James Robert "Radio" Kennedy, an 18-year-old man with mental disabilities, pushes a shopping cart along the streets daily. He is attracted to a high school football team and often passes by their practices. One day, a football flies outside the field and lands near Radio. Radio takes the ball, deaf to the demands to return it by a student athlete on the other side of the fence. Sometime later, the team members tie up Radio and lock him inside the gear shed. The team's coach, Harold Jones, hears the team members throw balls at the shed and goes to comfort Radio. He punishes the team for their actions. Upon meeting Radio on the streets another day, Coach Jones asks Radio to visit and help at training. Coach Jones returns Radio to his home, where he meets Radio's mother. It is revealed that Radio has a brother named Walter, who does not live with them, and that their father died a few years prior.
Coach Jones begins spending more and more time with Radio, which concerns the fathers of many of the team members. One of the fathers in particular, Frank Clay, suggests that the coach should stop associating with Radio as he could be a distraction to his own son's success on the team. Coach Jones resists, and he later reveals to his daughter that this resistance was partially due to a childhood incident in which Jones did not do anything to help a mentally disabled boy who was locked under a house.
While distributing Christmas presents to nearly everyone in the town, Radio is questioned by a police officer as to where he got the presents. The officer, seeing that Radio is unable to communicate properly and unaware of his mentally disabled state, places him under arrest on charges of possession of stolen property and takes him down to the police station. In fact, the presents had been given to Radio by the townspeople. After the officer roughly locks up Radio in a jail cell, he looks for his information. The other officers, taking pity on Radio after seeing him cry, take him into the staff-room to watch a basketball game together. Coach Jones soon arrives, releasing Radio. The offending officer is punished by having to spend the day with Radio to deliver the rest of the presents.
Radio eventually takes classes in the high school, and it is apparent that he never completed a formal education. After struggling, Radio eventually learns to read. Though well-liked by most of the students at school, Radio is still ridiculed by Frank's son Johnny and his friends. On one occasion, Johnny tricks Radio into entering the girls locker room. This triggers an incident with the School Board that puts Radio's ability to attend the high school at risk. However, Radio refuses to tell Coach Jones who told him to do it, leading Jones to say, "You're a better man than me, Radio." Coach Jones eventually figures out that it was Johnny who told Radio to go into the girls locker room, and punishes Johnny for his actions by ordering him to sit out from the basketball team for an indefinite time. After Coach Jones tells Johnny that Radio never uttered a word about who caused the incident, Johnny begins to respect Radio and doubt his father's impressions. Radio's mother dies of a heart attack bringing severe agony to Radio.
After the football team's season ends, Frank places the blame for the team's inability to win on Radio being a distraction, and demands for Jones to end his association with him. In a meeting with the townspeople, Jones talks about how Radio has really been a blessing for the community, showing how people should treat one another. He then shocks everyone by announcing that he's going to resign as head coach so he can spend more time with his family. This causes many of the townspeople to turn on Frank, while Jones leaves with his family.
The film ends with Radio receiving a high school diploma at the graduation ceremonies, and the principal announcing that he will receive one every year to make him feel like part of the school. Johnny also gives Radio a letterman jacket. It then shows clips of the real life Radio on the football field with the real life Harold Jones.Cuba Gooding Jr. as James Robert "Radio" Kennedy
Ed Harris as Coach Harold Jones, the head football coach
Debra Winger as Mrs. Linda Jones
S. Epatha Merkerson as Maggie Kennedy, Radio's mother
Sarah Drew as Mary Helen Jones
Alfre Woodard as Principal Daniels
Brent Sexton as Coach Honeycutt, the basketball coach
Riley Smith as Johnny Clay
Chris Mulkey as Frank Clay, Johnny's father
Patrick Breen as Tucker
The film's lead character, Radio, is based on James Robert Effinhimer Kennedy, who was born October 14, 1946 in Anderson, South Carolina. His nickname, Radio, was given to him by townspeople because Kennedy grew up fascinated by radios and because of the radio he carried everywhere he went. He still attends T. L. Hanna High School and helps coach the football team and the basketball team. He is known to ask students before football games, "We gonna get that quarterback?", and say "We gonna win tonight!". ReelSports provided the football and basketball coordination for the film.
Radio received generally unfavorable reviews. On review aggregate Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds a 36% "Rotten" rating and holds a score of 38 out of 100 on Metacritic. Common points of criticism included the excessively sentimental screenplay and music as well as the formulaic plot. However, the film found an audience, grossing $52,333,738 with a budget of approximately $30 million. Cuba Gooding Jr. earned a Golden Raspberry Award nomination for Worst Actor for his performance in the film but also an NAACP Image Award for best actor in a motion picture.
The soundtrack to Radio was released on October 21, 2003.