Jump to content

Not even "Weird Al" could save it...

Posted by Nathan Strum, 07 February 2015 · 1,631 views

Video Game Ramblings
Over my Christmas vacation, it was with a tinge of sadness that I noticed that the Radio Shack I had grown up with had closed its doors.
My Radio Shack.
I suppose I shouldn't have been so surprised though, since I was often puzzled at all of the other Radio Shacks that were still open.
More surprising, was that when I went to go see a movie that week, this commercial ran in the theater beforehand. "Weird Al" Yankovic singing the joys of holiday shopping at Radio Shack, in a Radio Shack the likes of which I'd never seen - clean, modern, organized, inviting.
I couldn't help but think, "Wow... Radio Shack can afford 'Weird Al'? How did that happen?"
My guess is, the boardroom discussion went something like this:
Suit #1: We need a new celebrity spokesperson.
Suit #2: Howie Long and Teri Hatcher aren't hip with the kids anymore?
Suit #3: They never were hip with the kids.
Suit #1: We need someone who can better appeal to our target demographic.
Suit #2: What's our target demographic? People who can't drive all the way to a Best Buy?
Suit #3: People who have never heard of the internet?
Suit #1: No - nerds! We need to re-connect with our core users. Hobbyists, electronics geeks, computer nerds.
Suit #2: Sure! Nerds are rich now! That's exactly what we need!
Suit #3: So we need a spokesperson that appeals to nerds?
Suit #1: Yes! Nerds are hip and trendy right now. What with the internet and texting and MP3s and all that.
Suit #2: And cellphones. Don't forget cellphones.
Suit #3: I'd like to forget cellphones. I still have a hernia from the ones we used to sell.
Suit #1: So who's big with the nerds now? And also affordable.
Suit #2: We should get "Weird Al"! "Eat It" was awesome! And he had a #1 record this year.
Suit #3: Isn't he kind of old? Do we really want to appeal to old nerds?
Suit #1: Nah - kids love him! And their parents love him! It'll be great!
Suit #2: Whole families of "Weird Al" fans, streaming into Radio Shack! Buying stuff!
Suit #3: Yeah... I can see it now. "Hey kids... let's all go down to the Radio Shack to buy some cellphone chargers and hearing aid batteries."
The thing that surprised me most about the commercial, is that I regularly follow "Weird Al" and I never once saw any announcement that he'd made this. And he puts links to almost everything he does on his website.
Maybe he was distancing himself from it, sensing that the end was near for Radio Shack. Being associated with nerds is one thing... but even nerds no longer associate with Radio Shack.
At any rate, the end finally came this week as Radio Shack filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
Frankly, I'm surprised it's taken so long. (Even though I could have predicted this would happen.)
My most recent dealings with Radio Shack have been few and far-between, and usually the result of "Well, nothing else is open, and I don't want to wait the two days it would take to get this online, so I'll see if Radio Shack has it". And as time went on, more often than not, the answer was no - they didn't have it. Their inventory dwindled over the years, as did any concern any of their employees had for maintaining the stores. They fell into disrepair, with half-empty displays and shelves, and the things that used to distinguish them - the oddball adapters, electronic parts, components, project boxes, tools - disappeared. Even hobbyists who weren't already buying everything online were forced to shop elsewhere. The stores became ghost towns. Employees knew almost nothing about what the stores carried, and cared even less. On the rare occasion I could find something useful, I'd usually have to hit up three stores just to find enough stock of an item to make the project work.
Radio Shack's downfall is hardly a recent event. About 20 years ago, around the time I started my current job, we would shop at Radio Shack for parts pretty frequently. But the thing was - even then - we were shopping just for parts. Odds and ends. RCA cables, audio adapters, switches, portable cassette players, 99¢ packages of resistors, VHS tape rewinders, cheap computer speakers - old technology we needed to support other old technology we still had at work. But over time, other stores began carrying those bits and pieces - Best Buy, Circuit City, Fry's Electronics, computer stores, outlet stores - places where we were already buying other equipment, so that the odd trip out to Radio Shack became unnecessary. There were options. There was competition. Radio Shack was no longer unique. It was no longer a destination, but a fallback in case you couldn't find something somewhere else. And this was before the internet.
