Driving down the dial

Three driving trips to NYC from Cotuit over the past month has taught me the importance of a decent car iPod dock — mine having failed and degenerating into weird behavior — or a decent set of FM radio presets to keep me from going insane on the long stretches through southeastern Massachusetts, southern Rhode Island and the interminable stretch between New London and New Haven. The trip is exactly 250 miles from the village to mid-town and I can do it in four hours, rush hour traffic and late summer road construction permitting.

Phone calls cut the time the fastest, interesting how interacting directly with someone cuts the sense of time. My second preferred form of aural entertainment is podcasts (remember those?), ranging from college courses downloaded from iTunes (I tend towards history and philosophy), cycling podcasts, and geek casts like the Gillmor Gang (if I can find it as it comes and goes). With the iPod dock in bad shape, I have devolved to the radio, and this past trip resolved to take one of the band of presets and once and for all organize a series of station pre-sets to coincide with the 250 miles haul.

One thing stands clear — I am a left-side of the dial guy. Why the crap stations dominate the 100’s is a mystery, but down in the 80s and 90s live the little college stations and NPR affiliates, places where anarchy and eclecticism rule the airwaves and the advertising is nonexistent.

National Public Radio can be a good thing. And I start the trip at 5 am in the dark listening to the BBC World Update — the Economist of the ether — catching up on the suicide bombings and coups in various banana republics as read by the prickly and sometimes sanctimonious Dan Damon. WGBH — one of the oldest public radio stations in the country, has a monster signal that reaches from Boston to the Cape. The joke locally is GBH either stands for Great Blue Hill (the location of the transmitter in Milton) or God Bless Harvard because the studios are so close to Harvard Stadium in Allston. Locally, the NPR affiliate is WCAI at 90.1. I like CAI (Cape And Islands) because its general manager Jay Allison was such an early force on The W.E.L.L. in the 1980s and their local programming, particularly the local food report, is generally excellent. What I cannot abide is John Hockenberry’s The Takeaway due to their pernicious belief that adding high-tech noises to intros and outros makes the news cool.

GBH and CAI could carry me through Providence Rhode Island and beyond, but once I get to Mattapoisset and Marion I switch over to theUniversity of Massachusetts Dartmouth station, WUMD (89.3) because I love student DJs and some of the very bizarre stuff they play in the early morning hours. UMD isn’t the strongest station in the world, and catering to the local Portugese population one can find a lot of Brazilian pop which — language issues primarily — is unlistenable after a song or two. Some of the more progressive programming is interesting though.

New Bedford at sunrise is a poignant place, recalling one November morning in 1978 when I was hitchhiking from the Cape back to New Haven to make classes after a sad weekend with my father. I stood in the breakdown lane across from the crematorium in the Fairhaven Cemetary, flapping my arms in my thin denim jacket, singing “Black Throated Wind” and swigging from a pint of blackberry brandy to keep my spirits up. Years later,  over coffee at Farley’s on Potrero Hill, I told John Perry Barlow, the writer of that song, about that morning, and how a capella I had managed to make BTW my favorite Grateful Dead song, even if it had first appeared on Bob Weir’s Ace album. He was, I think, flattered.

Then I was picked up by some teenagers in a fast TransAm and had to endure some head banging music which destroyed the mood until they were pulled over for speeding in Stonington.

In Fall River, as the car crests the eternally repainted Braga Bridge, I take advantage of Narragansett Bay and the strong signal beaming up from the south from the University of Rhode Island’s station, WRIU, 90.3, where on Thursday morning the DJ played a solid hour of Les Paul’s work, delving into interesting digressions about how Les Paul did not design the famous Gibson guitar bearing his name, but lent his name to it. That was awesome, listening to Les Paul and Fred Waring, and other stalwarts of popular radio from the late 30s, 40s, and 50s, the signal getting stronger as I plowed through Providence and down the long scrubby stretch of West and East Greenwich, Exeter and South Kingstown, site of the infamous massacre of the Narragansetts in 1675 by the combined forces of the colonia militias in what is known as the Great Swamp Fight.

WRIU can be my favorite station on the entire four hour trip, but it dies in New London where a huge void opens up in the dial space as there seems to be no great station there. I need to tune into WCNI, Connecticut College’s 2000 watt transmitter on the next trip, but haven’t dialed into it as of yet.

Coming out of New London, in the space between the Thames and the Connecticut Rivers — near Lyme, famous for the tick and the disease it carries — I tune to WPKN, 89.5, the University of Bridgeport station, which is one of the oldest and most progressive public radio stations on the coast. Yesterday I was pleasantly surprised to hear Jim Motavelli, on the air as the DJ. He interviewed me in the late 90s when I was at Forbes.com in a book he wrote about the impact of new media on the traditional press: Bamboozled at the Revolution and described my “droll, preppy demeanor.” PKN was in the middle of its fall fundraiser — usually a sure repellent that has me hitting the buttons for the next non-mendicancy station.

By Stamford, with NYC just a few dozen miles away, I switch to the final station of the trip, Fordham University’s WFUV, which is another NPR affiliate that plays a ton of good music. FUV, which is based in the Bronx and has a strong transmitter, stays with me down the FDR and into whatever mid-town garage is going to take me down for $50 in parking.

I’m sure my next car will have XM radio and stay tuned to the Grateful Dead station most of the time — a predictable shame given the delights of college radio.