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Not long ago a woman called Tradeline to say she had hand-fed cockatiels for sale for $60. Then a man called saying he had eight collectible Barbie dolls, each still in an unopened box, that he would take $100 for. Another man had a 1-carat diamond engagement ring for $1,200. Then a woman offered 30 pieces of firewood for $30, as well as two burial plots for $2,600.
Tradeline is a radio show in northeast Alabama that consists almost entirely of people in the listening area calling in to describe items they own that they are ready to part with, either by selling or giving them away. The show is done live, with few rules — callers are asked to offer no more than three items and medicine and tobacco are not allowed. Apart from that, most anything goes, frontier-style.
Tradeline advertises itself as the largest bargain finder on the airwaves. It might also be the most enigmatic, entertaining, and satisfying radio show in the United States.
WCKA, a country music radio station in Jacksonville (pop. 12,500), broadcasts the show six days a week, and almost 50 people call in each time it airs. It can get dizzying, not because of the pace, but because of the smorgasbord of offerings. People have called into Tradeline over the last few weeks looking to sell a pair of 19th-century handcuffs, four Michelin tires, 25 jigsaw puzzles, a billy goat, a Hungarian pistol, a double-wide mobile home on two acres of "level land," tomatoes, the hatchback from a 1979 Ford Pinto, and on and on. Show after show, caller after caller.
Some people who come on Tradeline are looking to make a trade, like a man in early August who had a dump truck with a 14-foot steel bed and "350 motor" he would exchange for a one-ton, 1970s-model pickup. Others are not looking to part with anything at all, but, instead, wish to obtain something specific. Their requests are no less random and esoteric. The recent needs of callers include a clean bread machine for home use, preferably with an instruction booklet; a full-size canoe; a flagpole at least 30 feet tall; a walker with the front brakes intact; and a "pretty nice tractor" in the $5,000 range.
The experience of listening to Tradeline could be best described as like wandering through a Southerner’s Dada-inspired Saturday morning garage sale while on acid. But, really, there is nothing like it.
The show’s host is a man named Jim Morgan. He has a calm and kind radio voice and his personality gives Tradeline a relaxed air — callers often refer to him as "Brother Jim" or, simply, "brother." His main role is to steer people out of tangents and remind them to share their locations and telephone numbers, which may sound easy, but Jacksonville is in the hills of northeast Alabama. A lot of people reach Tradeline with poor cellular reception. No matter how scratchy the connection, Jim shepherds them along with patience until all is clear.
Jim is also something like Tradeline’s straight man. If the show has a theme, it is this: The only thing stranger than the journeys people take in life are the stray items that accumulate around them. That, coupled with the unpredictable nature of live radio, gives the show an undercurrent of humor. A kind of unintentional comedy is always lurking.
Like this summer, when a man in Heflin came on Tradeline looking to give away an 8-year-old chihuahua. He said the dog was "more like a guy dog than a female," well-behaved and neutered, which he clarified by adding, "he can’t get no other dog pregnant."
A less sincere host might have chuckled. Jim simply thanked the man for the call and urged listeners thinking of adopting a dog to consider the fixed chihuahua.
One of the more interesting callers to Tradeline is a woman in Jacksonville who, for weeks, has been trying to sell 30 pieces of firewood she believes is oak for $25. (She recently dropped the price from $30.) She also has two burial plots for $2,600. The plots are in a town called Anniston at a cemetery called Forest Lawn Gardens, which she described as "a high-class place where rich people get buried." Once, after giving her usual sales pitch — she is a Tradeline regular — the woman pivoted into a gripe about another listener.
"I just want to give a shout-out to Donna," she said. "She was supposed to cut my grass. I paid her half of the money and I filled up her gas tank with $15 worth of gas and she never cut my grass. That’s pretty ungodly."
After bemoaning Donna’s antics some more, the woman said, "God’s going to take care of it — ain’t that right, Jim?"
To which Brother Jim, an apparent optimist, responded, "Yeah. And she might take care of it herself."
