Transistor Radios: The iPhone’s Ancestors

Once upon a time, radios were huge. They were built into rich, wooden consoles and had a plethora of bands to choose from. Some manufacturers included buttons with the names of the super power stations that covered multiple states. Those were the days when radio was what Television became, an appointment experience where you gave it your undivided attention.

As TV forced radio to rethink its business model music became central to the content strategy. Before consolidation gutted the creativity and competition within the industry, it was a daily fight for audience share. And when the first radios started to appear as standard equipment in automobiles, carefully positioned news, traffic and weather became a staple.

Enter the transistor. Early car radios were tube driven models, just like the consoles of old. When the transistor made it possible to pack a punch in a smaller package, the medium truly became a portable, go-anywhere experience, just as today’s smartphones let us take our lives with us wherever we go.

We asked members of the Keener 13 Facebook Group for memories about their first transistor radio. Here are some of the comments.

Brian Battjes: Yep mine looked like a Sunoco has pump. Listened to the tiger games and Keener 13

Sherry Smith: Just a little black transistor radio with a wrist strap, always tuned to Keener 13!!
John Treichel: I have two of these still in the box 1 works and what does not.
Dave Piper: I still think it’s fascinating how they can pull music and voices out of thin air, without plugging in to anything.
Joseph Joyal: I paid like $5 for it in the sixties
Kathe Smith Campeau: I had a blue ball radio on a long chain–thought I was so cool!
David Jones: 8 transistors. It would eat a 9 volt battery daily.
Lilia Dominiak: Putting it under my pillow in the 1960’s waiting for the Beatles’ “Michelle” to come on.
Brian N. Feeney: AM PANASONIC …… Long Rectangular cube, with a “flip-top ! “
Cindy Sharrow: This was my first one. Blue and had a leather cover for it too so it wouldn’t break.
Don Leipprandt: Sneaking it under my pillow to listen to Ernie announce Tiger games.
Earl Clark: It was my dad’s I remember breaking a knob on it and get my seat beat really really really bad never play with these radios again
Joel Sallee: I still have one, with a weather band on it !
Jimmie Vestal: What I remember is …… having one, or two, of those transistor radios
Jim Taylor: An off brand and only 9 transistors!
Steve Teodecki: You could get it to put out a revving motorcycle sound if you laid it in flat in front of a TV and lift one edge up and down. Sixty hertz was magic to me as a little kid!
Henry Krueger: It’s not tuned to 1310. Looks like it’s tuned to WWJ.
Roberta Lynn: White(!) 6-transistor, 1965-ish? Hung from my chopper handlebars on my blue stingray bike as we rode around (and around) the neighborhood. Under my pillow at night – always “CK” or Keener.
Lynn Kuebler Anys: Never left the house without it!
Sue Holcomb: Only being to wknr Keener13
Bob Millen: Going to sleep with it playing underneath my pillow
Karen Conwell-Prost: It was a blue, Panasonic ball radio. Only had AM stations.
Kenneth Riley: A Zenith Royal 500 that a neighbor gave me.
ChrisLaurie Esch: Slept with it under my pillow to listen to Tiger baseball!!
MaryAnn Cooper: It was a Motorola with a leather case!
Carol Graves-Hembree: Sleeping with it under my pillow.

The transistor radio was the iPhone of its day. Much smaller than anything we had seen before, allowing us to take our favorite music and DJ’s with us. As technology advanced, the tinny sounds we accepted at the outset had more audio bandwidth. What was small became bigger again and, in time, boom boxes with amplified hung from the hands of another generation of teenagers.

Then things got smaller again. The advent of higher quality and even smaller earphones made the Sony Walkman cassette machines possible. The notion of taking our own playlists with us was the seed that grew into iTunes and Amazon Music. Radio functionality slowly started to take a back seat.

When Steve Jobs disrupted things yet again with the introduction of the first iPhone, he had the transistor radio in mind. The thought of aggregating all the features we love from a box full of technology into one small package became the holy grail. The Apple and Android devices we enjoy today owe their existence to their transistor ancestors.

The reliability of high speed Internet service, coupled with the ability to hear what you want, when you want has forced radio to again reinvent itself. Content is still king and the popularity of personality driven podcasts attest to the value of the relationships we used to have with the DJs who spun the disks. Broadcasters are streaming their off air signals and purposing the words that used to go between the tunes into podcasts that we can call up on-demand.

Whatever the next new innovation may be, it stands on the shoulders of the small rectangular boxes we used to carry with us.

We at Rock and Roll Revisited cherish these memories. We hope you do too!

Cover Image from Mike Thomas’ collection.
Get a sixty second shot of memories on my Rock and Roll Revisited Soundcloud Playlist, updated daily!



Scott Westerman
Host and Producer – Rock and Roll Revisited
Author: Motor City Music – Keener 13 and the Soundtrack of Detroit