Radio Connections With The Past And Present

While base life provided everything we needed, we wanted more . . . news and the things that we were familiar with like music and radio programs to remind us of what we had left behind and looked forward to.

A stereo in every living room
In the 1960s and 1970s, when we would visit with friends or when our parents would get together with their friends, everyone, it seemed, had a large console stereo in their living room, where a TV set would normally rest.

In 1962 we moved from Columbus, Georgia to Mannheim, Germany, and like many others who moved to Germany from the U.S., we left our TV and other furniture behind in storage. Since there was little or no broadcasting of American TV programs in Germany, it didn’t make sense to ship over a TV, and, given our meager household goods weight allowance, some things were better left behind.

While there was practically no U.S. TV broadcasts in Germany, we did have Armed Forces Radio, or AFN as it was called, broadcasting throughout Europe, bringing news and radio programs to soldiers and their families.

The stereo console
Most stereo consoles were the size of a large blanket chest, about 5 to 6 feet long, 30 inches tall and about 20 inches deep. Like the large console radios in the US, the stereo units were made of wood, and ranged from very dark to very light, depending on the manufacturer. In one compact unit, two stereo speakers, a record turntable, a multi-band radio and storage space for records and for those who could afford it, space for a reel to reel tape recorder.

Most of the stereos were purchased overseas, but were made in Germany, though I am sure there were some U.S. manufacturers selling in the base or post exchanges.

While we missed some of the TV programs at first, we gained something more than a new piece of furniture—we now had something that would move with us from base to base and provide hours and hours of entertainment for the entire family–our console radio, or simply “the stereo” as we called it.

The stereo was a Lowe-Opta, and it is a thing of beauty. For a six-year old, it was a technical marvel, with sliding doors, hidden compartments and with a glowing glass tuning panel with many mysterious buttons and dials, combined with its ability to entertain and fuel the imagination. All other the other furniture we had in the apartment, was, well, furniture.

In addition to the AM radio band, which AFN (Armed Forces Network) was broadcast on, we had Long Wave, Short Wave and FM Stereo. The tuning dial showed not only numbers for different radio frequencies, but the names of cities in many different countries, like London, Tokyo, Berlin and  dozens more.

Stereo record players and FM Stereo was the latest, greatest thing in the 1960s. With different sounds coming from each speaker, stereo broadcasts or records played that were stereo had a rich depth that made old fashioned “mono” radios and record players pale in comparison.

The record player was off limits to us, but that was okay as I preferred listening to the radio, especially serial programs that left you “hanging” week to week.

Vacuum tube warm up
In 1962, most electronic gear such as stereos and radios used vacuum tubes, and took a minute or two for the tubes to warm up before any sound would would come from the stereo.

The delay in hearing what we wanted actually built anticipation and gave us time to consider the many stations we could choose from for listening, but usually AFN, with the familiar American voices that we could actually understand, won out.

We kids were fascinated by the longwave frequencies, where sometimes we could hear a long droning sound interrupted occasionally by Morse code transmissions. It was easy to imagine we were ease dropping on some sort of military aircraft in communication with its home base. But since we didn’t understand the dots and dashes which made up Morse code, we had no idea what we were hearing.

The Shortwave frequency band brought in many different spoken word and music broadcasts from around the world, even from as far away as Japan, and sometimes the broadcasts were in English, with a heavy local accent and other broadcasts were in foreign languages.

While I loved to slowly creep through the hundreds of stations we could receive in Germany, as a 6 or 7 year old, it was hard to remember which stations were worth returning to and many of the programs were news programs in other languages. Also, the sound of the shortwave stations fading in and out, which is the nature of shortwave broadcasts, made it tough to follow what was being said and led to boredom on our part.

Armed Forces Network
Armed Forces Network broadcast a wide variety of programs for a very broad audience and included both programs for adults and for younger Military Brats. We would listen to radio programs like “Gunsmoke”, X Minus One, the Zero Hour, Escape and other programs.  Saturday morning would bring some programs aimed at very young listeners, much like today’s network have Saturday morning cartoons.

