Rocket Radio: Lo-Fi at Its Best

I built a little red rocket radio (so-called because it was a model kit that was shaped like a miniature rocket) sometime in the early ’60s. The crystal radio kit cost $2.98 and I have no idea where I came up with that kind of money. There was no speaker; you had to attach a flimsy and miniscule earpiece to a hole in the bottom of the radio; there was no battery, no transistors, and no power source – you had to affix the alligator clip to something metallic and that drew a signal out of the sky. I was able to get three or four Winnipeg stations by tuning very carefully. There was only one station worth listening to though – that was CKY Radio, a 50,000 watt behemoth that on clear nights could be heard all the way to Texas. There was something satisfying to me in that knowledge – that kids thousands of miles away could tune in to my Winnipeg hometown scene. And on forty-below winter nights I could sometimes get other stations – from Portage la Prairie or Brandon or Minneapolis. That was heaven.

CKY was known as “Canada’s Friendly Giant”, the “Tower of Power” and the “Powerhouse of the Prairies” and it played real music – not the sappy stuff my parents listened to on CKRC or CJOB. Every night and every weekend I did my homework in a tiny bedroom, or read books, or made airplane models with my brothers, with that little earpiece glued to the side of my head. Deejays such as Peter Jackson (PJ the DJ) or Dennis (Dino) Corrie spun their tunes and you never knew what you were going to hear next: Chuck Berry, Duane Eddy, Buddy Holly, The Shirelles, Little Anthony and the Imperials, or even a local group or two such as Chad Allan and the Reflections featuring Randy Bachman on guitar doing their hit version of ‘Shakin‘ All Over’. Or the very young Burton Cummings with his first group The Deverons singing ‘Blue Is The Night’ and its flip side ‘She’s Your Lover’. Or Bobby Vee, the Buddy Holly imitator from Fargo, North Dakota, singing ‘Suzie Baby’ – he was all of 19 years old and already had a dozen certified Billboard hits. He was local! – or just about, since we treated Fargo as a suburb of Winnipeg.

On the rare Saturday nights when my parents went out to a local bar to hear in person country stars such as Hal Lone Pine and wife Betty Cody I would sneak their mantle-sized tube radio into my room and turn up the volume as much as I dared while my siblings watched movies on our black and while TV console in the living room. I‘d stare into the dresser mirror and sing along to the tunes blaring out of CKY Saturday Night Party, pretending I was Gary U.S. Bonds or Dion on tour with my latest hit. The tubes glowed through the front grille of the black bakelite radio while the gold wand fastened to the gold grille pointed straight to 580 on the dial. Every week CKY published a survey of the Top 50 pop tunes and the Top 20 Country tunes – the survey was a half-sheet of colored bond paper, printed in black ink, folded over to form 4 pages. The paper color changed with every printing – from blue to pink to yellow to green to white and then back again. The surveys could be found every Saturday at local record stores or at the station itself. I was a fierce collector of those surveys and I devoured and memorized the information contained on them as though it mattered. Gene Pitney‘s masterpiece ‘Every Breath I Take’ opened at number 42, rose to number 29 and cratered. I was heartbroken at this turn of events, for Gene was one of my heroes. Still is.

The great thing about radio was the pleasure of hearing your favorite tune when you least expected it: when you can‘t download the file, when you can‘t afford the record, and there‘s no online program to tell you what‘s going to be played tonight, when you‘ve got chores and a herd of brothers and sisters crowding your life – it‘s then that the simple freedom of hearing a great song transcends bad clothes, weird haircuts, and well, just about everything. I owe radio a lot.

I graduated from that Red Rocket by passing it on to my brother when I purchased a genuine 2 transistor Sony that fit into my shirt pocket. From there I went on to the working world and my first real purchase was a hi-fi system from the local House of Stein: – a Sansui 15 watt amplifier, a Dual semi-automatic turntable, and house brand Electra speakers. Yeah, music sounded pretty damn good through that Sansui amp. I bought up LPs as though vinyl were gold and I the prospector mining undiscovered treasure. Something changed though – music became a public rather than a private thing, to be shared with buddies and girlfriends.

I see that Restoration Hardware has been selling replicas of rocket radios, but as Otis Redding famously sang many years ago, ‘I’ve Got Dreams to Remember’.