Goodbye Radio Shack — Software Shift Claims Another Victim

1991 Radio Shack Newspaper Ad
Every single item from a 1991 Radio Shack flyer can now be replaced with a smartphone [click to enlarge]
Radio Shack recently announced that, after 94 years, it was declaring bankruptcy and selling over 2000 stores to Sprint. The company may sell some other stores and no matter how the restructuring turns out, the Radio Shack moving forward will be significantly different than the one we’ve known. Radio Shack was a giant in its day. The de facto standard for anything related to electronics or computers – cables, printers, radios, parts, antennas and do it yourself kits could all be found at the local mall inside a Radio Shack.

There was no single reason for the downfall of Radio Shack, rather a series of poor choices and market shifts that moved the market away from what Radio Shack sells and they way they sell it. This is similar to how the IT industry is migrating to more software platforms, reducing the need for hardware. In fact, I found this interesting newspaper advertisement from 1991, which in many ways highlights the plight of Radio Shack — all of the hardware devices in this ad are available as a software feature in a smart phone. People just don’t by clock radios, personal CD players and cassette players any more.

Another reason for the company’s struggles of late is that most of their stores have little real estate, and for many years the fastest growing consumer electronic device were big screen TVs — Radio Shack just couldn’t stock many of them, making it impossible to compete with the Best Buys of the worlds.

Lastly, the rise of the Internet made Radio Shack less attractive for electronic hobbyists like myself. I was discussing this topic with my wife this past week. There was a time when I was constantly running to Radio Shack to get cables, electronic components, floppy disks, batteries, and other gadget-y type things. Now, when I need something, I just order it off Amazon and it shows up at my door in two days.

Radio Shack Was The Place To Go For Geeks

Despite the tough position the company finds itself in today, I’ll always have fond memories of the company because it was THE place to go for anyone that was into computers and electronics. I never made a trip to the mall without checking out the latest and greatest at Radio Shack. Every time the catalog came in the mail, I went through it page by page as carefully as financial analyst might look through a Wall Street Journal, or the way my wife might look through a Louis Vuitton catalog.

When I was young, all the way back as far as I can remember, I had a fascination with taking things apart and understanding how things worked. One of the best teaching tools was the Radio Shack brand ‘Science Fair’ kits, which came in many shapes and sizes; anywhere from “10-in-1” all the way up to “300-in-1” and more. Picture a big board with LEDs, speakers, diodes, transistors and anything else to make a radio, strobe light, or any electronic thing one could imagine. I spent hours learning how things worked and was able to apply that to run-of-the-mill consumer electronics and make things better.

Radio Shack was where my interest in computer programming got kicked up a notch.

For example, when I was in 4th through 7th grade, I had a paper route and I liked to listen to the radio while I rode my bike. Sometime in that time frame I switched to a cassette deck and later a Walkman. The problem? The battery life of the device. Many of the portable devices took a single 9 volt or a couple of AAs and just didn’t last all that long. The solution?   I took a plastic tube combined with some electronic components I got at Radio Shack and strapped a battery pack to the top bar on my 10 speed. The thing could hold 6 D size batteries and would last forever. I later added a light to the battery pack so I had a fairly bright “headlight” attached to my bike.

My best device “upgrade” might have been the changes I made to my Electronic QB hand held game. If you’re in my age bracket, you may remember these devices. They were a series of LEDs that looked nothing like a football game but they were fun nonetheless. The problem with it is that you couldn’t play it in places where noise was an issue — like the back of a classroom. My solution? Open the box up and install a volume control on the speaker wire. Now I could play it at full volume when my sister was trying to watch TV or I could turn the volume down when I was bored in the back of a classroom. Problem solved!

As I got older, I started making my own phone and Ethernet cables. I also started building other gadgets, like a Mac emulator for my Atari computer. Where did I get most of the parts? Why, from Radio Shack of course.

Radio Shack was also where my interest in computer programming got kicked up a notch. Oh sure, like every average teen I had a TI-994A and an Atari XL, but the TRS-80 — affectionately known as the “Trash 80” — with dual floppies running Tandy DOS was the first computer I had with some horse power, I think the main programming language was Tandy Basic and I believe the computer had 16K of RAM that I later upgraded to 64K. I also owned one of the TRS-80 Model 100 portable computers, which one of the first “laptops” that I had seen.

Even if Radio Shack works through the restructuring and survives another day, it’s hard for me to see the company surviving in the long term. However, no matter what happens, I’ll always remember them as the company that set the standard for consumer electronics when “technology” as a market was just coming into its own. Thank you Radio Shack for the memories.