Transistor Radio

20 Mar Transistor Radio

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly – cover date 20.3.23


On a windowsill at my place there is a solar powered radio which also doubles as a torch. I bought it in 2010 from one of those mail order catalogues that features couch covers with handy pockets, and anti-slip shower mats that promise to massage your feet.

Not everything in the brochure has a dual function but you have to turn quite a few pages to find something that doesn’t. I have my eye on a vintage wall clock that doubles as a secret storage space. Except now I’ve told you.

No need to hunt out the receipt to be sure of my torch-radio’s date of purchase – I know I placed the order immediately after that first devastating Christchurch earthquake in September 2010, the one that woke the city in the dark.

From where we were up the other end of the country, we heard stories of people whose only way of staying connected in a city without electricity, telephones or internet was to listen to the radio. RNZ National’s overnight announcer, Vicki McKay, was credited by many listeners for keeping a shaken – and still shaking – city calm and informed.

If bad things were to happen where I lived, I wanted to know I’d be able to tune in to Vicki, too.

Hence this clunky banana-coloured transistor sitting in my window. A hybrid, if you will, because in addition to the solar panel, you can whack in AA batteries, or plug it in, or if it’s dark and there’s a power cut and the batteries eventually die, you can wind a lever to give it a bit of juice for as long as your arm lasts.

Preparing for these recent weather events, I’ve realised it’s now the only transistor left in my house. There used to be some kind of more-or-less portable radio in pretty much every room, mostly plugged in but also able to take batteries should the need arise.

One also played CDs and a particularly ancient one could play a cassette if we still had some. (We have some.) One by one, they’ve been replaced by Bluetooth speakers connected to my phone – better sound quality, less space, easy access to whatever I want to hear next.

Unless, of course, I want to hear the news during a long power cut. Or to hear Joni Mitchell, who took her full body of work off Spotify and thank heavens I still had my lifetime’s collection of her albums and something to play them on. My resistance to letting go of things can look almost prescient.

There’s been a surge in transistor radio purchases over recent weeks – along with a quick lesson for some demographics about what a transistor is.

I was a kid when my father took me to buy my first one. Dad chose the second cheapest despite the salesman saying the one just a couple of dollars more was significantly better quality. Our family has approached appliances the way people approach wine – not the cheapest on the list, but we’re not paying crazy prices either, are you mad?

And sure it was tinny and crackly, but it was still brilliant for listening under the bedclothes to a whole world of music on the new radio station up the road in Palmy, and this was how I first heard Steely Dan and possibly Joni Mitchell before she came home on a record.

It was true then – and true again in an emergency – that it doesn’t really matter how tinny it sounds when all you want is to feel connected.