Penman No. 35: Return to Radio


Penman for Monday, February 25, 2013 

I ACCEPTED an unusual invitation for an interview a couple of weeks ago—unusual because of the medium involved, which was radio, specifically DZUP, the on-campus station of the University of the Philippines. DZUP station manager Rose Feliciano asked me to guest on her noontime show so I could talk about the UP Institute of Creative Writing and its flagship programs, and I was happy to oblige—not only because, as UPICW Director, it’s my job to promote the institute, but also because I’ve always had a warm spot for radio, and remain a fan of the medium.

For Filipinos weaned on the Internet, radio must seem like a blast from the past, and, in a very real sense, it is. We’re told that the first local radio stations came on the air in June 1922, so we’re just nine years away from celebrating radio’s centennial in the Philippines. While there’s some dispute as to who really invented radio, no one disagrees with the fact that Guglielmo Marconi made the first successful radio transmission in 1895—when our revolucionarios were just plotting their moves against Spain—and received a British patent for it the year after.

Of course a century’s just a drop in the bucket of human history, but in terms of technology, it’s virtually an eternity. The idea of an invention remaining just as useful after a hundred years boggles the mind, in an age when, say, the floppy disk gave way to the CD, which then gave way to the DVD and then the USB drive, all within the span of a few years. And of course radio today is a far cry from the rasp across the ether that it was at its inception (you can hear a pin drop and bounce off the floor on FM), but the basic idea remains the same—a message is electronically transmitted and received, completing the cycle of communication.

I belong to that generation of Pinoys for whom radio, and not even TV, was our main source of information and entertainment while we were growing up. I remember listening to radio soaps such as “Eddie, Junior Detective” “Erlinda ng Bataan,” and “Gabi ng Lagim.” This last program, a horror show, would go into a TV version (on MBC, Channel 11, if I remember right), but there was nothing like being in your room and quaking all by your lonesome at every creak of the door or every drag of the chain, all these creepy sounds magnified by your fervid imagination.

And that was the magic of radio, especially in the pre-visual age. TV and film may look busier, but they’re actually more passive, in that they require little more of the viewer than for him or her to sit back and be flooded by images and sounds. Radio reaches deep into your brain and forces you to supply the missing image. (When I was very small, I was convinced that there were little people inside the big wooden box that ruled the living room, and was perplexed when I managed to peek into the back of the cabinet and could find nothing but glass tubes.)

One British commentator explains the continuing relevance of radio this way: “Radio is at once intimate and universal, capable of keeping you company like a proper pal and able to impart the gravest of news with a little respect rather than the hubris of its flash-git brother, TV. And it’s also brilliant at being (a) bridge builder…. I remember sitting at traffic lights as one of my British radio heroes, Chris Evans, cracked a joke on his breakfast show a decade or so ago; I turned left and right to see a plasterer in his pick-up truck cracking up and a suit in a Jag grinning at the same moment at the same joke, right there, live—and it was moving. It was like an advert for something but it rang true.

“The thing is this: radio does what we do, it sounds like we sound…. Radio’s better at being really well-behaved. It doesn’t need to be lit, over-orchestrated or faked. Radio requires a bit of description, it’s got an artistic bent; radio’s beauty is that it’s a bit abstract—it’s painting pictures, while TV’s just taking photos. Radio is also the secret to younger-looking skin because no-one can see you.”

But who listens to radio these days? I know I do—I tune in to the news the minute the car rolls out of the driveway, if only to check out the traffic situation, although of course I get to listen to the commentary (admittedly often insipid) as well. At night, on our way home from a movie and dinner, Beng and I gorge on the free medical and legal advice on radio for dessert.

Like that Brit said, radio comes across to us like an old friend—sometimes funny, sometimes silly, sometimes even truly useful and irresistible, such as during impeachment trials, disastrous floods, and post-election vote counts. And I know we’re hardly alone—it’s a safe bet to say that in an archipelago like the Philippines, radio remains the best and the cheapest bridge across the islands, shaping the tastes and opinions of millions of our countrymen, particularly the working poor who have to leave for work on jeepneys and buses at five or six in the morning.

I do wonder if my teenage and twenty-something students still listen to radio; I suspect they don’t, preferring to retreat into the individualized, hermetic cubicles of their iPods rather than engage in the community-building enterprise that’s radio. Perhaps I should worry, but I don’t. DZUP just marked its 55th anniversary, and I have little doubt that some version of it will live to be a hundred. In the same way that print survives and continues to be needed in this era of electronic and digital media, radio will continue to find its audience, for as long as the human voice appeals to the human ear and to our dreaming brain.

(Photo from