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Consumer Electronics

I Miss Radio Shack

I was recording some background vocals to a demo a few days ago, and it hit me: I miss Radio Shack!

I was using a small-diaphragm condenser microphone sold by RS. I actually have three of these buggers, and they have never let me down. Rather than a phantom power supply, they run on a 1.5-volt AA battery, which when I bought them about 20-25 years ago was a life saver, considering that I couldn’t afford a studio condenser mic and elaborate mixing board with built-in phantom power supply.

RS was the perfect store for a guy like me, a musician who liked to tinker with electronics. It had tons of electronic components, including integrated circuits to build early non-spring reverb units. I remember that IC chip was expensive, around 50 bucks, and if you zapped it with static electricity, then you killed it. I built one, and while it was a bit noisy, it sufficed instead of purchasing a music store model for five times the price (it also marketed a reverb unit that was meant for connecting into your stereo system, but with adapters, worked with a guitar amp as well) I also built headphone amps and distortion effects from the RS parts, and I learned a lot about musical instrument electronics back then.

Besides components, RS sold guitar and mic cables, mic stands, mixers, small PA systems, amplifier tubes and microphones. I am not even going to go into the radios, stereo systems, computers, and alarm systems that were available. As for microphones, RS’s higher-end mics were actually made by Shure, so you got a good quality dynamic mic that was comparable to the SM48 but cost a lot less. Just before the company’s downfall, it did sell actual Shure mics on its shelves. They also had books on electronics, either general instruction and theory or how-to booklets to build simple circuits.

RS was my second home. I knew a bunch of the sales people by first names. I even dated a sales girl (unfortunately, that was 18 of the worst months of my life, but I digress). The print catalog was a pseudo-bible, and I remember having a card to get a free battery every month. There was a store about two miles away from my boyhood home, and another three stores within a short drive. Today, the closest store (and that is just an authorized outlet store) is over 30 miles away.

Times changed, and RS did not change with them. Probably half of the people that I knew growing up had a Tandy computer as their first PC (including me), but the company never bothered to pursue expanding on that product sales. The same with televisions, radios, and other consumer electronic equipment. Best Buy beat them to it, and RS basically became a cell phone store and not much else.

Today, I do a lot less electronics tinkering. I can make some simple repairs and part replacements to electric guitars and amplifiers, but technology has overwhelmed me. To secure the parts to build a decent distortion pedal for a guitar from electronics outlets will cost you two- to three-times more than buying a mass-produced one from Guitar Center or Sweetwater. The educational experience of building something like that does not exist with today’s young musicians. Even those that are choosing to use vintage equipment shy away from learning something about the circuitry.

RS was a great resource for me, it was the right place at the right time. Perhaps I should have forced myself to delve deeper into the technology, but I looked at it more as a hobby than as a career. That was probably the situation for thousands of others like me. And that was what may have put some of the nails into Radio Shack’s coffin.

Chew on it and comment.

By Matt Merta/Mitch Matthews

Musician and writer (both song and print) for over 30 years. Primarily interested in roots music (Americana, bluegrass, blues, folk). Current contributing writer for Fiddler Magazine, previous work with Metro Times (Detroit), Ann Arbor Paper and Real Detroit Weekly, as well as other various music and military publications. As songwriter, won the 2015 Chris Austin Songwriting Contest (Bluegrass Category, "Something About A Train," co-written with Dawn Kenney and David Morris) as well as having work performed on NPR and nominated for numerous Detroit Music Awards.

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