“Ultimately, we don’t belong in the world governed by time,” says Michael Cremo, a guest on KNWZ, a radio station in Palm Springs, California. “As beings of pure consciousness, we are essentially timeless.” It is around two thirty A.M. in Palm Springs and around eleven thirty A.M. in Paris, where I am tidying my apartment. Cremo is talking about the end-time, which he thinks could well be imminent, but his point is relevant to the experience of listening to local radio from somewhere I am not. I love listening to radio, but sometimes I don’t want to listen to a particular station, genre, or category. Sometimes I want to listen to a time of day. Which is, of course, entirely possible thanks to the rise of online streaming at the expense of older analogue broadcast methods. If I am feeling afternoony in the morning, I can leave the world that is “governed by time” and join whichever community of radio listeners—in Mumbai, Perth, or Hong Kong—is currently experiencing three P.M. The optimism of a morning show somewhere to my west offers a fresh beginning to a day that’s become lousy by midafternoon, whereas the broadcasts of early evening, burbling across the towns and cities to my east, can turn my morning shower into a kind of short-haul time machine past those hours in which I’m expected to be productive. But for the loosest and strangest of broadcast atmospheres, I am drawn most often to the dead of night, to the so-called graveyard shift. That low-budget menagerie of voices and music is concocted to serve an unlikely fellowship of insomniacs, police officers, teenagers, and bakers—and cheats like me, tuning in from afar to behold radio’s closest equivalent to the Arctic Circle.
“When you listen to radio, you are a witness of the everlasting war between idea and appearance, between time and eternity, between the human and the divine,” Herman Hesse writes. On a dead-of-night show on Melbourne’s 3AW693 News Talk, the presenter reads a listener-submitted email in full. “Last night, I made my family a delicious dinner cooked with biogas,” he reads, then explains how biogas, the fuel produced by the fermentation of organic matter, can solve many of the world’s energy issues. “Any callers?” he wonders. No one calls. Meanwhile, RadioTALK in Auckland is attracting a spree of correspondents keen to address today’s topic: “Hot-water bottles! Do you have one?” Without exception, these late-night conversations meander off into meditations on how things are not how they used to be. This is a function of two truths, namely that (1) in the middle of the night, the caller gets to speak indefinitely because who knows when the next caller will show up, and (2) once midnight has passed, almost anyone who speaks off the top of their head for more than three minutes, on any subject, will stray into nostalgic reverie. In Westchester, New York, for example, a man has called SportsRadio 1230AM at three in the morning to express sadness about the decline of fistfights in stock-car racing..
The graveyard DJs at KXLU, broadcasting out of Los Angeles, play very good music. Elsewhere, rather than accommodate through-the-night presenters, many stations switch on a preselected playlist—but even so, I like the hand-picked playlists on KCRW Berlin or Three D Radio in Adelaide far more than any sequence of music selected by algorithm. In the town of Whitesburg, Kentucky, it is 4:06 A.M., and WMMT is broadcasting Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.” Would I ever put that song on out of choice? Probably not. But knowing it is going out to who knows who, somewhere in the Appalachian Mountains, do I love it? Yes, I think I do. Maybe that’s the joy of all this. Podcasts are the predominant audio medium of our time. They can be beautifully produced, as good as a good book, and perhaps they will supersede radio. But there’s something about the knowledge that countless unknown others are listening to the same thing as me, at the same time as me, that can’t be replaced. And when I listen to radio from other time zones, I am reminded that I do not move through times of day but rather they move through me. Somewhere in the world, it is always far too late to be up listening to the radio.
Seb Emina lives in Paris and is the editor in chief of The Happy Reader magazine. Some years ago, he and the artist Daniel John Jones created a perpetual morning-radio aggregator, which can still be heard at globalbreakfastradio.com.