Eavesdropping on America
Thomas C. Willadsen

There is something heroic about driving at night. I do not often find myself on long car trips after dark, but when I do I love the feeling of being one of the few people awake and monitoring the world at large. I tune in my car’s AM radio and slowly turn the dial, seeking dinosaurs, those 50,000 watt beacons of civilization that radiate across the continent after dark. I live in the upper Midwest, and on clear evenings a stunning array of signals can be tuned in. I find myself eavesdropping on America as I tool toward home.

I get great satisfaction out of figuring out what cities the stations are based in. I listen for local details in the ads, weather, traffic reports, and news. “Traffic is slowed by late night work on I-70,” tells me my station is south of me. If the time check shows they are an hour ahead, I know that my station is coming from the east. “The tri-state forecast for tomorrow…” tells me nothing. Twenty-five percent of American metro areas call themselves “tri-state,” it seems.

In the summer I love to tune in distant baseball games. Figuring out which teams are playing usually comes pretty quickly. It’s also easy to determine which team’s broadcasters I’m hearing. Even the announcers who are not blatant “homers” show their allegiances readily. I get a special thrill when I can tune in the same game and follow it by switching between opposing teams of announcers. 

I won a Toshiba AM-FM-AFC radio, in handsome leather case, at the Chicago Cub Fan Club banquet in 1971. Shortstop Don Kessinger was the featured speaker at the event. Afterwards I waited in line for him to sign an autograph. I have no recollection of what he said, but I am confident it went like this:

After saying something mildly insulting about the local dignitary who introduced him, Kessinger said, “We’ve got a good lineup and Leo’s a good manager, tough but fair. I’ve seen some of the prospects that are coming up in the minor league system, and we’ve got some real talent down there that you can bet you’ll be seeing in Chicago this summer. I can’t promise you folks a pennant, but I can promise that we’ll try our darndest for good fans like yourselves. Thanks for coming out tonight and God bless.”

Then I went home the proud owner of a radio. Sometimes in the summer I would turn it on and slowly move the dial up the AM band and listen to whatever came in. I took special delight in listening to ball games. I kept a list of the different states from which I received signals. Back in the 1970s tuning the radio meant turning the dial and making micro-adjustments to it, and turning the antenna this way and that. There was often a cool sci-fi sound, an eerie, technical, mysterious wailing between stations. My precision-guided car radio has made this sound obsolete, though static remains.

In the winter I often find “radio savants” who have call in shows. These jokers seem to be experts on everything. “Listen, here’s what you should have done the second time those knotheads didn’t fix your transmission…” “You tell your ex that he has a legal responsibility—I don’t care if you don’t have a lawyer, he doesn’t need to know that!—a legal responsibility to his offspring….” These programs are hard to place geographically. Many proudly claim their “coast-to-coast” reach, but they also get tiresome. And tiresome is what I most need to avoid as I try to stay awake.

I turn the dial. Ooh here’s a station from Toronto! What’s the weather going to be in Cleveland tomorrow?

The music on AM radio these days is never contemporary. The rare AM rock stations play nothing more recent than arena bands, skinny white guys with big hair, that were popular twenty years ago. The country stations are even more retro. You’d swear that Red Sovine, Ferlin Husky, and Eddie Arnold are in their primes if you only listen to AM radio after 9 pm.

There is often a heroic quality to the country songs that get played late at night. “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses” doesn’t sound mawkish at all when it’s close to midnight and I’m still fifty miles from home. I have never heard my favorite late night driving song, “Lover” by the Michael Stanley Band, on the radio, so sometimes I turn off the radio and sing it to myself.

So I talk to the night, head for the light
Try and hold it on the road
Thank God for the man who put the white lines
On the highway

AM radio helps me to stay awake but not too awake. Ideally I want to fall asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow. It also helps me leave behind the pain and emotions that called me to be far from home late at night.

I am a Presbyterian minister. Sometimes when churches are in crisis, I am invited to help bring some perspective, peace, and healing. These meetings always take place in the evening. For some reason the outsider is given more credibility if he has driven more than fifty miles to the meeting. It also helps if he wears his “Dead Presbyterian” suit. The last time I accepted such an assignment I attended the church’s board meeting and after an hour it was obvious that the “marriage” between the pastor and congregation could not be saved. The pastor was excused from the meeting. I called for a stretch break, when we reconvened, I began by saying, “Wow, she really doesn’t listen.” The seventy-plus queen bee sitting across from me said, “Can I move and second that?”

“Girlfriend!” I exclaimed, “The cat’s away; you can make any motion you want!”

Church boards never expect the expert summoned from a distant corner of the Presbytery to sound like Oprah. And I am confident that no one has called this dowager “girlfriend” since the Eisenhower Administration. We laughed together. They were in a different place after that exchange and began discussing severance options. Still, it was another two hours before the meeting adjourned, then another two hours to drive home.

It was a sad, emotional, and puzzling meeting. I drove home and went over different exchanges in my mind. I slowly moved the radio tuner in ten kilohertz increments. The meeting’s details faded from my mind, the facts and chronology became less prominent. What remained was a deep sadness that pastor and congregation were parting ways.

I retreated from the stress of the board meeting. I returned to my bedroom in West Peoria, Illinois, and listened to my Toshiba AM-FM-AFC radio, in handsome leather case. I eavesdropped on America and encountered a different kind of stress. Ballgames were won, and lost, dramatically in the late innings. The savants ranted and we listeners were diverted, perhaps entertained, by the problems for which the callers sought advice. The arena boys keened and wailed, “Save my life, I’m goin’ down for the last time!”

I joined insomniacs across North America and stayed put on a country station. I exulted when Alabama sang of Daddy’s phone call home after abandoning his jack-knifed rig in a snow bank in Illinois. This family’s drama was resolved in three minutes! Roll on, Daddy! I tasted a sweet melancholy and sang along with Eddie Rabbit and his windshield wipers, slappin’ out a tempo, keepin’ perfect rhythm with the song on the radio. A few more songs on the all night radio. I am almost home, but I gotta keep rollin’. Heroically, with the company of radio listeners across the continent, I was almost home.


The Reverend Thomas C. Willadsen is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

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