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Goodbye to you my trusted friend …

Tuesday, 22 November, 2005

When I was very little my father would amuse me with the aid of an atlas of the United States, acquired from Jerry’s Restaurants, and this special radio he had. I was not allowed to touch that radio. It was a rather humble “general coverage” receiver of the type imported from Hong Kong and sold usually with no name of consequence at discount stores. I always recognize the type when they turn up on ebay. Unlike the old AM transistor radio I was given to play with after expressing an interest, more likely fascination, this would get odd and peculiar stations. Among them was a man reading the local weather forecast in a monotone over and over, another man giving the time with the seconds ticking by in the background, and sometimes some music or words I don’t really remember and he said they were coming from West Germany, Holland, Australia or even England. I knew something of England, as television shows made there occasionally were shown on television, but those other places may as well have been on other planets.

More compelling were the radio stations that came from places I had been, like Atlanta, Nashville or Cincinnati. Or place I may someday go, like New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, New Orleans … some of these stations I could if I worked at it, get on the little transistor. I had some idea where these places were because of my father’s fondness for the down-home pleasantness of Jerry’s.

When I was a young teenager I was given what was known then formally as a personal stereo, but informally to the point of being used in newspaper advertisements, as a ghetto blaster. It was entirely standard for the time with the exception of having an SW1 and SW2 setting on the dial. I did not select the radio on the basis of those functions, but they were there. Being an anxious type and trapped in bullying redneck purgatory I found myself fiddling with the SW bands. I discovered John Peel and all the mailbag shows quickly. I started to write in to request information and before long I was getting mail from Europe, Australia and Asia. I did not know it at the time, but I had stumbled upon the World Band at what would all too soon be known as its golden age. I had certain shows, both on the shortwaves and good old AM thanks to the still-extant fifty-thousand watt blasters, which I felt kept me in touch with the “real world” in that time before the Internet. From my Beatles period to the time I was burning up the SST catalog, this radio served me up until I started the process to move out of the house.

At that time I had another real world to discover.

You either know about the contentious years between 18 and 22 or you don’t. The very short version is that I was forced to forego all manner of assumptions and superstitions, and with the help of many gracious people somehow survived without joining the ranks of Jerry Springer guests. The energy people from reasonable backgrounds use to make their way in the adult world I was forced to use just to survive. In the course of time, I landed in a tiny apartment on not-yet-gentrified Cherokee Road in the somewhat city-like The Highlands, always with the article, district in my hometown. Before long I was wandering around the local commuter University in the daytime, working all night and in the interim listening to a clock radio with uncommonly good AM reception. I acquired an old (60’s vintage as it turns out) National (Matsushita, the nation was Japan) world radio which was adequate but needed some care which, as it turned out, I was unable to supply. The fellows at the only shop I knew wanted $150, or 30% of a month’s wages, to rebuild her, and I advised them to keep it. However, I had the bug. I started squirreling away money.

My exposure to the world of zines, the mailbag and hobbyist news shows and the pre-web networks lead me to subscribe to a handful of newsletters. I was a religious purchaser of the bible of the world-band hobbyist, Passport to World Band Radio, an annually issued periodical with just about everything you need, but especially reviews of just about every radio likely to be found in the so-called free world. With the assistance of newsletters, Passport, and catalogs …

It is difficult to underestimate the importance of catalogs in those days. My favorite was a quarterly, sixteen-page, xeroxed example distributed by Charlie Crane somewhere in Northern California. He always had either the best, or the best at its price point, stuff all indexed in about three pages with the rest of the catalog dedicated to what the staff has been listening to, articles on building antennas not necessarily with their parts, and always an invitation to send in your technical questions even if you weren’t placing an order.

My decision was made to acquire the Realistic DX-440. A radio actually manufactured by an outfit called Sangean from Taiwan who were just then, after about ten years in the business, making a name for themselves with a very strong price-to-performance ratio. Their ATS-803 model had been a disappointment, although every reveiwer loved the form factor and the company’s overall reputation. Back when Radio Shack actually had a technical staff to evaluate items which might acquire the Realistic name, they rendered judgment upon the ATS-803 and deemed it unacceptable. According to legend, the Tandy folks even went so far as to delineate the technical inadequacies of the unit. A year later (1985) the ATS-803A appeared to wide praise and was generally considered the all-around best radio you could buy for under $500. Radio Shack adopted it as the Realistic DX-440 in 1986 at $279, and it was their top seller over $100 until they decided to eliminate their line of World-Band radios in 1992. This was right around the time I was making my purchase.

