Back To The Old Shack

Deep in downtown Manhattan, there used to be a street of dreams– Courtland Street. The far western end of it was known as “Radio Row.” From what I understand, it was an old-fashioned electronics paradise. If I could afford one of those high-end time machines and could simply whoosh back to 1949 or 1958, one of the first things I’d do would be to jump on the Broadway IRT down to Chambers street and wander Radio Row– ogling the glowing dials, fondling those bakelite knobs, and tracing my fingertips over the bins and racks of cables and adapters and connectors. (And then… Coney Island!)

That end of Courtland Street is long gone. Tore it all down to build a couple of hefty skyscrapers back in the mid-60’s. Strangely enough, they actually fell down seven years ago (you probably heard about it) and there’s still just a big hole there with a bunch of men doing stuff. Heard they’re gonna make a “freedom tower” (whatever that is). But you can be sure that they’re not bringing back Radio Row.” But I wish they were. Electronics stores don’t fall over so easily.

Sadly, I didn’t grow up in New York. Never saw radio row. (Never had a sandwich at an automat either.) I’m from the land where the strip mall and the tri-level home were perfected, where the lawns were manicured and grownups beat you every now and then. And if you had a passion for patch cords, police scanners or little suction cup doodads that could record your phone calls, you didn’t have a radio row. You had “Radio Shack.” And you had to love it. And they sent you full color catalogs in the mail. In fact, they used to ask for your address every time you bought something. They knew you wanted the catalog. Probably the second best type of bathroom reading a boy could get for free.

Now you may think it silly to say anything reverential about a chain store. And for many, the name “Radio Shack” was kind of a punch line for any joke about shoddy electronics. And if you were lucky to have a classy radio shop in your town, or a hot and well-equipped electronics franchise in the neighborhood, you could easily look down your nose at all the knock off goods with silly brand names like “Realistic” and “Optimus.”

But what Radio Shack did do, they did very well. They served the working stiff and the average family, providing inexpensive and (somewhat) durable electronic gadgets and gear at reasonable prices– in a small “Sears” kind of way. But more uniquely, they were the neighborhood place to find all variations of audio receiver. And if you needed some part or piece or connector for a radio or sound system, you knew you could find it at your local Radio Shack. And it probably wouldn’t cost you a fortune. The Radio Shack chain was a practical American reality. Like having a gas station nearby. And with more than six thousand stores across the country, there was usually one just a short drive away– at the mall, the shopping center, or out on the highway. And while Radio Shack was always handy for batteries, tapes and wires, I was always profoundly aware that these little stores always had cool radios in stock. Especially shortwave radios.

In retrospect, your local Radio Shack didn’t really have the very best shortwave sets on the market, they always had a few really good ones. And in the days before more sophisticated anti-pilfering technology, the pricy/fancy radios were usually behind the counter or up on a high shelf over your head. For all the hundreds of times I visited Radio Shack outlets, I doubt I ever went out the door without at least briefly casting my eyes on the store radio shrine, and all the chrome and buttons and green digital display screens.

As I’ve been speaking of Radio Shack with atypical nostalgia (and using past tense) you may be working your way through this post looking for the obituary– a story of stores closing or some transformative merger at hand. Nope. In fact, you can stop looking for any definitive news about Radio Shack at all. Because the point here is more about definition, about how a huge chain of stores slowly stumbled away from its identity so far that it’s not much more than a tiresome "Rite Aid” of electronics.

As you might imagine, the Radio Shack chain started as not much more than a supply store for radio hobbyists and professional radio operators. Then back in the early 60’s they merged with a leather goods chain run by an ambitious dude named Tandy, and his vision made Radio Shack the ubiquitous hobby/technology mart we all knew and needed, and some of us loved (even if we wouldn’t admit it). In the late 70’s they started selling their own make of computer that did very well, and the chain flourished. It’s easy to forget what computers were like so long ago. There was no public internet and very little software available. If you had a computer you could crunch numbers, write programs, and most significantly you could play games with them (which were incredibly primitive by today’s standards). The point being it all fit in with the Radio Shack vibe– providing complex toys and all the accessories, for people who were serious (and even thoughtful) about having fun.

And then there were the radios. Radio Shack always had a wide variety. And a scan of the high-tech receivers on their shelves, or thumbing through one of their catalogs, gave you that big futuristic American feeling of technology on the march. And they had their own brand of radios. And the more elite and muscular models had bizarre features far beyond the understanding of most casual listeners. Radio Shack had radios for people who loved the gadgetry of radios and for people who wanted high-performance radios that could tune in signals from the other side of the world. Like me, and maybe you.

