Radio Shack: A Pioneer Which Lost Its Way

STORY BY Truth Is Cool

Published: February 9, 2015

(Original article written by John C Abell Senior Editor, LinkedIn ● Ex Wired ● Recovering Reuters Columnist ● Founding editor, reuters.com)

I always envied the arch-typical Radio Shack customer of my fantasies: A maker whose super power was buying diodes and circuit boards and third-hand clamps. These titans were in full command of the aisle containing bins of uninteresting parts which did nothing individually but together, in the right combination, in the right hands, created pure magic. These conjurers were the electronics equivalent of master chefs who could glance at my kitchen and whip up a restaurant-grade meal in the time it would take me to boil water.

I was not worthy. Radio Shack catered to the geek elite who these days are the ones tricking out drones, making robots and pushing the limits of 3D printers. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak shopped there for components for their blue box, the original hacker device to make free long-distance calls (Google it).

That was then. Now, Radio Shack is about to disappear, broken up for uninteresting parts in a sadly poetic homage to its cultural roots. The retailer is closing nearly half of its 4,000 locations and selling about 2,400 to Sprint.

The reasons for Radio Shack's demise are many. It's easy to shrug when a company is disrupted out of existence. But the Radio Shack saga is pure Greek — or is that Geek? — tragedy. In recent years it became a self-parody, even before it was the butt of its own joke in a Super Bowl XLVIII ad whose punchline was that the 80s were calling.

On Monday, the New York Stock Exchange halted trading in Radio Shack and moved to delist its stock. On Thursday, the 94-year-old company filed for bankruptcy protection.

The company has been on life support for some time, and a shadow of its former self for even longer. Wired five years ago bemoaned "The Lost Tribes of RadioShack: Tinkerers Search for New Spiritual Home." Author Jon Mooallem saw the downward spiral as the evolution of "the story of America’s changing relationship with technology" through the eyes of Andy Cohen, a long-time store owner:

The RadioShacks of old catered to customers who could diagnose a busted TV on their basement workbench. They might be messing around with some project on a Saturday afternoon, find that they were missing a part, and hustle out to the nearest RadioShack for some of the very gear Cohen still stocks.

But his shop is a lone outpost; in a single generation, the American who built, repaired, and tinkered with technology has evolved into an entirely new species: the American who prefers to slip that technology out of his pocket and show off its killer apps. Once, we were makers. Now most of us are users.

It's sadder than that. We became users, and then we became makers again, but too late for Radio Shack. It isn't the first time Radio Shack was there first, and somehow lost its way. As BloombergBusiness reports, it was a pioneer in mobile phones and personal computers.

As I said, I was never a maker, but I know a good thing in tech when I see it. Pictured above is the remaining part of the traveling kit that made me the envy of my peers a quarter century ago. The Tandy 200 was the ultra-portable of the day, and those acoustic couplers meant I could file from any pay phone (Google it).

But the rest of my Radio Shack mobile filing center was even cooler: a brick cell phone and a small peripheral that allowed me to use my brick to file anytime, anywhere. I know this sounds mundane know, but it was eyebrow-raising in the early '90s.

That was a long time ago. Now, Radio Shack is the Abe Vigoda of retail. Per Bloomberg Business:

The latest RadioShack news can seem like an obituary for someone you thought was long dead. "I wouldn't even call this a failure. I'd call it an assisted suicide," says Scott Galloway, a professor of marketing at New York University's Stern Business School. "It's amazing it's taken this long for this company to go out of business."

Have any fond memories of Radio Shack of your own? Were you one of those mythical makers?

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