Turn Your Radio On

….or perhaps “Turn ON Your Radio”, or “ Turn on THE Radio”. Or “Turn the Radio ON”.

It all depends on the order of the words. And it starts with country gospel, takes in post-punk, AoR, disco, rap and nu-metal. What follows is a brief history of song titles – and adverb particle positions too. There’s also Van Morrison and Barry Manilow to come. I just can’t wait.

Each song here, in its own way, offers a differing view of radio; a response to listening to the wireless. Some of these tracks cast the radio as a detached technology, where the wireless has lost touch with its listeners. Other writers appear to suggest that the radio offers positive hope and release from the daily problems of this world. Yet others wish that the radio could re-connect lonely dis-enfranchised individuals and bind them together with a sense of community and purpose. Or perhaps the radio offers mindless nonsense and babble: something to be switched off so that we can enjoy the silence. Each songwriter has a different reaction to the radio – and that’s an important point to consider because it suggests that listening-in is a deeply personal experience, one that can affect each of us in different ways. For example, in the UK, I might have thought Chris Moyles was the best Radio 1 breakfast show DJ ever. You could disagree and argue with me. I could change the subject and put forward a view that BBC Radio 2’s Friday Night is Music Night is cutting edge stuff for British audiences; you could disagree (again). [ed’s note: in my day it always WAS Friday night that was the evening for light orchestral music, but it seems in these unusual times it’s morphed into Sunday Night is Music Night. I’ll work out who to blame for this later…] But, as I’ll demonstrate here these artistes and writers each had an encounter with the radio and have ended up writing about it. Every one is unique and personal to the songwriter, and to us as well.

But first, a bit of grammar. The verb ‘turn on’, as in turn on your radio, is a phrasal verb. The adverb particle (‘on’) gives the verb ‘turn’ a new meaning. The general rule is that the particle can go either before or after the noun object (but as you’ll note in the Reba McEntire track, below, the use of a pronoun object means the particle can only go after it…). This linguistic explanation – but not the Reba McEntire bit – is from Michael Swan‘s book Practical English Usage (2nd Edition, 1995), Oxford University Press, p.15 and p.612.

And another style guide, the excellent Fowler’s, is particularly keen on phrasal verbs, devoting almost a whole page to explaining this backwater of English grammar. It even includes a radio example: ‘You may be interested to listen to an item at ten past one if you have missed out on this week’s Radio Times.’ (A Dictionary of Modern English Usage by H.W. Fowler, Second Edition revised by Sir Ernest Gowers (1968) Oxford University Press: Oxford, p.451.) Tune in, turn on, missed out, listen in: it’s a revelation in radio and English grammar.


But the musical story starts in 1937 when Albert E Brumley wrote a song. He published it a year later. By the time he died in 1977 he’d composed over 800 songs – almost all in the US southern country gospel style of his home region.

The song I’m thinking about here isn’t his funeral favourite I’ll Fly Away (popular with evangelicals and pentecostal Christians), but a catchy number called Turn Your Radio On. If you scour YouTube you’ll find it’s a tune enjoyed by Bill Gaither and vocal groups of that ilk. But it finally made the charts thirty-four years later when Ray Stevens released it in 1971 and it did moderately well in the USA, Canada and the UK. The LP of the same name came out in the following year.

“Come and listen into a radio station
Where the mighty hosts of Heaven sing
Turn your radio on…”

Somewhat curiously, this song has the radio as a detached instrument. We the listener do the approaching, the switching on, and the paying attention but nothing more than this. It is as if, from this point onwards, we are passive listeners. There’s no suggestion that we’re using our imagination to interpret any messages from the heavenly choir. All that’s required of us is to sit still and pay attention to the Good News. In this respect it is a rather one-sided listening relationship that’s developed here.

This song was also recorded by country stars including John Hartford (1971), Merle Haggard (1971), Randy Travis (2003), and the Blackwood Brothers (1973). The Ray Steven’s version itself became the theme music to a Sunday morning radio show on a US station, WFAY in the 1970s.

