Radio Boy

Breaking Signs
Panorama 10.11.09

AS A YOUTH growing up in the 40’s and 50’s, I was a son of the radio. It was just becoming popular then, one of those foreign items brought by American colonialism—together with apples, oranges, chewing gum, canned sardines, boogie-woogie, jazz, and cigarettes—that irreversibly changed Philippine cultural landscapes. It gained ascendancy over our everyday life from sunrise to sunset. In our humble house in Balic-Balic, Sampaloc, it was the centerpiece of communal living. It was installed in a specially made shelf out of reach of children and covered with a clean mantle when not in use. It was clock, newspaper, and entertainment all at the same time to millions of Filipinos then struggling for a better life after the Second World War. We told time by the soap opera in progress, got the latest political updates from the newscasters, and sat infront of it in rows of benches while listening with our neighbors to our favorite contestants in a singing competition. In our community, it was also an arbiter of sort. An argument was settled when one said, “I heard it over the radio.”

It was a clever contraption—inside a box of wood were bulbs and electrical connections that captured airwaves and processed them to sensible sounds! You turned a knob and you get the program you desired; you turned another knob to regulate the sound volume. As an object it was a work of art and a marvel at the same time. The highly varnished wood was of the best kind, manually shaped to bring out a geometric design. Its working intrigued my young mind no end, and I wanted to take it apart to see how it functioned, but I was afraid I would not be able to put it back together again. The well-to-do families had big models with elaborate facial carvings and sharper sound reproduction.

Unknown to me then, the radio was educating my young imagination. The programs to which I listened formed the seminal character of my perception, making me curious about things in the beginning and in the end, when I was already writing prose and poetry, sensitive to the nuances of words and their connection to human existence. Serial romances, on the one hand, taught me the existence of passion and charity. The plots of Gulong ng Palad and Siete Infantes de Lara, for instance, helped form the behavior code which I would follow in my later years, focusing on the need for moral uprightness and self-enterprise. While I cried over the travails of the poor characters in the story I was impressed by how the scriptwriters understood very well the human condition. I was involved in the story; I was this or that person grappling with tragedies to rise from the clutch of poverty and gain success. I was fascinated by the imagery of the wheel of fortune for it applied to my family’s real situation—we could not always be in the mire; someday, when the wheel turned in our favor, we would be on top, enjoying life.

Horror dramas, on the other hand, taught me the importance of suspense in creative writing. That feel of excitement on the part of the listeners or readers when they anticipate the inevitable outcome of a crisis-- that is something you have to work for, something nobody gives you, and you learn it by the strictest application of narrative rules. My best favorite, Ang Gabi ng Lagim with its howling dogs and mysterious strangers haunting cemeteries, gripped my heart like a vise with its terrifying tension and stress. Each episode left me quaking in my seat and gave me nightmares at bedtime. The more I got scared, the more I enjoyed the story. Is that not what critics desire from horror stories? There too was Ang Sepulturero sa Lumang Libingan which became the model for harmonizing story lines with appropriate sound effects for crickets, snarling animals, storm winds, horses’ hooves, and human anguish.

To our family then, radio and literature were one. We could not afford to buy magazines and newspapers—our little money went to rice and dried fish—and the few books I had were school primers. Consequently, I heard more than I read. Words were sounds I had to reconcile with speech morphology before they became written codes. This training was eventually to be beneficial to my writing verse, for it connected me subliminally to the tradition of oral literature, making me grasp the concepts of language rhythms, especially in reference to opposition and unity, caesura and closure. This knowledge, together with the lessons I learned from the Balagtasan which was then still a popular radio entertainment, shaped my poetic consciousness. Years later, with the publication of my first book of poems, I realized how greatly radio had influenced my literary voice.


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