All right (boom), Michael Jackson's (boom) "Off the Wall" (boom) on the Soundtrack of Your life, OK-100 (boom boom), 6 o'clock, 92 degrees in downtown D.C. (boom), and somethin' new from Phyllis Hyman . . . Candy Shannon here on 93-KYS, and this one's by Nicolette Larson, for the fellas in the mailroom . . . Musicradio -- POW! -- Q-107, and you can call me Uncle Jonny On the BOX
He had worked a hard day cleaning up a high-rise condominium in Rockville so Roosevelt Barnhart decided to jog around Lincoln Park. He was well on his way to his daily seven miles, his yellow T-shirt and blue shorts starting to stick, when he heard this good sound. He noticed two sisters sitting under a sprawling oak, tipping their heads back and forth to the sound of a radio. He slowed down, checked out the women and their four-speaker Sanyo stereo radio cassette player and joined them under the tree.
Thus opens the saga of an early evening chat, sparked by the music from a radio and the story of those radios. Those bulky black boxes, with their sounds and their omnipresence, though not enticing to everyone, help make a city a city. They bring the same snap of an urban pulse as the wail of an ambulance. The portable stereophonic radio-cassette players have become a badge of the city's seasons a symbol of adolescence, a take-everywhere recreation outlet and, to some outsiders -- particularly parents and bus riders -- an annoyance.
In New York, that annoyance has taken the form of a police crackdown on anyone generating more decibels than allowed under the city's noise code. In May and June, more than 60 summonses were issued and some 20 radios confiscated. Washington has a noise code too, but police say it's never enforced against radio players.
Here's one non-regular D.C. busrider's point of view: When the hypnotic clang of Anita Ward's "Ring My Bell" was burning up the airwaves, a middle-aged, worldly-wise man sat near two teen-agers who had their portable tuned to the same station, both playing Ward's hit. "The sound made the bus shake, the trim around the windows was melting from the vibrations. Yet these guys were almost immobile, mesmerized. They acted like the song was playing only for them," he says.
Here's one radio user's view: "The radios are a good thing. Everyone finds that they can relate to music as a universal code. It's good for the teen-agers to have a hobby," say Tony Hawkins, 51, slowly bopping up 16th Street, heading home after a day in the Smithsoniam Insitution's kitchen. Over one shoulder was a green vinyl bag with his work clothes and in the other hand a Sony with six-inch speakers. Hawkins rides the bus and doesn't find the occasional roaring concerts an annoyance. "I know it might annoy others. The adults are trying to forget what happened during the day. The two worlds are very separate."
The outsized radios are the moment's symbol. In the close heat of Columbia Road, a young man in a South Africa liberation T-shirt sits on a stoop, his radio competing with the record store's blast next door. Where Irving Street dips into the lush lawns of the hospital complex, a young man washes the roof of his car -- except for the spot where his radio is parked. In the midst of the faded red brick homes of Ivy Cit, a group of elderly men throw horseshoes over the broken glass and abandoned tires to the beat of a radio. In front of the omnipresent rear green door of the neat rows of Michigan Park a radio perches as a door stop. In a quick stretch of Park off Minnesota Avenue, a young couple feeds the baby and listens to a Top 40 countdown.
The news is that the radios are not going away. They are also the moment's profit. On the street, they're called boogie boxes by some.But at Radio Shack, mention "monsters." At Sears "the thing." "There's a lot of business in this radio," says Gary Berkhardt, the buyer of the tape products for Radio Shack. The chain sells models ranging from $59.95 to $180. "The style originated in Japan where the houses are small and a large stero system was impractical. Here in the United States there's more business in the big cities than in Kansas. Especially in the large cities where there are more radio stations, beaches, public parks and recreation centers. And the buyer is the 16- to 24-year-old."
Montgomery Ward's prices range from $100 to $400. "The louder the better," says Cyle Roberson of the Capital Plaza store. "Basically all the manufacturers are going bigger and bigger. Album and record sales are down because the kids are taping each other's records.But when the times are tough, music remains the natural outlet."
