Step into the Past with Vintage Radio Collecting

Feb 20, 2024 / Kastle Waserman

One look at a vintage radio, with its elegant curved lines and you can imagine being surrounded by the melodies of an old-time radio show to transport you back in time. That’s one of the main reasons collector Scott Holderman began bringing them home after he first spotted one at a swap meet in 1988.

“I saw a little brown Bakelite Packard Bell radio from about 1949, and I just liked the look of it. I kept buying more. Now I have hundreds!”

Scott’s home in Los Angeles is lined with antique radios, big cabinet models as well as smaller ones that fill many shelves. There are round-top, cathedral style sets and Streamline Moderne styles from the late Art Deco period. These, he says, are his favorite because of their beautiful lines. He also has little transistors from 1950’s and 1960’s.

shelf of vintage radios and collector

Vintage radios hit a positive note for Scott, not just for their outside esthetics but also for what’s on the inside. As an electronics technician by trade, he worked on staff repairing recording studio equipment for Motown Records and Sound City Studios and now runs his own studio equipment repair business, Recording Central. He  admits he’s an avid tinkerer. “When I was a kid my parents would let me take apart clocks and stuff like that. I learned quickly that if you’re going to take it apart, you have to know how to put it back together!”

Scott says most of the radios he buys for his collection don’t work until he fixes them. His most urgent advice for anyone who brings home a vintage radio is “don’t plug it in! The components might be marginal and draw too much electric current, and the transformer could burn up. You could damage it permanently.” He instead advises taking it to a radio repair expert who can first test it on special equipment.

Finding a repairman familiar with vintage radios is surprisingly easy on the website for The Southern California Antique Radio Society (SCARS), which started near San Diego in 1976. “It was a bunch of guys who collected old radios and kept running into each other at swap meets. They decided to form an official club. Now it’s about 400 members from around the world,” says Scott, who joined in 1988 and also manages the club’s website.

“The club is great because we have guys who can do different things. For example, I don’t know how to do cabinet refinishing but I can find and pay a guy in the club to do it for me.”

Scott reveals that the guys in his club are also insatiable collectors like he is. They are big storage customers too and often also collect other things, from hi-fi amps to TV sets. “Our VP has three, big, completely full storage units of stuff!”

shelves of colorful vintage radios

As for caring for his radios in storage, Scott says they are not too high maintenance. “They’re pretty rugged. I just polish them with Johnson’s Paste Wax, the one that comes in a can. Don’t use spray wax because it has silicone in it, which will darken the wood, and it’s hard to get it off if you want to refinish it. Once you wax them, they are protected for years. You pretty much just have to dust them after that.”

He says there are some environmental hazards to look out for when putting radios in storage. “The main thing that will destroy them is water. If it’s damp or there is a leak that gets to them, forget it. The wood will warp if it gets wet, and it’s hard to fix. Heat isn’t too much of a problem. Some of the really old radios can’t handle high heat because they used hide glue made from animal hide, and it will break down if it’s really hot, and the seams will open.”

While Scott says he could probably turn a little profit flipping the radios he fixes up, it’s not what he’s in it for. “I mostly just buy them for me. Every once in a while, I will do it but it’s usually just to have something to tinker on and to fix them. Then I’ll sell them to somebody who will enjoy it. The money I make just covers my time, if I’m lucky.”

He did find a way to make his old radios actually play an old time radio show. “It’s a little strange to hear Katy Perry coming out of them! Some of the guys in the club can modify them in a non-destructive way to play from an iPhone, and a lot of people want that. I have a little transmitter, and I can connect it to the computer and have it stream old radio shows.”

As for which one in his collection is his favorite, Scott says it’s hard to choose. “I really like the Zeniths; they were really the leader in radio manufacturing. They’re good quality and the cabinets are interesting. I like the cathedral style but they’re not all Zeniths.”

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