I suppose that I should be more of a vid kid because I grew up during part of the so-called Golden Age of Television, but my heart belongs to radio. Like reading a book, listening to the radio lets your mind’s eye see the pictures in your head.
In 2017, I don’t know how many people actually twist knobs to tune in. You can listen to radio stations from around the world on the Internet. People play CDs or use mp3 players in their cars.
Not me. I love the small thrill of searching for a stronger signal or a better station as I tootle down the road. I’ll listen to an Internet radio station now and then, under protest, because a lot of the old familiar international stations no longer offer shortwave broadcasts.
So you can imagine my reaction when I found an old-time photo of Broad Street in New Bethlehem shot from a spot a few doors down the sidewalk from the L-V office. There, in what appears to be the present Pre-K Counts location, was Shumaker’s GE radio shop. From the cars in the photo, it must have been taken sometime in the 1950s.
Imagine that, a whole store devoted to nothing but radios. Most of us can remember Davidson’s TV store which was located farther down the street on the next block, but a sole-proprietor radio shop was something that had fallen by the wayside in the 1960s. Radio Shack was starting to make its mark.
Radio Shack is singing its own swan song these days, a common fate for a lot of well-known national retailers. It started out catering to amateur radio enthusiasts, many of whom had been radio operators during World War II, but switched to offering affordable transistor radios that nearly anyone could buy.
The development of the transistor, an invention of various ham radio operators, revolutionized the way we listened to the radio. By substituting transistors for those old vacuum tubes of yore, radios were smaller, lighter and tougher. The radio moved from the living room and kitchen out to the backyard.
This was a big thing. When I was a little girl, my grandparents still had one of those marvelous wooden console radios in their sitting room. We had a black plastic countertop model in the kitchen at our house.
Fast forward to the advent of television, and my grandparents’ radio fell silent for good. My parents still listened to the radio, but the old plug-in set was replaced by a newfangled battery-power transistor set or three. This was the ultimate in convenience, but woe to the child who wore out a set of batteries.
Remember that scene from A Christmas Story in which the dad, played by Darren McGavin, wanted to repair the major-award leg lamp broken accidentally on purpose?
”You. Used up. All the glue. On purpose!”
It was like that. A wise child learned to squirrel away a spare set and replace them on the sly.
My brother received a small pocket-size transistor radio for his birthday one year. I can’t remember the brand, but that little thing opened the world to a couple of small-town kids. We could listen to what was known in the business as progressive rock, light-years away from the Top 40 ditties playing on KDKA during the day.
Shortly after sundown, the layer of the atmosphere which affects the way radio waves bounce around changes. That is when the AM radio bands become active, and this is why teens and pre-teens could tune in WCFL from Chicago and WLS from Boston.
I was never the same after I heard Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.” It was a universe away from the bubble-gum pop tunes by the Archies I heard on KDKA’s FM broadcasts in the afternoon.
A few years later, my Depression Era-kid parents invested in a sleek modern version of my grandparents’ console radio receiver. It was the approximate size of a coffin, but it had awesome speakers, along with a stereo turntable. The only problem was, you couldn’t take it up to your bedroom at night to listen to Led Zeppelin before you went to sleep.
Did I mention that my dad really, really hated “Immigrant Song”? Now that I have a good start on the seventh decade of life, I can see his point. But at 15, it was edgy and oh so cool.
About three years ago, Josh assigned me a story that entailed driving out to the East Brady area to interview Mel Check, curator of Check’s Radio Museum. As something of a throwback radio geek, I was pleasantly interested. When I got there and saw what Mel had in his possession, I didn’t want to leave because it was like the Holy Grail and a Cracker Jacks prize all in one.
In odd corners or standing in random places elsewhere stood a couple of authentic console radios that would have been at home in my grandparents’ sitting room. Setting on random shelves and display cases were vintage tube radios from the early 1900s up to the age of the transistor.
I don’t understand the mystique of radio, but it is a real thing. It’s the kind of everyday magic that we really don’t think about, the kind of magic that causes a seed, some dirt and a sprinkling of water to turn into a petunia. It just requires a little more interference from mankind, that’s all.