Radio Waves: December 15, 2023

Old Time Radios

Last week I spoke of what is the state of the art in radio: Software Defined Radios, which use software do the job of many of the mechanical parts in what we would consider older radios. Most, if not all, modern designs incorporate SDR programming in some way. Better performance, better reception and lower price are the primary benefits.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t have some fun looking at radios from the past. Born in 1963, none of the radios I grew up with are of the console era, in which the radio was truly a focal point of the house and a fine piece of furniture. But over the years I’ve used or acquired some good representations of “state of the art” in the tube and early transistor era.

The first radio I ever used was a Realtone 10-transistor model given to me by my aunt Ina. Unlike many early transistor radios that had a knob with small numbers to indicate the frequency tuned, this one had a cool “slide-rule” dial, making it easier to find stations. This radios served me well until I had the bright idea of “improving reception” by cutting out the internal ferrite-bar antenna and connecting a wire. My young self was often more experimental than practical. Or smart. The radio never worked again.

(This is a model I found on eBay one day that is similar to my first radio)

Various relatives and family friends handed down tube radios; if memory serves my first “plug-in” radio was (I THINK) a Magnavox tube model that came from my brother’s navy friend, Fred Ingle. It and most of the others are long gone, including an RCA clock radio my grandmother had that sounded phenomenal. 

What I do have left is a special family memento – a Delco from 1947 that my father gave to my mother as a gift. It still has all the original tubes; the only work it has ever had done is one capacitor change, a cleaning of the volume pot, and a new lightbulb in the dial. Oh, and a minor refinish of the wood case. Unfortunately, I cracked the dial glass a couple decades ago.

My father-in law Roger (aka “RJB”) gave me my first tube AM/FM table radio, a Fonovox table model from Germany’s Lowe Opta. It also receives long-wave frequencies, though I have never actually done so … I am frankly not sure that long-wave broadcasts still exist. It still works fine as well. 

My friend Dean gave me the Gilfillan Brothers AM radio as well as the Zenith AM/FM tube model, both from his father’s collection of radios once used in his garage. I did have to change a capacitor or two on the Gilfillan but the Zenith — to my knowledge, and like the Lowe-Opta — has never had any servicing. The Zenith in particular sounds amazing, and the reception on both AM and FM stations is superb. The Gilfillan is special because it was manufactured right here in Los Angeles.

I have a few projects in line … a Zenith Transoceanic from my friend Mike, an RCA transistor radio that my Dad used — this one uses a special hard to find battery so it’s on the back burner more than others — and a really cool wood Montgomery Wards Airline radio from 1937 with a special “dial a station” tuning system that is basically an early version of presets. The Wards model came from my friend Wayne … longtime San Pedro locals know Wayne and his father as the former owners of the now closed Harbor Brake Service. It may just need tubes, as it is quiet as far as hum is concerned, but stations are just barely heard in the background of hiss when you turn the volume up full.

One radio I’d like to find is an old Radio Shack model we once had … A Realistic 4-band called “The Astronaut.” I remember thinking how cool it looked and how great it sounded. I’d listen to to the old KGB (now KLSD, 1360 AM) from San Diego, along with Dr. Demento on KMET (now KTWV, 94.7 FM). 

A consultant I asked about repairing these radios asked a pertinent question … why? Why not just gut the insides, restore the cabinets and put in some sort of bluetooth receiver? Or perhaps an SDR receiver? Since AM stations in Los Angeles with rare exception are totally lacking, it is a valid question. I suppose the answer is – I don’t know. Plus the illogical hope that some day real programmers will return to the local AM band and (like some other parts of the United States) program something people actually want to hear. Or else just let me do it. 

Until that time, I suppose it’s a personal challenge…

Classical Christmas

Need a little holiday spirit? KUSC (91.5 FM) has you covered. A Classical California Christmas is streaming 24 hours a day — on demand — with holiday favorites … comfort, joy and peace whenever your spirit needs a lift. Available at and various smartphone apps and smart speakers.