Becoming Your Parents: Radio Free Washington DC


Kate Kessler

The first time I heard “Radio Free Europe” by R.E.M., I was a high school freshman, still branching out from the middle school faux-emo bands that paved my preteen years. My dad played it for me one night after asking me what music I was listening to. I sat beside him in the kitchen, grabbing a late-night snack after pushing through a particularly difficult chemistry assignment that left me hungry, tired and frustrated. As I threw food into my mouth, my dad muted the TV and let “Radio Free Europe” add life to the yellow light that suffocated the room.

“Radio Free Europe” is R.E.M.’s debut single off of their 1983 release Murmur.  As he did most of his favorite artists, my dad found them through Rolling Stone magazine’s ranking of the top ten most influential albums of the year. Murmur topped 1983’s list. It would become one of his favorite albums of all time. Murmur helped him venture into alternative music, similar to what I was doing at the time after reading amateur Tumblr blogs’ raves about Panic! at the Disco’s A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out. My dad picked up on this similarity. That’s why he chose, of every song, to play for me the one that changed his adolescent life.

The song was unlike anything else I was listening to at the time. “Radio Free Europe” features upbeat guitars and a bass line that dances through the rest of the song. When vocalist Michael Stipe performs it live, he hunches over his microphone, barely moving his feet at all. His wailing vocals sings lyrics I can barely decipher, which is, according to Genius Lyrics, because Stipe had yet to finish them by the time they recorded it. I immediately fell in love with the song. “Radio Free Europe” became the anthem for every crappy chemistry assignment, every lonely lunch period, and every draining Model UN practice.

The song wavered out of my rotation as I expanded my taste, but this summer, I revisited it while preparing to leave for college. That night with my dad took on a new light: the song sounded less like four minutes of rock-infused instrumentals and quirky vocals and more like a pivotal part of my father’s life that he could only share through song. One night, I raided my dad’s old CD collection and took every R.E.M. CD I could find. As I plugged in a CD for every drive to work this summer, it was Green, Out of Time and Murmur setting my mood for each dinner rush and difficult customer.

My dad took his CDs to college with him and shared them with friends. Now, he was sharing them with me. Their music felt nostalgic yet new. It comforted me, letting me know that no matter where I was, I always had music to ground me, music that was brought to me by the people who I value most and would remind me of the most special moments in my life.

The first song I played while packing for college was “Radio Free Europe.” My packing was short-lived, though, because the song demanded too much of my attention. Though I was anxious about living alone, “Radio Free Europe” transported me back into my kitchen on that 2018 day. No matter how far apart we are, I can cherish that late-night music session with my dad because I carry the memory in song. I swear, “Radio Free Europe” has never sounded better than it did that day I packed for college.

As I listen to it at AU, I still think about my father and how grateful I am that he was willing to not only recreate one of his most special connections with music with me but also add a new layer of importance to the song for the both of us, knowing that it serves as an unspoken connection between generations. That, to me, is the greatest testament to the power of music—only the push of a “play” button can represent a deep father-daughter bond, creating memories that carry us through the biggest transitions in our lives.