Then and now: Transistor radios

Bill Ervolino The Record 04/14/13

This nine-transistor AM-FM radio hit the stores in January 1963.

Transistor radios, which came in an array of brightly colored plastic or leather cases, were must-haves for teenagers as well as baseball fans.

Mention transistor radios to baby boomers and the hits just keep on comin’ — spun, in our collective memories, by the likes of Harry Harrison, “Dandy” Dan Ingram, Scott Muni and, of course, Cousin Brucie.

Barbara Kuhn listened to the WMCA “Good Guys” on her transistor when she was a student at Wayne Hills High School, while Ellen Sheridan Brower of Old Tappan preferred “Murray the K and the Swinging Soiree! Loved him!”

Evelyn McHugh of Fair Lawn listened to Jean Shepherd “under my pillow, so my parents wouldn’t know I was up that late, followed by Charlie Greer on ‘WA-Beatle-C.’ I listened to the radio secretly every night. My mother kept asking why I was always out of batteries.”

Tena Roseanne of North Haledon appreciated the radios’ portability. “We always had a transistor at the beach,” she recalled. “And I can still remember church picnics up at St. Michael’s Grove in Paterson where all the men would gather to listen to ballgames the minute all the grilling was done. In 1968, my father took my sister and me to the store to buy us each a transistor of our own. Mine was olive green and my sister Eve’s was yellow.

“Perhaps my most vivid memory, though,” she continued, “is of my father listening to the racing results each Saturday morning on his transistor radio and feverishly writing down the results in a little note pad. That was back in the ’69-’73 days. Gee Dad, what were you up to?”

Before the bigger-is-better boom-box ’80s, the often-pocket-sized transistor radio was a must-have for teens who had yet to acquire their own wheels and who wanted to stay up-to-date on the week’s top songs.

By the late ’60s, the tri-state’s two most popular music stations — WNBC and WABC — played the week’s No. 1 song every hour. It was a practice that proved expensive for them when that song was The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” (which was more than seven minutes long) and maddening for everyone else when it was The Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar,” which hung onto the top spot for four sticky, sticky weeks in 1969.

As fads go, transistor radios were in a class by themselves. Notes Wikipedia: “Following their development in 1954, they became the most popular electronic communication device in history, with billions manufactured during the 1960s and 1970s.”

Because transistors — semiconductors that amplify electronic signals — were so much smaller than the vacuum tubes used to operate earlier radio models, transistor radios were small enough to fit easily into a woman’s purse or a man’s shirt pocket.

Their portability would eventually change the music business, providing a huge on-the-go audience for radios at precisely the time that television threatened to make radio passé. (Never mind that, by the 1980s, those tiny radios were replaced by radio/cassette player boom boxes that weighed more than some home stereo systems.)

Many transistor radios had plastic covers — a few came with leather (or faux leather) cases — and ran on boxy 9-volt batteries. Their “guts” consisted of a confounding array of cylinders, gears and springs that were best left alone.

Since the radios’ popularity coincided with the rise of rock-and-roll, the gadgets quickly became a pop culture symbol for the young and were featured in films of the era, such as Stanley Kubrick’s “Lolita.”

Transistor radios also became associated with baseball fans. (Dads could go to any social event and still follow the game with his discreetly hidden radio and earphone.) And they were a must-have for teenage beach goers.

Jane Nierstedt, formerly of Ramsey, recalls listening to “WABC during the summer at the lake at the Ramsey Golf and Country Club and loved it when the deejays would say ‘Roll your bods!’ to the sunbathers.”

Kathryn Zitelli of Dumont got her “yellow Panasonic donut radio when I graduated junior high. Loved it — and always listened to my favorite station, WWDJ in Hackensack!”

Lawrence Krewer of Clifton said he “won my first transistor radio at a July 3 raffle in Closter back around 1958. A red Emerson. My father liked it so much that he traded me one of his — which looked exactly like a book. I thought I was cool beans and tricking everyone that I was carrying a book instead of a radio.”

Well, almost everyone.

As Krewer recalled, “I got busted in school. Naturally.”

In 1963, Mike Fornatale of River Vale was allowed to bring his transistor radio to East Brook School in Park Ridge “so we could all listen to Gordon Cooper being shot into outer space in the final mission of the Mercury space program.”

When it was over, Fornatale said with a laugh, the station switched back to music “and my entire classroom was treated to Peggy March’s ‘I Will Follow Him.’ ”



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