Requiem For Radio Shack.

By: Chris Warren.

As this blog has discussed in the past, many classic American businesses are disappearing in an economy that is supposed to be jumping back to life. The losses are sad for nostalgia but also bring hope because times change and for every business that goes extinct a newer version takes its place and gets a shot at becoming a legend. In theory, it’s a zero-sum game.


That Radio Shack is soon going to be on the register of lost legends truly bothers me. First, because it was a key player in my choosing to go into electronics professionally, and second, because it has no replacement. It is the only one of its breed; there is no fresh contender coming up behind it. For now Radio Shack is still open for business as usual but no one is fooled by corporate prophecies of a big comeback. Depending on which financial analyst you want to believe, Radio Shack has between one and ten months’ worth of operating capital and no viable course to profitability. We are in death watch mode. Founded in 1921, yet another thread in the colorful fabric of America will almost certainly go the way of the vacuum tube and Betamax tapes.

Radio Shack was once a wonderland of electronic components, parts, tools, batteries, kits, how-to books, wire, connectors, and everything else. As a young person I would stop at “the Shack” at least once a week, oftentimes more, eager to drop my paltry teenage income on electronic goodies. If not for the readily available supply of raw materials for my hobby I might have ended up being an insurance salesman. It was the only place in the world where I could get a PNP transistor at 3:00 on Sunday afternoon. And I often needed one, among other things. I’ve built transmitters and power supplies and countless experiments entirely from parts purchased off the shelf at Radio Shack. They sold me the very first test instrument I bought with my own money–an analog multimeter. Long before I ever saw the inside of a college engineering lab I had a strong electronics education from “Radio Shack Tech.”VintageRadioShack_Storefront

The sad reality is that the quirky retailer that helped me turn a boyhood fascination with electronics into a lucrative career as an adult has been on a slow slide down for years. The world moved on and Radio Shack didn’t keep up the pace. They’ve tried reinventing themselves as a computer shop, a consumer electronics repair vendor, a high end audio dealer, a cellphone emporium, and most recently, on-site smartphone & tablet computer repair. None of it stuck. The Best Buys and Amazons of the world rolled right over them. The last time I shopped at Radio Shack was half a decade ago to buy a specialty electrical connector. What used to be hundreds of square feet of cool geek stuff had been shaved down to one tiny little section in the back. It wasn’t fun anymore. The exciting vibe I knew and loved was gone.

I hate to admit it, but I’m part of the reason Radio Shack is on the way out. Better & cheaper sources for supplies came along and I took the bait (hellooo, internet!). No one makes money selling single diodes and capacitors anymore, much less from a store in a mall. Did I let an old friend down, or did the old friend let me down? It’s a trick question: Old friends sometimes drift apart and it’s not really anyone’s “fault.” I’m not sure if anything could have saved Radio Shack. They served their market well since they early days of electronics and there is nowhere for them to go. Maybe in that way it’s not even their fault they are in terminal decline. It’s just the natural cycle of things. Before my old friend passes on, I want it to know generations of geeks are grateful for the fun and the education, and in an unknown number of cases, supplying the seeds for what would grow into a fulfilling career.

4 thoughts on “Requiem For Radio Shack.

  1. I’m 81 years old. I’m old enough to know that the original Radio Shack of Boston, Mass. was not the Radio Shack that followed it. It was bought by Tandy, a leather craft kit company that had little knowledge of ham radio needs. It did recover somewhat when the little booklets written by Forest Mims got people interested in projects that employed transistors and integrated circuits. No business can thrive on radio amateurs alone and Radio Shack tried to sell toys when their computers couild no longer keep up with mainstream operating systems. What is worse was the fact that the retail sales force and most of the managers knew nothing of the technology of what they were selling. Even Citizens Banders were shocked to learn that RS sales clerks did not know the difference between a wood burning tool and a soldering iron or 50 ohm coax from 75 ohm coax. You could not get any technical answers at RS although they claimed “You got questions – We got answers”. To get employed at RS applicants only needed to pass a drug test. No recognition was made for experienced licensed hams or practical technicians. They sell fast food in Malls but selling fast electronic components is a different kind of business. If you want fast chips and components and you don’t need answers you can buy in any quantity from DigiKey, RF Parts, etc. via Internet orders. There are youngsters who are self directed who will always get started in electronic hobbies and professions without the help of RSs. There are over 600,000 licensed hams in the US…Most are inactive. Even the do-it-themselves types will not miss RS, because they seldom used it..except maybe to by watch cells.

    1. Robert, thanks for your thoughts and insights. When I was big into RS, it never occurred to me that the sales staff didn’t have much technical training because I always went in there already knowing what I wanted anyway. In fairness to the store employees, retail is nobody’s career aspiration and for sure anyone with a strong technical/engineering background who took a job there did not stay long.

      As I mention in my original article, there is no money in selling individual components over the counter. Radio Shack’s other products were no better or worse than all the others, so RS just kind of faded into the background. At least for me, there was no longer a compelling reason to shop there.

      I now get my supplies on line and at hamfests, and I’m happy to report that hamfests in my area are well attended by young people. There is interest out there, even if it isn’t the same kind as 50 years ago.

      73, and thank you. Twenty First Summer is not a ham radio specific blog, but I hope you’ll stop by again as I discuss many relevant topics here.

    1. When I got started in electronics, we were trained on component-level troubleshooting. That method is now completely obsolete. Most electronic technicians do their jobs via software. Plugging a laptop into a piece of equipment and knowing almost immediately what is wrong is faster and more efficient, but it isn’t as much fun. A lot of guys retired or left the profession because they would not adapt to the new ways. No matter what, you can’t be successful in the electronics field unless you keep up with the times. That was what really happened to Radio Shack.

      Thanks for your reply; I hope you’ll visit my blog again.

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