seeing is believing, no question. But listening is something better. Listening is imagining.


“I heard the voice of America/ Callin’ on my wavelength/ Tellin’ me to tune in on my radio.” Van Morrison, “Wavelength”

Much of the medium’s magic comes through in “Radio Contact: Tuning in to Politics, Technology, & Culture.” Considering how technological the show is in orientation, and rightly so, that’s no small achievement. “Radio Contact” runs through Dec. 9 at Harvard’s Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, located on the second floor of the university Science Center.

“I got the AM/ (Radio On!)/ Got the car, got the AM/ (Radio On!)/ Got the AM sound, got the/ (Radio On!)/ Got the rockin’ modern neon sound/ (Radio On!)/ I got the car from Massachusetts, got the/ (Radio On!) /I got the power of Massachusetts when it’s late at night/(Radio On!) /I got the modern sounds of modern Massachusetts.” Jonathan Richman, “Roadrunner”

The show includes dozens of examples of the technology. They’re forthright, solid, industrial strength. A General Electric portable — note the nifty fold-in collapsible antenna — is a boxy block of sound waiting to happen. This is technology that declares its presence. There’s nothing about it that’s black box, that design principle whereby concealment is an aesthetic ideal. These machines have innards, either proudly on display or just a few screw removals away from visibility. A Valhalla of vacuum tubes and related gizmos, “Radio Contact” is analog heaven. The only thing binary is having to decide whether to turn a set on or off.


“We’re having a party/ Dancing to the music/ Played by the DJ/ On the radio.” Sam Cooke, “Having a Party”

Related items include antennas (both for transmission and reception), meters, dials, loudspeakers. A 1922 Magnavox horn speaker looks positively Victorian. Best of all are the microphones. A Shure Unidyne 55B cardioid, unidirectional dynamic microphone, from 1939, looks glorious and glamorous. You can almost see Billie Holiday clutching its stem as she lovingly gazes at Lester Young. Utterly different in appearance — and no less attractive — is an Altec 681A moving coil dynamic omnidirectional microphone from the early ’60s. It’s New Frontier-smooth and NASA-sleek.

“Despite all the computation/ You could dance to a rock ’n’ roll station/And it was all right.” Lou Reed, “Rock’n’Roll”

An Altec microphone is part of the exhibit.Samantha van Gerbig/Harvard University/Samantha van Gerbig

A mock-up of a ham radio shack nods to the role of amateur operators in the medium’s history. A mock-up of a ’30s parlor, with a pair of easy chairs flanking a console, bespeaks how quickly radio became a part of domestic life in America. A mock-up of a broadcast studio boasts a reel-to-reel tape player, a turntable, acoustic-foam soundproofing, an On Air sign. Nearby are a poster showing hand signals, for staffers to communicate with announcers while on mike, and a display on pirate radio. Pirate radio was a ’60s phenomenon, with ships off the shore of England (which lacked commercial radio stations) broadcasting rock ’n’ roll with ads. Pirate DJs preferred 45s to LPs since the rocking of the boat had a less audible effect on the smaller discs.


“Ain’t this X-E-R-B, bay-buh!.” Wolfman Jack, as the spirit moved him

There are crystal sets, cathedral-style-cabinet radios, transistor radios, Walkman radios. A German Volksempfänger (People’s Receiver) from the ’30s was a Nazi home-entertainment equivalent of the Volkswagen (People’s Car). An inexpensive, high-quality product, it came with a serious limitation: difficulty tuning into foreign frequencies. The Nazis understood radio’s power. Politics is very much a part of the medium’s history, a potent source of propaganda as well as news — a less-happy demonstration of radio’s encouragement of the imagination.

“The radio and the telephone and the movies that we know/ May just be passing fancies and in time may go.” Ira Gershwin, “Love Is Here to Stay”

In our digital, personal-device, social-media, platform-agnostic age, radio seems anachronistic, if not outright obsolete. Yet listen to the splendidly jumbled aural snippets playing in the gallery (they’re like spinning the dial over a span of many decades): a Franklin D. Roosevelt “fireside chat” . . . a World War II news report . . . a horse race being called . . . the introduction to “The Modern Adventures of Casanova,” starring Errol Flynn . . . an ad for breakfast cereal . . . a chat with the singer Hildegarde . . . Wolfman Jack cueing up Aretha Franklin’s recording of “I Say a Little Prayer” . . . a pitch for leasing a 1977 Ford Granada (just $32 a month!) . . . Morris Day, singing a snatch of “Jungle Love” . . . and, of course, lots of static. What you hear isn’t anachronism. What you hear is immediacy, and a shared intimacy, unlike any other. It’s terrestrial, all right, the way a heartbeat is.


RADIO CONTACT: Tuning in to Politics, Technology, & Culture

At Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, Room 252, Harvard University Science Center, 1 Oxford St. Cambridge, through Dec. 9. 617-495-2779,

Mark Feeney can be reached at