Here is a history of the Battery Exchange. The Tradition continues live on Christmas Eve on Raven Radio, KCAW, Sitka, streaming on www.kcaw.org.
The Battery Exchange started on KAXE in Grand Rapids Minnesota on Christmas Eve, 1976. When Suzi was a girl neighborhood parents gathered at her house to try to assemble toys and swap parts, AA cells for D cells, find a missing bolt, that sort of thing. Suzi’s mom made a turkey and the “battery exchange” became a party. I decided to carry the idea over to the radio where people needing help, or batteries, could help each other and share Christmas greetings across Northern Minnesota.
During that first program a very unhappy woman called. She mentioned suicide. I started telling stories, stories directed at her, hoping to keep her engaged. I held her on one line while I called emergency services on the other line to try to get her help. Since both lines were tied up I couldn’t take any other calls, so it was just stories and some carols. I told those stories just for her but, of course, everyone else who heard them thought they were just for them. Finally she got help. I was exhausted but also had been given a great Christmas gift. I decided to be on the air every Christmas I could, not only taking calls and playing music, but telling stories.
The second year of the battery exchange, in 1977, I was on the air, lights low, telling a story when a loud “Ka boom” rattled the windows and sent shockwaves through my headphones. The radio station was located in a community college that also had an agricultural experiment station. It was very cold out, below zero. There was a barn next to the building with the radio station. One of the workers at the agricultural station has just filled the propane tank on his camper, outside. Because it was bitter cold a whole lot of propane could fit into that tank. The driver took the camper into the barn to do some work on it. As the tank on the camper warmed the escape valve on the tank worked as it was supposed to work. Gas started to hiss out into the barn. The barn had electric heating. The heating element came on and ignited the gas. There was an explosion. Because the barn was flexible wood it just kind of bowed out but the barn did not come down. The guy working on the camper was hard of hearing for a few days but was otherwise ok and I went from storytelling mode to news reporter mode, with a Christmas Eve news scoop.
Note: Suzi does not dispute that this happened but believes it was on another winter night, not Christmas Eve. I distinctly remember the phrase “peace on earth” interrupted by the explosion. It was a long time ago.
The fourth year of the battery exchange I was still in Minnesota. The listing in the program guide (pictured) promised “Wassails, Luck Bringers and Magic.” It was approaching midnight and I got a call. It was Father Zach from St. Joseph’s Catholic Church. It was cold and icy. In 1979 all but the most urban stations signed off at midnight. Father Zach told me he had just performed last rites on a man in Effie, about 80 miles from Grand Rapids. He had to drive back that Christmas Eve to say mass at 8 AM Christmas Morning. He was tired and asked if I could stay on the air to keep him company on his drive back to Grand Rapids that Christmas Eve. I did, playing music, and telling stories, for just one person– Father Zach. Just before 2 AM he called. He was home. He thanked me, wished me a Merry Christmas, and I signed off. Christmas Morning would come early with two little kids.
In 1993 I was working in Albania where I produced a Christmas program for Radio Tirana. That program came to mind a couple of years ago when I attended the 2013 St. Olaf College Christmas Festival. The highlight of the festival, for me, was “All Creatures of our God and King,” not necessarily a Christmas piece but one I will always associate with that Radio Tirana program.
Albania had been under the Communist rule of Enver Hoxha, who banned all religion. When I was putting together the program one engineer excitedly told me that he had hidden away Christmas music that had been in the Radio Tirana record library before Hoxha took over. He did this at great personal risk, because possessing a religious recording could lead to a long sentence at hard labor. He told me it was Handel’s “Alleluia Chorus.” And I built my script around it. It was one of the few bits of Christmas music I had on hand. I went around the expat community looking for Christmas CDs. I got a Christmas album performed by Jose Carreras and some carols from a Southern Baptist Missionary. When the engineer brought in the recording it was not Handel, but the Francis of Assisi hymn “All Creatures of Our God and King,” which has its own Alleluia in the chorus; “All Praise Him Alleluia.” It was probably left over from when the Italians controlled Radio Tirana. I had to rewrite the script around this song, but there was no way I was not going to play this song loved and protected at such great risk by a Radio Tirana engineer. The festival brought back that powerful memory.