The last major purchase we made from Radio Shack for work was about 10 years ago, when we bought several 27" TVs from them (because they were cheap). But all of the TVs failed within just a few years. You get what you pay for.
As a hobbyist, I found fewer and fewer items at Radio Shack that I could use. Their electronic parts selection, which used to be massive, became effectively useless. I used to build stuff with parts from Radio Shack all the time. There was something reassuring about knowing that you could go down to the store whenever you wanted, to pick up a few parts to make something useful or just for fun. As a kid there was a joy to be found in looking through bins and drawers full of parts, to imagine the possibilities of what you could create. Wishing you had just a little more money to buy that cool looking switch, or that LED display, or any one of a hundred or a thousand other things.
Radio Shack, even when I was a kid, had a reputation for selling cheap junk. Their batteries were cheap, and went flat faster than any other brand. They sold cheap speakers, car stereos, audio gear, microphones, and all sorts of things. I owned a cheap little mixer so that I could mix my own cassette tapes. My old car had an all Radio Shack stereo that I installed - an AM/FM cassette player, dual slim 7-band graphic equalizers (one for the front speakers, one for the rear), the front doors had 5 1/4" three-way speakers plus another 4" pair, the rear window had 6" x 9" three-ways, and the trunk contained a dual 8" subwoofer that I built using Radio Shack's book on how to build speaker enclosures - including hand-wound crossovers. My main home speakers are still sitting on Radio Shack speaker stands. Right now, where I work, hooked up to a brand new 46" HDTV, we still have an old cheap mini Radio Shack amplifier and Optimus AV speakers because they happen to work for exactly what we need. I still have four more of those speakers hooked up at home as my surround speakers. I still have an old pocket Radio Shack AM/FM radio that I keep around in case of emergencies. I have a Radio Shack stopwatch. I still have a bunch of old Radio Shack project boxes sitting around (some with projects in them). I still have a Radio Shack desoldering iron. Two of them, actually. One at home, one at work. I still have a couple of Radio Shack digital multimeters, and sound level meters (which we still regularly use at work). And a Radio Shack electronic studfinder. There are old Radio Shack cables, adapters, and who knows what else, tucked away all over the place. I probably still have a broken LCD watch pen sitting in a drawer. And yes... a lot of it, maybe most of it, is cheap junk.
But maybe that's what made Radio Shack so... magical. We knew it was cheap - but it put things into our reach that maybe we otherwise wouldn't have been able to grab ahold of. My high school electronics teacher always dismissively called it "Battery Shack", but of course that's where you had to buy parts for his classes. It was where everyone went to buy parts to build things with. That's just what you did. It's where you went to find things to create stuff with. To explore. And Radio Shack carried all of the weird, oddball, and interesting electronics that other places never did. Need an adapter that turns your car's 8-track player into a cassette player? Yeah - Radio Shack's got you covered. Crappy handheld electronic games that were five years behind everyone else? Check. A cool-looking pocket TRS-80 computer with an LCD matrix screen? You got it. A battery-powered portable TV? How about five of 'em! Radio Shack had your back for the weird, fun, cool, goofy and stupid stuff you wanted, needed, or were just fascinated by. Was it innovation? I don't know. But it was fun. It was fun to walk through their stores, or flip through their catalogs, and just marvel at the weirdness, the coolness, the usefulness, and the uselessness of it all. Radio Shack used to call itself "The Technology Store". And it was. It wasn't always great technology, or quality technology, but it was undeniably fascinating and they put it within our reach.
