CommentaryWhen Geeks Go Mainstream

When I was in college in the early 1980s, my friends used to say that I could never live in a town without a RadioShack. They were right. At the time, I was the (unpaid) chief engineer of Geneseo Stateâs student-run television station and the (paid) sound designer for the schoolâs theatre department. Both positions required me to fix electronics, solder, make cables, and do other things that my more artistic friends would typically frown upon. Both positions also had a budget. And the main benefactor of both those budgets was the local RadioShack.

Those were the days when RadioShack was a Tandy company. The Tandy Corporation was originally named the Tandy Leather Company and had Tandy leather stores scattered throughout the country. Those of us who lived at RadioShack always wondered how a leather company ended up owning it.

RadioShack was interesting in those days. Named for the wooden "radio shack" found aboard turn-of-the-last-century ships, we loved and hated it all at the same time. It had great (OK, maybe great is an exaggeration) electronic components and what most of us considered a lot of consumer crap. Rumors were that RadioShack audio tape was made from recycled computer tape. But if you needed a 7-inch take-up reel for an audio recorder or a silicon controlled rectifier for a lighting dimmer board, you knew you could find one at RadioShack.

These were the guys who introduced the first mass-marketed personal computer÷the TRS-80÷in 1977, as well as the first micro laptop computer÷the Model 100÷in 1983. It's where we got our CB radios and the power supplies that helped us earn our own geek reputations.

You've Got Questions, We've Got Answers."

I'm nostalgic about RadioShack in the same way that my mentors are about RCA. RadioShack is changing. It's not the next RCA, but it's not my neighborhood electronics store either. Well, not much. Well, it is...but it isn't. It's...popular.

RadioShack is no longer a Tandy company. In 2000, Tandy Corporation became RadioShack Corporation. Marketing stepped in, in a major way. The stage was set. Now there are 7,200 RadioShack stores. 35,000 employees. Net sales and operating revenues for 2001 of almost $4.8 billion. RadioShack Corporation's 2002 Fortune 500 ranking is 348. This ain't the RadioShack that I grew up with anymore.

The RadioShack I grew up with had catalogs.

This is the final year of the RadioShack print catalog. During my formative RadioShack years, the catalog was free, then, sometime in the 1980s, the company started charging for it. I didn't mind a bit. It was worth every penny I would have paid for it except for the fact that the local RadioShack would give it to me for free because I was a great customer--me and the State University of New York at Geneseo (as well as every other company that I've worked for since--being a geek had its advantage).

Replacing the printed catalog is a system called Answers Online, which will be in all stores by the end of the year. Answers Online will provide stores with online access to traditional catalog information as well as a host of additional products not found at the stores. RadioShack Corporation's goal: 25% more new products every quarter.

"But I Loved That Catalog"

Yeah, me too.

Maybe you've heard the rumors--that RadioShack is getting out of the parts business. Fear not fellow geekheads, we can still get that perfect part at RadioShack, they'll just be hiding those parts so that the "home of the geeks" looks more presentable to the rest of society.

Starting next month, instead of finding that little package of LEDs, switches, or resistors on the wall, you'll find it stored in bins, like those found at hardware stores. This will free up valuable store real estate for the products that have made RadioShack what it really is today. You know: cell phones, PDAs, broadband services, satellite TV systems, karaoke machines, TVs, stereos, and a host of other consumer electronics goodies.

I'll be in the back, looking in the bins. And Iâll probably look at the cell phones on the way out. But thereâs no way they're getting my address at the register.

"1313 Mockingbird Lane" still works at RadioShack, proving that some things never change.

Michael Silbergleid is the editor. He can be reached at: