Old-time Radio Primer: F Stands for Free

The dictionaries only manage to define it by telling us what it is not. It is such a troublesome little word, yet so attractive. “Free,” I mean. It has a lot to do with commercial broadcasting—the wireless with strings attached—which is why I am taking the liberty to include it in my old-time radio primer. The state of being “free” is generally thought of as the absence of some restricting force or entity. However positive, it is a want we are wont to capture by negation. You are free to skip this line, by the way, unless, of course, you are somehow compelled to read on. Am I encroaching on your liberties by subjecting you to yet another sentence, by sentencing you to yet another subject? Go on, it is complimentary. And considering that wars are being fought over it, it is hardly a matter of no matter.

“Free” is so overused, misused and corrupted a lexical commodity that you have every reason to grow suspicious of anything offered on such terms—particularly that tautological fallacy of the “free gift” (with every purchase, no less). Eventually, you begin to wonder whether a word that only exists as an opposite, and exists only to be turned into that opposite, has any meaning at all.

If being free is the sensation of doing or being without, then freedom might very well be poverty, deprivation, and thraldom. Even if it is understood to mean doing or being without something on your own accord, you might want to take a moment of your spare time to consider how did you arrive at that accord, that agreement, without being under some forceful influence, and thus not free?

Here is the obligatory verse. It, too, is free this time:

“Free” is what looks good . . .
because you like the sound of it.
“Free” is what tastes good . . .
even if it smells funny.
“Free” is what feels good . . .
although it makes no sense at all.

In America, radio was being touted as a purveyor of gratis entertainment. And gratis deserves gratitude. You didn’t have to drop a nickel into the machine for every song or program you wanted to hear, even though the machine itself was no mean crystal set, but one of those expensive new console models that looked so nice in the advertisement and, the salesperson said, would fit so well into your living room. After all, you wouldn’t want to look cheap when handing out treats to your important dinner guests (the business kind, who could do something for you).

How comforting the thought that the entertainment at least was being paid for by someone who was also charitable enough to take care of all those who toiled and performed for your amusement over at the broadcasting studio, those big and expensive-looking facilities like the ones over at Radio City, which you’d love to visit some day, if only you had enough time or money for a trip to New York.

No need to get sarcastic. You are under no obligation to tune in tomorrow, as the announcer keeps insisting, although you sure would like to know whether Superman, “bombarded by livid bolts of atomic energy, and buried now for almost an hour,” will manage to save Metropolis or whether that “girl from a mining town in the West” can really “find happiness as the wife of a wealthy and titled Englishman”—especially now that she was being threatened by Lord Henry’s evil twin. Yes, you could turn it off. The freedom of it!

Sure, they’ve all got something to sell. That’s nothing, if hours of carefree listening can be had for just that—nothing. That’s why Jack Benny could make you laugh on the Lucky Strike Program last night and Nelson Eddy sang for you and the Chase and Sanborn people (the thought of which reminds you to get coffee at the market tomorrow—and to make it Sanka, just to show them)! It’s a free market.

So what if those who offered this free service really took it from you in the first place and used it for their own purposes! So what if they expected a little something—or rather a lot—in return for taking over the airwaves you quite forgot were free. You could always write a letter and complain, if it got out of hand. That was your right, as a taxpayer.

Perhaps we ought to remove the word from our vocabulary. It seems so much easier than striving for something so elusive. Feel free to differ.

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