Through the 1990’s there were changes afoot in radio-land. Beginning with the end of the cold war, which for many years had generated the scintillating content that kept people listening to shortwave radio. Then the march of technology made the need for elaborate lo-fi radios less relevant by some measure–In 1992 the world wide web was opened for business, and the next years web (streaming) radio, became a reality, followed by the creation of the graphical web browser in 1994. And then the next year an executive from Ralston/Purina took the helm of Radio Shack. While Radio Shack had become much more than a supply store for radio freaks, putting a pet food magnate in charge of a huge electronics chain with a very unique (and some might say eccentric) heritage might have been kind of a mistake.

Although there was a change in logo that came with the new guy in charge, Radio Shack didn’t change all that much at first. But as the 1990’s were grinding to a close, a lot of Radio Shack customers began to notice that a few things weren’t right at their neighborhood "shack." Like the lack of radios.

I wasn’t able to find any definitive writing on what really happened to Radio Shack, but I did find this article in a retail trade publication from 2005 all about the new and improved version of the electronics franchise, called “The Stuff Shack.” And to read this insider write-up is to see just another example of how in our era of über-capitalism (is it over yet?) a retail entity which had long provided a valuable service to particular type of consumer abandoning their base clientele to pursue massive profits predicted by people with no fundamental understanding what made the business successful in the first place. In a nutshell:

“Earlier this year, the company announced plans to accelerate the rollout of a new product mix. The concept favors the chain’s seven best categories: wireless, accessories, power, modern home, personal electronics, technical and services.”

No mention of radios. Searching the document I found no instances of the words: “shortwave”, ”cables”, “adaptors” or “antennas.” These were all the reasons I usually went to Radio Shack. I really don’t think many people begrudged Radio Shack for carrying a bunch of big ticket items and pushing cell phones like candy, but when their stores got really slack about stocking the kind of goods they were famous for, and the handy friendly geeks at the counter were replaced by slick sales sharks, it became painfully obvious that the service Radio Shack provided for thousands of communities was abandoned in the name of tawdry short-sighted greed. And the article I just quoted had one big revelatory announcement– Radio Shack had just hired a new Chief Operating Officer, a visionary woman who had spent the spent the last thirty years climbing the corporate ladder at McDonald’s. (In her defense, I guess she did help “spearhead” the launch of McDonald’s salad products and shepherded the "McRib” concept to fruition.)

The fact is the vast majority of radio related items that used to be the heart of the Radio Shack catalog have been discontinued. I’ve actually been in Radio Shack stores that had only one or two shortwave radios in stock. And forget about asking the floor hustler staff on hand any technical questions about them, or almost anything else. As you might imagine, I’m not the only one dismayed by the dawn of the super slick “Stuff Shack”. (Check out some similar gripes here, here or here) So as a remembrance from the late glory days of Radio Shack, here’s a souvenir. It’s an informative starter kit for the fledgling shortwave radio listener.
   
Radio Shack Tape – The Sounds of Shortwave (1992) pt 1 10:53
(download)

Welcome to the world of shortwave radio!” beckons this cassette tape after teasing with a tasty little collage of HF turning. “Listening to Shortwave” offers a respectable overview of how shortwave radio words and how to listen. Certainly not the masterpiece created by pop producer Mitch Murray (Long Live Shortwave!) that I offered in this post, but this Radio Shack production is more contemporary and discusses the more modern digital tuners we use today. Although more experienced listeners won’t learn a lot listening to this tape, it really is a fairly thorough overview of the how and why of shortwave listening.

Side two is more fun, bringing home the “world at your fingertips” thrills that radio boys (of all ages) can still find so compelling. “So what’s out there?,” the announcer ponders, and then the production “hops around” the shortwave bands offering some radio flavor from some of the big players in international radio (BBC, DW, The Voice of Russia…). The samples aren’t amazing, but they’re good. Most offer tidy reception, although the sound is authentically rich with the inherent distortion that you grow to love as a shortwave listener. Not static, but the poetic audio artifacts of the technology and the planet it traverses. 

