Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Radio Shack is kaput, but my memories are not

When you get to be 106 years old like me, you sometimes get wistful when you hear certain news.

So it was last week when I heard that Radio Shack was going out of business.

I haven't stepped inside a Radio Shack store in years -- a fact that obviously doesn't make me unique, seeing as how the company has been bleeding red ink for years. And though I was a bit of a nerd as a kid, I wasn't really the kind of geek who frequented Radio Shack. My father was the electronics guy; my eyes glazed over whenever he talked about such stuff.

So what about Radio Shack's demise brought about my wistfulness?

Well, I credit the company's little TRS-80 Model 100 laptop computer with saving my sanity. Had it not come along when it did, I might be in a loony bin right now.

I first saw a TRS-80 in 1984 when I was a 23-year-old reporter in Madison, Wis. My AP colleague, Rich Eggleston, had just bought one with his own money -- more than a thousand bucks for the little 8-line device with precious little memory and limited editing capabilities. The machine had just been introduced a few months earlier.

When I covered a Wisconsin football or basketball game back then, I had two choices: dictate my story to an editor in the Milwaukee bureau or use a Teleram Portabubble unit when the Milwaukee folks made it available.

The Portabubble was an evil device that regularly ate copy and couldn't handle crowd noise. It weighed a ton but had a tiny screen that was difficult to read. It had no memory. I hated that freakin' thing! So the few times Rich let me borrow his TRS-80, I was in heaven. Unfortunately, he needed it both for work (he was one of AP's political reporters) and for personal use, so I rarely had it. I actually preferred dictating stories off the top of my head than using the Portabubble.

When I was promoted to AP Minnesota Sports Editor the following year, I was issued a Portabubble to use at Vikings, Twins, North Stars and Gophers games. It was the source of much consternation. The cord was frayed and the device sometimes would shut off, which instantly made the work go away forever. When I managed to get an entire story ready to transmit to the Minneapolis bureau or to AP Sports HQ in New York, I had to attach the phone into holes on the top of the machine. If the crowd noise was too loud, it would result in garbled text -- if the story managed to make it at all.

By 1986, AP had been issuing TRS-80s to many sportswriters but I still had the Portabubble. I was working the state high school hockey tournament at the old St. Paul Civic Center, about 12 hours into what would be an 18-hour day, when the machine ate a story just as I was ready to transmit it. I called my boss and demanded we buy one of the Radio Shack laptops. I told him that if I lost another story, I was going to hurl the Portabubble out of the press box onto the ice below!

My boss probably could have fired me for insubordination but instead, nicely, talked me off the ledge. He also promised he'd seriously look into getting me a TRS-80. Sure enough, within about a month, he made it happen.

And I lived happily ever after. The End.

OK ... not quite The End. The TRS-80s had their own issues, including having to send through "accoustic couplers" that also could be sensitive to crowd noise. Within a couple of years, though, I was upgraded to a TRS-80 Model 200, which had a flip-up screen and more memory, and it came with a "direct connect" cable that made accoustic couplers unnecessary. Wow!

Eventually, AP started investing in "real" laptop computers for all of its reporters. More than a decade later, however, many sportswriters -- especially those at smaller newspapers -- were still using TRS-80s. Those little suckers were durable!

So although Radio Shack soon will be gone forever, I always will have fond memories of its little laptop that saved my sanity -- and very possibly saved the life of a high school hockey player who might have been killed by the Portabubble I'd have thrown out of  the press box.


And speaking of wistful memories of bygone days ...

Remember when Tiger Woods was good at golf? Now he chips like me ... and believe me, that's no compliment.

But I digress. That's a different blog post for a different time. Like maybe when he's shooting an 86 at Augusta National.

I sure hope his career doesn't go the way of the TRS-80, because golf needs Tiger a lot more than the rest of us need Radio Shack.


  1. I seem to remember that the perfect Portabubble storm was caused by the predominance of high-pitched female voices in the crowd at the high school girls state basketball tournament ... (Anderson)

  2. When you get to be 106 years old like me, you sometimes get wistful when you hear certain news. So it was last week when I heard that Radio ... iradioshack.blogspot.com