The iPad Is the New Transistor Radio

And I've never been happier

When I was a kid, the transistor radio was my ultimate escape.

Mine was a 6-transistor Channel Master, black and silver, long and thin, smooth and cool as a Little Willie John song. For a few years there, right about the time girls became more interesting than learning how to scoop up a short hop grounder, I was rarely without it.

At night, while most kids were listening on their transistors to WAEB, the local top-40 radio station that dominated the airwaves in the medium-sized Pennsylvania town where I grew up, I was busy twisting the antenna on my Channel Master, tilting the radio itself this way and that, trying to pull in a station from some faraway place, any faraway place. [SIGNUP]

Tuning in distant AM stations was invariably elusive, often possible for only a few minutes at a time before they’d fade into a whisper and turn to static. But on those precious evenings when the skies were clear across much of the country, I could pull in a station in Chicago or Buffalo or Toronto for a half hour or more.

It wasn’t the music that attracted me; the records played were mostly the same on every station in the country. I was tuning in for the disc jockeys, the big personality jocks especially, like Dick Biondi in Chicago and Joey Reynolds in Buffalo, originals with unique broadcasting styles, crooked personas and razor sharp edge, the kind of guys you couldn’t find on the radio in a medium-sized Pennsylvania town.

On those nights when weather patterns wouldn’t allow me to tune them in, I’d settle for anything I could find—a few innings of a baseball game from St. Louis, a Boston traffic report, the occasional evangelical preacher raising holy hell from a station in Georgia somewhere, anything that would take me outside of my physical geography. Nothing was too small or too weird.

Now, all these decades later, I’m re-experiencing the rush I felt as a kid listening to my Channel Master,  thanks to my iPad and an app called TuneIn Radio, which allows me to hear stations in Europe and Africa, in addition to my favorite standbys in Memphis and New Orleans and Newark.

You can listen to these radio stations on your computer, but it isn’t the same. You can’t carry your computer from room to room like you can an iPad, at least not easily, or sit outside with it. The iPad sound won’t give Bose a run for its money, but it’s better than any transistor radio that you may or may not have ever heard and worlds better than what comes out of your smart phone.

For ninety-nine cents, you can install TuneIn Radio, a remarkable app that allows you to search for radio stations by format (an incredible number of radio stations in Europe program rhythm and blues) and by location (check out the programming in Nigeria and the Netherlands). Best of all, this little app—which claims to provide access to 40,000 stations—allows you to record radio shows for later listening, and so easily that mom can do it.

I record Felix Hernandez’s “Rhythm Revue” show, which airs on Newark’s WBGO on Saturday mornings, and Paul Ray’s “Twine Time,” which emanates from KUT in Austin, Texas, on Saturday nights, and listen to parts of both throughout the week.

These days I’ve been waking up to KCRW in Santa Monica (the weather reports alone can alter your universe), and going to sleep with jazz from San Francisco.

I do occasionally use my iPad for the reasons most people use it: to check email and cruise around. I’ve checked out The Daily (I’d pass), and regularly read ESPN and Flipboard (impressive, both). The DC Comics app will have you falling in love with genre all over again. I’m not a complete throwback freak; I’m pretty hip to the Pad.

But truth to tell, when I’m all alone with time to myself, I grab my iPad and search for voices in distant places, feeling for all the world the channel master of my own universe.

Tim Whitaker ([email protected]) is the executive director of Mighty Writers, a nonprofit program that inspires city kids to write.