Me And My Tranny

Tranny memories . . and a new toy to play with.

Roberts

I remember when I got my first radio. It was a little thing, not unlike the one pictured above, but with a big speaker grille occupying most of the front space (unlike the one pictured, which is designed to be used with headphones, but which is the nearest distant relative I still possess).

It was cheap, plastic, and could be held easily in one hand. The sound from it was a little tinny, but it was mine – finally I could choose my own listening, my own place, time, and station. The controls were simple – one wheel for volume (which also controlled on/off) and another for tuning. The radio being small, and the wheel sticky, tuning in stations, especially on FM, was almost an art form. And with cheap components it whistled and whined on AM, and would frequently de-tune from whatever station you were listening to.

Back in those days, you still referred to these things as a “transistor radio” – hence the nickname “tranny“, which at that time either had not acquired any more adult meanings, or perhaps such things were beyond my innocent world. The “transistor” radio was one of those phases we go through linguistically, where we specifically incorporate the name of some new component into the name of a thing, even though most of the users would have little knowledge of what a transistor actually is, or how it differed from a non transistor radio. These technical names attach themselves to things for a period, and then eventually fade away, the transistor radio just becoming the plain old radio again.

Another good example of that is the “Microcomputer“, which, if you took it’s name as a literal meaning, would have been a computer so tiny that you would need a magnifying glass to find it on your desk. In fact, “Micro” computers were great big hulking beasts, taking up most of your desktop, and took their name from the then relatively new to mass market micro-processor at their heart. For a while in the early 80s, computer stores were always “Bill’s Micros” or “Sutton Micros” or “First Micro” etc, until the name gradually faded away to be replaced by the more prosaic “computer” of the desktop or laptop variety. Though of course, the biggest tech giant, which was born in those early PC days, does still carry the name – Microsoft.

Another example of such nomaculture, which has now almost faded away is the cellphone, which is what most mobile phones were initially called by users in the 80s and early 90s (and still are, to an extent, in the USA). This was again a case where the technical aspect of a product’s operation was included in the name – possibly by the designing engineers – and eventually being lost as generations of users, to whom the product is no longer a novelty, use them without any knowledge of the “transmission cell” technology which enables them to function.

Cellphones became mobiles, and just phones in many cases, and have now gained the title “smartphone” as they have started adding functionality not traditionally found on phones, such as mail, web-browsing, application support, and radio. How long will it be, I wonder, before the “smarts” of the smartphone are so taken for granted by users that they cease to have to be defined as smart, and become again, simply “the phone” ?

The arrival of radio onto mobile phones predated the smartphone era, and saved my bacon on one memorable occasion in 2009 when I was doing an outside broadcast for Phantom, and we suddenly lost the off-air monitor function on the desk. As I was not playing the music locally, but remote-controlling the playout system back at base through a laptop hookup, it was vital that I could hear what was going out on air, and i suddenly found myself adrift. Cue a few moments of panic before I realised that my trusty Nokia mobile could be pressed into service as an off-air monitor, though I’m sure it did our image no good at a very public location for me to be seen wearing, not the usual “big DJ headphones” but a tiny mobile with Walkman type personal earphones.

Fstream

That was an FM radio facility, but mobile phones have moved on smartly since then, to the point where a variety of apps allow you to listen to online stations, or online feeds of terrestrial stations, from pretty much anywhere in the world, restricted only by occasional copyright issues. Most radio stations have their own app for ease of listening, and those that don’t are usually possible to get via specialised apps such as Tunein or Fstream (pictured above).

So a couple of days ago, I was lying in bed, enjoying what was, for me, a very rare lie-in. And I was listening to an online station through my smartphone.  Nothing unusual in that . I use the phone for a lot of online listening: to get Radio 4 in good quality for example, or to listen to stations not available locally. But usually when listening, I am using headphones. In fact, I would virtually never listen to radio, podcast, or music on the phone any other way.

But lying in bed earphones are a drag, and I was feeling too lazy to get out of bed and go fire up the laptop to listen through the speakers. So I did something i rarely do, which was listen to the phone without headphones, through it’s own little speaker. And that’s when it hit me.

There I was, holding in my hand a device that was roughly the same size and shape as my first ever radio, though possibly a bit lighter. And I was listening to the radio on it, with that same slightly tinny sound that you get from small speakers, except that this was probably slightly better in that there was no whistles and de-tuning.

What I held in my hand at that moment was, to all intents and purposes, a “tranny”.

I know many radio purists of the old school who will disagree, and talk about receiving terrestrial signals. But to me that is not the point.

When I was a kid, I had a little box, and I could use it to listen to RTE, or BBC, or some other station I wanted to hear. Now, today, I can hold in my hand a box that allows me to do exactly the same. And more – If I want to, I can just as easily listen to Caroline or Radio Jackie or a station in Australia, all in the same quality, and without having to be in their specific area.

Just like the tranny of old, the battery will run down after a number of hours of listening. But instead of having to buy new ones, I simply plug in and recharge. And the phone allows me to do lots of other stuff too (though that is not the point of this piece).

The problem with internet radio always used to be it’s lack of mobility, as well as the fact that in pre-broadband days it could be clunky and intermittent to listen to. Better connection speeds solved the reliability issue, while the smartphone has essentially liberated online radio from the home, and allowed it to go with you. Wifi is nice, but not essential – as long as there is 3G coverage, most radio station apps will work just fine.

Caroline

I remember doing online broadcasts 10 years ago, and at times it could be a pretty lonely show. The emails came in, but they could not be described as thick and fast. These days, working with Caroline, my response from online listeners vastly outnumbers satellite ones, and it seems to be almost as easy for people to tune in as it used to be.

It’s funny that I never made the connection between the smartphone and those old, little portable radios before. It took the removal of my headphones, and a sudden reversion to that lower sound quality of yesteryear, for me to make the emotional connection.

Broadcasting is not necessarily about aerials and signals, any more than good radio is about vinyl rather than CD.

Radio is about the content, the connection, the passion.

The old transistor radio was just a tool to deliver that content to me, just as the new age tranny in my shirt pocket does in 2013.

Steve


2 Comments on “Me And My Tranny”

  1. Graham Brown says:

    Thanks Steve, another perceptive blog. I love your passion for radio. May I also put in a word for my favourite gadgets? My two internet radios, I love them (one is Roberts Stream 83i, the other is Oxx).

    • steveconway says:

      Thanks Graham.

      The Internet Radio is another really important part of the “New Age of Radio” too, and I toyed with the idea of including them in the piece, but in the end kept it the to mobile devices, as I wanted to draw on the similarity between the old portable radio of my youth and today’s smartphone which, in most populated areas, is not that functionally different.

      I had intended at some stage to write a different piece about how we name things, but it just sort of merged into this one!

      All the best to you and yours
      Steve


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