When the radio ruled the day

Now that things are back to semi-normal, we can start complaining again about everything we complained about before the pandemic. One of those things is too much information, the glut of inputs that seems to be coming to us these days from all directions. However, before Facebook and Instagram, before the internet and before cellphones and television and everything in between, there was radio. Although millions of millennials hardly know what radio is, it still exists and some radios have become very collectable. Let’s listen.

Without going into the shaky details of airwaves and etheric force, the concept of wireless transmission by radio waves was first discovered at the end of the 19th century. Progress and patents came steadily after this, and in 1906 the first AM radio broadcast was made. In 1912, wireless pioneer Guglielmo Marconi built the first factory to produce commercial radios, and in 1920 news via radio began broadcasting from Detroit. A year later, the first live sports broadcast – a college football game between Pittsburgh and West Virginia – was aired. The radio was on.

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During the first years after its invention, the first radio receivers were arrays of crystals, simple wireless devices that allowed low volume output of the energy collected by their antennas. With the development of the vacuum tube in the mid-1920s, radio took a giant leap forward, with clarity of reception and volume control improving dramatically. FM radio was introduced in 1933, further improving reception and enabling stereo broadcasts. By then, radio had become the primary source of home entertainment for households around the world.

This roll-up radio took its design from roll-up desks from the same era.

As for the radios themselves, they were sold in a wide range of outlets in all kinds of configurations. Zenith was among several prominent manufacturers, their products often housed in beautifully carved wooden consoles with rich sounding speakers. Many were multiband, allowing listeners to carefully search the radio waves for distant signals. When the weather conditions were right, often at night, families could tap into an exotic world of entertainment and language.

Today, many tube radios have passed through the years and remain in remarkable working order. Considering the generally high build quality inherent in early electronics, most can be back in working order with the replacement of tubes still available online. Best of all, old radios aren’t usually very expensive. Antique shops like ours will often have several to choose from, rarely costing more than a few hundred dollars. In addition to Zenith, companies such as Emerson, Motorola, and RCA all made quality radios here in the United States. Transistor radios, developed just after WWII, became very popular by the middle of the century and allowed Japanese manufacturers like Mitsubishi, Sony, Realtone, and Toshiba to survive and prosper. In my opinion, this last category is under-perceived today.

Here it is. The radio fundraising has a lot to say for it. Quality samples are still very affordable, and DIYers can add value by replacing a few tubes and getting them to work. The category has both breadth and depth, and there are many resources available for enthusiasts. Better yet, radios do something. So listen carefully!

World War II desktop radios like this allowed FDR's fireside talk to reach millions of Americans.
Mike rivkin

Mike Rivkin and his wife, Linda, are longtime residents of Rancho Mirage. For many years he was an award winning catalog publisher and author of seven books as well as countless articles. Now he is the owner of the Antique Galleries in Palm Springs. His antiques column appears on Saturdays in The Desert Sun. Want to send Mike a question about antiques? Drop him a line at info@silverfishpress.com.

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