Whatever Happened to Radios?

By  |  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.

Flavoradio

Once upon a time, RadioShack sold gazillions of radio models.

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:

(I’m sure Fry’s has them, and I love the Weird Stuff Warehouse–but they’re both thousands of miles from Boston.)

(I checked two CVS locations; no joy.)

(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.)

(Thousands of them, I’m sure, but I wanted one right away.)

(Neat! Also $219.99.)

(Looks like it would be a good option if I could wait for it to arrive.)

(Ditto.)

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?

 
23 Comments


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23 Comments For This Post

  1. Ben Norman Says:

    A 36 pack of batteries… That salesmen needs a medal!

  2. Kevin C. Tofel Says:

    Great post, Harry. A few smartphones actually have FM radios in them, but of course, that's not what your mom was looking for. My kids actually listen to their fave local stations on their smartphones using the I Heart Radio app. Another option as a workaround for other folks.

  3. Harry McCracken Says:

    Well, I was going to buy a four-pack for $4.99; the 36-pack was $10. So for once, I didn’t resent being upsold.

  4. James Kendrick Says:

    Being in hurricane country, a simple battery-operated radio like your Mom wanted is essential for weathering extended periods of power outages. The fancy ones that serve multiple functions slurp the batteries up too fast. Glad you found The Shack still has these.

  5. Brandon Backlin Says:

    I agree with what James says. A portable radio is a part of my emergency kit. For casual listening I use apps. By the way, I went to the Tunein website and the first station was WBUR. Nice!

  6. @gregpc Says:

    We still listen to the radio in three places (excluding the car) that I can think of: the alarm goes off to WBUR every morning, we have a Sony under cabinet radio/CD/direct input device in the kitchen and in the summer I will listen to Red Sox games while mowing the lawn.

  7. Harry McCracken Says:

    Clock radios still seem to be selling well–or at least they're easy enough to find.

  8. Adrian Says:

    Here in Sweden (and, I think, many other parts of Europe) FM radio is quite popular and we have good quality public service radio (without advertising). But – and maybe I've got this all wrong – FM radio is not that popular and not that high quality in the US? I've always assumed that was the reason the iPod never got FM radio when it was needed the most (when we couldn't stream radio over the net to our mobile phones).

  9. mphxaz Says:

    I listen to a Sangean (PR-D9W) daily when out on the patio. Nice small radio that uses AA's (or rechargeables). Purchased from Amazon last year to replace an old Sony that had been purchased 10 years ago from Target. Even trying to find one online that fit what I wanted was a chore…

  10. @nealcampbell Says:

    Harry, I love terrestrial radio. I have 5 Model One radios from Tivioli Audio around the house so I can always turn on NPR. A couple months ago, I attached iPad docs to all the radios because of a radio loving app called Stitcher. It's a great way to get podcasts, but it's also a great way to stream radio to iPhone or iPad. Your mom's favorite WBUR is available through Stitcher, so even if you've found a terrestrial radio she likes, I encourage you to download the app and add WBUR to favorites on her iPhone. I bet she'll love it as a way to get her radio fix.

  11. Mel Says:

    CCrane.com has the best radios around. Radios of all kinds. Check it out.

  12. John Baxter Says:

    I spent many hours at Boston's Commonwealth Avenue Radio Shack in the late 1950s, both for myself and getting stuff for WTBS*. It was a wonderful store then; I'm glad to learn it's still there. I also spent time at the downtown store (wherever it was). I don't know whether it has survived.

    * I'm speaking of the MIT student station WTBS ("technology broadcasting system"). A sailor from Atlanta acquired the call sign from my successors at the station–the proceeds bought some really nice studio equipment. The station is now WMBR (Walker Memorial Basement Radio, I think). WTBS was the network control for the Technology Broadcasting System, which included WTBS, WHRB (Harvard) and several other local college stations. The network broke up a couple of years before I arrived. Thanks for the memories.