In the fall catalogue of Sears and Roebuck, a $139 model occupies more than three-fourths of a page. The radio weighs nine pounds, had two 4 3/4-inch speakers and two sensitive condenser mikes, jacks for two mikes, pause control and stereo headphone jacks. "A page in our catalogue makes it a very important item," says Ted Erfer of Sears. "Everybody wants one. The price doesn't seem to be an object. The best buyers are the 13- and 14-year-olds. We can't seem to keep enough."
Not to be outdone, the classical music set has adopted a compact, light-weight cassette player, the sony Corporation's Walkman, as its symbol. It's the difference between Gucci and J.C. Penney. They are appearing in offices, on buses and on the jogging track. Scientific American gave the trend its stamp of high-brow approval in a recent issue. One connoisseur says, "It has incredibly good sound. You would have to spend $1,000 for comparable sound. But then you can't record, it only plays." This handy player sells for the price of an average suitcase-size player, about $200.
For professionals looking at the trend, the adoption of the cassette is viewed as a symbol of confidence, even manhood. "It's an indentification of esteem and self-worth. It's a mesmerizing thing for the teenagers. They identify with it, the louder it is the more important they feel," says psychiatrist Alberta Vallis. "It's part of the ritual of being an adolescent. They do it as a tribal thing, the louder one becomes the leader and the others follow without thinking."
One the buses and Metro, the rules prohibit playing any kind of radio without earplugs. "We don't get frequent complaints about the recorders," says Alvin Williamson, of Metro's consumers affairs department. "But the complaints don't reflect how much the radios are being played. You and I both know they are being played every day, and loudly."
Detective James R. Dowd of the D.C. Police Department's burglary division says the "cassette players are big items for thieves. Sometimes in a house burglary they even take the tapes."
On a tour of city streets and parks none of the stereo owners spoke of their radios and an identity extention. Prentice Valentine, 29, was standing by a mail box on Rhode Island Avenue, sipping some orange juice and waiting for some friends. "I love music, that's all this is about. I don't get pumped up from having this radio," he said. His seven-pound Sanyo was blasting out the Whispers' "The Beat Goes On." He takes his unit to work at Potomac Iron Works, equipping it with extra speakers when he goes on outings. "I think the popularity is good for the young kids because it makes them think; they get other information besides the music."
On a grassy knoll away from the basketball court, tennis court aand softball fields of Turkey Thicket, Everett "Skip" Richardson was reading the newspaper and listening to his radio. It is a Unionic, a combination radio and television. "I began to want one after I would sit around with the fellows all afternoon. Then they would leave with their radios and I would be along," he said. His set cost him $185 . "And I take it everywhere, fishing, driving to Detriot. Look I put the set, my niece and nephew in the back seat and they tripped out on cartoons all the way to Detroit." Richardson and his three friends all agreed that the appeal was based mainly on the volume, the variety and equipment, and, as one put it, "all the new buttons."
In Lincoln Park Clinton Eldrige joined a group of friends, uniting three radios into an outdoor disco. They were all playing Gladys Knight's "Bougie, Bougie." And within the park four other groups were playing the large radios. Debra Lewis, 25, and Ndrea Davis, 25, both cafeteria and kitchen helpers at the Smithsonian, were the only women with radios. All the guys automatically, and proudly, discussed the weight of the box, when asked if it's only a male thing. Lewis and Davis had noticed that the radio-playing seemed to be a male trend but were too shy to admit that had been an incentive for buying the Sanyo. "We just wanted a radio that you could turn up and blast," said Lewis.
On the grass was a family, that, as it happened, had just moved from New York to the Capitol Hill neighborhood the day before. "After 15 minutes of those radios, I've had enough," said Charlene Patton. "It reminds me of the subway." In New York the stereos are usually all lined up in Washington Square and informal dance and loudness marathons ensue.Her daughter Germaine, 19, differed: "I think the music is great. It makes it seem like a park."
"Hey, give it up this afternoon, a taste of bitter love." The voice is cool, oozing from the black box, the pageant goes on. "Put on your boogie boots but put this funk in your earhole."