Why does radio work?

I don’t mean the technology and physics part. Radio Bob can explain that. I just assume there’s a little man inside my dashboard. No, I mean, why – when we listen to a story – does the head fill with images? We see the story in the mind’s eye, act out the action with our phantom limbs, and return to find ourselves burning gasoline in the driveway for who knows how long.

Early listener, homo erectus. Artist’s reconstruction: Yale University

It has to be something that was already there in our brains, given that we have had pretty much the same brain ever since we climbed out of the trees.

“The night is dark and full of terrors” – Melisandre, Game of Thrones

Back in the day humans were pretty puny as apes go, and vulnerable, and probably a little twitchy as a result. (Some of us still are.) So, asking “What’s that sound?” was as important then as it is in teen horror movies today. There would be great survival value in picturing a leopard, when hearing its distinctive cough in the dark, and squirting out a little adrenaline for appropriate motivation. Those who pictured squirrel didn’t get a chance to pass their genes along. That’s Darwin for you.

Today, brain scientists say humans not only respond to sounds by visualizing appropriate images and associated mental states, we respond to narrative by activating the portions of the brain associated with sight and motion, just as if we were in the story. This explains so much: air guitar, Comicon, and yelling back at the radio.

Shared narrative, shared culture

Likewise, hearing the same stories builds shared experience among the listeners, creates cultural bonds, a community distinct from those who have listened to other narratives. Listening to public radio makes “public radio people” in some ineffable way – my people. There are other tribes. Listen closely so you will have warning of their approach.


2 Comments on “Why does radio work?”

  1. Ellen Bütz says:

    Proud to be a “public radio person.”

  2. Peter Klein says:

    Radio works because sound works. Words, printed or heard, work. Even if you were blind, sound works because words work.

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