Radio Shack and the death of do-it-yourself

AP Photo/Stephan Savoia/file

If you’re playing a game of “dead or alive” with colleagues today, you can do worse for a question than “Radio Shack.”

When the company announced today that it’s closing 1,000 stores, it took America by surprise. Many people were surprised there still are Radio Shack stores.

It’s understandable. Times change. The closings mark an end to another chapter in the book of how we change, too.

A few weeks ago, I stopped over to my friend Pete’s house in Saint Paul for some help with the wiring of a small ham radio transmitter that I intended to use to broadcast locations of my plane as I fly along.

Pete, who is much younger and certainly smarter than I am, is a tinkerer and while tinkering a few years ago, he figured out how to wire up a small GPS with the small transmitter and stick it in an airplane that he built.

It’s not new technology — “hammies” have had it in their cars for years. But Pete experimented a little bit until he perfected the application for aviation purposes.

The electric vest. Pete Howell

When I stopped over to his house, he moved some things off the kitchen table he’d been working on. “This is my electric vest,” he said proudly. He wants to fly more in the winter and, perhaps you’ve heard, it’s been cold in Minnesota this year. So he took a vest and added wires inside it, figured out the proper source of power and constructed his solution with whatever he had lying around.

He’s known in our circle of aviators not only as a genius tinkerer, but also a master with a soldering iron. So he got the various electric parts I brought with me put together and programmed, while I nodded in that “of course, I know what you’re doing” way that is required of men of a certain age. I didn’t really know what he was doing.

Pete is the kind of guy who might’ve kept Radio Shack in business in earlier years. The nation was thick with kids who built Heathkit or Archerkit radios. The nation was thick with radio stations that were wired together by the people who built Heathkit or Archerkit radios as kids. They’d take perfectly fine working things apart, just to see how they worked.

There don’t seem to be many of those kids, anymore. When I took the Ham Radio Technicians Class license test in Roseville in January — I need a license to operate the tracker Pete was helping me with — I was in a room with older men who reminded me of those radio station chief engineers of my earlier career.

Granted, they were a little bit strange, perhaps a little on one side of the social scale, and smart as whips. They literally kept America connected with copper wire, rosin core solder, and the knowledge they gained by taking things apart and putting them back together again.

There aren’t many of them anymore, either.

The literature I picked up about joining a local ham radio club carried the clear message that if more people don’t become ham radio operators, the frequencies the FCC allots to them will be taken away and given to some other, probably newer, technology.

These are tinkerers who created our connected world by figuring out relatively simple laws of electromagnetic property. With only a knowledge of watts, ohms, amperes, and a little curiosity, they pushed the applications of radio communication so far and so fast — you didn’t think WiFi just happened on its own, did you? — that they became dinosaurs of their own radio age.

A few years ago — 1998, actually — the Galaxy 4 satellite spun out of its orbit and slammed our electronic world shut. Eighty percent of the nation’s beepers — the dominant emergency notification tool of the day — went silent.

It also put the distribution system of public radio out of business without a satellite. In the network control center of Minnesota Public Radio, a small group of tinkerers — I prefer to think that a couple of them at one time had built a radio from parts they bought at a local store — quickly devised a workaround to the problem. They would use the Internet and link the public radio stations to keep the signal going. It worked perfectly and the method is now a fundamental way for broadcasters to distribute content.

Radio Shack’s passing — my Woodbury store closed more than a year ago and I can’t imagine the Saint Paul store lasting much longer — is a concession to reality that there aren’t enough tinkerers left to sustain its business. Its Super Bowl ad this year mocked its own heritage and, in a way, ours.

Radio Shack was already catering to the “if it’s broke, just throw it away and buy another one” consumer.

We still tinker with software. But hardware, the very infrastructure of our wired and unwired lives? Not so much. We’re generally content if something just works.

So today, we raise our soldering irons to Radio Shack, which once inspired the generations to learn “how.”

  • Dave
    • Of course. But I’d also be willing to bet the majority of their customers are in their ’60s and ’70s.

      • jon

        That is a bet I’d be willing to take.

        Hams may be dwindling, but the tinker spirit has moved on… they call themselves hackers now, and live in a world with a much larger playground for software (as opposed to the old hams where hardware was really all there was).

        Sites like instructables and hackaday cater don’t appear to be catering (in my opinion) to the older crowd.

  • jon

    For the tinkers digikey.com and others are what ran radio shack out of business.