”Doing a radio show at Radio Tirana takes patience. I had to select my music and get it dubbed to reel to reel tape by an engineer in the music studio because the mixing studio can only play reel to reel tapes. Then I had to take the cassette interviews I had done and have them dubbed to reel to reel in the production studio so I could edit them. I needed a second engineer for that dubbing and editing. I scripted the whole thing with music and fade cues so that a third engineer in the mixing studio could mix the show with my announcements and stories before it went on the air. After I recorded the program I wanted a cassette dub to send back to Raven Radio, so I had to take it back to the production studio and get the second engineer to make the dub. I delivered the reel to reel to the International Service for broadcast over shortwave by a fourth engineer. It broadcast on Christmas Eve. I sent the copy in the diplomatic pouch to Raven Radio for the Battery Exchange.”
In 1995 I was back in Albania. That year I did separate programs for Raven Radio and Radio Tirana. Harry Chartier took the tapes I produced in Albania and mixed them with music, his own stories and phone calls to make the program work in Sitka. I produced the tape for Sitka in the Voice of America Studio in Tirana and, like I had done two years earlier, sent it to Raven Radio in the diplomatic pouch. Here is what I wrote in my letter about producing that program.
“The week before Christmas in the Voice of America studio I opened the mic and started my Christmas program for Raven Radio. It was involuntary, but a few lines into the program I said “Oh boy, it’s good to be back on the radio.” In my mind I said something else, but I have a built in alarm system that protects me from saying the exact words that are in my mind before a live mike. Even if I had said ‘Oh God’ it would have been nothing but a heart felt thanks. This is the longest I’ve gone without being on the radio since 1981 when we were building Raven Radio. After four months it felt good. I’ve been using the VOA studio to teach my radio classes at Tirana University. Anila says she can see the difference when I’m in the studio. ‘You really love radio, don’t you?’”
I also did my program for Radio Tirana’s international service on Christmas Eve. Here is what I wrote about producing that program.
“Anna (not her real name) has been with the English Service for 14 years. She speaks English well but she reads it in the stilted stylized English of the Enver Hoxha era when Albania had no diplomatic relations with much of the world and the Radio Tirana International Service was the way Tirana communicated with other countries. Anna read a statement and some state department guy in Washington copied it down. The two countries communicated. While Radio Tirana no longer reads to that one Washington bureaucrat, not much else has changed. Anna and her staff don’t even have a tape recorder. She gets scripts in Albanian, translates them into English, word for word, no allowance for flow or fluency, and reads them on the air. She also answers the listener letters, but has no postage budget. All the letters are opened elsewhere and any dollars sent for return postage are removed. Anna never sees those dollars. But she still writes replies that are probably never sent.”
“Anna cares about her listeners and wants to give them interesting radio, but she’s bound by the terrible tradition of Radio Tirana’s International Service. That’s why she asked me to do Christmas Eve. I can get away with things she can’t.”
“We got to the studio. It wasn’t available. The engineers said no one told them we had reserved it. Anna was frantic. She did not want to confront the engineers who are a formidable corps of middle aged ladies wearing white lab coats. They run the place. Engineering was the one non-political department in the old days and they remained virtually untouched by the revolution. They still do things their way. After the revolution they used their seniority to get their children, nieces, and nephews positions in the station. A guy may be a director but he still checks in with mother. Anna said ‘If you argue they will eat you. I think they are all former Physical Culture instructors.’ Another producer said; ‘My Aunt is an Engineer, I don’t dare confront her.’ ” (The ladies pictured are NOT engineers but hard working Radio Tirana broadcasters who helped me do radio.)
