I signed up to study abroad for a summer in France in 1990. I wanted to do everything possible to prepare for it which meant honing my language skills. I had been studying French for 2 years and basically knew nothing. So I took the advice of my study abroad handlers to try to find ways to get exposed to French as much as possible. Back then, the card catalogue of my small town library only had a French cuisine book, a guide to Paris and an Edith Piaf cassette tape that had seen better days.
I had heard of shortwave and HAM radios but the former was out of my price range and the latter just seemed like people saying "Hi" to whomever they could contact. Literally just saying "Hi" and then getting their caller ID. I wanted to listen to some tunes or maybe even some French news. I wanted something that felt more like immersion.
One night in 1990, I was turning my radio dial to flip between my favorite Philly-based stations and I faintly heard people speaking French. I was floored! Apparently, late at night at a low radio band like 88.3, or something like that, I could faintly catch a transmission coming out of Canada. I was ecstatic and I had no idea what they were saying. It was so scratchy and garbled it would have been hard to follow as a native speaker...but I had made contact!
Getting a clearer Canadian signal soon became a nightly ritual before going to bed. I had to see if the weather, airwaves and transmission signals all cooperated so I could catch a small glimpse of what life would be like in the Great White North. Then one night I hit the jackpot! The signal was so clear and fresh it was almost like it was local. I was stunned and I frantically grabbed a blank tape to record it. I knew that repetition was necessary to pick up a new language and I also knew that the clear signal was fleeting. If I could record something, I would be able to play it over and over like a language tape and hone my French skills.
My pursuits were rewarded with a complete 60 minute tape of the Montreal Canadiens playing...somebody. I had scored a live transmission of a hockey game in French and I listened to it daily for months! My French never got good enough to ever know who was actually playing or how well the Canadiens did before I lost the tape, but I will say the act of listening to another country's radio station made me feel like I was there!
A couple years later, I befriended Jana, our German exchange student in high school and was invited to spend the summer with her and her family in Erfurt. If I had gone 4 years earlier, it would have been in East Germany but now that I think of it, she would not have been able to study in the US then.
Jana's dad did not speak any English and I did not speak German. A few times, just the two of us would be in the car on a few errands and the radio filled the space between us. The station he had chosen blew me away. In the span of 10 minutes, Beethoven was followed by Bob Marley, followed by the Pet Shop Boys. At first I was disappointed that it wasn't more of a modern mix of German bands, but the eclectic mix of Classical followed by Reggae then on to Pop was not only refreshing but also something I had never experienced. This made me more critical of the hyper siloed American radio scene which consisted of a playlist of 20 songs in the same order, over and over throughout the day. It also made me realize that the radio experience differed from country to country.
In 2006, I took a week long road trip around Ireland and I loved being able to scan the Irish radio landscape. There was a decent amount of familiar pop hits, a smattering of traditional Irish music and then some genuine hits that I knew were not being played back home. "She Moves in Her Own Way" by the Kooks was one such hit. It was fresh, local-ish (British not Irish) and soon became the theme of the trip and potentially a summer anthem. I balked at buying the CD in Dublin since it was $35 US dollars. I figured I'd buy it when I got home. But that was a mistake. When I returned home and tried to buy it on iTunes, I learned that it was not available - well at least not on U.S.-based iTunes. Turns out that there was a UK-based iTunes that had the album but I could only purchase it if I had European credit card. The album wouldn't be released in the US for another year or so. This taught me that there were great musical gems being produced around the world that I wasn't able to access. International radio became more interesting and more valuable to me.
I then started exploring streaming radio on the internet to see if could re-experience the joy of finding a new jam. This is not the streaming services of today (Pandora, Spotify etc.) but finding a station that was streaming their signal. To this day I don't remember how I stumbled upon the amazing Friday night funk show on CKUT radio out of Montreal, but once I discovered WEFUNK I had to bookmark it. Professor Groove spins about an hour of solid rarified funk and soul and DJ Static rounds out the show with about an hour of Hip Hop. The show has been online since 1999 and the archive is amazing. This indulged me in my favorite genres of music with titles and artists that can be familiar but every show has something new.
I recently bought the Le Mega internet radio and my mind has been blown away with access to international stations from all corners of the world. I can start with morning news from France, check out talk radio in Ireland, give Azerbaijan stations a try and then explore the surf reports in Australia. Sometimes I just scroll through to see if I can catch something interesting in Nigeria, Georgia (the country) or Korea. I can graze the airwaves for something totally out of my comfort zone and then I can return to the familiar by catching an episode of WEFUNK! This little radio is the culmination of my entire international radio journey and I consider it one of my prized possessions.
As I was interviewing Farid Monti from Tierra del Fuego for Episode 1 of Streetview Vagabond, I asked him what Argentinian radio station I should be listening to. His recommendation of FM Masters led me to discover my newest favorite funk song of Toaster (Give me Back my) by Ciro y los Persas. I call it a funk song but according to their video it should really be "Funklorismo" (see the photo at the top of this blog)...a combination of funk and folklore about a man getting robbed of a really nice toaster. This song was a new discovery, a jam I could dance to and a great connection to another part of the world.
I consider internet radio to be the third essential ingredient to untravel since it is a small portal into another part of the world. I can close my eyes and listen to a commercial for a car in Ireland, an evangelical service in Ghana or some Van Morrison tunes being played in Chile. It transports me to another part of the world without the transportation.