The song is an up-tempo, electric guitar-driven, modern rocker that features the work of E Street Band members Max Weinberg on drums, Garry Tallent on bass guitar, Clarence Clemons on saxophone, Steven Van Zandt, Clemons and Patti Scialfa on background vocals, and Nils Lofgren on a guitar part underneath Clemons's sax solo. The opening guitar riff and chord progression are somewhat reminiscent of Tommy Tutone's 1982 hit "867-5309/Jenny" with Tommy Tutone lead singer Tommy Heath quoted as saying: "Everybody’s calling me about it," and that, "I think it's close enough that if I wanted to [take legal action], I could work with it."
Springsteen's 1990s twang reasserts itself in the first verses of the down-mixed vocal line. "Radio Nowhere"'s lyrical themes address alienation and a desire for musical and social connection, a theme similar to some of his previous work:
I was tryin' to find my way home,
But all I heard was a drone—
Bouncing off a satellite,
Crushin' the last lone American night.
This is Radio Nowhere . . . is there anybody alive out there?
Springsteen's lyrics appear to intentionally and repeatedly allude to his previous songs, an important artistic tradition in poetry and songwriting, continuing and reconnecting the artist's chosen themes they wish to emphasize. The lyric "I was driving through the misty rain" is likely a reference to his song "Downbound Train" on his album Born in the U.S.A. with the lyric "I feel her kiss in the misty rain." And the lyric "Dancing down a dark hole" likely refers to his song "Dancing in the Dark" from the same album.
In addition, the line "is there anybody alive out there?", while not a previous Springsteen lyric, has been a staple exhortation of his live show. He has been yelling it out for years — notably during the 1999-2000 E Street Reunion Tour — as the show enters its final stretch and he wants to rally the crowd one more time. It is also arguably the central question running through his entire body of work, reflecting the primal importance that he gives to the connective power of rock'n'roll.
The single was released ahead of the album, initially leaking to the Internet on August 22, 2007, to satellite radio the following day and to regular terrestrial radio the day after that. Scott and Todd played the song twice on the morning of August 24 on New York City's 95.5 WPLJ-FM. After the first airing, a disgruntled Sony representative called in ordering them not to play the song again. It is unclear as to whether this was a radio bit, designed to drum up publicity for record, or if the Sony rep was truly upset. Either way, Scott and Todd told the caller that they would not play the song again as long as he was on the phone with them. They proceeded to hang up on him and then play Radio Nowhere for a second time. Later in the day, classic rocker Q104.3 in New York City reportedly played the song several times in a row. The song was also played twice in the afternoon of August 24 by "Fast" Freddie of 93.3 WNCD the Wolf, in Youngstown, Ohio. After being contacted by a Columbia Records representative, they stopped playing it. The official release for radio was set for Tuesday, August 28, 2007. "Radio Nowhere" received some of its biggest promotion and early airplay from a huge Springsteen fan, Chris "Mad Dog" Russo, sports talk host on WFAN in New York, who could not stop raving about it. In fact, callers frequently open their conversations with Russo by chanting Springsteen's "Is there anyone alive out there?" line from the song. It was also admired by other artists within rockdom: At the MTV Europe Music Awards 2007 in Munich, Germany, when asked by Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl which song he wished he had written, R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe cited "Radio Nowhere".
"Radio Nowhere" was made available as a free, limited-timespan download "exclusively" from the iTunes Music Store starting on August 28, 2007 (although it was also available from Guardian Unlimited). The site also offered a pre-order of the new album. Sony BMG themselves created the site www.radionowheredownload.com (no longer active), which also offered the single free for Springsteen's fan base in Europe (for whom iTunes is not always an option), making it available for free well in advance of the commercial release of the album.
Despite all this initial drama, the song was not a chart success in the U.S. (with the exception of reaching number 2 on the Triple-A chart). It failed to reach the Billboard Hot 100. The song charted significantly higher in European countries, with it being most successful in Norway and Ireland (peaking at number 2 on both charts). Nevertheless, the song earned a degree of mind share in the mass media. For example, it was used during the broadcast of the final game of the 2007 World Series as the background music for the production credits and underneath a montage of all the major plays of the series. In addition, "Radio Nowhere" is being used very frequently in American sports arenas during halts in play. In a similar vein, ESPN Radio's The Mike Tirico Show features "Radio Nowhere" as the show's opening theme.
"Radio Nowhere" was included in Springsteen's subsequent compilation album, the 2009 Wal-Mart-only Greatest Hits.