“I understand the importance of cultivating both engineers, and mothers. I had befriended several of them two years earlier (in 1993) so we ultimately got our studio, just a little late. When I tried to get into the studio the police guard told me this studio was on the wrong side of his barricade and I didn’t have the proper pass to get through his barricade to the studio. I took a photo of the officer, promised him I would get it developed and give him a print. That softened him a bit. But there needed to be a face saving compromise. I could not enter the studio suite from the door by my old office. The guard sent me, down a flight of stairs, down a hall, up another flight of stairs, and in through the back door. If Radio Tirana engineers are former physical education instructors, the guards are former high school hall monitors.”
Christmas Eve is the birthday of the human voice on radio. Reginald A Fessenden “broadcast” (as he called it, taken from the agricultural term) a Christmas program in which he played the violin, his wife sang and he read from Luke. He used the marine weather station at Brent Rock, Mass. It usually sent the marine weather using Morse Code to ships at sea. That Christmas Eve he performed a Christmas miracle. Ship operators heard music and speech come crackling through the air where there had, in the past, only been dots and dashes. One story, we don’t know if it is true, says that a marine weather station picked up the broadcast in Scotland. Christmas miracles do happen on the radio.
One year the Battery Exchange got a call from the Pioneer Bar. Someone had recovered several Storm Petrels that had been oiled and couldn’t fly. He had them in a box at the bar and wanted people to adopt them. I was not sure whether to believe him, the bar seemed pretty rowdy, but I played along. Marika Partridge was in the station with me and pretty soon she heard a knock at the door and discovered a box of oily birds was deposited at the top step of the radio station entrance. The program became an effort to save the birds. We got volunteers to claim a bird, clean it, and on Christmas Day we had a bird release. Anything can happen on the radio on Christmas Eve.
People often ask me if my Christmas stories are true. They are always true, if not always factual. Some of that is because memory improves with age. For instance, Suzi insists the incident with the exploding barn that I described in an earlier post didn’t happen on Christmas Eve. My memory says it did. Sometimes I find a new metaphor to throw in, sometimes I add a twist, an image that enhances the truth of the story. When I started telling the stories on radio 38 years ago they were more or less true, but they have grown with age.
My stories are not written down, they are part of the oral tradition, a tradition of storytelling that I inherited from my Grandfathers and from Pop. I resisted recording the program because I felt that would do violence to that oral tradition. One year my son, Brian, recorded a Battery Exchange, without telling me, and gave it to my Mom on an iPod as a Christmas gift a couple of years before she died. That recording actually enhanced the process. She and other family members from around New Jersey have chimed in with corrections. Mom, it turns out, was also a pretty good story teller but she never wanted to compete with Pop (or me), but when we got her going…. well the iPod unleashed her storytelling. I have incorporated some of my family’s memories, especially Mom’s into stories in recent years. Other memories from the family, well, it’s not the way I remember it.
When my mom was dying and I was flying back from Europe, Brian played her some of the stories while they were waiting for me. Mom said “Oh, Richard’s here,” and died. I missed seeing Mom by three hours but she thought I was there, and for her, that was enough. The last thing Mom heard was a story from the Battery Exchange.
When one listener who was a young girl when she started listening in Sitka used to call me on changes in the stories from year to year. As she got older she realized that stories need to change, to take on lives of their own. So this Christmas Eve my Christmas stories get another run. They will be the same, they will be different, the facts may change but they will remain true. I hope they are also entertaining.
I hope you add your own stories on Christmas Eve by calling (907) 747-5877, or from our translator communities (800) 478-5877. This year we go on the air at 8:00 PM. I will open the phones around 8:30 so members of the Sitka Diaspora in tome zones to the East of Sitka can participate. We will open them again sometime after 10 PM for more candid conversations about Santa and what he did or didn’t leave. Or if you can’t call, leave your Christmas Greetings on the Battery Exchange Facebook Page.
To see posts from Christmas Markets in Europe and elsewhere, including Sitka, please Click here.
And please check out and “Like” the Battery Exchange on Facebook.