On a Friday night in the winter of 7th grade, 1993, a voice spoke out of the darkness: the DJ on the local oldies station. Announcing call-in dedications, he had a song for me and the pajamaed girls lounging in sleeping bags in my bedroom, messily eating frozen blueberries and powdered donuts and giggling. The song came from — honestly, now, who can remember? — Mark and Wendell, maybe, in a house down Highway 10. Two skinny, floppy-haired twelve-year-old boys thinking about us for a few minutes while the credits of The Empire Strikes Back rolled. Maybe they were sitting on the sofa waiting for their VHS Return of the Jedi to finish rewinding when they thought of us and grabbed the cordless phone from the kitchen and made the call.
I have forgotten the boys, but not the song. “Sherry,” recorded by The Four Seasons in 1962, released on a 7-inch with “I’ve Cried Before” on the B-side. When it was played on an Arkansas radio station thirty-one years later, I felt wanted. Remembered. “Won’t you come out tonight?” the boys crooned. It was a perfect song for that mostly innocent 7th-grade longing to connect, to go where the bright lights shine, to dance, to believe that everything is alright when actually everything feels very much out to sea, unpredictable, uncertain.
That’s what being a teenager felt like, and sometimes a song dedication, or just a familiar DJ playing the right song, was the voice of someone who understood. Someone who shared my insomnia and knew the right pop-candy melodies or, at other times, the right madmen poets to play to make me feel a little less alone. Beyond what could be seen, over invisible airwaves, DJs bore hope. Not just a spark of hope, but a continuous wave, no commercial interruptions.
I never hear song dedications on the radio anymore, and I called my dad to ask him why. My dad, who is on the board of National Religious Broadcasters, has been on the radio for as long as I can remember. From DJ to marketer to manager to cohost and host. From local to nationally syndicated. When I was younger, he did ads for Oreck vacuums and Little Caesars Pizza, and then tackled the pressing political and cultural issues of the moment on his call-in show, “Crosscurrents.” For the last twenty-five years, he has interviewed experts and everyday people about marriage and parenting on his half-hour, syndicated broadcast, “Family Life Today.” So maybe it’s in my blood to care about the voices on the radio.
Dad says the song dedication as a cultural phenomenon was just a blip in the history of communications. Local stations in the fifties and sixties would take call-in dedications as a way to boost their weekend audience numbers. In 1970, when Casey Kasem premiered the national weekly radio program “American Top 40,” he included long-distance dedications, reading letters listeners had written requesting songs for their far-away loved ones.
But after 1996, most local stations were bought by national networks, making hometown song dedications largely a relic. Now, anywhere in the country, a person can listen to Delilah on her eponymous nightly show, talking with callers about their relational problems, and choosing songs to dedicate to them. But we are not hearing in real time. We are not hearing from people we know. The personal connection, the voice coming out of the darkness, rarely seems to have me in mind anymore.
The first song ever played over the radio was played on Christmas Eve 1906 from the quiet coast of Massachusetts, heard by only a few sailors guarding their cargo at night. Several years earlier, Reginald Fessenden had begun experimenting with wireless communication. Fessenden was one of several scientists racing to the be the first to perfect wireless transmissions, which at that point only worked for one-way messages or Morse code. Most investors were betting on Italian Guglielmo Marconi to figure it out using the spark-gap transmitter. Fessenden was convinced he could develop a more efficient system using a continuous wave transmitter, believing that sound was more like the ripples sent out by a stone tossed in a pond than a short-lived spark.
Experts scoffed. Everyone knew sparks were necessary to produce radio frequencies. The spark was visible, thus essential. But Fessenden theorized that the spark was producing too broad a signal (later scientists would call it a “damped” signal), and that a continuous wave—more focused, more intense, undamped—would create a clearer sound.
Fessenden believed in the impossible, the virgin birth of sound beyond spark, the eternal message of continual wave, high-frequency alternator. He had experimented. He had spoken a weather report and it had been heard miles away. He had learned that sound traveled best through cold, dark air. So on December 24, 1906, he tried again.
He held a contract with the United Fruit Company, which had installed wireless systems on the boats to control the harvesting and marketing of bananas in Puerto Rico. That Christmas Eve, sailors kept watch with their crates of fruit at night. Fessenden told the wireless operators on board the dozen or so ships to pay attention. If they did, if they listened, then at 9 o’clock that night they heard Fessenden's voice speaking.
He played on a phonograph Handel’splaintive aria Ombra mai fu, a song of thanks for trees and shade. Then Fessenden picked up his violin and played “O Holy Night”: a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn. His wife and his secretary both stood with him at the microphone. They’d promised to read passages from the Bible but were speechless, seized with stage fright, paralyzed by the possibility before them, like Zechariah before the angel in the temple, afraid to believe, unable to speak. So Fessenden read the text himself, the Christmas story from the second chapter of Luke — another time, a voice broke through the darkness with good news — and asked his listeners to write to him.
They did write, from hundreds of miles away. They had heard. A thrill of hope for the shepherds and the sheep and the builders of boats and the cultivators of hardy fruits for those who chart the waves, radio waves, ocean waves, for the planters of trees and the trees, cut down, polished into instruments; for the horses, tails plucked and strung strings and horsehair heard over the wireless hovering over the waters.
The way was not a spark but, impossibly, a continuous wave. Fessenden never became famous; his employers owned his patents, he was never rich. But he went on to seek out other invisible worlds, using sonar to explore the ocean depths and making ways for submarines to signal each other unseen. "By his genius, distant lands converse and men sail unafraid upon the deep,” Fessenden’s son wrote.
By that genius, eighty-seven years later, the distant lands of the preteen boy and the preteen girl conversed, and we all felt a little less alone, a little less afraid of sailing upon the deep.
I suppose it’s rare for it to happen that way, for the voice of hope to be personal and direct, to lilt like a song into your heart. Once in junior high. Once to the banana sailors. Once to the shepherds. But then maybe if I’m listening for it, I can always find it, a continuous wave of hope for those who are tuned in—like my father’s voice always warm, always speaking, and, if not directly to me, still speaking nonetheless.
Who am I to say how or when God communicates, or what a DJ has to do with the divine? But maybe this is the way of God, to hover over the surface of the waters, to speak something new into being. To speak something new when all is dark and cold, something that will penetrate the opaque substance of hull or hill or heart. To play the grandest songs for a small and smelly audience, out to sea or abiding in a field or alone in a bedroom, waiting for a song dedication. Unexplained, invisible, deep calling to deep, the madman poet, the DJ, the one who once upon a time stayed with you through insomnia and says I remember you, come out, sail unafraid. It’s going to be all right.