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Mid-Atlantic Gadget 'Geeks' Pursue Passion for Antique Radios

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MAARC president Eric Stenberg specializes in wooden radios, some of which he’s selling at MAARC’s monthly flea market.
Rebecca Sheir/WAMU
MAARC president Eric Stenberg specializes in wooden radios, some of which he’s selling at MAARC’s monthly flea market.

If you're a fan of public radio, chances are your biggest radio-related delight is listening. But for the 800 or so members of the Mid-Atlantic Antique Radio Club, or MAARC, it's all about fixing, cleaning, restoring, and collecting.

Virginia resident Geoff Shearer says his own collection "is small by comparison," relative to his fellow MAARC members. He has about 200 radios.

"There are people who have huge numbers of radios," says Maryland resident Brian Belanger, who's been with the club since its founding in 1984. "In fact, one of our members who died a few years ago, his house was filled with radios. He had one bedroom where the radios were stacked floor to ceiling, completely filling the room. In many parts of the home the radios were stacked so high you had a little narrow corridor to walk from one room to the next. It was a huge hoarding problem."

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Among the items Geoff Shearer is selling are a classic mirrored radio and a rare, handpainted Mickey Mouse radio from the 1930s.

Newer not necessarily better

That kind of "hoarding" isn't exactly common among club members. What is common, says former club vice-president Steve Hansman, is a shared appreciation for what he calls "the old things."

"We like to tinker with the old things where you can see the different components and see where the wires hook up," he says. "They're much easier to work on than modern sets. And more satisfying."

Not only that, says Geoff Shearer, but they're often more or less works of art. Like the stately old cathedral radios, introduced in 1932. Or the gleaming mirrored radios, built between 1935 and 1937. Geoff, by the way, has about 15, in colors ranging from green to blue to silver to peach. But not only do these older radios look good, they sound good, too — especially the old analogs.

"The little Bose speakers, they're good," Shearer says. "But I talked to the Bose people and I said 'Oh, how do you adjust the tone, if you want a little more bass?' And they're like, 'You don't.'"

Profiling a radio hobbyist

One of the things that's so amazing about the guys in the club is they'll collect these vintage radios, many of which don't even work. But after some tinkering, they'll get them to sound like new again.

And when I say "guys," I do mean guys.

"You'll notice this tends to be a male-dominated hobby," says Brian Belanger. "We have about 800 members in our club and I think we only have two females, as I recall."

"It also tends to be dominated by senior citizens," he continues. "You'll notice a lot of gray hair."

"I think a lot of the people were in the industry back in their day when they were working," says current MAARC president Eric Stenberg. "They were working in electronics and a lot of the interest comes out of that. And the industry tends to be kind of male-dominated. Not that there aren't women doing it, but I think that kind of follows."

Geoff Shearer, for instance, fell in love with broadcast electronics while working at the Federal Aviation Administration. Steve Hansman got hooked because his dad worked with electronics. But Eric says his reason for joining MAARC was different.

"I kind of found it; it looked like it was a fun thing to fix these things up."

And once he fixes them up, he'll often sell them, as he is today. Before each of its monthly meetings, MAARC holds an outdoor flea market. This afternoon, in the parking lot of the Sully Station Community Center in Centreville, Va., Eric's table is covered with wooden radios.

"That's kind of my niche," he explains. "You'll find most of these collectors have a niche. Either a particular era or a particular type of radio. It could be plastic radios or the small transistor radios from the 60s; that's a popular type of thing."

Price-wise, the items at the flea markets pretty much run the gamut. Today, Geoff Shearer is asking $500 for a pumpkin-colored pre-World War

Two FADA Catalin radio, and $2,000 for a hand-painted 1933 Mickey Mouse radio.

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MAARC president Eric Stenberg conducts the club’s monthly meeting in Centreville, Va.

But inside the community center, a few more bargains are to be had, at MAARC's monthly auction.

"Okay, let's get this auction underway, folks," says Brian Belanger, who doubles as auctioneer. "This is item 14-3. You're getting a nice Bendix. I think that's a model 626! And let's start this at $5 for the whole box. We've got five. Do I hear $10 on the whole box? Ten we've got. Twelve! Twelve we've got. Fourteen! Sixteen! Sixteen, sixteen, anybody sixteen? Sold! $14 goes to number 38! Thank you, Nicholas!"

The next generation of radio enthusiast

Nicholas Saunders is the exception to the clubs "gray-haired" rule. At age 16, he's the youngest member of the club.

When asked what his friends think of his hobby, he says some find it interesting, but others "think that I should wait until I'm 70 to be interested, but whatever!"

Nicholas, who, incidentally, is a huge fan of "The Big Broadcast" on WAMU 88.5 ("I love Dragnet! And also Johnny Dollar," he says), joined MAARC after his parents took him to the National Capital Radio and Television Museum, which MAARC members started in Bowie, Maryland, in the 1990s. A couple of years later, Nick's radio collecting and restoring has become more than just a hobby. It's kind of a cash cow.

"I have actually been saving towards a car. I kind of do this rather than a job after school," he explains.

His two main sources of income are MAARC auctions, and eBay. And veteran collector Geoff Shearer says while some collectors find eBay controversial, he wholeheartedly approves.

"You can get really good deals in these auctions, much better than you'll find on eBay," he says with a smile. "So you buy it here, sell it on eBay!"
But the thing to remember, he says, is however you do your buying and selling, do not end up like that guy who died with mountains of old radios cluttering up his house.

"Don't hoard this stuff," he advises. "If I have two of one item, I'm going to get rid of one, so somebody else can enjoy it. Because there's [sic] other people out there looking for it, you need to share it."

And to anyone out there who'd like to do some sharing of his or her own, on Sunday, January 19, the Mid-Atlantic Antique Radio Club is holding its very first indoor Radio WinterFest. MAARC is partnering with the National Electronics Museum, at the Museum, right near BWI Airport, for a flea market and auction.

[Music: "Tell The Story" performed by Frank Divol from "Radio's Great Old Themes" ]

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