Three years ago, I won a dozen long-stemmed red roses in the parking lot of a supermarket. I carried them in the crook of my arm throughout the aisles like a beauty queen. The local radio station was my first true Valentine after moving from San Francisco to a small college town in Ohio, and certainly the only one considerate enough to give me flowers.
My face flushed as I accepted my bouquet with reluctance. I still cringe imagining the crackle of my feeble utterances of gratitude being played out on a stranger’s car radio. Still, even then, stung by the cosmic joke of it all (the surprise suitor unwittingly being someone with no discernible last name, the romantic gesture invalidated by its promotional imperative), I could appreciate that it was a good story.
The feeling of embarrassment persisted, so much so that for a long spell of time, I avoided listening to the local broadcast, preferring instead to hoard podcasts, or stream the NPR affiliate from home. But radio still had something to give me—not a dozen free roses, perhaps, but something equally grounded in the accidental gifts of happenstance. I quickly fell in love with a show called Tradio.
Tradio plays every weekday morning from 9 to 10 AM, one hour before the local news, and two hours before the daily lineup of talk radio shows like “The Mike Huckabee Show.” Tradio follows a “Swap Shop” model that’s duplicated in a lot of small towns across the country. It functions like an interpersonal version of Craigslist: people call in to advertise items they want to sell or purchase, providing a description and a phone number. It used to be called the “The Trading Post,” a name that evokes the old-fashioned friendliness that distinguishes Tradio as unique. Repartee is involved, people seem to know each other, and the show itself has been around for as long as anyone can remember—at least forty years. Still, there’s a converse side to this chattiness, as the show has the edgy unpredictability of live television. Anyone can call and say whatever, though it’s monitored by the program’s host, Allison Miller. Miller has the upbeat, brisk voice of someone experienced in risk management, and is prone to exclaiming, “Thank you much!” after each call. She also has an uncanny ability for reciting seven-digit numbers with lightning speed.
I reached out to the host asking if she’d be willing to answer some questions I had about the program. Miller’s job is a difficult one that requires her to interact with the extreme randomness of other people’s lives. She alone is responsible for implementing order in what is essentially an ongoing, town-wide garage sale, asking callers to specify their generalized requests, screening for prank callers, and catching on to whether or not people are trying to covertly sell contraband items (alcohol, tobacco, firearms, medication) over the airwaves. At her request, we would speak by email. Part of me was disappointed that we wouldn’t be able to meet face-to-face. I wanted to know whether the portrait I had fashioned from dutiful listening bore any resemblance to the actual person. But in some ways, this form of correspondence was fitting for the skewed affection I’d projected onto the program: it ensured the mythology I had crafted after many hours of habitual patronage would be maintained.
Tradio plays on AM radio, which correlates to an elderly listening crowd. Miller said that most of the callers are older people who are reticent to engage in online exchanges. Miller also said that Tradio was “a community in and of itself,” where “each repeat listener feels like they know the host and there is usually some of that across-the-fence kind of banter that is missing in today’s world.” Tradio provides an outlet for people who seek to avoid the relatively high costs of advertising in the local newspaper, especially when many callers are looking to unload items that don’t exceed thirty dollars. The world of Tradio is mapped out on a diminutive scale: floating debris, minutiae, small objects that can mean a lot, and big objects that can mean very little. Miller admitted that some disparagingly view the program as a “redneck trading post.” But I personally believe that Tradio’s indiscriminate take on value carries with it the promise of infinite possibility.
You can learn a lot about a town by reading its newspaper, but with the radio you get personalities. Tradio has a lot of personality. Beyond the practical elements implicit in this system of exchange, I’m pretty sure people listen to it in hopes of stumbling across the idiosyncratic. Of course, I’m not sure of how much of my hypothesis is formed by the biased perspective of the perpetual outsider, ear pressed to the radio to hear some inclination of the fantastical or strange. Still, I can’t help but feel like shows like this have a sense of personality about them, and that that personality is derived from the totally arbitrary nature of the objects being hurled their way. Want a set of medical scrubs (used)? A red Fenton candy dish with a lid (barely used)? A mint-condition Princess House Crystal Mantle Clock (never used, showpiece only)? Maybe you need baby strollers, assorted washers, dryers, or spare tires (on Tradio, there are always lots and lots of tires).
Also available are ladies’ golf clubs, a pair of blue Quaker and green Indian ring-necked parakeets (MUST STAY TOGETHER), an unopened crate of Body by Vi protein shakes, a new cornhole game (a posting that resulted in me nervously Googling the definition of “cornhole”), three muffin pans, and a pie tin. A woman called in and listed for sale a microfridge, microfreezer, and chainsaw, in a monotonous voice that made no differentiation between the three objects. This is the danger of Tradio. You’ll be listening to the show, eating a piece of toast, debating whether or not you want to put on pants and a small voice will whisper, all Iago-like, “Hey, weren’t you looking for a twenty-five dollar chainsaw? Didn’t you just tell me you were looking for a twenty-five dollar chainsaw? What about upcoming birthdays?”
