It's like satellite television for the blind

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The first big purchase I made as a child was a no-name brand, early ‘80’s, portable AM/FM radio.

We didn’t have a lot of money and my allowance was meagre. So it took me months to save up the R19.99 (to give you an idea: these days one US dollar more or less equals seven and a half Rand), and I’m sure my parents still paid half of it in the end.

At about seven years old, I was already – if not a full-blown insomniac – a definite night owl. That small boom box (although, with just one crackling little built-in speaker, you can imagine that it didn’t have a lot of boom, much less stereo!) received a place of honour on my bedside table. My motives for placing it there were carefully premeditated.

Bedtime for little, elementary school-aged me was at promptly 8 o’clock every night. It was strictly enforced by my parents and utterly non-negotiable. They had no idea that 8 o’clock every night was the exact hour that my second breath happened to be bestowed on me, but even if they had known, I’m sure they would have been coldly unsympathetic. The life of a young insomniac is certainly a lonely and boring one…

I needn’t even tell you that anything other than sleeping soundly, lights off, was strictly verboten for me after 8 p.m. Sure, I had tried the whole reading with a flashlight under the blankets thing, but I was caught before I could even finish half a page, and from then on, all flashlights were kept far out of my reach. My nights after that became long, solitary and dark.

Then, a beacon appeared in the form of a tiny radio that emitted more static than sound. Even so, despite its insignificant size, it forever pierced the lonely darkness of my night owl existence.

Of course I didn’t immediately begin my clandestine nightly listening sessions. I had to prove to my parents that I would still be obedient, despite being the grown-up (at least, that’s what I thought) owner of my very own radio. It took remarkable restraint, lying there in the near-darkness of my room, night after night, seeing the dim outlines of the tempting dials – so near and yet so out of reach – containing the promise of aural delight.

During those first weeks of owning a radio, I listened only for short bursts, usually only in the late afternoons, after my homework and chores had been dutifully completed. Although it was still fabulous to be able to listen to my radio in the afternoons, bobbing my tragically rhythmically-challenged body to the Springbok Radio Hit Parade, I somehow, intuitively, knew that the true magic would only come from hearing a little forbidden night music.

After what felt like an eternity, I finally dared it. I quietly moved the radio from the bedside table to the floor right next to my bed, and turned it on. I was barely able to discern anything through the soft static, but I was still convinced that I had unlocked a key to the rest of the world. I lay in my bed, wide-eyed and even wider awake, enthralled and captivated by this magical, musical world in my radio, delighted to know that I was not the only person in the world who didn’t sleep at night.

I surfed those airwaves from top to bottom. I listened to everything on every station, from the evening requests to the late nightly devotion, but it didn’t take me long to get my absolute favourites: Radio Orion was an all-night radio station that began broadcasting when the South African Broadcasting Corporation went off the air at midnight. I LOVED Radio Orion and its warm-voiced announcer, a guy named Robin Alexander. (I’ve no idea what’s become of him. Google searches have led me to a few fan sites about the now-defunct Radio Orion.) For years, Mr. Alexander kindly talked me through many a night, and I’d eventually, sometime before dawn, fall asleep to his soothing, restful chatting and the music he played.

Sometimes, as I waited for Orion and Robin to come on the air, I switched the radio from FM to AM. On AM, I picked up vague snippets of stations broadcasting in other languages, and my imagination would take flight and I would believe that those voices I heard belonged to people in places far beyond the confines of our dusty African farm… even beyond the borders of South Africa and even (impossibly) beyond the ocean.

Thus began my career as an avid radio listener. That little black and silver radio remained my faithful nightly companion until it was eventually replaced with a double tape-deck, portable stereo.

However, I couldn’t quite part with that first radio, so it had a sentimental hiding place in my closet for years, until we eventually sold the farm and it ‘mysteriously’ disappeared during the move to the city.

Many radios have kept me company at night since then, but I shall forever credit that first modest model for making me fall in love with the medium. When I was a nanny in D.C., my host family gave me a portable, fancy brand name CD player for my birthday. I became a regular caller to the Washington jazz station and was thrilled whenever my call and request made it to the air, lining up the kids to listen to their nanny, the local celebrity (even though I cringe whenever I hear my own awful voice on tape… alas, I do NOT have a voice suitable for radio. My face, however, is PERFECT for being on the radio!).

When I returned to South Africa, I missed having a radio, especially at night. So one of the first things I bought when I moved into my little bachelour’s set-up here in Stellenbosch was a cheap shower radio. Good thing I didn’t invest in something more expensive, because it turned out that, surrounded by mountains, I’m unable to have any kind of decent reception for any of my equipment (including my 3G Internet. My signal for that is dismal at best!).

