DeFlip Side #126: Radio Adventures!

DS126.mp3

Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.

I’ve often used this show as a bully pulpit for my esoteric passions, from my quest for immortality to my obsessive book collecting to my mania for well produced radio programs, dramatic or otherwise. Even here and now in the 21st Century, I still consider radio to be magic. And it’s not just the medium of radio that thrills me, but radios themselves.

I’ve been collecting old radios for almost twenty years now, a pastime that’s often met with quizzical smirks that say “how quaint” or “how odd” or just plain “why?”

Because in these days of omnipresent cyber gadgets, radio tuners have become little more than quaint afterthoughts. So it’s easy to forget that radio was the first and predominant mass electronic medium of the 20th Century, and that radios themselves were a central piece of household furniture. From elegant consoles, to stylish cathedrals, to sleek and colorful plastic tabletop sets, radios are the perfect synthesis of form and function, an example of how industrial design can aspire to high art.

More practically, radio was an indispensable source of news and entertainment, bringing dispatches from wars half a world away; or big band broadcasts from star-studded big city night clubs; a focal point where kids and adults alike hung on the latest thrilling escapades of their favorite crime fighters and superheroes.

That’s what I think of every time I pick up an old radio, and what keeps me hunting for new ones. So it’s in that thrilling spirit of yesteryear that I present my latest Radio Adventures!

Episode One: The Rescue of Ol’ Westie!

I was at a sidewalk sale in an historic neighborhood, an ideal hunting ground for old radios: block after block of old homes with decades-long residents trying to get rid of what they consider old junk.

As I ventured down what seemed like the 9,000th driveway arrayed with tables overflowing with useless crap, there it was, perfectly at home with the rest of the garbage: the first and only radio I would see that day. It wasn’t very collectable, a late model Westinghouse transistor I estimated to be from the 60s, so filthy that I was reluctant to pick it up. Still, I was determined not to get skunked, so I talked the guy down to three bucks, grabbed my new acquisition by its busted handle and called it a win.

But a sorrier radio I had never owned, uniformly coated with forty years of nicotine and hard use. The handle was held together by petrified masking tape that I had to crack off in chunks. And the tuning dial was a murky brown circle that didn’t even appear to have any numbers left on it. But I saw all this a positive. In the past I had been reluctant to really tinker with any of my old tube radios for fear of ruining them. This time that wasn’t an issue, so I tore the thing apart and had at it.

1960 Westinghouse H-726P6--"Ol' Westie"

The nicotine was reluctant to give up its reign, but elbow grease and various chemicals eventually won the day, and I found myself with a soft cream and bright aqua specimen. I suddenly understood why somebody might have originally wanted this radio.

The dial was next, and the crusty brown grit gave way to a soft gold shine and bold numbers. I reassembled the whole thing, including the newly-mended handle and stood back, beholding the treasure I had rediscovered.

I couldn’t believe the transformation and have been smitten by this little 1960 Westinghouse radio ever since, affectionately dubbing it Westie. I listen to it most every day and display it in our living room, much to my wife’s chagrin. I can understand where she’s coming from. Westie won’t ever win any beauty contests and I have far nicer radios. But it has thoroughly charmed me, and gotten me back into radio collecting and restoration in a big way. Which leads to my next Radio Adventure:

Episode Two: The Case of the Uncanny Philco Double!

1953 Philco 53-656 Before and After

So I’m running errands a couple of months ago and I stumble upon one of the first garage sales of the season. And what’s the very first thing to greet me in the driveway? An old Philco radio—late 40s early 50s I guess—a very basic, lower end model by the looks of it. I grab it and the woman running the sale says, “Three bucks, and I couldn’t get it to work.” I hand her the cash and hightail it out of there, unable to believe my luck. But more luck is to come.

Another sale is right around the block. And the first thing I see in the living room is another Philco radio, a portable model from the 50s, with a funky Special Services band on the dial that I’ve never seen before. I talk the saleslady down from $20 to $12. And in the space of half an hour I have two new radios, fallen from the sky like manna from collectors heaven, for a mere $15.

What’s more, the portable model works perfectly once I get it home. So all that’s left is to clean it. Confident from my experience with Westie, I soon have the plastic case at a high polish. But the knobs are the biggest surprise: fifty years of tarnish comes away to reveal bright brass inserts. The discovery has me giddy. Yet another dramatic transformation and an unexpected show piece, circa 1953.

1951 Philco 51-530

And what about the other Philco? Well, not so lucky there. The cleanup has only highlighted the wear and chips on the case, and I was right about it being bottom of the line. It was the cheapest model Philco made in 1951. And I still haven’t gotten it to work, though it has shocked the hell out of me a couple of times. But even if I never manage to repair it, the working tubes alone are worth far more than three bucks, so I still come out ahead. And it’s tubes that led to my third and final adventure:

Episode Three: The Great Vacuum Tube Calamity!

Hunting for old radios is only half the game. You also have to look out for radio components like tubes and capacitors and resistors. And that’s why you can’t leave any basement workbench or garage storage bin unturned.

Case in point: dominating the driveway at a recent sale were three massive, custom-built storage cabinets with about 50 drawers a piece. So methodically I searched, hoping to find a portable transistor.

Bubkus.

But undaunted, I grabbed an old hammer and set about prying open the few drawers that were stuck.

Jackpot!

Not a radio, but a drawer filled with about 100 tubes. It’s the kind of cache you find once or twice in a collecting lifetime.

The woman running the sale was 65 if she was a day. “Sorry,” she said. “These shouldn’t be out here. My father collects and fixes old radios and TVs and these are the only things he wants to keep.”

Her father? Who is he, freaking Methuselah?!? Rather desperately I asked if she wouldn’t reconsider. But she just took her vacuum tube goldmine and walked into the house. And I’m still fuming.

But I have time on my side, and I’m keeping a close eye on that house for any future sales, ready to swoop in and claim what’s rightfully mine. In the meantime, I’ll be busy hunting up more sales and more finds, so I can bring you further thrilling installments of my Radio Adventures!

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