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Tuned In: Alabama Historical Radio Society


The Alabama Historical Radio Society Museum in Birmingham is known for housing one of the best collections of historic radios in the U.S.—but I didn't get to visit it, because the building that hosts it was closed to the public by the pandemic.


I found that out with a phone call while standing in front of the building trying to find the entrance. Closed for months, and no certain date for opening, I was told by Dave Cisco, Chairman of the Board and the man who answers the phone. Instead, he said, why don't you come over Saturday and visit our workshop?


Of course, I still haven't seen the museum, but I find it hard to believe they could have more radios than in the workshop, and certainly not as many interesting things to see and hear about from the various members working that morning at restoring, researching and operating vintage radios.

P1190205P1190216P1190207P1190229P1190210Above, some of the racks of vintage radios that form the aisles and work area of the society's space in the  headquarters building of the Alabama Power Company, which also hosts the museum.

At left, a tower of novelty radios, all working, built into Pepsi cans, Coke bottles, violins, cars, character figures and more.

Below, models of early radio receivers from an era before vacuum tubes replaced crystals.P1190211

Speaking of vacuum tubes, you'll notice at the left in the next picture a tube tester, the kind that used to be found, when I was younger, in appliance stores and elsewhere, so you could test the tubes from your radio and find out which one you needed to replace.


Since nearly all manufacturing of radio tubes stopped years ago, the Society is always on the lookout for stock to keep its Tube Room ready; if you haven't got the right tubes, you can't make the radio work!


Aside from the tubes, an amazing array of other parts and tools...


These days manuals all come in online form, when there are any manuals, but in the old days, they were published and updated and any serious repair shop had to have a subscription. These binders hold the month-by-month set in the society's library—every issue ever.


If the repair manual set isn't impressive enough, just around the corner is the impressive collection of theoretical and practical books on every topic connected to radio and the science behind it.


With a little ingenuity, almost anything can be turned into a radio...


I was amazed at how many of the radios on the shelves I recognized, including the Zenith 'portable' at the top left. I bought one just like it in a second-hand store 65 years ago with money from my first job. As you can see from the picture below it, 'portable' definitely had a different meaning back then!


Walking around the shop, it could be easy to get nostalgic over the fine wood cabinetry of one radio era were it not for some of the beautiful lines that came in with Bakelite and then other plastic radio cases...


Here are a couple that were definitely made to be seen in the era before TV screens took over the decor; one is built into a decorative mirror and the other covers its large speaker in needlepoint.


And now for something completely different: The radios above are all for your listening pleasure, but this equipment is modeled on Birmingham's first radio studio for station WSY.


Birmingham has a lot of larger places to visit, and a lot of important history to consider, but if the radio museum, or the workshop, are open to visitors when you're in town, it's definitely a worthwhile stop!


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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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