If Video Killed the Radio Star, Smartphones Put My Transistor on Life Support

World Radio Day Feb. 13, 2015

Update: Check out this article about the hassles of trying to find an old style transistor radio.

I’m not ashamed to admit it—I still use a transistor radio. It’s about the size of a cellphone, and it offers a few more features than the pocket version I had on the farm in the 60s. But it’s not much different from the device that provided news, weather, sports, and tinny pop songs in the Dick Clark era.

I blame two things for my addiction—the Farm and Dad. Along with the prayer before the meal, the noon farm report was sacred ground for Dad. He could hold a decent conversation and keep us boys from flicking peas at each other while simultaneously listening to farm interviews on a scuffed up transistor held together with a strip of duct tape.

In later years, Dad’s stab at an exercise routine included brisk walks around the farm—but it was really an excuse to listen to ag reports. He may be the only exercise walker who ever wore 5-buckle boots and had a transistor propped to his ear. He claims his habit began as a kid when his family huddled around a big radio console to hear Dick Tracy dramas, Louis-Schmeling championship fights, and the Iowa Barn Dance Frolic.

I inherited the affliction early. My gateway experiences were innocent enough—I’d take a transistor to bed on Christmas Eve to hear festive carols. Soon enough, the Beatles invaded and disc jockeys become “cool,” so we had to keep up with the trends. On Saturday mornings we’d prop a radio on a dusty beam in the hog house so we could pitch manure to the beat of Sam Cooke’s “Chain Gang.”  We might have a static-filled transistor in our pockets while we walked bean fields or sat on a tractor cultivating corn. 
By age 15 I was still snuggling up at night with a transistor, but now I was catching the 10:00 p.m. top-three countdown from WLS in Chicago. Nothing like falling asleep to the Stones singing “19th Nervous Breakdown.” Without internet or cable TV, radio was a pipeline to the outside world, and with the 50,000 watt AM stations of old, we could pick up “exotic” locations like Little Rock, Arkansas.  A late night show called Beaker Street featured spacy sound effects, a spacier DJ named Clyde Clifford, and music ranging from early Hendrix to Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant.”
Radio was our ESPN in those days, and even though college basketball and football were popular, baseball was king. During October, school boys rigged up hidden transistors and ear cords to catch a few innings of World Series play during riveting English class lessons about diagramming sentences.
But transistors are fading into the analog sunset. Many young people have no idea what one is—and why should they? Smartphones and other devices give them YouTube, XM, Pandora, and other online options. If today’s big box electrical stores have any radios at all, they’re usually on an endangered species shelf in the back, behind the last 3-pack of VHS tapes.
I too enjoy digital sounds, but I haven’t completely kicked the transistor habit. Mine is small enough to carry while jogging or shove in a pocket during yard work sessions. To true addicts, transistors are almost spiritual. Dad and I agree—we’d like a transistor sent along with us when we move into the next life. Dad wants it to keep up with the grain markets and hog prices. I just want one handy for the next few hundred years of World Series games in case the Cubs finally win one.  That might be enough to bring anyone back from the dead.                      
by dan gogerty (top pic from pbs.twimg.com, radio photo from tumblr.com)

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