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Midwest Today, October 1997


Green Eye Zenith radio

Reliving the Golden Age of Radio


If you're not old enough to remember the Golden Age of radio, surely your parents or grandparents do. It was an era in the 1930s and '40s -- before television sets and VCRs became commonplace -- when radio was king and family life revolved around favorite broadcasts.

Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite became important figures in radio before they went on to fame in television. President Franklin Roosevelt's fireside chats through the medium of radio uplifted the country during times of despair. The innocent humor of comedians like Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Fibber McGee and Molly, the Great Gildersleeve and many more were enjoyed by millions. The soaring voice of singer Kate Smith and the profundo baritone of George Beverly Shea filled the airwaves, and big bands like Tommy Dorsey's held sway. Dramas, westerns, and suspense shows were every bit as engaging as TV is today -- probably more so -- because they relied on the "theater of the mind."

radio photo In those days, radios were usually wooden, sometimes tabletop "tombstone," or cathedral-shaped, but often floor-model consoles. They had beautifully-crafted cabinets even nicer than the TV sets to follow. Though most were displaced when television came along, and relegated to attics or junk heaps, a surprising number of them have survived, and are treasured by radio enthusiasts.

In fact, the hobby of collecting old radios has exploded in recent years as thousands of people of all ages are finding sets and fixing them up, even travelling cross-country to various shows, auctions and meets.

One of the biggest radio events is held in Elgin, Ill. each year in August. "Radiofest" attracts thousands.

Midwesterners seem to be among the most ardent fanciers of the old radios, which can be found in antique shops, Salvation Army stores, flea markets, garage and estate sales and, increasingly, at radio web sites on the Internet.

Radios "in the rough" can sometimes be picked up for only a few dollars. The more elaborate can go for thousands.

What fascinates those who acquire the vintage radios is that they had a charm all their own. They provided a unique listening experience with which most people are unfamiliar nowadays. Indeed, when listening to one of these restored sets, it's hard to believe that AM stations can sound so rich and resonant, or that foreign shortwave broadcasts come booming in literally from around the world. But the old radios had big speakers, enough power and tone control buttons to satisfy most audiophiles. To hear them perform today as well as they did 50 years ago is downright exciting, and there is nothing else to compare to it.

Many had unique features and innovations that were ahead of their time. Newspaper and magazine ads which promoted them in the 1930s and '40s boasted of an intriguing array of options. Competition was stiff so each company developed a style of cabinet and engineering that could be recognized anywhere, as was the case with automobiles. Sets tended to be large and easy to operate, if sometimes rather ostentatious.


In some cases, the more elaborate, the better. Emerson, for instance, offered a cabinet made of imported Oriental wood finger-rolled, figured walnut, with chromium trimmings and a beautiful piano finish. Most were walnut veneer trimmed in mahogany, maple, teak or oak. Exotic woods like mascar from the Middle East were occasionally used for accent.

In 1935, Chicago-based Zenith introduced the first "airplane dial," which became an identifiable characteristic. Sparton bragged of a "Photochromatic Dial reproduced on crystal clear mirror glass with the refinement of a fine etching."

Advertising copy writers sometimes resorted to more than a little hyperbole. According to one ad, a 1935 Stewart Warner offered "a Diffusalite Magic Dial, whose soft, luminous rays cast a beautiful lighting over the multi-color wave bands."

Consumers apparently believed the more tubes a radio had, the better. While the Midwest Radio Company offered models containing a more elaborate chassis of 20 or 25 tubes, all half of them did was light -- they were of no functional value whatsoever. A good, nine-tube receiver was just as satisfying to listen to.

Another Midwest radio manufacturer, the Sparks-Withington Co., said that with its automatic volume control, "stations parade across the dial with uniform volume -- whether local or foreign. Fading is eliminated, bass notes are compensated."

And the Stromberg came out with what it called "The Acoustical Labyrinth" -- a "long, winding air passageway and special acoustical material to absorb unwanted sound waves from the back of the speaker, increasing bass response." It really was a box with foam rubber in it.

Still, the radios were examples of surprisingly advanced engineering. Zenith featured "triple filtering, designed to filter out the sputter, crackle and noise that come with long-distance reception." In 1934, it even offered the "Zenith Guarantee Bond: Daily shortwave reception direct from Europe, South America or Orient or money refunded!"

Zenith Tombstone radio During the day, the shortwave band has an interesting number of stations. At night the dial really comes alive with foreign stations, like BBC's "World Service," Radio Netherlands, Radio Havana, the Vatican and scores of other countries.

