My Daughter’s Transistor Radio

While I was out on tour my daughter’s non-smart phone imploded, coincidentally right around the time she was eligible for an upgrade. We got her an iPhone, on the thinking it would actually be useful to her now. It is, although not as a phone; I don’t think I’ve actually seen her talk on it even once. What she does with it? Mostly, as far as I can tell, she uses it as a transistor radio: She fires up the Pandora app, selects her curated pop music station, and plays it as she moves around the house. She doesn’t use headphones, which I am actually fine with (too much time with earphones equals hearing damage over time); she just lets the music play through the iPhone’s speaker. It comes out tinny and mono — the exact experience of a transistor radio, minus a bit of static and commercials, and with the occasional bleep when there’s an incoming text.

I find this use of the iPhone endearing, actually, and a reminder that most teenagers, regardless of era, like their music immediate rather in brilliant 7.1 fidelity. It’s also a reminder that pop music is designed to be consumed fast and freely, on tiny, cheap speakers. It sounds better there. Maybe that’s just me. But tell me I’m wrong.

57 Comments on “My Daughter’s Transistor Radio”

  1. “coincidentally right around the time she was eligible for an upgrade.”

    Hmm. If I were Darell Issa, I’d be having a congressional hearing into that :)

  2. Damian Trasler – Award-winning playwright and freelance writer, living in Canada and working with TLC Creative through the wonder of the Internet
    Damian Trasler

    I used to listen to my music on an old, old cassette player. To get it to sound better, I had to hold the play button down all the time, which I did by resting my skateboard on a cassette box balanced on the button. Because, you know, it was important that you hear “Go West” in all their glory…..

  3. “Whatever happened
    To Tuesday and so slow
    Going down the old mine
    With an iphone . . . . ”

    Doesn’t, dare I say, have quite the same ring. . . tone.

  4. Athena and her generation may be onto something. Glorious monophonic sound ruled pop music for a very long time until true stereo emerged in the late 60s – early 70s (I believe) and everybody seemed just fine with it….

  5. Do most kids even know what a transistor radio is let alone what a transistor is?? Ah the joys of being a baby boomer and experiencing for the first time: Color TV, Stereo Music, FM Radio, Calculators, TV Remote Controls, Computers: PC & Mac’s, A/C Cars, and… and…

  6. Different kinds of music benefit from different kinds of delivery. Pop music might be fine with tinny iPhone speakers, but you probably wouldn’t quite get all that was there to hear if you used an iPhone to listen to Beethoven or Led Zeppelin. You can hear lyrics just fine with little speakers. You can’t hear the sweeping grandeur of real instruments on them, though.

  7. You might like the speaker sounds. I’m less keen to hear some kid called Anthony playing Gansta rap while I’m on the bus. When I was a kid, if we wanted to anoy everyone with our music, we had to carry a half-ton ghetto blaster not some fiddly ‘phone. Kids have it far too easy nowadays…

  8. Well, you can have a perfectly balanced, hi-fidelity system of the ultimate technology to maximize the acoustics of the room for the pure music experience… Or you could have it RIGHT IN YOUR EARS. And that’s far more immersive.

  9. Even as a teen we obsessed over the sound quality of over boom boxes, which was the preferred playback device in my day. But I will name one thing that absolutely sounds better over a tiny radio speaker – radio broadcasts of baseball.

  10. katyasozaeva – Athens, GA 30605 – Love animals, interested in a lot of things, obsessive bibliophile; check out my blog Now is Gone at

    You’re not wrong. This spring with the gift certificate I received for helping judge Amazon’s ABNA contest, I purchased a Cowon X7 multimedia player. These have the best sound quality on the market for playing music, but that is best experienced through headphones. But I usually just set it beside me and let it play through the little built-in speakers – creating a tinny, transistor-radio-type sound. *shrug* While for me it is more so I can hear if my cats are calling for attention, it comes to the same result.

  11. I’m told that many kids-these-days think the phone functionality in smartphones is only there so the gr’ups will buy them.

    As far as the sound quality, eh, my only complaint is that the speaker volume level is so low. I don’t want my ears to bleed, but being able to hear it clearly over road noise would be nice. (Ditto for the iPad. It’s my only real hardware complaint for either.)