Radio Shack Tape – The Sounds of Shortwave (1992) pt 2 11:28
(download)

One thing that’s completely left out of the mix on this tape is all the evangelical stupidity and insanity that infests North American shortwave broadcasting. Probably because it’s a touchy issue, and as this package is also sales tool to market Radio Shack’s shortwave radios they wouldn’t want prospective radio buyers to realize the scope and disturbing nature of Christian dreck clogging up the shortwave dial in the states. So although it’s understandable, ignoring this reality makes this tape and booklet less than representational of "what’s out there."

The “bandscan” offered is really a collage and not an accurate representation of the noise and faint signals you’d run across in a typical trek through the kilocycles, but with so many changes in what’s available on the shortwave bands (and what’s offered) it’s hard not to feel a little nostalgic when you hear some of these snippets of shortwave broadcasting. But then again, 1992 feels like a long time ago right now. And at the end when the announcer talks about hooking your computer up to a couple of shortwave radio bulletin board systems (BBS) to pick up “a load of information” about shortwave schedules and propagation conditions.

Speaking of information– the accompanying book that came with this tape, “Listening to Shortwave,” is a much more thorough shortwave radio primer, with plenty of charts, graphs and illustrations that would make any shortwave tenderfoot smarter, wiser, and better at small talk at any hamfest or at the annual Kulpsville gathering. And as a lagniappe for stopping by The Radio Kitchen today (and reading this through to the end), I offer you your very own copy of “Listening to Shortwave” as a PDF file. (Which you can download by clicking here.) And you’re welcome.
When this kit was created, Radio Shack had specialized in shortwave radio for decades. And I’m sure they thought this starter kit would have a shelf life of a decade or more when they put it together. But time was not on the side of radio-heads at the Tandy corporate headquarters. The web opened up to the public that same year, and many things would soon change. The BBS systems that remained would be integrated into the internet, broadcasting around the world could soon be accomplished with a modem and a net connection, and in a year or two interloper food executives would start to turn a national hobbyist’s lifeline into a mega-chain “stuff shack” for couch potatoes and teenage girls.

And I’m not even going to mention the BBC, and Deutsche Welle and now the RADIO NETHERLANDS ( !) all abandoning their English broadcasts to North America in this decade. It’s just too damn depressing…

I probably never would have admitted the importance of Radio Shack in my life until recently. It was easy to make fun of the clips and coax and scanners– and some of the people you might see there (like me!). But ever since I was a kid, it was dependable– for radios I usually couldn’t afford as well as practical patch cords and adapters I had a hard time finding anywhere else. And once I started to notice the radios missing from their shelves, and to find more and more people behind the counter at Radio Shack stores who didn’t know a shortwave radio from a continuity tester ("But would you care to take a look at this humongous flat-screen TV?.") I realized I was beginning to grieve…

However, recent visits have led me to believe that the Radio Shack enterprise may actually be getting serious about reclaiming a little bit of their heritage. As I duck into RS outlets in my travels, I’ve been seeing a few of the new shortwave models on the shelves. I don’t sense they’re rebooting their brand again, but there seems to be a corporate move afoot to put a few radios on display at their outlets (as decorations perhaps?). If I had to venture a guess, it might just be that after years of customers coming into Radio Shack looking specifically for radios they might make a little cash if they had a few on hand… just in case. (I wish some of the great shortwave services of Western Europe would see it the same way, and beam some content over this way, just in case some of us might be listening.)

Here’s how the “Sounds of Shortwave” tape ends. I admit it’s hokey, but nonetheless, I approve this message:

“Just think of it. As you sit there listening to this tape, or flipping through the pages of the book, thousands of signals are zipping by you at the speed of light– voices and sounds from all over world just waiting for you to listen. All you need is a shortwave receiver, and some electricity to power it. And you’re off on a wonderful adventure in the magical world of shortwave broadcasting.

Happy listening!”

NOTE: My friend Doug Hammond just sent me this amazing link– a whole bunch of old Radio Shack catalogs online! Browse through the glorious yesteryear of Tandy Incorporated to your heart’s content. And you can help by contributing images of catalogs they don’t have yet. Amazing. Thanks Doug!