What is really a treat is listening to old-time radio shows on the old sets; it's almost a time-warp. Thousands of the original broadcasts were preserved on transcription disks, and have since been dubbed onto tape. A number of stations around the country also air the old shows on a rotational basis each night.

Although the sets were built for longevity, most do need a thorough going-over, and experts warn that fire or even electric shock can result if a bad set is plugged in without checking it first.

Larry Dowell, an avid collector in North Carolina who built a 2,000-square-foot building on his property to house his 300-plus radio collection, is regarded as one of the most knowledgeable radio restorers in the country. Many of the sets he sells go to the Midwest. (Visit his web site at: http://anesthesia.mc.duke.edu/radiodaze/)

"The radio chassis I go completely through and replace all of the paper capacitors (with mylar) and check the alignment," Dowell explains. "I check the emission on all of the tubes and replace the weak ones." He gets rid of worn wires, and goes to great lengths to restore sets to their original condition, so that they are as good as when they left the factory, both inside and out. Dowell and others also know a lot about furniture restoration. They rely on suppliers who even duplicate original grill cloth, knobs, buttons, dials and wood filigree.

Tubes are plentiful, including what's called "new old stock" -- vacuum tubes that were in inventory years ago but never sold.

Incidentally, tubes are very reliable and many sets still have some that are 50 years old or more.

One feature some radios had that a lot of people like is a green tuning eye -- a cathode-ray tube displayed on the front of a set. It has a donut shape, with the loop closing or opening as the radio is fine-tuned.

There are thick books devoted to pictures of old radios, and schematics that aid in restoration. The myriad of shapes and styles that were produced in the 1930s, '40s and '50s is truly astonishing. Those that are early bakelite or plastic tabletops carry a premium price. A Motorola catlin made in 1938 recently sold at a Marshalltown,Iowa auction for $2,700.

But aspiring collectors, take heart. A good, restored tabletop can be had for under $100, and most consoles are around $250 to $300.

The Heartland has a number of very active clubs for those interested in vintage radios. You need not own an old radio to join, or even know how to repair one.


ILLINOIS: Antique Radio Club of Illinois. Carolyn Knipfel, RR 3, 200 Langham, Morton, Il. 61550. Annual August Radiofest and meets during year.

Antique Radio Collectors & Historians. St. Louis. Steve Teichmann, 103 Pleasant St., Jerseyville, Il. 62052. Monthly newsletter and meetings, annual picnic and swap meet.

Belleville Area Antique Radio Club. Charles Haynes, 219 W. Spring, Marissa, Il. 62257. Monthly meetings.

OHIO: Antique Radio Collectors of Ohio, P.O. Box 292292, Kettering, Oh. 45429. Monthly meetings, August show and auction.

Buckeye Antique Radio and Phonograph Club. Steve Dando, 4572 Mark Trail, Copley, Oh. 44321. Monthly meetings, two mall shows, March swap meet.

Society for the Preservation of Antique Radio Knowledge. c/o WQRP-Radio, P.O. Box 482, West Carrollton, Oh. 45449. Monthly meetings, quarterly swap meets.

INDIANA: Indiana Historical Radio Society. 245 N. Oakland Ave., Indianapolis, In. 46201. Quarterly swap meets in various areas of state.

IOWA: Iowa Antique Radio Club and Historical Society. Gerald Lange, 2191 Graham Cir., Dubuque, Ia. 52002. Radiofest August 31.

MICHIGAN: Michigan Antique Radio Club. Bruce Eddy, 2590 W. Needmore Hwy., Charlotte, Mi. 48813. Annual Extravaganza.

MISSOURI: Mid-America Antique Radio Club. Gary Watkins, 8006 Greenwald, Belton, Mo. 64012. Semi-annual auctions and swap meets.

Four States Antique Radio Club. Stephen Phipps, 1702 S. McKinley Ave., Joplin, Mo. 64801.

NEBRASKA: Midwest Radio Club. P.O. Box 6291, Lincoln, Ne. 68506. Meetings and Fall show and swap-meet.

Nebraska Antique Radio Collectors Club. Steve Morton, 905 West First, North Platte, Ne. 69101. Monthly meetings Apr. to Oct. in West Nebraska, annual auction in Kearney.

MINNESOTA: Northland Antique Radio Club. P.O. Box 18362, Minneapolis, Mn. 55418. About six meets and two swap meets per year.

WISCONSIN: Western Wisconsin Antique Radio Collectors Club. Dave Wiggert, 1611 Redfield St., La Crosse, Wi. 54601. Bi-monthly meetings, June, Sept. and other events.

KANSAS: Xtal Set Society. Phil Anderson, 789 N. 1500 Rd., Lawrence, Ks. 66049. Bimonthly meeting.

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