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November 2009: Radio: Another Retro Hobby

Extra Fine Points Index  ]

BY DON FLUCKINGER • I’m on a radio jag at the moment. It’s just as fantastic as I remembered it from my 1970s youth, picking up AM stations from thousands of miles away — and beyond with shortwave — after the sun goes down.

This recent rekindling began with a general frustration that the radios around the house couldn’t even pick up an FM station 35 miles north, or an AM station 40 miles south. I listen to a lot of sports on the radio. When stations juggle local and national games, I go dial-surfing to find alternate carriers of the baseball postseason, NFL games, and soon, NBA. I need my radios to adroitly shuttle between those three local stations plus WFAN in New York and ESPN 1000 in Chicago. The junky boxes we have here just weren’t cutting it.

I can see three strong connections between the fountain pen hobby and its radio cousin. Extra Fine Points

Portable multiband radioI was not going to capitulate to paying for Sirius/XM satellite radio, either, although I did think long and hard about that option.

So after a little reading, a little Googling, and some email and in-person networking, I got a Kaito 1102, a tiny handheld radio that pulls in every sports station I want, as well as shortwave. To augment my explorations of the dial — while the radio works better than any I’d ever had before, its cold, digital dial and weird operating system doesn’t lend well to explorations — I picked up a 1962 Hallicrafters S118 tube receiver at the local ham-radio swap meet. Both items represented a total investment of less than $100. The vintage box has already opened up my dining room to European and Canadian broadcasts I’d never been able to get before. And I’ve only started tweaking.

Table-model multiband radioWhat does all this, pray tell, have to do with the fountain pen hobby? That’s a great question. Richard and I both were totally into radio as kids, even though we’re from different generations. We have this pen jones in common as well as a love for radio, which has to somehow interconnect, one would think; it just can’t be a coincidence.

In pondering this, I can see three strong connections between the fountain pen hobby and its radio cousin:

  1. It fosters interactions with other hobbyists. Hamfests, swap meets, and local club meetings feature the same social stuff that us pen collectors enjoy at a pen show. As you’ve probably learned pretty quickly at pen shows, the energy and enthusiasm for the hobby is exhilarating and contagious as collectors pass their knowledge and experience back and forth. I’ve discovered that a sub-hobby of ham radio is “DX’ing,” the logging and “collecting” of distant stations that can be pulled in with your gear, at your location. That’s probably going to be my group.

  2. It gives us more opportunities to use fountain pens. Hobbyists I meet online and in person still lament that our lives are getting so tech-driven. Pen-and-paper writings occur fewer and farther between. They barely have a chance to use their fountain pens.

    Well, serious radio-listening sessions — as opposed to using a local broadcast as audio wallpaper while working, driving, or doing housework — involves writing down what you’re pulling in, where, and when. You’re doing this because either you want to “collect” as much as you can, content-wise, to prove to yourself that you can do it, or it simply sounds interesting and you may want to tune in again sometime and you’re logging to remember it. Either way, logging with pen and paper causes much less static interference with your radio than if you were using a computer in close proximity to do the job.

  3. Radio’s another way to unplug. Sure, you could listen to some online stream, which would be tuned in perfectly. Sure, you could just watch TV, which has pictures in addition to sound. Sure, you could just punch up some content through your Internet phone and let it play. But radio listening is a throwback to an era when the fountain pen was king, and American life was different. It’s period-authentic, and furthermore, it gets you away from all the Palms, computers, text messagers, and cell phones that are causing all that static and hum in your brain and muddying your outlook. Shutting all that stuff down and sidling up to a radio helps get you away from that electronic cloud of people stalking you on those other devices, and replaces it with entertainment you’ve got to work to find and fine-tune — making it a lot more rewarding than clicking on a web stream.

So come along with me, ink up your favorite pen, and pull up to an AM/FM/Shortwave (I love the way the “good radios” won’t admit it’s AM, they call it “BC” or “MW”) and start exploring what’s left of this dying communications medium. You probably have a radio in your attic that picks up shortwave. Or a friend has one he’s not using and would be happy to unload it on you. If not, they’re ubiquitous, still, popping up on Craigslist, at Salvation Army stores, and at garage sales throughout your town.

Just don’t tell anyone about it. Make it your own guilty pleasure. Unless, that is, you want to get the same pushback you get with the fountain pens, which typically runs along the lines of “Why would you want to use that thing you have to fill up with ink, aren’t you afraid you’re going to run out or get ink all over you? Here, try my rollerball, it’s so nice!”

If the radio thing trips your trigger, Google your local club. It’s still probably going strong and loaded with interesting people. And after the inevitable (in my opinion) Sirius/XM bankruptcy, maybe we’ll see satellite radio go free or cheaper, and we’ll see radios that pull in terrestrial broadcasts, satellite, and Internet feeds over your home’s WiFi, all in a single box. When that day comes, I just might cancel the cable and toss my TV on the curb.

cover Further Reading: Passport to World Band Radio, 2009 Edition, by Lawrence Magne
Got a shortwave but you need some guidance on where to start? As events unfold, the intellectually curious go beyond everyday sources to seek out news, opinion and perspectives direct and unfiltered. Only world band radio delivers this no matter what, and with over a million copies sold to date, this is the Number One quick-access key to the market.

Freelance writer Don Fluckinger lives in Nashua, New Hampshire, and is the son-in-law of Richard Binder. His articles have been published in Antiques Roadshow Insider, The Boston Globe, and on the collectibles Web site. Please note: Any opinions stated in this column are Don’s alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Richard Binder or this Web site. Don Fluckinger
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