Sunday, July 20, 2014

Do you remember your transistor radio?

The year was 1954, rock and roll was just two years old and something new came across that horizon, something that would merge with rock and roll and become a force to reckon with. Two companies working together, Texas Instruments of Dallas, Texas and Industrial Development Engineering Associates (I.D.E.A.) of Indianapolis, Indiana, were behind the unveiling of the Regency TR-1, the world's first commercially produced transistor radio.

It was just a few years earlier that William Shockley, Walter Houser Brattain, and John Bardeen, three scientists at Bell Laboratories held a news conference during which a prototype transistor radio was demonstrated. In May 1954, Texas Instruments had designed and built a prototype and was looking for an established radio manufacturer to develop and market a radio using their transistors. None of the major radio makers including RCA, Philco, and Emerson were interested. As it happened time and time again, the established electronic manufacturers failed to see the potential of a new product that would later significantly impact their business models. However, the President of I.D.E.A. at the time, Ed Tudor, jumped at the opportunity to manufacture the TR-1, predicting sales of the transistor radios at "20 million radios in three years”. He didn’t achieve that goal but he did sell over 100,000 in just one year. But the die was cast.

The size and portability of the Regency TR-1 overwhelmed the radio’s tinny sound and inability to listen to a weak radio signal near a strong one. Soon many high school students’ shirt pockets and book-bags sported a TR-1 or the larger, better sounding Raytheon 8-TP-01. By the end of the 50s, Zenith, RCA, DeWald, and Crosley began flooding the market with additional transistor radio models, including a transistor radio small enough to wear on the wrist that claimed battery life of 100 hours. Sony's TR-63, released in December 1957 cost $39.95. Following the success of the TR-63 Sony continued to make their transistor radios smaller. Because of the extremely low labor costs in Japan, Japanese transistor radios began selling for as low as $25. In 1962 American manufacturers dropped prices of transistor radios to as low as $15.

I don’t remember exactly when I was given my first transistor radio, but I quickly learned that I could burn through batteries quicker than I could earn the money to buy a new one. Rechargeable batteries were still in the future. But by friends and I would extend battery life by switching from a radio belonging to one of us to another belonging to a different one each day during recess. I do want to point out that we did not sit around listening but played the radio on the side of the field where we were playing baseball or football. It was much better with baseball because there were long periods of inaction between plays.

Of course, whenever boys and girls got together for a day at the lake or the beach, at least one transistor radio was out there blasting out the latest tunes from the top 40. At larger gatherings several radios were tuned to the top stations of the day. In my case it was WPDQ or the granddaddy of them all: WAPE. One of the memories that defines those idyllic days at the beach was walking out of the surf and hearing that iconic “Big Ape Call” echoing from multiple radios all up and down the beach. Anyone who ever covered themselves with Coppertone or Hawaiian Tropic on a beach in the southeast remembers that WAPE used to play the “Big Ape Call” every 15 minutes or to remind the sunbathers to “Turn, not burn”. I wonder if Jimmy Drake who performed under the name of Nervous Norvus had any idea while he was recording his hit tune “Ape Call” in 1956 that the most famous part of that tune would be the last 3 seconds of it.

WAPE however recognized the power of the transistor radio and soon began giving away cheap radios blazoned with the call letters. The early radios were tunable and every so often despite the threat to the universe I saw one playing WPDQ. I must admit that I never got the courage to defile my WAPE radio by playing any other station. I used another radio for listening to WPDQ. As the idea of using transistor radios became more accepted by radio station promotions directors, WAPE raised the bar by giving away transistor radios that were tuned into “The Mighty 690”, you could not change the tuning, if you wanted to use that radio, you had to listen to WAPE! Genius!

But the only constant in this world is change. Eventually national pride took over in Japan and by government decree they quit producing cheap transistor radios. The newer radios were more sophisticated and sounded better, but they were bigger, no longer could they fit in a shirt pocket and there were even becoming too big for book-bags. It was the end of an era. AM radio was fading and rock and roll was giving way to the soft rock sounds of the mellow 70’s on FM. But forever etched in my memory are blue skies, the sound of sea gulls, sand sticking to my bare feet, the smell of tropical oils and the echoes of “The Big Ape Call” coming from that tinny speaker in my pocket sized transistor radio ringing in my ears. Oh MY!

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