I had my 45th birthday last week. As a kid I had no idea what being in my mid-forties would be like, because I thought of most things in terms of rock stars or baseball players, and back then everybody just figured that once you got around forty you just retired and were never heard from again, except maybe as a manager. Then again, a friend of mine used to say that I was “like 18 going on 60!” because I was so cranky about everything. So it’s all relative.
My favorite thing to do on a birthday is travel; I’ve been on road trips most of the last few birthdays, and I’ve done two cross-country moves in late August. Birthday parties are not really my thing; growing up we kept things low-key, just a homemade cake and pizza; maybe we’d get Little Caesar’s Pizza rather than frozen ones if, like, it was a milestone birthday. Once when I was 10 or 11 I had my two best friends over on my birthday, and I, they and my sister ate hot dogs and drank Kool Aid and we had some homemade cake. Then we played baseball in the backyard, or at least until I got distracted and looked away while someone was throwing me a tennis ball and it hit me in the eye. I didn’t have another birthday party until my twenties, when some friends took me out to Chili’s and the staff sang that scary song and made me wear a balloon on my head. My “18 going on 60” friend made sure to get a picture of that.
My best birthday, though, was when I turned five, because that’s when I got my first tape recorder. What I did with that machine is not that different than what I do now for a living.
This may not be the exact model but mine was a silver and black General Electric model that could run on batteries or a detachable plug. You could speak directly into the machine itself to record, but there was also an external condenser microphone – and it had its own on/off switch! So not only was it portable, you could walk and talk to people like a real life radio host did. I was five, so I didn’t have a very clear picture of how real life radio hosts did their jobs.
I did know one thing, though, about my new machine: I needed cassettes to do my own recording, and I only had one blank tape in my collection. It was the one that came with my recorder, and it was unusually short – only five minutes of recording time per side. It’s such a weird thing to consider now, because we can record sounds, photos, videos, anything we want and store it on social media sites for what seems like forever, but back then it was a big limit! Later I would get other blank tapes, but to start I could only document ten minutes of anything; after that, I’d have to decide whether what I wanted to record next was worth taping over something I’d already made. I remember recording a radio “interview” with “Barbie” as performed by my sister, but after a while I couldn’t not record new sounds; I taped over most of it.
I was able to digitize the whole tape last summer – amazingly, it was in good shape after all this time – and it’s pretty much what you’d expect a chatty, awkward young person to sound like in front of a microphone. The tape starts with my older brother and me, “The Electric Blues Brothers,” playing our 30 second song, “Me and the Car,” and the second side ends with me sort of trying to write, play and sing a song while the tape rolls. (I didn’t learn to play any guitar chords until I was in fifth grade, it didn’t go that well.) I managed to save a little of the Barbie interview I already mentioned, and also spent some time recording music off the radio, by holding the external mic next to the speaker on my parents’ receiver. So I have documentary evidence that some time in the early 1980s, a radio station in the greater Chicago area once played “Never Gonna Let You Go” by Sergio Mendes.
The best part of the tape is the part where I host my own radio show, on, naturally, my own radio station, “WBBL-AM 120.” (I think I chose that frequency because that’s the frequency they used with my other big birthday present in the old days – a knock-off of Mister Microphone.) It sounds like I was hoping to tape a song off the radio and then announce afterward, like a five-year-old Casey Kasem. It didn’t work, but for some reason I decided to go ahead anyway and fill the time with announcing. “Hi! I’m back with you,” I say. “We don’t have the music yet…” and then repeat the station’s name and do a long weather forecast for the two trees in the front yard. There have been lots of times as a real-life radio host I’ve had to cover in exactly this way: when the sound you were expecting to play isn’t there, and you don’t have any other quick options, you fill with a re-id and a weather forecast.
As I got new blank tapes – and, eventually, new recording equipment – I kept putting more of my stuff on tape – shows, songs, jokes, stories, experiments and sometimes accidents. I was going to say it stopped when I started high school and got to do shows on an actual station rather than my invented one, but in a way I never really stopped; computers have replaced tape recorders, and the microphones are a lot fancier now, but I’m still channeling a lot of my ideas through microphones and turning them into sound recordings. If anyone’s looking for a podcast about whether the wind is picking up on the other tree or not, I’m your man.