In 1992, two decades after Ray Stevens, a British band had a hit with a similar title but a completely different reaction to the radio. Shakespears Sister (they decided to drop the ‘e’ and not to use the possessive apostrophe – despite the typo you can see in the YouTube clip below) recorded “Hello (Turn Your Radio On)”. The lyrics present a sad reflection on modern society where people can be made to feel alienated and lonely by the sheer scale of the mass media.

“The paperboy screamed out the headlines in the street.
Another war, and now the pound is looking weak.
And tell me, have you read about the latest freak?
We’re bingo numbers, and our names are obsolete.
Why do I feel bitter when I should be feeling sweet?
Hello, hello, turn your radio on;
Is there anybody out there?”

And remember this was the early 1990s, a time before the damaging effects of social media and false news. The song is an indictment of all that is wrong with powerful, overbearing mass media. Shakespears Sister were touched with what they saw as the negative, de-personalising, effects of radio, television and newspapers.

So far we’ve had the adverb particle (‘on’) at the end of the song title. Now let’s move it up the order. That gives: Turn On Your Radio, by Harry Nilsson (1972) which – as an album track – was a thought-provoking pause about the meaning of life. And probably for Nilsson a reflection that his professional career as a singer/songwriter was dependent on the whims of an audience he could only imagine in his mind, who would hopefully continue to like his songs.

“I don’t know where life’s goin’
But soon it will be gone
I hope the wind that’s blowin’
Helps me carry on
Turn on your radio baby
Baby, listen to my song”

Or perhaps we could – but only in passing – consider ‘Turn on Your Radio‘ (1985) the sixth and final studio album by the Italian/U.S. ensemble Change? However neither the LP or the title track were a huge commercial or critical success in either the USA or the UK. No. It’s disco funk at its worst.

Next we can drop the possessive pronoun. That leaves us with “Turn The Radio On” by Sia (2016) “Come on, come on, turn the radio on”. Which, in short, is a hedonistic rallying cry.

It’s a song about clubbing and dancing on Fridays and Saturdays… a tribute to the pre-night-out soundtracks of our younger days.

“Come on, come on, turn the radio on
It’s Saturday and I won’t be long
Gotta paint my nails, put my high heels on
It’s Saturday and I won’t be long”

I wonder if life was ever really like that? Or did some of us rather sit at home on weekends and listen to the frantic dance music on the radio on early Friday and Saturday evenings and feel really lonely; unable or unwilling to go out on the town?

From the single life – as told through rock’n’pop – to the settled life of partnerships (the staple subject matter of country music), and a move again to bring the adverb particle earlier. This time we have “Turn On The Radio”, a song by Reba McEntire from 2010 which tells the story of a woman who gets revenge on her cheatin’ man, related in the first-person by Reba herself:

“Well, you can hear me on the radio!
You wanna turn me on, turn on your stereo.
You can sing along, while they’re playin’ my song”.

Look how the use of the pronoun object ‘me’ and its phrasal verb gives a double entendre, and how this is contrasted with the other phrasal verb and its noun object ‘stereo’ which has a different (less vulgar) meaning. Together they demonstrate a polished use of the English language and some snappy country music songwriting.

One different song that has a bitter-sweet feel to it and the same title is ‘Turn On the Radio’, but this one was written by members of the band the Bay City Rollers. It was a track on their 1979 studio album, after Les McKeown had left. By this time they’d shortened their name to The Rollers. Some critics liked the album, but it wasn’t a major hit. Many of the songs were about being famous and in a pop band touring the world. Drug-taking and the lonely life are recurring themes here.

“Make an early air ride then you crash your car/ Tripping out on Sunday when you find you’re a star”, and “Turn on the radio—radio/ And what do you care”.

For the record, the best BCR song ever was Rock and Roll Love Letter. They didn’t write it, but it’s a great song. The other catchy version by The Records is also pretty good.

But back to the matter in hand. We could drop the verb. That leaves us with “On the Radio” by Donna Summer (1979).

It’s about a lost love… and how the radio can be a personal space within a very public arena indeed.

