Sunday, August 1, 2010

Transistor Radio Days

Just like me, transistor radios came into being in 1954.

Unlike me, they took the world by storm. Soon they were the most popular electronic communication device in history. Billions were manufactured during the 1960s and 1970s. And as much as Elvis or the Beatles or even Eminem, transistor radios changed the way we listen to popular music.

Think of them as iPods with training wheels.

We got to hear our favorite songs, but with the guidance of “boss jocks” (a term completely unrelated to executive male support) and “hip cats,” who not only told us what the best songs were, but played them all day and night. (Or at least 23 hours a day … there was usually a sunrise religious service of some kind between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m.)

Sure, we had to listen to a whole bunch of our non-favorite songs, too. Also, it's true that some of those songs were later found to have caused loss of brain cells due to their sheer dumbness. And yes, there were endless commercial interruptions and station identifications and constant reminders of what time it was and bubbly jingles about contests for loyal listeners and DJs' personal appearance announcements, usually at a local movie theater or dance hall …

But it was FREE music!

Once we got our transistor radios the whole world opened up. No longer were we captive audiences to the Al Martino, Nat King Cole and Four Aces hits that streamed from our parents' large-as-a-china-cabinet “hi-fi stereophonic” sound systems. Today I can admit that those artists hold a fond place in my heart, but back then I wanted to hear the new stuff. And so did all of my friends.

The first phase after transistor acquisition, itself, was getting a compatible ear plug. Note that I don't use the word “headphones” here, since the ear plug was a one-eared monophonic wonder of its time. Finally … a little privacy! It gave birth to the closed-eyed, goofy look on the face of millions of teens that we can all recognize to this very day, as well as the seemingly silent hipster be-bop stroll down the street.

The next step was attempting to record your favorite songs on the small reel-to-reel tape recorders that were available then. This would (theoretically) free you from the whims of what the radio station wanted you to (or allegedly was paid to have you) hear. One problem with that proposition was the intrusion of peripheral sound. It was not uncommon to get the first two minutes of a two-and-a-half minute song (using the superior acoustics of the bathroom), and then suddenly hear “Do you see my hair brush in there?” or “I really need to get in there, and I mean right now!”

If we'd known the expression at the time, these would have been perfect Homer Simpson “D'oh!” moments. I think I probably said “Shoot!”

Another, even more frustrating problem with the home recording project was the intrusion of the DJ. In fact, the whole process was a study in anticipation, reflexes and timing.

First there was FSR (Favorite Song Recognition). We all learned to identify our prey in three notes or less. Press record. Pray that our radio host is not explaining that “Manny's Records (parking in the rear) is sponsoring the next half hour of million dollar music here on WFIL, Famous 56” over the song intro. If not, you're safe until about 30 seconds before the end.

Assuming that you got through the start cleanly, the finish was doomed, so it was important to hit “stop” at the first breath that didn't sound like music. (This could prove difficult for one of those talking songs, like “Big, Bad John” or “The Ballad of the Green Berets.”)

Some of us mastered this skill, while others were destined to include the radio station promo as part of the song in their memories forever.

Sadly, in the minds of those poor souls, The Beatles might have sung, “Eleanor Rigby, it's nine minutes before the hour, picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been, and you're listening to Long John Wade at drive time, lives in a dream.”

As I look back, I find that I don't actually remember carrying my transistor radio everywhere I went, but I know that I must have. Why? Because my mind is absolutely stuffed beyond capacity with fragments of songs that I never bought, but could only have heard on the free airways.

For instance, I know that Brandy was a fine girl, and what a good wife she would be. Unfortunately, his life, his lover, his lady … was the sea.

I will always remember that Buttercup would build you up just to let you down (and worst of all, never call, baby, when she says she will … but he loves her still).

Also, grazing in the grass is a gas (can you dig it?), in the year 2525 man may or may not be still alive and since you've been gone, all that's left is a band of gold.

I believe that we have the transistor radio to thank for all of this useless information that's trapped inside the heads of my generation. It's a mixed bag situation. Twenty years ago it made us virtually unbeatable in the “Pop Culture” category of Trivial Pursuit. Today it prevents us from remembering the name of our niece's boyfriend who just introduced himself to us.

Oh, well. As transistor radio superstar Bobby Sherman once sang … “Easy Come, Easy Go.”


  1. From Ellen E.

    I received a transistor radio when my brother got one for a special occasion and I guess my parents didn't want me to feel left out. Mine, though, was larger than most and DIDN'T have an ear plug, so I was disappointed. I hope I didn't let on because it was a really nice gesture. I probably drowned my sorrows in banana or vanilla Bonomo Turkish taffy.

  2. From Ray S.

    God, I hated Bobby Sherman, but I hated Tommy Roe even more. Nice trip down memory lane with a pop-music backbeat. Another winner. Keep ‘em coming.

  3. From Terri J.

    Great Blog Jack! You just gave me an excuse for my bad memory and not hearing as well as I used to!! I was flooded with memories of my first transistor radio . . . such fun and I thought I was such a big deal! Boy the times have changed!

  4. From Judy K.

    I still have an index-card sized black radio that I kept under my pillow at night, falling asleep to "WIP . . . radio 6 1 oh . . . Phil a del phi a . . ."

  5. From Mady K.

    I got my aqua and cream transistor radio for my 16th birthday. I carried it everywhere, especially to the beach. The only downer was that my sister (three years younger than I) got one on her birthday three weeks later. I wonder, "Is that always the way it is with the oldest?"

  6. From Brian K.

    You made me laugh, now they're coming to take me away, HaHa

  7. In addition to the DJ always talking over the intro, we were occasionally bombarded with someone whispering "WFIL....Exclusive!" every 15 seconds during the song.