  12. @Rob Thornton: Even longer than that – I don’t think AM/FM radios (with stereo speakers for the FM) became standard equipment in most cars until the early ’80s. (And of course MTV – the next generation in pop – was in mono, and generally coming out of a 3″ or 4″ TV speaker, for most of its first decade.)

    @biomade55: I will testify from personal experience that 75% of my fellow engineering students in an automation and controls class didn’t know what a transistor was…in 2005.

  13. Donna Leonard – Southern California – I like to write, read, knit, crochet, watch movies, watch way too much television, listen to music and play Drawsomething 2 somewhat obsessively, not necessarily in that order. You can find my irregular blog at: 3 kids: Twenty-three-year-old boy/girl twins, and a thirteen-year-old girl. 3 cats: fourteen-year-old female, three-year-old female, and a two-year-old male
    Donna Leonard

    I didn’t know what I transistor was, but I did own 2 transistor radios in my childhood in the 1970’s. One of them was a panasonic and it was shaped like a donut…oh, here’s a link to them -I think mine was yellow:

    Now my kids (ages 22, 22 & 12) all do what Athena does…though actually the older kids now have non-smart phones since they now have to pay for the extra charges that apply to smart phones ever since a year after graduating high school. They use their computers for Pandora, though now my oldest daughter has switched to Spotify.

  14. @Don Hilliard and @biomade55… we were shown a transistor, the prof made a point of it… then we spoke about circuit theory as it is made today. It was a fascinating class (for engineers I guess) to see how technology as developed over the years.

    I still use my smart phone as a phone (there is something about tone of voice that allows for a more rich understanding of what’s being said) but I do a lot of texts, tweets, bbm’s (I know…) and emails too. It’s to the point where I only use a landline for international calls or calling my mom. Everything else is on my phone including music (by which I mean smart phone)… which pretty much describes what’s going on with the PC world.

  15. It’s not as though .mp3’s or .aac’s actually provide a listening experience comparable to what a decent CD does. So why not enjoy the tinny experience?

  16. Oh, don’t speak of CDs! CD players were the bane of my life. The tiniest jolt would send the whole thing skipping and spinning. Finicky devils. I should say mp3s certainly don’t provide a listening experience comparable to a decent CD — they are in fact far better at actually delivering the damn music without interruptions.

  17. If there had been time at the Raleigh Q&A I was going to ask if all your electronics had survived the tour (haven’t you killed/lost/had stolen something electronic on every tour?). Now I know: you transferred your karma to Athena.

  18. @Don Hilliard, @MobiusSamuri, @Donna Leonard,
    Being an engineer (biomedical), I can tell you that I designed a few circuits using transistors, way back when. Now, I could not do it to save my life. I use to have DIMES in my Penny Loafers in case I had to call my parents to pick me up from school – there were no mobile phones let alone smart phones either. CD’s – I remember my first cassette tape in a big clunky machine as there were no walkmans or boom boxes. Even FAX machines were new when I was in college.
    Ahhh, the advances of science and technology.

  19. Scalzi: the exact experience of a transistor radio

    Well, technically, an iPhone is still made up of transistors, just like your old “transistor” radio. It’s just that the iPhone has about 6 orders of magnitude more transistors than a transistor radio.

    Biasing a BJT transistor is about as useful as setting the gap on the points of your distributer cap these days.

    sorjournerstrange: CD players were the bane of my life. The tiniest jolt would send the whole thing skipping and spinning.

    Some of the better CD players had small data buffers built into the hardware so that skips and whatnot would not affect what came out of the speaker at all. But then, 8-track players had a button you could push and blammo, you’re on a completely different song, magically, somehow.

    Also, could someone tell Justin Bieber to pull up his damn pants and get the hell off my yard.

  20. Danika – I'm an aesthete who's struggling to overhaul my wardrobe and surroundings with a minuscule budget. I'm also a recovering tomboy, and am still trying to find a balance between my love of the beautiful and my rejection of the modern standards of female beauty.
    Danika Zoe

    I do that too. Tell Athena that if she puts her phone into a bowl or dry sink (I like to use an aluminium mixing bowl when I’m in the kitchen/dining room) it’ll act as an amplifier, and actually improve the sound slightly.