WCKA is on Broadcast Boulevard, a road in Jacksonville lined for a stretch by cedar trees. I reached out to the station this summer, explaining that I had an admiration for Tradeline and would like to know more. I called the station, emailed a few employees and exchanged text messages with Jim, but never could find out more. In a way, I appreciate not knowing too much. The show remains at arm’s length, only a collection of interesting and unknown voices traveling on the airwaves west toward Birmingham and east into Georgia.
There was a time when airwaves were full of classified ads. This was decades ago. Local radio stations began spreading across America in the 1920s, and for a long time, appearing on a broadcast was the most efficient way to reach the most people. Dr. Kathryn Fuller-Seeley, an expert in American radio history who teaches at the University of Texas, said that in addition to classifieds, stations routinely broadcast crop reports, community announcements, funeral notices, weather reports, school lunch menus, and, she added, "local wackos selling goat gland supplements."
A radio station’s only rival for a while was a newspaper. Then came television, the Internet, cellphones, Facebook, and Twitter. Each of those brought people closer together and, in the process, radio classifieds reached the point of extinction.
"I had thought that almost all of that had disappeared," Fuller-Seeley said.
"I suspected they had pretty much faded from the scene in the internet age," Dr. Michael Keith, an expert on the history of electronic media and Boston College professor, said.
But Tradeline seems to have a robust following — even the mayor of Jacksonville confirmed that he is a regular listener. From 10 to 11 a.m. on every day but Sunday there is always someone on the line, waiting, hoping to find what they need, or get rid of what they don’t.
The reason for Tradeline’s popularity is no doubt connected to the deals that can be found on the show. Where else could a used rug for $30, a 1999 Buick LaSabre for $650, and cushioned bar stools for $10 be found in one place? Fuller-Seeley guessed that Tradeline’s location plays a role, too. "The rural South would be a good place for this to linger," she said, explaining that many isolated and small communities have no daily newspaper, so local radio remains the best means of direct, mass communication.
I believe another, less specific reason draws people to the show.
Most callers to Tradeline do not explain the circumstances around a decision to part with an item. They describe what they have, give a location and number, and hang up. So if you are the type of listener who wonders, mysteries pile up, and mysteries are seductive.
That said, the callers who do take the time to explain transform Tradeline from an on-air classified listing into a mini-reality show. The stories they tell are brief, imparted with the smallest of brushstrokes, like they are using Hemingway’s iceberg theory, which calls for only the slightest details to be revealed. The listener’s own backlog of emotions color in the rest.
A woman in Gadsden called Tradeline once to say she had a blue Schwinn tricycle for sale. After describing the tricycle — front brakes, basket on the back — she said her stepfather thought he could ride it but discovered, after his left leg was taken off, that he could not. "We need to sell it," she said. They were asking $350.
Another woman, with a slightly older voice, had an old Dodge Power Wagon for sale. "It was my husband’s when we married, which was 30-plus years ago," she said, mentioning, too, that she had a three-bedroom, two-bath home for sale for $120,000.
There was a man with an electric wheelchair for sale. He said it had been sitting in storage a while, so the battery might be bad. He just was not sure. It had been his son’s, but his son had died, so he wanted someone who needed it to have it. He did not ask a specific price.
Listening to these stories — a young woman helping her stepfather through some bad luck, the hint of a widow letting go, a father ready to move on from his son’s death — is a sublime form of retail therapy. In a culture dominated by the pseudo-reality of Facebook, the voices on an hour of Tradeline are a choir of real life. Tuning in at mid-morning is a sort of antidote to anxieties. Instead of worrying about global warming or how close North Korea’s missiles have come, you hear from a man selling his motorcycle because in December he will become a grandfather and he is leaving behind everything that requires a helmet. You hear from another man looking to buy his daughter a stove so she can feed the grandchildren. You hear from an elderly woman hoping to hire someone to simply sit with her during the day. Connecting to that sort of humanity will soothe about anything.
You might hear of a good deal, too.