When Radio Shack really began to click with me, was when they began opening up their Computer Centers back in the TRS-80 days. I was incredibly fascinated with computers in the late 70's/early 80's, and Radio Shack set up these Computer Centers where you could go in and just bang away at the keyboards for hours. My friends and I would hang out there after school (when we weren't at the video arcades, naturally), learning BASIC, running programs, and printing things out on silver thermal paper. The store just let us in - a bunch of kids - to do that. To play - yes, but also to learn. I never learned how to program very much - but it was a great deal of fun. So much so, that I still vividly recall staying there so late one day, I missed a dentist's appointment, and got in a lot of trouble for it. I have yearbooks signed by my friends specifically mentioning our times at Radio Shack. Along with the arcade, the mall, and the movie theater... it was one of our hangouts.
While in high school, one of my best friends saved up enough money for his own Trash-80. Besides playing blobby adaptations of arcade games, we spent hours - and I mean hours - upon hours playing Zork, logged into the University of Washington's VAX, or trolling various bulletin boards. I later typed up some of my college papers on his TRS-80, including one where the computer crashed, and he somehow managed to recover it from RAM (I have no idea to this day how he did that... but he now works at Microsoft, so there you go). Was it the best computer out there? Did it have the best graphics? Of course not. But it didn't matter. Because it was his. His computer. That was an incredibly rare thing back then for a high school kid. He worked hard to earn that money, too. And he chose to buy it at Radio Shack.
The problem was that Radio Shack never figured out how to hang onto that magic. The magic of technology. Of weird, cool stuff. Of things that fired the imagination. They never figured out how to keep walking the line between being the place that sold cheap junk, but also being the place that always had cool cheap junk. After awhile, they just had junk. And that's all that people remembered. That and cellphones. Radio Shack was way ahead of the market on cellphones - but by the time the market caught up to them, they had already been left behind by it. They often led the way, but then got stuck in one place, never moving ahead until it was too late. Instead of being the place to go for the latest cool thing, they became the place where everything was just old. They had forgotten how to keep up. They'd lost their relevancy, but worse than that, they'd abandoned the niche that made them unique. That made them fun. Making fun of Radio Shack as a kid had always been with a wink and a nod. Now, people were making fun of them because they had become old and pathetic.
Looking back - I wonder if they had kept a stronger emphasis on personal computers, maybe they could have done better. Build and sell cheap PC clones. Keep the Computer Centers for training. Focus on repair and service. Become the family-friendly source for personal computing. Be the Apple Store, for the non-Apple crowd. Maybe they could have survived long enough to partner with Microsoft to have stores-within-a-store as part of their recent "let's copy Apple" retail initiative. Radio Shack certainly had the real estate for it. I'm surprised Microsoft didn't have a hand in their buyout just for that reason alone. By its very nature, the computer industry is always going to have some cool thing people will want. 3D printing would have been right up the old Radio Shack's alley. Don't we still have a need for a "Technology Store"? Maybe they could have been the place to go to learn how to "cut the cable" featuring the latest DVRs, set-top boxes and digital antennae. Or they could have become a center for home automation integration - Home Depot sure isn't going to help you out with any of that. They completely, and repeatedly, missed every opportunity to get into video games. Quadcopters have become a "thing" recently - but by the time Radio Shack noticed, nobody was paying attention to them anymore. Nobody would risk buying anything there, because it was no longer a trusted source. Everyone knew Radio Shack had become just a joke. A joke with bad service, old products, and cheap junk. Not even a hint of the magic, or wonder, or fun, or goofiness remained. The opportunities were there. But they couldn't see them. Maybe they grew too big, too old, and too slow to change with the times.
Maybe though, their downfall was inevitable. Maybe the age of the hobbyist, the tinkerer, the enthusiast, the discoverer, has moved on from needing a place to congregate. The internet has supplanted Radio Shack in every way, shape and form. You can browse an endless array of weird, cool and cheap junk online, and have it delivered to your door. You can connect with likeminded people without setting a foot outside of your house. Maybe even if Radio Shack had done everything right - the end result would have been the same.
Maybe their time had just finally passed.

