Busytown Radio brings us the news, the weather, and the best music ever
A drive down memory lane with Huckle and Lowly
In Busytown, everybody is very, very busy. Everyone has a job: there are firefighters, construction workers, letter carriers, dentists, music teachers, bakers, and farmers, though no newsletter writers, surprisingly. One job isn't enough for two schoolchildren, Huckle Cat and Lowly Worm, who also moonlight as drive time radio hosts.
If you’ve somehow avoided Busytown in the last 60 years, here’s a quick primer. Introduced in his book Best Word Book Ever, Richard Scarry’s Busytown is a town full of anthropomorphic animals. The book features over 1,400 labels on illustrations of everyday places, people, and things. The book doesn’t have much of a plot, but the town inspired a media franchise that included multiple animated series, video and board games, and at least one cassette tape.
I've had a copy of Richard Scarry's Busytown Radio: The Big Traffic Jam for as long as I can remember. It was a favorite of mine as a kid along with the audio edition of the D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths and an audio adaptation of the much-maligned camp hit Batman and Robin (my copy of which I have unfortunately lost). I was a big fan of Busytown in general—I had the word books, of course, along with the PC game, an interactive storybook that featured many of the same songs as the cassette.
I hadn't actually heard those songs since I was a kid, but that all changed when I picked up a portable cassette player and radio—Sears, Roebuck, and Co. model 56021170250—at a vintage market in the Catskills last month. With a little bit of technical wizardry, I was able to record Busytown Radio straight to my computer, and bring all 28 minutes of Busytown magic with me on my portable phone—no magnetic tape required. I uploaded the whole thing to the Internet Archive if you want to follow along.
Despite not having heard the tape in over two decades, the details came flooding back to me. There's a thin plot where DJs Huckle and Lowly follow the developing story of an overturned concrete truck and the ensuing traffic jam, but most of the time is spent listening to "the best music ever," a collection of tracks about Busytown and its residents. It's not all that different from some concept albums inspired by the radio, though your patience for the songs might vary depending on your age.
Side A kicks off with the Busytown theme song, which extols the values of Busytown: "friendly faces all around," "has such happy sights and sounds," and "lots of secrets to be found." That last one is a bit of a head-scratcher. Secrets? A lot of them? Are the townspeople particularly cagey with personal information, or are there an abundance of unsolved murders in Busytown? Unfortunately, the true meaning behind this line remains a mystery for the rest of the program. I do love the lyric "pump gas or be a doctor"—everyone has their job and place in Busytown, and this theme song is not out here to shame any productive member of their capitalist utopia.
After the theme, Huckle and Lowly get a call from neighborhood busybody Mr. Frumble, reporting that he "just saw Jason the Mason taking down the walls of a house in Busytown." Huckle and Lowly quickly correct him and let him know that Jason the Mason was actually putting up the walls—which truly should've been very obvious to Mr. Frumble—but also, what's it to Frumble if Jason the Mason was taking down walls? Has he never heard of demolition or remodeling? There may be a lot of secrets in Busytown, but it's no secret that Mr. Frumble needs to chill.
Huckle and Lowly take us through a few more tracks—"Building a House," which I believe was a passive-aggressive dig at Mr. Frumble, "Seesaw," a song about seesaws, and "Captain Salty," a track all about Captain Salty's new boat. Interspersed through these tracks, we get bits and pieces of information about a concrete truck that spilled its contents all over the road while on the way to Jason the Mason. Their reporter in the field, Hilda Hippo, absolutely loses it emotionally on the radio just looking at that wet concrete spilled all over the street.
For some reason, Huckle and Lowly believe it's their responsibility as schoolchildren and DJs to come up with a solution for how to get rid of the concrete before it dries. Lowly—who, I forgot to mention, also drives a helicopter/car hybrid shaped like an apple—comes up with the brilliant idea that Smokey the Firefighter could keep it wet, giving the construction crew time to shovel it back in the mixer. It's thanks to this idea that we get the brilliant track "House on Fire," a honkey-tonk banger of the highest order that closes out Side A.
Side B opens up with news that there's a big traffic jam (hence the cassette's name) and the firefighters can't get through to the concrete. Huckle suggests calling Mr. Fixit, as "he can fix anything." Lowly responds, "That's true, Huckle. But he can't fix a traffic jam." They play a song about Mr. Fixit—a surreal track about Fixit making some kind of milk chocolate drink that I couldn't make heads or tails of—and hopefully Huckle and Lowly exchange some words off-mic, as Huckle absolutely cannot let Lowly talk to him that way.
After the track, our DJs come up with another solution to the concrete issue—they'll call their local pilot to drop some water from above. Does the pilot have that kind of equipment? How long will it take him to load up enough water and get up in the air? Wouldn't it be easier to get cars off the road and diverted away so that the firefighters can make it through? These are the kind of questions you're left with when you let two children solve your infrastructure issues. Huckle and Lowly play a song about the wind, and then one about the gas station that uses the word "lubrication" a few too many times.
At this point, the cassette begins to lose steam, as both the spilled concrete and traffic jam are resolved without further issue. "Thanks, Hilda, for your fascinating reports," Lowly says, voice dripping with sarcasm. There are two tracks left: "Delivery Truck," a track that suggests Lowly and Huckle also drive delivery trucks when they're not on the radio or at school, and "Storytime," an ode to quiet reading. Compared to "House on Fire," it's a real drag of a track that doesn't do enough to send us off properly.
And send us off it does, as unfortunately, The Big Traffic Jam was the only Busytown Radio cassette ever produced—or at least the only one I can find evidence of on the internet. I think we need another installment. The last Busytown TV show, Busytown Mysteries, ended in 2010. The franchise is ripe for a new, audio revival! There are tons of unexplored characters and backstories and secrets for the next Busytown Radio. Maybe by this point, Huckle and Lowly have a daily podcast of news, weather, and the best music ever. ("I'm Huckle Cat and this... is the Daily Busytown.")
Until then, I'll just enjoy what I have: "House on Fire," the absolute best honkey-tonk song about firefighters ever recorded.