  21. Don Hillard writes:

    @biomade55: I will testify from personal experience that 75% of my fellow engineering students in an automation and controls class didn’t know what a transistor was…in 2005.

    How many people of any generation know what a transistor is or for that matter what a triode is? It isn’t something that most people know.

    Older folks know that transistors are little things that make lightweight radios go and that don’t burn out, requiring a trip to visit the tube tester at the drug store.

    Older and younger folk alike know that transistors are the things with which you fill computer chips. The more you pour in there, the better.

    “Transistor” is more or less a word for “tiny demon”.

    I’m not sure this is a huge problem, so long as a sufficient number of folk develop The Knack, and learn this stuff. I’m curious about the engineering students. What year of study, and what engineering discipline are we talking about?

  22. John Callaghan – Edmonton Alberta Canada – Welcome to my blog. I live in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. I've lived in and traveled to most areas of this massive, beautiful country but have settled here in Edmonton for the past couple of decades. I have a degree in Comparative Literature from the University of Alberta and I still live near the campus. I think reading and studying literature have, to a certain extent, given my existence meaning and context. I have recently discovered the joys of genre fiction and will discuss that, as well as a wide range of topics from mixed martial arts, to movies, to cable television, to current events, and whatever else catches my fancy (whoa, that's a weird expression). I will also feature some of my creative non-fiction and fiction writing. If you are here and reading this, I thank you for stopping by. Enjoy (I hope).
    John Callaghan

    Of course you are wrong. I won’t present an argument because I think maybe you are kidding around. At least I hope so.

  23. We got Aidan an iPhone yesterday, and he’s listening to it on the TV via our Apple TV. He hasn’t bothered to turn on the sound system, which is easy to do. We can’t do Pandora here in the hinterlands of Canada, sadly. Also, I’m thankful he has good and interesting taste in music. My ears would die a thousand horrible deaths with most almost-17-year-old boys.

  24. sorjournerstrange writes:

    Oh, don’t speak of CDs! CD players were the bane of my life. The tiniest jolt would send the whole thing skipping and spinning. Finicky devils.

    It’s is true that I own a Sony D-2 Discman CD player that I bought in 1990. It was supposed to be portable (as in Walkman) and it came with a carry strap. The strap was evidence of hopeless optimism. It was finicky and sometimes skipped when someone walked across the room. That was a very long time ago. Since then I’ve played CDs in computers, laser disc players and DVD players (though no CD players), I’ve had a few skipping problems which were always resolved by cleaning a the CD. The players were fine. I have one in my car and it doesn’t skip.

    I use MP3 in the car now because I don’t want physically manipulate the discs or the jewel case lids, or decide which discs to keep in the carry case.

  25. Pandora is cool but I’m really getting into Songza now too.

  26. Did Athena use the old dumb phone as a phone? Doesn’t she still have they same calling needs that she had before, or were all of her friends complaining that she called them too much because she couldn’t use other smart phone apps?

    Are there any science prognosticators who predicted that one consequence of the digital revolution would be that people would have the ability to make voice calls and forsake them for sending telegrams with their thumbs? We need a texting app that replaces periods/full-stops with the word “STOP”.

    Texts are sometimes very useful, but why do kids prefer texts over voice for purely social connections? Is it because they can be exchanging texts with several people at once? I think it’s a bit disturbing when kids gather in a gaggle and silently text. Are they texting one another? It seems almost as alien to me as the kids in Greg Bear’s Darwin’s Children.

  27. Mike: “Transistor” is more or less a word for “tiny demon”.

    more like “valve”, but meh.

    I’m curious about the engineering students. What year of study,

    The only people today who need to know what a transistor REALLY is are analog asic engineers, i.e. folks who are designing the chips for your bluetooth headset, your cell phone xmitter, and your cable modem. They need to know the analog diagrams of input versus output and design things so their in a relatively flat spot so they get linear amplification. There are so many advantages to putting analog designs in an asic compared to discrete transistors that discrete transistors might as well be vacuum tubes.

    The second level of designers who need to understand transistors only need to know how to design with transistors as digital switches, either on or off. someone designing a board for a system might need to put a transistor between the output pin of a microcontroller and a bank of LED’s.