It’s not just the litany of objects themselves that makes this show compelling—it’s also the manner in which each person sells them. Each caller is their own kind of used-car salesman, wily and convincing.
Take, for instance, this elderly caller, who sold her sofa like the best of them: “Well good morning! I got right through. I can’t believe it! I advertised my white sofa the other day. It is a full-size sofa, many pillows, standard sofa. Beyooootiful condition. Been in a room where it has been used so very little. It’s a beyoootiful sofa. We’re only asking two hundred dollars. And that’s a real steal.”
Or the man who attempted to sell a personal portable toilet for forty dollars, enhancing his pitch by testifying that the toilet had heartily endured two trips to Alaska and back. Did this make me anymore inclined to get out my wallet? Not entirely. But I appreciated the boldness of this marketing strategy all the same.
I’m sure some sociologist could glibly tell me that my love for Tradio is born out of some deeply ingrained millennial affliction. The advent of smartphones, tablets, and social media has deprived me of genuine connection. Tradio exists solely to connect. It connects people to one another through things, but it also connects people to the things they love and have lost. I wince at the notion that I like this show out of a disaffected sense of hipster irony, but only because I’m certain that in some painful way it’s true. I asked Allison Miller what her favorite aspect of her job was and was surprised by her response. “I am an animal lover,” she told me. “The best part of my job is when someone has lost a dog or cat and they actually find the animal through Tradio.” Sure enough, that week alone brought in MISSING notices for a tiger cat, a dog from Bangs, and a five-hundred-pound Black Angus calf that managed to break free of its pasture.
Maybe I love Tradio because, at this stage in my life, I am a bottomless pit of need. Twenty-one and exiting the cocoon of college, I want so many things, immaterial and material. I want things of my own; I want things other people have. I am hungry for experience and stability and tiny, misshapen objects that are beautiful. Tradio allows me insight into the varied spectrum of other people’s desires, and for some reason, I find the dissonant clang of this grab-bag medley comforting. Someone called in looking for both a PlayStation II and an old-fashioned four-way stoplight. Someone else wanted a crossbow. Another caller asked in a low grumble for an Old Volkswagen bus from the 1960s. Someone requested “free hamster with everything.” That last part—“with everything”—makes me think the person behind this appeal is very young, maybe under the age of ten. The most naïve part of me still thinks in these clumsy, imprecise terms too. What do you want when you are young and itching with anticipation for the life you’ve always imagined yourself living? Everything. You want everything.
More than any other reason, I love Tradio because I love stories. Tradio presents a wealth of stories because all of the objects displayed are frozen in a moment of transition. They have no beginning or end. It’s up to you to imagine the people forsaking them, and the life these objects will live once they are locked into new ownership. I think anyone who likes to write has a romanticism reserved for recycled objects, because we’re all gluttons for other people’s things: their fold-up treadmills, their twenty-four brown-egg-laying chickens, their dented, rusted exterior of a Volkswagen bus propped up on cinderblocks in someone’s back field. Each item is marked with a story, like the telltale smudge of a fingerprint. The scarcity of detail given only incites greater curiosity about the object’s origins.
Most everyone is familiar with the six-word story misattributed to Ernest Hemmingway: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” That’s half of Tradio in a nutshell. When asked about some of the most common items sold, Miller told me that untouched wedding dresses are high up there. Just yesterday there was an ad for a “trash bag of VERY GENTLY used baby boy clothes.” Another caller requested a free German Shepherd for a son-in-law who is dying of cancer. It’s impossible not to hear those words and not feel an invasive sense of emotional involvement.
In many ways the experience of tuning in to Tradio mirrors the experience of being a student at an elite school on the periphery of a small town. You see people pushing their carts through the aisles at Walmart or jogging along the woods, and you create an idea of what their life must be like. And never are you held accountable for your assumptions, and never are you held to some standard of truth. Sometimes this freedom can make you feel powerful. Usually, though, it renders you a fool. Every time I listen to this show I fight the urge to call each and every number, and ask the caller why it is they want what they want or the very inverse of that question. But I know Tradio has endured its fair share of prank calling and many callers make sure to specify “serious inquiries only.”
And that’s where I come in. When I picture how these conversations will go, it is something like this: me on one end of the phone, a baffled housewife or aging bachelor or thin-faced teenager on the other. They are trying to navigate my questions about their old playhouse, their broken saxophone, their collection of VHS tapes, but I’m relentless, and I’m sitting on the edge of the counter with my feet kicking in the air, still not wearing pants but with a pen in my hand, and pitching to them in a voice both loud and clear: “Don’t worry, I’m serious. Can’t you hear how very serious I am?”
Rumpus original art by Liam Golden.