  13. Harry McCracken Says:

    The RadioShack on Commonwealth Avenue actually moved some years ago–but just next door, in the same building. I believe it’s smaller than it used to be, but it’s still good-sized.

    The only other RadioShack in the Boston area I keep tabs on is the one in Harvard Square (which didn’t have any radios). It’s been there for as long as I can remember, though it too used to be larger–it had a basement computer annex.

    I believe there was a downtown RadioShack that was even older than the Comm Ave one–but that it closed decades ago.

  14. Harry McCracken Says:

    And wow, I had no idea WTBS was originally an MIT student station! If only they’d sold it for 1% of all future profits…

  15. camelofdoom Says:

    Was the part about not using turntables a joke? They will almost certainly outlast CD players!

  16. ileneh Says:

    Harry, sorry to say, you were totally looking at the wrong source for the product you wanted. Freecycle is very active in the Boston area, and one quick message in the FC in the town where your Mom lived probably would have yielded quite a few offers ;-). As it happens I picked up one of those transistor radio things that has emergency channels on it and actually used it in a storm in which I lost power over the summer. Very handy! (Plus, my son hooked up my turntable and we had a great time listening to old jazz records.) Turntables have become pretty popular in the Boston area too over the past year.

  17. mwoolley Says:

    Amazon still sell radios. I use my turntable quite regularly and I use an AM/FM radio/cassette/CD combo when I'm working on my PC at home. The CD player has much better sound quality than playing CDs on the PC.

  18. The_Heraclitus Says:

    Radios are now built into MP3 players. Ipods don't have a radio built in? You're kidding me.

  19. The_Heraclitus Says:

    Adrian. The U.S. has FAR more FM music stations that the entire EU. Most other companies making MP3 players offer FM radio integrated. Apple doesn't as it also runs an MP3 store and doesn't want free competition…

  20. Passing Strange Says:

    A couple of weeks ago I had occasion to look for that '80s standby, the boom box. I had roughly the same experience as you did, Harry, except that eventually I tracked down a few in a dusty aisle in Best Buy. Sadly, their quality was dreadful.

    Except for clock radios, AM/FM seems to be relegated to what others here have noted: emergencies. You can find high-end models in disaster-supply stores (I think the local Red Cross store even stocks one alongside the food- and first-aid packs), but the old transistor radio is all but gone. Well, you can find their tinny sound well-represented in those sorry boom boxes.

  21. MelB Says:

    Strange as it may sound, I grew up having a transistor radio in the bathroom. With five people sharing one bathroom in the morning, you knew that when the 7:10 traffic report came on, your time was up.

    I actually owned (maybe still own – better check) the orange radio in the ad above. We have a "newer" Radio Shack version in the bathroom now. I've ingrained the habit with the next generation: The child has to be brushing her teeth by the time sports comes on so can we leave the house on time.

    Plus this trusty radio heads to the basement with us during tornado warnings.

  22. Mike Payne Says:

    Isn't it amazing !??! Your right, the boom box ate the nifty little portable (pocket) radio. I wanted one, too, and I had to settle for a AM/FM/SW/TV/CB/Cassette, in stereo rig. Its not bad, the price was right, but when you get older, you may want friends and family to help lug it around. (and I am getting a lot older) I grew up in a time that inexpensive table radios, and portables were readily available everywhere. Even the 5 & 10 had them, plus crystal radios. I have two cell phones that have a FM receiver built in. (no one makes "just a phone" anymore) All I want is to make and receive calls. I don't text, do the web, send cam pix, or any of the other things my kids do with theirs. I bought my wife a nice car a couple of years ago. It has a fabulous radio/sound system. You have to have a EE degree to use the thing. (and they say texting and driving are dangerous) Its a far different world today. (I have my restraint belts and Hans device secured)

  23. Andrew Says:

    Slightly different in the UK – FM/AM/LW radios are common, although nowadays digital (DAB) radios are a bit more common.