If you are between 45 and 95 years old, there's a very good chance a radio was a big part of your life when growing up. If on the other hand your adolescence was in the past 25 years, it would be another technology such as the cassette boom-box of the 1980s or an iPod which is the solitary listening device of our current generation of teens. Yes, the radio is still a part of growing up, but not the way it was from the 1920s through the 1970s. The menu of electronics is so vast today that the humble radio is often left behind.
The early days of radio were transforming for our society; people were fascinated with the invention and it became a part of everyday living by the 1930s. In the late 1940s television arrived, but radio held on with a loyal following. TV was a family affair, but a radio could be in the background of your day, be it music, news or a baseball game. Also of importance was the program host, who often could be considered a mentor of logic and insight into our world. This kind of individual is hard to find on today's airwaves.
My introduction to the world of tube radio came when, at the age of 12 in 1973, I inherited my grandmother's tabletop Zenith, and a radio it indeed was — the size of a breadbox with eight vacuum tubes for power, twin speakers, one of which was 8 inches in diameter, and automatic frequency control for the FM. The proudly displayed "High Fidelity" lettering on its front panel indicated that this radio meant business. It was made at the pinnacle of tube era in 1964 just a couple of years before the entire audio industry changed to the transistorized circuit.
Most audiophiles and musicians will attest to the warm sound created by the tubes, with music sounding noticeably different than newer transistorized models. Today's digital systems are very precise, but the richness of the melodic tones is lost in the process.
What probably really piqued my interest in this radio at the time was the name Zenith gave it — "The Super Interlude"! I remember thinking, what on earth does that mean ... well, I never found out. I was so proud that it sounded better than my friends' stereo systems and found myself spending many hours listening to a variety of programming out of New York City — Jets football, the Dr. Demento show which was a sure-fire hit with any teenager and, of course, the very popular WCBS 101 FM, which had wonderful programming. They just last year went off the air and were among the very few independent radio stations left in the country.
Today that Zenith still sounds as good as it did when it was given to me 35 years ago. There's a lot to be said for the phrase, "They don't build them like they used to." They surely don't build anything like the Super Interlude! Being in awe of this radio clearly played a role in my ongoing interest in antique radios. Next was the 1931 Atwater Kent cathedral for my 16th birthday, followed by a very long list of others in the years to come — Philco, Stromberg, Carlson Detrola, Crosley, the list of American manufactures was long and proud.
Virtually every state in the union made radios, but a large percentage were manufactured in the Midwest. Some of the large art deco console models with up to 20 tubes and all wave reception were true marvels of audio engineering and a major presence in the family living room.
Alas, domestic radio production has long since disappeared, but the vast majority of the million which were made are out there in collections, attics and basements. The good news is that most can be refurbished with relative ease, which is not the case with many of our current electronics, many of which cannot be disassembled without damaging the internal components and consumers are often told to simply throw it out and buy a new one — this defies all logic. Most troubling is the possible future of free radio with the introduction of satellite radio. If the trends follows what has happened in television, you may only be able to listen to your favorite show if you pay for it — what a shame that would be!
Until the scenario plays out, find yourself a tube radio — don't buy a new one. Repairing electronics is "green," you know, not to mention it's fun to hear dinner guests say, "Wow, where did you get that neat radio!" A search of the Internet will reveal a large number of sources, clubs, related information. Our local AM station, WNBP, has great programming to play through that vintage radio. Thanks to the current interest in refurbishing these sets, one can grow old with the radio he or she grew up with and that's a plus in this age of planned obsolescence.
Andrew Hayden lives in Newburyport.