“Someone found a letter you wrote me, on the radio/ And they told the world just how you felt”. Something that the data protection laws of the 2010s would not have permitted. But then this was the 1970s.

And then we could move the preposition back to the end. That gives “Radio On”. That’s either a classic cult black and white 1979 British road movie which I’ve previously mentioned. Or perhaps it could be the chant and response coda to Jonathan Richman‘s classic from the heady pre-punk days of the 1970s.

Or how about we change the preposition? Up instead of on? “Turn the radio up” by Barry Manilow. Yes, seriously though.

Manilow is a supreme song writer (you may not like his music, but his talents are deep). He knows how to craft words and melody together to create just the right tone to carry a subject. Think of Copacabana: you can sing it to yourself without even hearing it. His song “Turn The Radio Up” is a melody to make you happy whilst reflecting that what is broadcast can both be an escape and an anesthetic too. That’s a dialectic with very strong undercurrents of power and control, a testimony to Manilow’s gift for hidden meanings in some of his work. “Turn the radio up / Turn reality down”. It’s also typical Manilow and you’ll be singing this for the rest of the day. Sorry about that.

Now let’s bring the adverb particle ‘up’ earlier in the title to give us “Turn Up the Radio”. This is a track by Madonna with, rather oddly, a vaguely similar sentiment to Barry’s. Again, it’s a song about escapism and getting away from the madding crowd:

“Turn up the radio/ Don’t ask me where I wanna go/ We gotta turn up the radio “

Or how about going back to our teenage bedrooms, and the nights of listening to a transistor radio under the covers – Radio Luxembourg perhaps? This is Van Morrison in the climax of ‘Caravan’ exhorting the crowd to “Turn it up now!/Hey yeah!/Do that one more time!/Oh Lord!/So you know its got soul!” as the horns blast back with their rhythmical call-and-response hook melody. It’s at 3’34” in the video below if you just can’t wait… Also this clip, right at the end, contains possibly the first mic-drop in film history. Just saying. Did Martin Scorsese – who directed this film – know what he was recording here in 1978?

And to almost finish, there’s always a chance we could include more examples, such as the British punk band The Members (1982), Canadian prog-rockers Rush (1980), or the Coventry ska band Selecter (1979)…and more.

Radio is a deeply personal listening experience. What is being said? Why has each artiste said it? What, perhaps, did they want to achieve? What effect has it had – listening to each one? Each of these writers has independently recognised that listening is a unique individual experience. What each has tried to do is to put into song lyrics their own personal reactions to what they’ve heard across the airwaves. There may be one of these songs which resonates with you. Others may leave you cold. That is the nature of media reactions. It demonstrates we live in a healthy creative environment where songwriters can evoke expressions of radio listening.

Whilst there’s a range of reactions to radio listening in evidence here, one thing is common to each song. There’s a sense that the radio is a person-to-person communication technology. Each lyric has ‘you’ in the singular – as far as can be assumed. There’s no feeling that these writers, singers and artistes are talking to a big crowd. Instead each one is addressing one person; either the subject of the song or the listener hearing the track.

I’d like to know your thoughts. Do you have a favourite Radio Song? [that’s an R.E.M. track from 1991 for another time: “It’s that same sing-song on the radio/ Makes me sad”]. Let me know your favourites and any other ideas for tracks to include by replying in the comments section below.

And before I go, there’s a quick preposition change – this time from on to off. “Turn Off the Radio” is a track by the nu-metal band A Day to Remember from 2016.

“Turn off the radio till they’ve got something real to say.
Turn off the radio to clear my mind and let me think.
I need an answer, I’ve got the questions.
Can’t anyone out there just relate?
Turn off the radio.”

Harking back, perhaps to Skakespears Sister, with a scattergun critique of the media. There’s no one single radio station mentioned here; just the whole of the AM and FM bands, DAB and satellite too I guess.

Have you got an idea for a track about radio to include in this list? Drop me a comment. I look forward to hearing from you.

One thought on “Turn Your Radio On

  1. The Sia song is the one from your post that I know Martin. The Buggles song is the obvious other one. I look forward to listen to a few of the clips above, fascinating piece


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