The word around the campfire was that these radios were being closed out at fire sale prices. Of the twenty-four Radio Shack stores listed in the Greater Louisville Yellow Pages, none still had the 440 or any other such units. The catalogs were listing the Sangean, Ambassador and Roberts clones as out of stock and unlikely to return. I had no internet.

Frankly, I no longer remember my second choice.

One day my mother stops by, as she was accustomed to doing, unannounced and wondered if I would be interested in joining her to a trip to the new shopping mall just over the bridge in her native Indiana. I went and while wandering around this foreign environment discovered Clarksville’s newest Radio Shack. On a shelf behind the counter was something I thought I recognized with a hand written orange star “LAST ONE! $139.00”

“Can I help you?” evil punk rock fucker who is obviously from the other side of the river?

“Is that the DX-440?”

“Oh yes. It’s really a wonder-”

“Wrap it up I’ll take it.”

“It has continuous coverage on -”

“Listen, I’m going to the ATM right now. Box it up. I’ll be back in about seven minutes.”

Within minutes, a shocked and surprised salesman handed over the radio I really wanted.

I never grew accustomed to people coming over to the house, examining the radio and asking, “What kind of calculator is this?” I presumed the “Voice of the World” logo and six-inch speaker would leave them with another impression.

This is the radio upon which I discovered such favorites as Radio China, regular dispatches from the CBC, Jay Marvin, Art Bell, and for a time I could get BBC programs twenty-four hours a day, Chicago, New York, Wheeling West Virginia and Des Moines Iowa. It goes on like this.

I’ve bounced from home to home, to another state and always my favorite radio shows were there, keeping me connected in real time to a larger world. I’ve replaced the integrated antenna twice, and would a third if the replacement part were still available. I lost the BFO dial somewhere along the way. I listened as the era of the fifty-thousand watt boomers died away. I listened as more and more religious programming made it’s way to the world bands, and was there at 04:00 UTC August 31, 1999 when what was supposed to be the last BBC service in English intended for North America shut down. I heard the phrase “clear channel” change from a mode of operation to a company. It was the only radio in the house that would pick up 98.9 FM while I was getting ready to go to their studio to play radio station for six hours Saturday mornings, or weekday mornings when I was listening to my most infamous “co-worker”. It found more service listening to FM and pulling 1600 AM out of the sky at night three miles away from where the 700 watt signal supposedly dies. The world bands are getting more and more quiet and more and more programming is available on the Internet. I have both a system and the bandwidth to listen now. I didn’t in 1999.

When a certain part of the internal electrics dies, the ATS-803A and it’s clones cannot hold a signal anymore. I learned this from the web where you will find pages and pages of information on this last great common-man’s radio before the advent of the web. In certain critical situations, while attempting to lock onto a signal the radio will start climbing the dial, chuff-chuff-chuff until the upper tuning limit, at which point it freezes but is still powered. It is a difficult repair requiring gentle handling of the twenty-year old electronics, replacement capacitors and an uncommonly gentle soldering hand. You can send your radio to a handful of amateurs around the country who will make the repair for $200 plus two-way shipping. It is my sad duty to report that my beloved radio currently suffers that very malaise, and $200 will buy a modern replacement. Actually, $200 will almost buy almost two modern replacements.

I still have the box. She’s sitting in that box right now. For now, the last signal she locked onto was Air America. Not so bad.

Through the 90’s radios were getting lousier as the market was shrinking. In contravention to common sense, recent years have brought growth to this market. A number of new importers have appeared, Kaito and Coby among them, but Sangean is the once-unsung Daddy of them all. The successor of the 803A was the 808, and after that the 900s appeared at a dramatically higher price point. The lower line is the 500s which have gotten better and smaller over time.

The word around the campfire, found in about an hour on the web, is that the ATS-505 with it’s excellent sensitivity, excellent audio, many logical settings and extremely portable size is the Sangean-made great-granddaughter to the legendary 803A. Another option is the Kaito 1103, a favorite of guys who compulsively buy radios. I’ve read today that the ATS-505 is the radio to have if you’re only buying one. I doesn’t compare well to a $500 radio, which would be the same percentage of a month’s wages the 803A was so long ago, but I don’t think I need such a unit. Besides things are tight.

The 505 also comes with the wall wart and a once-$15 external antenna inside the box.

Actually it’ll have to do. It was $109 at Fry’s.

I really miss my radio, but this little silver thing is growing on me. The antennas aren’t broken either so I might just see what’s really out there in the world again.

Maybe.

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