    Digital asic designers stopped dealing with transistor-level design with the advent of high level design languages such as verilog and vhdl which replaced schematics.

    To everyone else, a transistor is basically explanativium, or, as you put it, a tiny demon.

  28. This is a strange discussion to read, while I’m playing around with the design of an RF power amplifier that uses 8 big ole MOSFET transistors (running Class E) to deliver it’s output. But then, this morning I was using a grid dip oscillator to tweak some coils going into an antenna.

    Tiny daemons, indeed. Hrmph. Kids these days!

  29. I know what transitors are! They’re the tiny things, inside the thing, that make things happen, right? They’re powered by electricity, which lives inside a box in the wall. ;)

    When i was younger, we had a book that had diagrams and explanations of a hundred or so everyday items written so a kid could understand them. I remember that something about the diesel engine stumped me and I spent an hour or two going through the steps again and again until the light dawned and I realized what I’d been missing. I’d love to find an updated version that includes the new gizmos and gadgets around today. I’d like my kids to understand more of the world, and damn it I need a refresher!

  30. @Mike (#1): Without digging out my transcript, I’m fairly certain it was a senior class. Junior at least. Marine Engineering Technology – which is a very broad and practical course. (In comparing notes with my father, it was about the equivalent in breadth and depth to his 1950s UCLA engineering program, with a few obvious differences re marine vs. aerospace.)

    Ironically, it’s one field where knowing older technology still comes in handy.

  31. my daughter does the same with her ipod touch. she has a go phone – lost somewhere in the depths of her room. When she’s out and I need to reach her, i text her best friend and my daughter calls me right back on her friend’s phone.

  32. I don’t know. Best pop song of the last 10 years was “Generation that Bought More Shoes” and the wall of sound is wasted on just mono

  33. You may be on to something with that bit about the speakers, lol

    It is amazing how easily children are “absorbed” by their devices though, just wait until she starts downloading more apps. XD

  34. Ghetto blaster? You young whippersnapper! I. had a transistor radio the size of a thick paperback. It ran of a 9 volt PP3, and when you took off the back to replace that you could marvel at how they got dozens of discrete components – resistors, capacitors, ferrite cores, and potentiometers as well as the all – powerful transistor. – into such a small space. It even had a earphone socket for its glorious mono sound.

  35. I will name one thing that absolutely sounds better over a tiny radio speaker – radio broadcasts of baseball

    And Test Match Cricket. Ideally on long wave even…

  36. Cute. We got our son an iphone a couple months ago. I also don’t think I’ve ever seen him make a call on it. He texts and plays video games–constantly. I don’t think he’s thought of music yet, but he would probably like that, too.

  37. Texts are sometimes very useful, but why do kids prefer texts over voice for purely social connections? Is it because they can be exchanging texts with several people at once?

    It’s not just “kids”, but also a lot (maybe even most) of the people in my age group (30-somethings) around where I live. Me included.

    I have finally been able to put words to why that is a short while ago. The point is that a phone-call is _rude_. You demand attention _now_, when you call somebody on the phone. And their undivided attention, too. That is just something that is Not Done[tm] any more. It’s rude. It’s intrusive.

    By sending some kind of text message (be it via SMS, some instant messaging protocol or an email), you give the other person the option to answer whenever they feel like it/have the time to do so. Which of course doesn’t mean that there aren’t some people who get utterly cranky if you don’t answer their texts rather quickly, but .. that’s still a different thing.

    So. The good thing about text messages: their asynchronous. That’s not a bug, that’s a feature.

  38. Pandora is the AM/FM radio of my kid’s generation. He even thinks MP3/AAC files are old school, and trades me any iTunes gift cards he receives for cash since he doesn’t want to mess with them ;)

  39. Oh, now what an amusing coincidence, I just told my husband last night that the way he uses his Pandora on his Nook reminds me of my transistor radio! Though the sound is better in the headphones than through the little speaker.

  40. Quoth Jessica Burde: “I know what transistors are! They’re the tiny things, inside the thing, that make things happen, right? They’re powered by electricity, which lives inside a box in the wall. ;)”

    As a systems engineer with two degrees in electrical engineering, I endorse this message.

