The 1940s media technology nothing can better


There is an adage that says, don’t try to reinvent the wheel: that is, if an invention is perfect, leave it be. One of these perfect inventions, I believe, is the transistor radio. That’s because

  • It is light and portable, and you can buy one small enough to fit in a pocket;
  • The battery lasts for months, perhaps years, depending how much you use it;
  • It always works, as long as you’re in range of radio waves. No electricity, recharging, modem or internet capability needed;
  • When the weather is very hot or very cold, it still works;
  • You can do other things while you’re listening to the radio—you can drive, garden, cook, whatever;
  • There’s a world of entertainment for everyone, young, old and in between, and broadcasts available in almost every language. There are music of all types, dramas, news, advice shows, arts shows, science shows, chat and talkback.

In fact, radio was the world’s first live interactive media. When talkback started in the 1960s, the law in Australia had to be changed, because it was illegal to record phone calls, and radio stations needed a slight delay so they could censor inappropriate callers.

When I was about 9, my parents bought me my first transistor radio. It was a palm-sized red one with silver buttons. Back then, my favourite show was the children’s story request program on Sundays, starting at 6am.

In those days, also, I can remember my grandparents still had a ‘radiogram’ that was a big piece of cabineted furniture, in a polished wood that my grandmother would put a vase of flowers and family pictures in silver frames on top of. They called this piece of furniture the ‘wireless’, and it used valve technology rather than transistor technology. No doubt they thought the radiogram a superior being to the transistor, which was invented in 1947.

When I was a teenager living in Auckland, New Zealand, the soundtrack to my life was the cool music on Radio Hauraki, so called because it had started as a pirate station broadcasting from a boat out in the Hauraki Gulf from 1966-70.

By the time I was listening to Radio Hauraki, it was many years after those pirate days, and it was well established as a legal land-based station. But it still had that edge of being rebellious and even a bit dangerous, with Kevin “Blackie” Black (1943-2013) the coolest of all DJs in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Imagine my excitement when, as a young newspaper reporter in the 1980s, I actually got to interview the great Blackie himself at his house.

These days, of course, you will tell me that radio has been modernised and that I should stream it over the internet using an app on my phone. Yes, I can do that. But somehow it’s not the same: it eats my phone battery charge, for a start.

And I rarely listen to the radio for the music these days, because I can download any song I like and play it whenever.

But in today’s new environment of music on demand, something has been lost. I remember how, as a 14-year-old, I used to sit eagerly by the radio, finger poised on the red ‘record’ button of my cassette player, ready for when a favourite song happened to be played. It felt like winning a raffle when a song you’d been waiting for actually came on.

I still like a transistor radio. My current one is a retro-styled powder blue, which I did an ink and watercolour painting of, as you can see above.

I’m getting another one soon, a digital pocket-sized number. But essentially, it’s the same perfect invention even in the 21st century: simple, easy to use, strong, and lasts forever.

You’re never too old to dance

juke boxI went into a gift shop at my local plaza, and ahead of me was a very old lady on a walker. She was little and stooped, and didn’t appear to take much trouble about how she dressed. She was wearing an old cardigan and her hair was a little dishevelled.  She handed over some money, then turned to make her way slowly out of the shop. I noticed that her eyes were shining.

The assistant had to tell someone. “See that electronic juke box in the window, the one with all the flashing lights? She’s put it on layby and she’s only got two more payments to make. She’s saving money each week from her pension.”

Is she buying it for a grandchild or something?” I said.

“No—it’s for herself, she says.”

The juke box was $999, an enormous amount of money for a pensioner to pay, even by layby (paying it off in fortnightly instalments).

The old lady was, the assistant said, the most unlikely purchaser for such a thing, and not only because of the expense. “I think she’s suffering from dementia a bit—we couldn’t believe she’d actually see all the payments through.”

I took a picture of the juke box that day, the one at the top of this post.

A few weeks later, I visited the shop again. The juke box was still in the window. “Has she paid it off yet?” I asked.

“Not yet—one more payment. She asked us to put some music on it. I used a flash drive to download a whole lot of songs, which I’ll give to her and all she needs to do is plug it into the juke box,” the assistant continued. “She says she’d like all the old hits from the 1940s and 1950s.”

Another few weeks went by. I walked past the shop and noticed the juke box was gone. I had to know.

“She paid it off today and it’s being delivered to her flat,” the assistant said. “Now she wants more music.” She rolled her eyes.

I have an enduring vision of the old lady young again and accompanied by a handsome beau, playing her juke box and, in her mind, dancing the night away to  Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley, and the Platters.

Rock on—you’re never too old to dance.

A White Sports Coat...And a Pink Carnation

A White Sports Coat…And a Pink Carnation