Thanks for the great write-up, Nathan. I have similar fond memories of Radio Shack, Forrest Mims books, free battery of the month club cards, and friends with TRS-80 computers.

Hindsight is 20/20, but I think to remain profitable, Radio Shack would have had to embrace online a lot earlier, and more sincerely. Companies like SparkFun and Adafruit are filling a online niche that Radio Shack owned in their bricks and mortar.

Instead they ignored their roots and doubled-down again and again on cell phone sales.
  • Report

I have a 6 disc CD changer hooked up to my receiver that still works great.  It is at least 20 years old.  It doesn't get much use but it works perfectly when it does.

  • Report

This is great writing.

  • Report

Thanks for the compliments - they're much appreciated. :)


As a follow-up, I was feeling nostalgic (obviously) so I went into a Radio Shack today, one I haven't been in for a very long time. The whole place had been re-organized and renovated. And while not quite the pristine fantasyland of the "Weird Al" commercial, it was a far site more impressive than anything I was expecting. Not the Radio Shack of the last 20 years, certainly.


Moreover, they actually had some of the stuff I lamented about in my blog post - gadgetry. They had a section devoted to Arduino, a few Make: kits, and some other cool hobby things like robotics kits, electroluminescent wire, LED light strips, and quite a few more electronics kits, components and tools than I can recall seeing there in a very long time. Maybe they had been there before, but were just buried under cell phones (no - they weren't).


I almost bought something. But what I would have bought wasn't in stock. Naturally. So maybe I'll look for it online. (I wonder how many times that's been uttered in a Radio Shack in the last decade? :ponder: )


What they did have there was pretty well organized, but there were items out of stock, a frustrating lack of variety, some items were in the wrong place, and some seemed to have no relation to other things around them. You know... typical Radio Shack. And they really, desperately needed to have displays showing what people can do with these things. Radio Shack should have had some initiative where they'd pair up with schools, providing the parts for students to use in electronics and maker classes, in exchange for being able to display their projects in the stores. I had no idea this stuff was in there. "Weird Al" should have been showing off 3D printers and Arduino kits... not quad-copters. 


Although too little and too late to save themselves, it was a little heartening to see that in the end, at least someone had the right idea again.


Maybe after March 31st, I'll stop by again to see what becomes of that store.


It's not on the list. Is yours?

  • Report

I got so misty eyed reading your article that I couldn't see the screen anymore and had to stop.


Radio Shack has an extra special place in my heart as my Mom worked at one of their dedicated computer stores for a couple of years in the early 80s to help make ends meet while my Dad was between jobs.  I got to play with the Model 2 & 3 business computers, got free 5.25 disks which wouldn't format in the Model 3, but the Apple ][s at school would.  And it meant that my first home computer was a CoCo (complete with tape drive (which I later killed by accidentally magnetizing the head), dot matrix printer & 300 baud direct connect modem).


And yeah, those Radio Shack catalogs & flyers were better Christmas wish books than the Sears catalog.  Giant speakers were what I lusted after (although I now know they were almost certainly crap).  And even if it was cheap crap, it gave you an idea as to what something would cost.


Come to think of it, my first CD player was a Radio Shack portable CD player which I bought when CDs first came out and ended up taking to university.  I also had a RS calculator which had a membrane keypad on the inside cover and would handle hexadecimal and fractions.  It died after getting bent too often in my pants pockets.


The weird thing is in Canada Radio Shack became "the Source" and is now owned by Bell Canada so isn't impacted by the Chapter 11.  Unfortunately, it's still too much electronic junk & cellphones and not enough DIY parts although I was able to buy a decent TV balun there.

  • Report

(Eyes cleared so I've finished reading.)


Oh and Radio Shack / Tandy did try to do the PC thing.  As I mentioned, they had the pre-IBM PC TRS-80 computers (and offered training).  Then they had the PC "compatible" Tandy computers.  And when that didn't work out they sold HPs and Compaqs and some of the other clones.