 

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6 Responses to “Back To The Old Shack”

  1. Travers Says:

    I still have that very Radio Shack “Listening To Shortwave” book and cassette!! I picked it up sometime around 1995 as a young (13 Y.O. maybe) kid who wanted to learn more. I can’t remember what exactly hooked me on shortwave but I think it was my dad’s multi-band portable he kept in the garage. Being curious one day I flipped the radio from its usual FM classic rock setting to something called “SW1″ and “SW2″ and was hearing these distant signals from everywhere! Later for Christmas I got my own portable multi-band radio so I would stop touching dad’s and my interest just grew from there! Have probably a dozen shortwave radios today and a amateur radio license. I think radio is less a bug and more a disease :P

    Last time I went to a Radio Shack it was to pick up one of those digital TV converters. I tried the model they sold and it was junk, returned it and the government is out $40. They had some lower end eton/Grundig shortwave radios but that was it. The display they have for Sirius (err, Sirius XM) was larger and more pronounced. They had a decent police scanner display so I’ll give them that! Beyond a few accessories for odds and ends I don’t visit much. Internet shopping has replaced a actual store for radio geeks.

  2. Dale Says:

    RS must have been a convenient alternative to the Heathkit or Allied Radio catalogs. You needed a resistor or had to test your TV tubes, you could just go do it (remember the tube tester station?). I think it’s demise has to do more with the lack of interest in radio and electronics homebrewing in general than anything else.

    My last visits to RS were to get some things together to put up a UHF antenna for the digital switchover. I asked for a couple lengths of antenna mast and the 20 something behind the counter had no idea what I was talkiing about. “You know, a mast to put an antenna on…Mast?….it’s tubing, about an inch in diameter, maybe 5 feet long…..Mast? Just painful.

  3. Dr.Sam Says:

    Yes it is true and it is depressing. The world of shortwave is almost dead. Like one of the posters said here, I also discovered shortwave on my dad’s radio on the SW1 and 2 switches. Still hooked but kinda depressed that not a lot of English broadcasts out there for NA. I guess the last straw for me was when radio Netherlands decided to stop their broadcasts.

    Coming back to the focus of the article, Radio shack, like other corporations went for huge profits and forgot their customer base/specialty. Going to radioshack nowadays is like going to a smaller version of best buy or circuit city. If they have to survive in business these days, they better market themselves as a specialty store. A store that offers something that no other place offers. So far they have failed to do that and if they continue this way, they are soon gonna be bought by one of the bigger stores. I know that they still have electronic components and some Eton radios (very soon the radios will be gone, cuz Eton will be out of business) but what really counts is a friendly and knowledgeable sales person who himself has to be an amateur electronics enthusiast.

    I guess the present generation (teenagers) don’t really care because they are happy doing everything on a touch screen and they are happy being dumb cuz the work for them is done by some smart electronic engineer in Korea or China. Radio Shack used to be the source of hands on electronics training for a lot of people, but with that specialty gone, there aren’t many in the younger generation who learn the basics of electronics by themselves. Amateur electronics is going to be dead soon. Thanks Radioshack!
    Dr.Sam

  4. Dale Says:

    It’s Friday night and the wife is out so I can sit at the kitchen table and listen to the radio for a change. I tried to get ‘BCQ but the ether will not cooperate, landed on Radio Havana Cuba. It’s probably everyone’s first catch if they read up Passport to Worldband. And I’m listening on a RS branded Sangean, the DX-398. The only good thing about RS is that you can dicker with them, but when they close out a model they practically give it away. This was a $250 radio discounted to $150 when they stopped carrying it. I had a $75 gift card for renewing my Bell Atlantic cell service through them a few years back, so I got this great radio for 75 bucks. Sometimes the stars align….

  5. John Segal Says:

    Thanks for the mention about http://www.RadioShackCatalogs.com. The site is simply PHENOMENAL!!!! Only a labor of love would motivate someone to put that much time into a site of “old catalogs”.

    But, not only does he display Radio Shack catalogs from 1939-2005 (Currently, he’s only missing 3) but if you look around, you can view “books” of old store photos, memorabilia, trademarks, advertisements, commercial videos, and even a forum.

    There’s a LOT of history on that site. If anyone has anything to contribute, I’m sure the site owner would be very appreciative.

    Let me see if I can dig up some old Free Battery Club cards to send him :-)

  6. BenjaminR Says:

    THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU for posting "The Sounds of Shortwave"!!!  I have been looking online for this gem!  When I was about 11, my dad purchased this tape (and booklet) for me.  I was really interested in radio before he got it but the tape really wet my appetite for SWLing.  I would listen to this tape over and over.  I eventually got a shortwave radio (Sony ICF-SW7600).  A year later, I got my ham radio license.  
    Thanks again for posting!  This is going into my archives!

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