Fallout 4: I Heard It On The X

I accidentally sold all the ammo for my .50 cal sniper rifle, so the Nick Valentine quest will be postponed while I wander the Wasteland scrounging up caps to buy my bullets back.  In the interim, I give you the following screed –

Pfht.  You kids these days, with your wireless and your smartphones and your DLS cables … we didn’t have none of that back in my day, nosiree.

We had radio.  Which, come to think of it, is the original wireless.

Radio seems to be a staple of American post-apocalyptic imagery: from Alas Babylon to Beach Party at the Threshold of Hell, radio is the link that keeps what remains of civilization together.

I don’t recall anything like that in the Mad Max films, which makes me think radio is something unique to the American mind; of course, Mad Max is also a much bleaker vision of the future than most American fiction, which tells us something about why radio plays such an important role.

The link between radio and the bomb goes back to nearly the beginning of the Cold War, to CONELRAD:

Look familiar?

The early ancestor of what would become the Emergency Alert System, CONELRAD was the radio service the US Government developed to warn the public that the End was coming.  Nowadays, the Emergency Alert System warns you that you might lose TV reception1, but once upon a time,  in the early 50’s, a radio broadcast would have been the only warning to Duck and Cover.

WiFi means we live in a culture where we are permanently connected, essentially without effort, to the entire world.  But even back in the Paleolithic days of the 70’s, radio, telephone, and satellite networks connected us so completely that it was guaranteed that any major news story would be covered within minutes.

By contrast, it took the Japanese hours to realize what had happened to Hiroshima2.  And the first person to know was a radio operator who realized the station had gone silent.

The Internet requires a computer, a modem, and a set of protocols to allow one computer to talk to another.  A telephone requires miles upon miles of cable and someone on the other end who had a telephone and wants to talk to you.

Radio requires a transmitter and power – still technology, but a much lower threshold.  And radio was the first method we had of mass voice communication besides just shouting really loud3.  In enemy territory, in virgin territory, into the unknown – radio still works.  Even today, amateur HAM radio operators serve as a reserve communications network in emergencies.


It is assumed there won’t be Internet after the bombs fall; smartphones will be, at best, prepaid only.  In the bleakest of worlds, this means we are alone: no help is coming, nor can ever be expected.

But that isn’t American – the American Apocalypse is about hope, and that’s because atomic radio is what built America.

Okay, atoms and radio, but “atomic radio” just sounds cooler.

The Manhattan Project severed the New World from the Old as surely as a new dawn.  At the same time, the groundswell of rock and roll was starting to transform a nation …

… well, not if the FCC had anything to say about.  The outlawing of “hillbilly music” as weakening the moral fiber forced early DJs to move south into Mexico, pumping out music on bajillion-watt transmitters that could be heard clear up into New York, transmitters so powerful the radio towers glowed in the dark.  It was the Golden Age of DJs

Have mercy!

Those outlawed broadcasts across the night, stretching across the vast emptiness of the continent, found millions of listeners turning the knobs of their radio receivers, hoping to find that elusive frequency –

and that’s what radio is all about, Charlie Brown.  Reaching out, searching, finding.  The music – it’s almost secondary, at least in the fiction of Apocalypse.

Oh, yes – the knobs.  Back in the day, a stereo was a serious piece of equipment:

Not pictured: 70’s faux-wood paneling.  You old Atari 2600 gamers know what I’m talking about.

Not only did you feel like a little Einstein, twirling the knobs, searching for a “frequency”, which was measured in “MegaHertz”, which you didn’t understand but that sounded so super-sciency, but you were also doing something that is increasingly lost today.  What you were really doing, alone in your room in the dark and empty American night, was saying to the world: “here I am.  Come fill me up.  Tell me something.”

The Internet knows you.  It knows what you like and it gives you endless quantities of it.  Amazon Kindle knows I like animals, and provides me with more free nature shows than I could watch in a lifetime4.
And that is pure and good and true and proof that we did it right.
But what we lost is that exposure to the unexpected – the new song, the strange voice, the book in the corner of the bookshop you didn’t pick up because of any “recommended” list, but because something about it, wholly beyond logic or personality, caught your attention. It’s that spark, that connection, the idea that as alone as you are, someone else is out there …

… which is what the American Apocalypse is about: hope.  Not the End, but what comes after.  Rock n’ roll came after the bomb, and radio will be there after the next one.

  1. )Or, if you live in Modoc County, that you’re about to get 20 feet of snow and will be trapped until spring.
  2. Well, not the people who lived there; they probably knew something had happened.
  3. Now we have blogs!
  4. Especially given how long it takes me to write this blog.

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