But where they always made money was on the accessories.  Not just peripherals, but cables, consumables and the occasional upgrade.


But you're probably right.  Their failing was more that they would stay in a market for longer than they should have.  And while they would occasionally be leading edge, there were many occasions where they were caught flat footed or be late to the party.

  • Report

I got so misty eyed reading your article that I couldn't see the screen anymore and had to stop.


Wow... I certainly never expected one of my blog entries to have that kind of effect on someone. Usually people stop reading because they're bored. ;)


Oh and Radio Shack / Tandy did try to do the PC thing.  As I mentioned, they had the pre-IBM PC TRS-80 computers (and offered training).  Then they had the PC "compatible" Tandy computers.  And when that didn't work out they sold HPs and Compaqs and some of the other clones.


I couldn't recall if they had true PC clones of their own or not - I'd always assumed the computers they built used their own OS (hence, part of the whole public perception problem). At any rate, I don't recall them being a major player in the PC clone wars. They never capitalized on what had once been their strength - the Computer Centers. If they'd jumped in with both feet at the time Windows was making big strides, and really pushed themselves aggressively (maybe using their "Optimus" brand name - because that always sounded way cooler than "Tandy"), they might have become like what Gateway attempted to do with their retail stores. Radio Shack already had the retail presence, and as they say, location is everything.


Speaking of names, "The Source" sounds way better than "Radio Shack".

  • Report

See http://en.wikipedia....wiki/Tandy_2000 and http://en.wikipedia....wiki/Tandy_1000 for info about Tandy's (owner of Radio Shack) PC compatibles, which eventually got sold off to AST.
I certainly heard of people buying them back in the day.  However, IIRC they tended to be slightly incompatible (probably somewhat by design for lock-in.  Dells had the same issue - particularly the power supply), so there ended up being quite a quite a lot of model-specific information wandering around.
The pre-PC stuff was certainly model specific (other than the Model 4 which was Z-80 CPM and the Model 16 which had 68K Unix) see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TRS-80 more details.

  • Report

Fixed your links. The blog software had broken them.  :)


I like how the Tandy 1000 is described as "more or less compatible". That "less" part will do you in every time.


Looks like they were out of manufacturing PCs as of 1993. If they'd only stuck around two more years...

  • Report

And yeah, those Radio Shack catalogs & flyers were better Christmas wish books than the Sears catalog.  Giant speakers were what I lusted after (although I now know they were almost certainly crap).  And even if it was cheap crap, it gave you an idea as to what something would cost.


That reminds me - you know who else had awesome catalogs?


Does the phrase "Dual Donzel" ring a bell?


DAK. Their 1984 catalog is online here. I loved their catalogs. They had the same cool cheap gear vibe as Radio Shack, but with the best, goofiest writing in catalogs ever. My friend had a pair of their BSR "Thunder Lizard Mistake Plus" speakers. I craved their stuff and daydreamed of the sort of insane stereo systems I could build with it. I don't recall actually buying anything from them though, since I was pretty broke back then (and had fair-to-middling JVC system anyway).

  • Report

Random Radio Shack memories: Back in 7th grade science class our teacher had a TRS-80 computer in the classroom. If you did good in class and finished your work early he'd let you work/play at the computers until the end of class. He had several binders of programs on cassettes. The only time I ever remember anyone using the computer was a girl who finished up a test early. She fired up the computer, selected a cassette, waited for the program to load, then the bell to end class rang.


My grandma bought me my first radio. It was an AM/FM/shortwave radio with a giant antenna and a single speaker. I hated it because it wasn't stereo. But that radio lasted me forever and I soon became quite fond of it.


One Saturday morning back in the early '80s my younger brother and I decided to spend a snow day in Radio Shack. We took a couple floppy disks full of copied programs from school and played them on the display Apple II computer. I remember playing Dung Beetles for hours and that computer practically screaming "we gotcha!" many times before a salesman came to see what we were doing. He warned us about bringing in software to play on their machines then left us to continue playing. I'm not sure he really understood what we were doing or what the computers did.


