By Harry McCracken | Monday, February 6, 2012 at 9:06 am
Everyone knows that certain technology products are endangered species. Film cameras, for instance. Turntables. Payphones. Odds are pretty good that you haven’t used any of them recently. If you’re young enough, you might never have used them.
I never thought of pocket-sized AM/FM radios–the sort with built-in radios and telescoping antennae–as falling into this category of obviously-doomed products. I assumed that any store that sold electronic gadgets of any sort still stocked them.
But last week, my mother, who I’ve been visiting in Boston, asked for one. And boy, was I surprised by how tough it was to find one for sale locally.
Please don’t reflexively mock mom as a Luddite: She owns an iPhone, a BlackBerry, and a Kindle, and was the first person I knew who owned a laptop computer–way back in 1983 or thereabouts. But she wanted to press one button on an affordable, portable device to hear WBUR, her favorite station. For that, a pocket radio still sounded like the best option.
Now, mom already had a fancy portable radio–an Eton that can run on batteries, solar energy, or hand-cranked power, and which doubles as a flashlight and phone recharger. She asked me to help her with it. It took me ten minutes to figure out how to make it play WBUR, which seemed like a bad sign. That’s why I figured she’d be happier with a simple pocket AM/FM model.
And I thought, not unreasonably, that I’d buy it at RadioShack.
Then my father pointed out that my sister, who’d visited earlier, had bought the Eton at Best Buy–because she couldn’t find a garden-variety radio at RadioShack or Best Buy.
I decided to try again. I went to two nearby RadioShacks.
It feels really silly to go into something called “RadioShack” and ask if it carries radios–especially when the answer is no. (One of the locations, in a mall otherwise dominated by stores such as Aeropostale and Victoria’s Secret, had shelf after shelf of diodes and transistors for sale–I wonder when was the last time anyone bought any of those?–but no radios.)
I also tried two Best Buys, and a Target. None of them had a straightforward pocket radio with a built-in speaker.
All of these stores did have related products of several sorts I wasn’t looking for, such as tabletop iPod docks with built-in radios, clock radios, and weather radios. I also saw more hand-cranked Etons in a variety of sizes–radio apparently being something that people think of as an emergency supply rather than an everyday necessity.
At one Best Buy, I even saw a Walkman with a tape player as well as a built-in radio–a classic gadget I didn’t know was still extant.
But I didn’t want a radio that also did other things, or something else that was also a radio. I wanted a radio.
Over on Twitter, folks had lots of advice, all of it interesting:
@harrymccracken Did you try Frys? Also, if your Mom doesn't mind a used version, Weird Stuff in Sunnyvale might have it.
— Kevin Krewell (@Krewell) February 4, 2012
(I’m sure Fry’s has them, and I love the Weird Stuff Warehouse–but they’re both thousands of miles from Boston.)
@harrymccracken try a drug store. Cvs, Walgreens etc
— victor marks (@vmarks) February 4, 2012
(I checked two CVS locations; no joy.)
@harrymccracken Target sells radios.
— lauralou (@bubbaloucious) February 4, 2012
(No they don’t. Or at least the one I visited didn’t have any plain ol’ AM/FM radios–although it did have Sonos music systems and other surprisingly sophisticated stuff.)
— Cynthia Schames (@CynthiaSchames) February 3, 2012
(Thousands of them, I’m sure, but I wanted one right away.)
— Adam Belzycki (@Belzycki) February 3, 2012
(Neat! Also $219.99.)
— Scott Thomas (@scottgfx) February 3, 2012
(Looks like it would be a good option if I could wait for it to arrive.)
— Chuq Von Rospach (@chuq) February 3, 2012
Eventually, when I was flirting with giving up and ordering online, I decided to make one last stop–at the oldest surviving RadioShack, on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. As RadioShacks go, it’s spacious and fairly well-stocked. If the oldest RadioShack of them all no longer sold radios, it would just be sad.
“Good evening,” a staffer jauntily greeted me when I walked in. “What brings you to the Shack tonight?”
When I told him what I was looking for, he said that yes, yes the store did stock radios. In fact, someone else had been in earlier that day looking for one.
He led me to the very back of the store, where two radios were hanging in blister packs: a $14.99 one with a traditional station indicator, and a $29.99 one with digital tuning. I opted for the former–that’s it up at the top of this post–and bought AA batteries for it. (The clerk somehow convinced me to buy a 36-pack of them.)
Mission finally accomplished.
So why was it so hard to find? It’s tempting to assume that the iPod or the iPhone or the iPad killed the classic pocket radio. But as I think about it, I believe that radios of the sort my mom wanted were archaic long before the age of digital music.
Starting in the 1970s, they were done in by two newer, trendier types of radio: the Walkman (and its imitators) and boom boxes. Both provided high-quality sound than a pocket radio. If you wanted to listen privately, you wanted a Walkman; if you wanted everyone else to hear, you wanted a boom box. But you probably didn’t want a dinky monophonic radio with a tinny built-in speaker.
The excellent site Radio Shack Catalogs chronicles the decline of the pocket radio: In 1960s and 1970s catalogs, there was a major section teeming with ’em. By 2000, the year before the iPod debuted, the selection had already dwindled down to a few perfunctory options. I just didn’t notice until now.
Radio, obviously, isn’t dead; it remains one of the most mass-market forms of mass media. But outside of cars, I wonder how many people listen to it on a device that’s a radio, and nothing else?