Portable entertainment has come a long way over the last 30 years. For me, it really started with a little Panasonic transistor AM/FM radio, kind of like the one below.
It was slightly more modern than that one, but not much. I got it when I was 12 or 13 and used it all the time...walking the dog, doing stuff in the house, playing street hockey in the driveway. I would use my dad's stereo setup to play the records I'd been buying, but having the radio was a godsend when I was anywhere besides our living room. I primarily listened to either CHUM-AM 1050, which played top 40 that included a lot of rock, and later CHUM-FM 104 and Q-107, both album-oriented rock stations. I have a distinct memory of hearing Rush's "Tom Sawyer" for the first time on this radio while walking my dog Sammy in early 1981 along Liverpool Road. Good times.
Later that spring, I graduated from Bayview Heights Public School, which was a k-8 school. It was a big deal with a ceremony and dance and everything, and I got a few presents, including a set of big-ass radio headphones, similar to the ones below.
Those mofos were heavy and uncomfortable, not to mention goofy-looking, so I didn't use them in public. I used them around the house or while riding in the car. Ultimately, they seemed too big and clunky and I never did use them that often. But I had read about the Sony Walkman cassette player, which had come out a few years earlier, and in '82, after we had moved to Washington state, I got my first OG Walkman.
I LOVED that thing. It had a belt clip (as well as a shoulder strap, which was a tad awkward and not very cool looking) and I would use that sucker all the damn time. I never bought pre-recorded cassettes; rather, I would buy vinyl and then make tapes of the albums. My recording methods were quite primitive at first; I had made some early mix tapes on my clock radio and I would record albums by placing my dad's small boombox in front of one of the speakers while I played the vinyl. Of course, the recorder would pick up any surrounding noise; on my recording of Rush's Signals, you can hear my dog barking at somebody in the background of one of the songs. For years, whenever I heard that song, I would expect to hear a bark. And of course, the tapes would only get the audio from one speaker; it wasn't exactly an audiophile's dream. But I didn't care. I could walk around at school listening to Iron Maiden's Number of the Beast or Ozzy's Blizzard of Ozz and not give a fuck what anybody else thought. I didn't have a ton of friends then, so the music was a constant companion. A few years later, I got a smaller Toshiba cassette player that included an FM stereo tuner pack and passed on the Walkman to my little brother.
The FM thing was basically like a cassette, so I didn't use it that much or carry it around, instead using cassettes with it. I used that player through high school and into college before it croaked around sophomore year. My cassettes, of course, sounded a lot better than they used to, especially after I finally picked up a cassette deck to go with my other stereo components (by this time, I had commandeered my dad's receiver, turntable and speakers since he never used them). Eventually I picked up another Walkman, this time the vaunted Sports Walkman, which I would bring to the gym.
I never did buy a Sony Discman, even though I had started buying CDs in 1989 after getting a CD player after I graduated college. My cars all had tape players and I was still making tapes, but of CDs instead of vinyl, so the Walkman served my purposes. And so it was through the '90s until I joined Webnoize and learned about MP3 players from my good friend Ric, who had procured himself one. After a few months, the good folks at Diamond Rio sent another Rio 500, which held a whopping 64 MB of music (about eight songs or so, depending on the bitrate).
The Rio was great because it was tiny compared to the Walkman, and it was solid state, so it wouldn't skip when it was jostled. When the office moved from Stoneham to Cambridge, I used mine constantly during the long train/walk/subway/walk commute, as well as during the runs I was beginning to do four or five times per week. The limitation, of course, was you could only put a limited amount of music on it, so you were stuck listening to the same seven or eight songs over and over again. There was a memory card slot, however, so I soon dropped $100 on a 64 MB card (memory was expensive then; now you can get a 16 GB pin drive for $30) to double the Rio's capacity. I would get to know new (and old) albums very well; Radiohead's Kid A, At the Drive-In's Relationship of Command, Metallica's Ride the Lightning and The Tragically Hip's Music at Work were all in heavy rotation in 2000. I got a couple of other MP3 players while at Webnoize, but none was as good as this first one. Eventually it stopped working and I was able to get Rio to send me another, but meanwhile, Apple had come out with the iPod in the fall of 2001. Ric got the first 5GB model and wrote a prescient research paper about how it could change the music industry. Webnoize went under a few months later, but he was right, of course. I got my first iPod, a 10GB model, in 2004 and have purchased three more since then (most recently losing my 16 GB Nano).
It's hard to imagine life without the iPod, but indeed, there was. And as much as I love the iPods I've owned, there's still a special place in my heart and cerebral cortex for that crappy little Panasonic transistor radio.