One day my dad and I walked into a Radio Shack for some reason. Using a display Apple II I quickly made a program that drew a hi-res line from the center of the screen out to the edge and circle around like a radar sweep. The hi-res white pixels actually made different colors as the pixels were next to each other and the screen was quickly filled with a kaleidoscope of colors. My dad was impressed and told my mom later that day. About a week later I got that Commodore 64 I wanted. Side story. I made a game on the C-64 one afternoon (it was hooked up to the family tv so my parents were forced to watch me.) After a couple hours the game was finished but I had no way to save it. A few days later my parents bought me the 1541 disk drive.


One Christmas my brother got a handheld Radio Shack game. I remember thinking it was a cheap, off brand game. After playing it I quickly became hooked. It was an LCD game where you played a biplane that circled around the clouds on a "track" and had to avoid other planes as I recall.


I fondly remember the giant "do it yourself" display that was in the center of the store. It really was like a mini science lab where you could make your dreams come true if you knew what to ask for. Sadly I never really did know what to ask for so salesmen were usually rude or implied I needed to be smarter to gain access to the center off the store.


I went through a phase experimenting with different guitar pickups for my first guitar. It was a 1985 Aria Pro II that I bought in the late '80s. I was looking for a fat, crunchy tone that sent me to Radio Shack for solder and supplies many times. Settled on a Seymour Duncan Invader pickup that's still in there.


Fast forward to 1995 after I was laid off from my second job. I was wondering how I was going to make rent and stressing myself out. I decided to splurge and go to Radio Shack and buy myself a handheld game system. I still have it someplace. LCD screen with about 20 different, simple games on it.


Radio Shack was always my go to place for cables, adapters, and other bits n pieces I have collected in various, dusty boxes for decades. The VHS era sent me for RCA cables almost monthly. My most recent visits sent me for iPod cables and watch batteries. The batteries only lasted about 2 months. Still, I'll miss the old Shack. Thanks for the memories!

  • Report
Hmmm...evidently copying and pasting several paragraphs smooshes them all together into one giant, unreadable paragraph?
  • Report

The blog software is terrible at preserving any sort of formatting. Unfortunately, for some reason, you can't preview comments. I took a stab at fixing your post - PM me about where the paragraph breaks should be if I got them wrong.


Another favorite Radio Shack memory of mine is in the movie Trekkies. This scene in particular starts at 1:12:45, where a guy who likes to build things takes a trip to Radio Shack. The expressions on the store employee's face are priceless. When I first watched this, a friend and I were laughing so hard through this scene that we had to pause the movie to compose ourselves (especially at the end where the guy is driving away).


If you've never seen the whole movie, you should. It's on Netfilx, or you can rent it for $2.99 on Amazon Prime or iTunes. But most of this particular scene is on YouTube:


  • Report
I wonder if they could have made it by having a stronger community presence. What if they had workshops at the store? What if they partnered up with schools or museums in some way? I remember when Apple gave away computers to the local school district in the '80s. I know Apple has always aggressively marketed towards college students too. Seems the Shack could have explored something like that to keep people interested and stayed relevant.
  • Report

I'd wondered about the education angle as well (see one of my comments above). Their Computer Centers were precursors to what Apple had in some of their initial retail stores. Apple had these mini-theaters set up where people could go and take classes to learn to use iPhoto and whatnot. I think they've all been taken out now though. The retail space became to valuable. I suspect that was the issue with Radio Shack as well, the financial return to pay for that much space just wasn't worth it. But a stronger community presence would have been good. I remember hobby stores doing that - where they'd have workshops or display projects some of their customers had built. I remember being blown away by how much better other people were at detailing or painting plastic models than I was (this was before I found out about airbrushes).

  • Report
  • Report