Jim and Irene Westcott are a very average middle-class couple with two young children in New York City. They are unique only in their shared love music, though they choose to keep their interest a secret from their acquaintances. After the couple’s old radio breaks down, they replace it with an expensive model that looks aggressively out of place in Irene’s carefully designed living room. Irene tries to get used to this new radio’s presence, but its “malevolent” appearance forces her to hide it behind a sofa.
Irene attempts to listen to the radio, but hears “doorbells, elevator bells, electric razors,” and other domestic sounds. She realizes that the radio is transmitting sound from other apartments in the building instead of playing music. When Jim attempts to use the radio, the same thing happens; he hears a conversation, ringing telephones, and other forms of “interference.” He tells Irene he will call a repairman to fix their new radio.
The next morning, after the radio has been repaired, Irene turns it on to hear a recording of the “Missouri Waltz” playing over and over again. Jim comes home later that night, and he and Irene listen to the radio during dinner. Suddenly, a man’s voice interrupts the music, and the Westcotts overhear a fight between a man and a woman named Kathy; Kathy’s piano playing annoys the man, especially after a long day at work. Jim believes the interaction is simply a radio play, but Irene asks him to turn the radio to another station; another conversation is transmitted through the loudspeaker. Jim changes stations twice more, and two other conversations are broadcasted through the Westcotts’ living room.
Jim still believes that it is “impossible” for the radio to transmit their neighbors’ conversations, but Irene eventually recognizes multiple voices. She asks him to deliberately search for one set of neighbors, and they begin to make a game of it; in the process, they overhear many private conversations, including a “bitter family quarrel” over finances. Due to this new insight into their peers’ shortcomings, the Westcotts go to bed self-satisfied, smug, and “weak with laughter.”
The next day, Irene deliberately eavesdrops on her neighbors, and overhears scenes of “carnal love, abysmal vanity, faith, and despair.” As Irene is seemingly a “simple and sheltered” woman, the radio’s revelations distress her. When she gets into her building’s elevator with some neighbors, she is suddenly mistrustful: she looks into her neighbors’ faces and wonders what secrets they are hiding. When Irene’s friend meets her for lunch, Irene even questions whether her friend is concealing something in order to appear normal.
Irene comes home to eavesdrop further, and “the intensity” of the overheard conversations increases; eventually, by the time Jim returns from work, Irene has become thoroughly disenchanted by her neighbors’ constant secrecy and deception. While on a walk with Jim later that night, she tells Jim that the street musicians seem “so much nicer” than the people in the Westcotts’ social circle.
The next night, Jim enters the apartment to find Irene in tears; Irene, who is inconsolable, reveals that their neighbor, Mr. Osborn, is beating his wife. She begs Jim to confront Mr. Osborne over the abuse, as she is unable to stomach society’s tacit code of silence. Instead of intervening, however, Jim turns the radio off—offering Irene the choice to stop listening and thereby feign ignorance of Mr. Osborn’s cruelty. Despite Irene’s initial desire to save Ms. Osborn from danger, she ultimately acquiesces to Jim’s suggestion and lets the radio remain turned off. She then recounts a litany of their neighbors’ problems: she highlights how the Hutchinsons, another set of neighbors, cannot afford hospital treatments for a relative, and lists the various affairs, quarrels, and anxieties of the building’s other tenants. Irene then asks Jim to confirm that their family, in comparison, is “good and decent and loving.” Jim answers that the Westcott family is happy.
The next day, another repairman fixes the radio. Irene turns it on, and is relieved that the neighbors’ discussions are no longer being broadcast. When Jim returns home, however, he looks distressed and announces that the radio is actually more than the family can afford. He then asks why Irene has lied to him about her unpaid “clothing bills.” He claims that he “worries about money a great deal,” and feels as if his life’s efforts are “wasted.” Irene, distressed that the neighbors will overhear their fight, wants him to speak quietly; Jim, however, becomes fed up with her behavior, and asks why she is acting so self-righteously. He lists numerous cruel things Irene has done, including stealing her mother’s jewelry, withholding money from her sister, and visiting an “abortionist.”
As Jim continues to shout, Irene clings to the radio’s dial, hoping to hear something comforting. Instead, a voice on the radio broadcasts a news bulletin, repeats statistics about a railroad disaster, and describes the weather.