And unfortunately Internet is so expensive in South Africa – and the little that we do have is strictly capped – making it impossibly expensive to stream radio via the Internet.

I’ve been mourning the lack of radio in my life, and just as I was resigning myself to the fact that I’d probably have to be content with listening to my CDs on my laptop for the rest of my life, I came across The Perfect City Challenge contest.

Well, you all know how lucky that turned out for me (thanks again to all of you! Who knew that my imaginary readers could cast REAL votes?). One of my prizes arrived in the mail this week, and after picking it up from the post office – and being delightfully shocked at the size of the parcel (enormous!) – I spent last night setting it up.

I’ve never had satellite radio before – XM was already in the States when I left, but since I had access to great online and offline radio when I lived in Baltimore, I didn’t pay too much attention to it – so I had no idea what to expect. In fact, until this contest, I wasn’t aware that we even have satellite radio here in South Africa!

And oh, wow, is all I can say. Not that you should be surprised by that, because I’m not usually any more eloquent than that.

As I’m writing this, the Worldspace jazz station, Riff, is hopping bee-bopping from the speakers. Yes! I have a beautiful, shiny receiver with two separate speakers!

My antenna is set up on my window sill, pointing north (as per the instructions and with the help of the great little compass that was also included) and when I was finally done setting it up last night, I turned it on with the remote control (I even got a remote control!!! As if I need any more encouragement to be lazy). When the sound of jazz filled my little room, I literally wept with joy.

Gosh, I’m sooo lucky and incredibly grateful to you all, but a BIG thank you has to go out to Miguel, Rafiq and the other Web AddiCT(s) for hosting the contest and for sending me this stunning prize. I honestly don’t know what I did to be so lucky. Thank you to them and to Worldspace for the radio and the subscription.

So if any of you ever find yourself in Stellenbosch, feel free to pop in for a cup of coffee and a spot of satellite radio. No need to give you directions. Just follow the jazz…

4 Comments

Calla said:

Oh Red! I'm so excited for you! I'm so glad I voted!!!!

You'll have to teach me about jazz, it's something I don't know much about, but I'd love to learn. Send me some names to look up, okay?

Natalie said:

How have I fallen out of touch with you? HOW?

I should email you soon.

Craig said:

When I was a lad of about eleven, I got my own little boom-box for about $25. I am also a night-owl, but my parents checked on me to be sure I wasn't reading or listening to music. My trick was to build a ten-foot-long earphone cord. It was long enough that the radio could be across the room, and I could be under the covers pretending to be asleep.... but all the while listening to the radio.

Maretha said:

Hi R! Wat 'n stunning post! ek was daar, saam met jou in die slaapkamertjie, fantasies.
Jy skryf regtig baie, baie goed (en ek is regtig, regtig dankbaar dat jy so baie van my skribbels dink). Hou aan. As ek ooit naby Skelmbos kom gaan ek die offer opneem. Ciao!

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is a South African girl living in South Africa. That doesn't sound very original, we know, but you might find it remotely interesting when you learn that she has only recently returned to South Africa for the first time after a nine year, one month and two week (non-stop!) stint in the United States where she accidentally became an outlawed alien (also known, especially in immigration circles, as an 'illegal immigrant.' We prefer the term 'outlawed alien' ourselves). During her reversed exile from her homeland, she kept herself occupied by winning this website (but only after shamelessly bribing the judges) and thus being unleashed on the web where she slowly, leisurely became the World's Laziest Blogger; by being a nanny and by attending sci-fi conventions in search of other aliens. In the US, she also made her sailing debut, her international acting debut, tried and failed to learn the piano, and never learned to cook. She is hopelessly addicted to coffee, dogs (especially Labrador Retrievers), how-to books (with a particular fondness for her copy of the Time/Life A - Z Medical Encyclopedia), and she tends to grossly overuse parentheses (we're not kidding) during her attempts at writing, which you may - if you really have masochistic tendencies - subject yourself to by reading the words to the right of this column. If you REALLY and truly STILL want to know more, you can read her C.V. here.
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comments
  • Maretha : Hi R! Wat 'n stunning post! ek was daar, saam met jou in die slaapkamertjie, fantasies. Jy skryf r... [go]
  • Craig : When I was a lad of about eleven, I got my own little boom-box for about $25. I am also a night-owl... [go]
  • Natalie : How have I fallen out of touch with you? HOW? I should email you soon.... [go]
  • Calla : Oh Red! I'm so excited for you! I'm so glad I voted!!!! You'll have to teach me about jazz, it'... [go]
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