Finding A 'Radio That Is Just A Radio' In The Digital Age

Feb 13, 2015
Originally published on February 13, 2015 1:53 pm

The United Nations has declared Friday World Radio Day in celebration of radio's unique status as a "simple and inexpensive" technology with the power to reach even the most remote, marginalized communities.

But we wondered — in this digital age, how hard is it to find a simple, inexpensive radio?

Our journey took us to several stores in Washington, D.C., in search of a portable and affordable radio, as well as to the National Capital Radio and Television Museum in Bowie, Md.

You can hear about our hunt for old-school radio, at the audio link above.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

United Nations has declared today World Radio Day, a chance to celebrate radio's ability to bring people together. But we wondered, in this digital age, can you still buy a simple, cheap radio - a radio that's, well, just a radio? We sent MORNING EDITION producers Barry Gordemer and Jessica Pupovac off on a radio scavenger hunt.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DO YOU REMEMBER ROCK AND ROLL RADIO?")

RAMONES: (Singing) Rockin' rock and roll radio, let's go.

JESSICA PUPOVAC, BYLINE: Here's our criteria. We want a radio that's inexpensive and portable, small enough to fit in your pocket.

BARRY GORDEMER, BYLINE: And you don't have to plug it into something or connect to anything, so no Internet, no Wi-Fi, no Bluetooth.

PUPOVAC: And finally, it's got to be radio only, no smartphones, no satellite radios, just standard AM/FM.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS IS RADIO CLASH")

THE CLASH: (Singing) This is radio clash from pirate satellite.

PUPOVAC: We started at a Target in Washington, D.C. Team leader Michael Yost took us to a lonely corner of the electronics department and showed us some boomboxes.

MICHAEL YOST: This is essentially the most basic, generic radio that you're going to get, pretty portable.

PUPOVAC: And cheap, about 20 bucks. But it had a CD player. Remember, we just wanted a radio.

YOST: So if you come right over here, for about $9, you get an alarm clock radio.

PUPOVAC: Can you put batteries in it?

YOST: No. You have to have them plugged into the wall, so you can't really take it on the go.

GORDEMER: Nope, sorry. Remember, our radio has to be portable. Now, here's what Michael Yost really wanted to show us.

YOST: This is a Bose SoundTouch.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOSE SOUNDTOUCH RADIO AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Bose SoundTouch.

YOST: It's $399.99, and it's almost like being front row at anything you would imagine, a concert.

GORDEMER: Wow, $400 for a radio that's not a radio? You know, we were looking for something a little more retro.

BRIAN BELANGER: This is a 1938 Zenith. It's called a shutter dial because as you flip the switch here, it switches from one shortwave band to the broadcast band.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GORDEMER: That Brian Belanger. He's curator of the National Capital Radio and Television Museum in Bowie, Maryland. The radio he showed us - gorgeous, yes - portable, no.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PUPOVAC: Our search for a basic pocket radio took us next to Best Buy, where we met radio technician, Azikiwe Seace.

AZIKIWE SEACE: Everybody here calls me Queezy.

PUPOVAC: Queezy showed us some boomboxes the size of my old Lincoln Town Car.

SEACE: So when we get to our smaller radios, they kind of put them over here to the side. Let me see - huh, Georgie?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yes.

SEACE: Where are, like, the smaller radios? They move those things around a lot. They might be over here as well. Oh, here we go, right here.

PUPOVAC: Queezy found some sporty little AM-FM radios meant for joggers, close to what we wanted, but there was no speaker. You had to plug in headphones.

GORDEMER: But we found exactly what we were looking for across the street at RadioShack, a $14 gray plastic transistor radio. It looks like it came right out of the disco era.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON THE RADIO")

DONNA SUMMER: (Singing) On the radio, whoa, oh, oh, on the radio.

PUPOVAC: Now, we were happy to find our radio, but just a little worried that it came from RadioShack, a company that just declared bankruptcy. But it's actually pretty easy to find pocket radios, just not in stores. They're all over the Internet, and people are buying them.

BRIAN MARKWALTER: In the U.S., we're spending about $200 million just on traditional radios. Many businesses would love to be turning that kind of revenue year over year very steadily.

PUPOVAC: That's Brian Markwalter of the Consumer Electronics Association. He says about 98 percent of U.S. households have a radio, and that's held steady since the '70s.

MARKWALTER: That means it's, from my perspective, nearly a permanent part of our lives.

GORDEMER: Which is very good news on this World Radio Day for our little plastic transistorized friend. I'm Barry Gordemer.

PUPOVAC: And I'm Jessica Pupovac, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RADIO CLASH")

THE CLASH: (Singing) This is radio clash on pirate satellite, orbiting your living room, cashing in the Bill of Rights. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.