    You can only sell so many $0.25 capacitors for $4.00 before people look for another soltuion I was super excited when I was a kid and my dad brought home a catalog from newark.com (though they may or may not have had a .com at that point) shipping was a bit of a problem, but ordering in large enough quantities made up for it… now shipping is cheap, and so are the parts.

    More can be done on a programmable chip than what used to be (radio shack even saw this, be it a little late, when they started carrying arduinos.)

  • ficuscr

    I understand the sentiment but don’t agree. I think your mostly being nostalgic. Rather like saying movies are a thing of the past since Block Buster shuttered its stores.

    Look at clubs like the Twin Cities Makers http://www.tcmaker.org/ or technology like the Rasberry Pi and 3D printers. The technologies change, human nature not so much, tinkerers are not going anywhere – they just shop at Allied Electronics instead of Radio Shack..

  • davidz

    I was just in Radio Shack last night, because I has been asked a question about Arduino & bi-color LED’s. I didn’t have such an LED around, and the trip to RS was worth it to buy a $0.99 part, quantity one, in my hands right now. If I needed more of them, I’d order online and wait. I’m not the only one who buys parts from their components drawers, but there can’t be many. This is the East Side store on Arcade.

    I’m always amused because when an employee asks “Can I help you”, and I respond with “I need a 25V 0.01uF radial capacitor” (or similar), the only comeback I will get from any RS employee these days is “the parts drawer is over there”.

    Will I miss the store if it goes away? Yes, but not a lot. I’ll still keep hacking on hardware, I’ll just be ordering a few more parts online (where I do most of my business anyway).

  • BJ

    Worked for Radio Shack full time and part time between 1992-2002 and managed the Maple Grove location 1994-1995. I knew once cell phones became the focus they were doomed, but cell phones kept them afloat for, about, the last 10 years.

    • ficuscr

      Agreed. Radio Shack’s niche was as a hobbyist shop. Competing against retailers on things like cell phones was pointless. Never going to be able to beat the prices of the bigger retailers. They needed to instead provide better service and employ knowledgeable people. Something I’ve not observed over the last couple years on my rare visits to Radio Shack.

  • John

    I think I inadvertently started expecting this back in the mid/late 90’s. In the small town I lived in, Radio Shack, Kmart and Pamida were it. If you needed a computer bit or RCA connector or virtually anything, the Shack was where you went. It’s still one of few places you can get an LED if you’re in a pinch. My parents bought our first computer there (a 386 Tandy, DOS and WIN 3.1 – still running in their basement as probably the world’s longest continuous freecell game without a stats reset).

    It was shortly after I bought my first portable CD player that I started to see this coming. It was a monster that cost about $160, took 6 AA batteries and gave you maybe 4-6 hours of run time on a good day (with plenty of skipping). Probably a year after that, Target moved into town and I realized that Radio Shack was in trouble. I could get a Sony Discman for a little over $100 that would give me around 8 hours of playback on 2 AA’s.

    I built a fader for those two CD players from components I got at Radio Shack. I played DJ in my parents’ basement, and learned to solder. Now, I don’t have much time for those sorts of hobbies, and when I do get around to doing things of that nature, I tend to order on line – prices at the local RS are out of line, and their parts bin has been poorly stocked in recent years.

    So, nostalgia aside, I probably won’t miss the chain much at all. Bob – I think you pretty well got it on the cell phone focus being the first nail in the coffin.

  • BJ

    Just to be clear, they are not going out of business, yet. In the 90’s when I worked for them the saying was: 90% of american’s lived within 5 minutes of a Radio Shack. So now that will be 90% live with in 15 minutes of a Radio Shack. Name another retailer with 4000 locations. The biggest problem is they don’t own the buildings they are in, ie they pay rent.

    • Not going out. But they’re circling the drain.

  • Nate

    Clearly Bob hasn’t heard of hacker fairs/spaces, Raspberry Pi, Arduino, or companies (run by the hackers themselves) like TinkerForge or AdaFruit. The ham radio hackers of yore aren’t dying out, they’re evolving to keep up with technology. Exchanging tubes for microprocessors.

    With its practice of hiring salespeople who know nothing about electronics and charging way too much for the rudimentary components, Radio Shack deserves to finally exit stage right.

  • Barancy Peloma

    radio shack abandoned the core. that is the biggest problem. they chose to become a glorified cell phone kiosk.
    and for this- they deserve to die!