  41. > So. The good thing about text messages: their asynchronous. That’s not a bug, that’s a feature.

    Not just that, but the history of the exchange is important. It’s right there so you can get back up to speed if miss it. I’ve had ‘kids’ reject using mailing lists saying it was too hard to keep track of things… but he dedicated chat sessions… those they like.

  42. My daughter uses Pandora on her Nook to wander around the house – sometimes with headphones but often with the just the tiny organic speaker.

  43. @Mike: Biological Engineering back in the day when Napster was how you got your music.

    @D.G. Lewis and Jessica Burde… EXACTLY!! I also have gremlins that turn the cylinders of my car drinking gasoline. If you don’t believe me then explain why it costs so much to get things fixed and why they ALWAYS break when I need to get someplace in time for something important! I believe John has a picture of one on the wing of the airplanes he flown in.

  44. My husband has reminded me that I forgot to mention TUBES (aka valves in his technical parlance) as the predecessor to transistors (he is 17 years older than me) but yes, I do remember going to the local drug store with my dad and testing tubes for the TV and his big radio. My husband also remembers how big batteries use to be.
    Since someone asked – he had his electronics training in the Navy in the mid ’50’s (that is 1950) and I had mine in college in the early 1970’s. YES we are that old.

  45. @Mike at 8:18, you ask why kids text instead of talk. I asked my niece that question a few years ago, and she shrugged and said “it’s easier to lie in a text.” As in, maybe, “no I can’t come by today because I have to be at my aunt’s house” is easier to type than to speak convincingly?

    This is just one anecdotal possibility. As for me (and I’m not a kid), I prefer texting when I’m not up for a conversation full of small talk. Texts generally get to the point right away.

  46. Not wrong at all. I miss the transistor radio I had when I was in junior high (late 60s/early 70s). Yeah, it sounded tinny, but it also had a much more sensitive tuner than any radio I’ve had in years – hell, decades. At night, I could regularly get in stations from all over the United States. On the radio I have now, here in Fresno, I can’t even pull in any San Francisco stations, and only rarely an L.A. station. This is sad, since Fresno has pretty crap radio stations, overall.

  47. I’ll add Aussie Rules football to the sports list, and heartily endorse Test Cricket.

    My iPhone is firstly a pocket internet, secondly a music device, and third a texting tool. If I kept going,I think phone calls might squeeze into the top 10.

  48. Luna writes:

    This is just one anecdotal possibility. As for me (and I’m not a kid), I prefer texting when I’m not up for a conversation full of small talk. Texts generally get to the point right away.

    I agree that texts are are handy form of communication for some situations.

    At my work, email and in-person communication are king.

    We sometimes use instant messages and texts.

    We sometimes use the phone.
    A common use of instant messages is to ask someone if this is a good time to call on the phone.

    An advantage of the textual media is that you don’t have to write down what gets said so that you don’t forget.

    If I’m in a social situation, then a conversation full of small talk is largely the point. Parties aren’t really about efficiency, but connection. From my viewpoint, it seems to me like kids are carrying efficiency into the social realm.

  49. My daughter uses her PS Vita to watch YouTube and Netflix. She could use her laptop or kindle or any number of other devices. Nope, she peers at that ittby bitty screen. She also uses the Vita to record videos. (She has a video camera, a hand me down.) Now and then I see her playing a game.

  50. Even though I am ancient– 44 to be precise, I too like to listen to Pandora on my iphone speakers… usually when I am in the kitchen. I put it in a clean bowl, and it gives the sound a boost. I have things I could plug it into, but it’s nice just like that.

  51. Just recieved my brand spanking new C Crane Pocket Radio: no crazy data charges, upgrades, contracts, memort limitations, subscription fees, downloading, and it works just fine when the power goes out. My daughter thinks it’s too old school…of course!
    She’s arguing for a smartphone which is more “tech jewelry” than a phone. With wi-fi becoming more ubiquetous (ask yourself…where do kids text from? – home, school, fast-food, coffee shops, etc – all have wifi), I’ll upgrade her iPod and buy her a new cell phone with unlimited texting – unfortunately, text friendly phones (without data) are becoming harder to find. Any other parents out there dealing with this?

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