I still have the stereo and it symbolizes many aspects of my experience as a Military Brat, such as Germany and the great moves we had while my father served in the Army, and it represents the many possibilities which exist, but require a precision instrument to tune them in.

Over the years, after each move I make, I turn it on and it always works like a charm after the tubes warm up, but with replacement vacuum tubes getting harder to come by, I don’t listen to it on a regular basis.

The digital age of radio

I’ve found that many of my favorite “old time” radio programs are available on the Internet through different websites and podcasts, which are keeping old time radio alive. I have found episodes of X Minus One, The life of Riley, Gunsmoke, Tarzan, Superman and hundreds of old shows broadcast in the 1940s, 1950s and the 1960s. Many of the broadcasts will have the original commercials as when they were originally broadcast.

Many of the original broadcasts from the 1940s and 1950s were recorded on records and later as magnetic tape became widely used, broadcasts were captured on tape. These recordings are being converted to MP3 files and with most of them now being in the public domain, they are being distributed via the Internet on Internet Radio or through websites dedicated to OTR (Old TIme Radio).

Many old radio programs are available also as podcasts, so it’s easy to download and save different programs on MP3 players, smartphones, or on your computer. If you are interested in old time radio programs, just Google “Olde Time Radio”. Many websites will offer free radio episodes which you can play by clicking on a link.

I must admit that it’s a bit strange at first hearing programs that are 50-60 years old through my computer instead of the radio, but once your imagination kicks in and you get caught up in the program, it really doesn’t matter and some of the programming is just as entertaining now as it was way back when.

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  1. I lived in France from 62-64, and this sure brought back a lot of memories. Thank you Vann. Very well written.

  2. Nice article Vann. You brought back memories of my own German radio/record player. Going down the dial and through all those mysterious channels was something I loved to do. Especially late at night when there seemed to be more chatter and signals. I distinctly remember my mother and many of the other wives going “junking” in the German towns outside the base. Somehow my mother pickep up a huge shrank. Everyone seemed to have one of those in the living room. Of course, none of these heavy pieces ever seemed to make it back stateside.

  3. Armed Forces Radio was our lifeline to America when we lived in West Berlin from January 1964 to January 1967. Going without TV for those years in my life definitely affected me (a great love for music of the 60’s, using my imagination for entertainment). However I definitely experienced culture shock upon returning to the US in 1967.


  4. Hi Lewis, Thanks for your feedback. When I was in high school in Germany, AFN really was a lifeline “back to the world” as some called it and the familiar voices of many correspondents and columnists helped to keep us up to date with life back home.

    I am currently enjoying the DownCast app on my ipod Touch along with a number of old time radio casts which even though they are from some 50 years or more ago, still quite enjoyable.

  5. I was also in West Berlin at the time and l loved the serials on the radio station and even the different hours of music they would play. We got some American TV shows later in English broadcast the last year I was there in 1967. My dad bought a beautiful Grundig stereo cabinet there 

  6. We were in Germany from 1960-64. First two years at Bitburg, where we lived “on the economy”‘ and the lat two at Sembach in base housing. We never had one of the expensive console stereos, but did have a high-end Grundig table top radio with AM/FM/SW,etc. To keep up with music, we listened to Radio Luxembourg (“Your Station of the Stars”), which was really a British station out of London with a re-transmitting facility in Luxembourg City. Great music, way ahead of the curve compared to AFN which was pretty tame, being a military outlet. We heard the first sounds of the Mersey beat, and the bands out of Liverpool WAY before there was any consciousness of what came to be referred to as the British Invasion. The hot music at the Teen Club was the Detroit Sound: Sam & Dave, Smokey and the Imperials, the Supremes, etc. I also baby-sat for some neighbors in our stairwell who had a really nice Grunding console stereo. They were from the South, and had dozens of Country-Western and straight country albums that I listened to and came to appreciate. Coming-of-age music.

    • Hi Doug, thank you for your reply to my article. When I go on eBay to “window shop” I look at the Grundig radios – from the tube radios of the 50s and 60s to the later solid state radios. I haven’t yet found one that I can’t live without, but I enjoy looking at them and imagining the old radio programs and music they produced.

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