MODESTO — To most of us, the radio dial represents a favorite station here, music that annoys you beyond belief there, or chatter in a language you don't understand.
Cecil Lynch hears it differently even though, only a couple of months shy of his 102nd birthday, he doesn't hear so well anymore.
Lynch can tune into virtually any station in the area knowing he played some role in its existence and development. It doesn't matter that giant media moguls have snapped up most of local radio and supplanted most of the local on-air personalities with canned stuff generated from a studio on the other side of the continent.
As an engineer or consultant, he helped launch or upgrade stations bearing call letters such as KTRB, KFIV, KLOC, KTUR, KADV and KBOX in the valley. He built the small, low-power transmitter for Modesto Junior College's station in the 1950s. The school returned the equipment to him just last week.
He recently decided to count the number of radio and TV stations he helped build or improve nationally, and he came up with 50.
"Five-O," Lynch said. "They're like part of my family. You have a pride of ownership."
Radio was invented in the 1890s and certainly predates Lynch, who was born June 24, 1911, and came to the valley when his family moved here in the 1920s. He was 4 when Charles "Doc" Herrold transmitted from San Jose to San Francisco during the Pan Pacific Exposition of 1915.
Lynch was 9 when commercial radio debuted in 1920. He got the radio bug as a teenager living west of Modesto, and built his own equipment while working with a neighbor who learned a bit about radios in his native Norway.
While visiting a store in Oakland in the early 1930s, Lynch saw a man named Bill Bates broadcasting from a small glass booth inside the store. Bates motioned him in and they talked about radio for hours. Bates casually mentioned he had applied for a license in Modesto. Lynch told him he lived near Modesto. So Bates promised Lynch a job when the government approved his application.
One day in 1933, Bates dispatched an employee to Modesto to track down Lynch.
"Bill sent me out to see if you are interested in working for him," the man said. "If you are, start tomorrow morning and bring your lunch."
The next day, Lynch began his radio career at the original KTRB station at Sylvan and McHenry avenues.
The irony is that six years ago, he helped the Pappas family, which bought the station from Bates' estate in 1973, move it to San Francisco.
In between, Lynch worked for stations from Hawaii to Alaska, as well as on the East Coast, in a career that continues, though in a limited way.
He also developed a following as an on-the-air personality in Modesto in the 1940s, as host of a live man-on-the-street type of show titled "What Do You Think?"
"We'd pick a topic of the day and just go out and talk to people," he said.
That included interviewing soldiers at the old Hammond Army Hospital (now the site of MJC's west campus) after Germany surrendered in 1945.
"He has hundreds of recordings of him and other people," said MJC media coordinator Wes Page, a friend of Lynch's. Both are members of the Modesto Radio Museum. "He did one downtown at the Serviceman's Club 'in the shadow of the arch,' as he put it. The servicemen sang to him. That just blows me away."
In the days of live radio, Lynch had a group of women, including his wife, Eleanor, who sang to open his shows.
"But in one recording, they weren't there, so he sang it himself," Page said.
In 1960, Lynch worked as the chief engineer for the Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley. He was responsible for creating work space for broadcasters from nations worldwide.
"I had access to all of the quarters except the ladies room," Lynch quipped.
He oversaw 60 engineers, assigning them to the various broadcast teams who set up shop in the 50 small studios inside a building at the Olympic village.
"They were only about 10 feet square," Lynch said. "They didn't have a heck of a lot of room."
One day during the games, legendary newsman Lowell Thomas knocked on the door of Lynch's office.
"He was lugging his typewriter and wanted a little quieter place to work," Lynch said. "He asked if he could work in the big briefing room, where we gathered every morning. I said, 'Sure.' And I also stood with Walter Cronkite in the IBM building, tracing some event that had just occurred."
Awed by the others then, he maintains reverence for those who came before him.
Lynch and fellow radiohead Steve White hope to stage an event to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of Herrold's broadcast from San Jose to San Francisco.
"People thought someone was hiding under the table, pretending to be broadcasting from San Jose," Lynch said.
If they can pull it off, the event will happen in 2015.
"He'll be trying to honor someone else at 104," Page said. "But he's the one who should be honored."
Indeed, the father of valley radio deserves to be the star of the show once more.
On Mobile? Listen to Cecil Lynch's old radio clips at these links: