We spent Christmas with my sister-in-law and her family in Virginia. We decided to drive, which is always a risky proposition this time of year, but 16 hours in the car (each way) seems like a small price to pay for avoiding airports during the holidays. On the way out, we stopped for the night in a town we didn't know the name of. It had an exit and a motel at the moment we needed one, and that was good enough for us. Sometimes that kind of serendipity turns out poorly, but this time it didn't. The place was clean, quiet, and inexpensive. We'd stay there again, if we knew where it was. The next morning, we were on the road early and spent much of our drive on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The only thing I know about the Pennsylvania Turnpike is that Packers coach Mike McCarthy was once a toll collector on it, a job so delightful that he went into coaching football and never looked back. After that, we crossed into Maryland. Whoever drew the boundaries of Maryland was a pretty poor map-drawer. There's a place in western Maryland where the state is only two miles wide, tucked in between Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
We finally arrived in the DC suburbs of Virginia, where every last inhabitant has a car (I think) and they were all out driving them on a Sunday afternoon (I'm sure). But it was worth it when we arrived at our destination. We have three nephews, age 12, 9, and 6, and a niece aged 1 1/2, and it was fun to see how excited they were about Christmas, and to watch them celebrate the holiday. A highlight of the visit came on Christmas morning, when our niece found our missing car keys. She let us know by setting off the car alarm. Merry Christmas, neighborhood! Our visit was extended an extra day because of blizzard forecasts for Ohio and Indiana on Wednesday. That day was a little less exciting than Christmas Day had been. The three boys spent much of the day trying to figure out who would get to play the new Xbox and when, a negotiation that occasionally made the Israelis and Palestinians look like dear friends.
The trip home was another long, long ride. After about 12 hours of it, I gestured toward the other cars on the Interstate and asked my wife, "Where are all these people going?" She thought about it and then said, "Home. Or away."
She's right, you know.
Some people get into radio by accident. They don't grow up wanting to do this strange thing in which you spend hours in a room doing your best to communicate meaningfully with people you can't see. But some people are born to do it. This is my story, from a memoir I first wrote way back in 1995:
It is Christmas Eve, 1970. I have recently discovered rock 'n' roll, as dispensed by Chicago’s WLS, the 50-thousand-watt flamethrower upon which many Midwestern kids were weaned in those days before the wide usage of FM, in towns too small to have a rock station of their own. But on this particular day, the station has been playing not Top 40 hits but Christmas music that sounds like no Christmas music I’ve ever heard, not the stuff from my parents’ universe, but from mine. I am already an obsessive radio listener, and on this day the radio sounds so great I can barely stand to turn it off.
My brother and I share a bedroom, across the hall from my parents’ room. Between the beds, up against the wall, is a low toy chest. On top of it is my radio, a green plastic Westinghouse that gets only AM. (It has tubes. That's how long ago this was.) Late that night, as we lie in our beds waiting for Mom and Dad to turn out the overhead light—so we can begin the interminable night, with fitful sleeping, in anticipation of the loot the morning would bring—my radio plays more of the incredible Christmas music that's been pouring out of it all day, including a song that says “And every mother’s child is gonna spy/to see if reindeer really know how to fly.” A big, friendly voice comes on with holiday wishes, and I am overwhelmed with what I can only describe as a kind of one-ness with the radio. At that moment, I begin to want to be the voice, although I couldn’t have articulated the thought at the time. As magical as it was to be a listener, at that moment something inside of me began to believe that to be on the other end of the transmission would be more magical still. I don’t remember if I fell asleep that night with the radio on, but it doesn’t matter. In a way, I fell asleep with the radio inside of me.
I won't be on Magic this Christmas Eve--we're spending the holiday with the family. But I'll miss being on. Just a little. I guarantee it.
"Do You Hear What I Hear" by Whitney Houston, "The Little Drummer Boy" by Bob Seger, "Winter Wonderland" by Eurythmics, and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" by the Pretenders are among the most popular holiday songs we play on Magic every year. Believe it or not, they all appear on the same album: A Very Special Christmas, first released 25 years ago this Christmas. That album reshaped the sound of the radio at Christmastime. Before A Very Special Christmas, the vast majority of the Christmas music heard on the radio was old-fashioned, traditional stuff. A Very Special Christmas, and the albums that have followed it in the series, changed that.
The first volume is also the best one, although there are worthwhile and interesting artists and songs on every one of them. Volume 2 has Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Tom Petty and also Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart, who are not Hall of Famers but should be. Sheryl Crow, Steve Winwood, Enya, and Hootie and the Blowfish feature on Volume 3. Volumes 4 and 5 contain live tracks recorded at benefit events hosted by President and Mrs. Clinton in 1999 and 2000, by Eric Clapton and Stevie Wonder among others Volume 6 features mostly country and bluegrass acts.
It wasn't until 2009 that the series got back to the kind of thing the first three albums had been. A Very Special Christmas 7 includes Colbie Caillat, Miley Cyrus, and Carrie Underwood, and is aimed squarely at an audience of teenagers and young adults. The new 25th anniversary edition has somewhat broader appeal, with acts including Train (whose version of "Joy to the World" includes a bit of their hit "Calling on Angels"), Michael Bublé, Jason Mraz, Cheap Trick, and the Dave Matthews Band.
The Very Special Christmas series was devised by producer/engineer/mogul Jimmy Iovine, who wanted to do a Christmas album as a tribute to his late father. Iovine’s wife Vicki suggested he make it a benefit for the Special Olympics, a charity she supported. The series has raised well over $100 million for Special Olympics in the last quarter-century, and it shows no signs of slowing down.