Panda Radio, Back on the Air
One of my most prized pieces of electronic hardware costs less than $20 on eBay. It’s not a digital camera or an MP3 player or anything like that. It’s a cheap radio. And it doesn’t even get FM.
In November 1976, when I was nine years old, my grandparents gave me an AM radio shaped like a Giant Panda. It’s about six inches tall, with a speaker in its belly and knobs where its eyes should be. I loved it not so much for its shape but its utility; as I recall, I thought it was kind of childish and not at all appropriate for a young modernist. I spent hours listening to my panda radio in the garage of my family’s Orange County, California condominium. I’d made a cubbyhole for myself under the worktable, with a small vent that served as a window. The panda radio and I hid away for hours on end, waiting for KFI to play something by Paul McCartney or Boston.
I rarely brought the radio up to my room, because I thought our home was kind of boring. Today, I’d love to live in that condo. It had faux-antique mirror tiles on the wall of the living room — the kind with craquelure printed on them — and it had burnt-orange shag carpet and avocado-color draperies. Plus, it sat on the edge of an orange grove that’s no longer there. How funny, that there are no more orange groves left in Orange County — just cookie-cutter tract homes, strip malls and Disneyland. That’s all.
The panda radio pictured at top is the same model as the one I owned, but it’s not the original. I don’t know what happened to him; I assume it’s in a landfill somewhere, a victim of less enlightened times. As much as I’d like to believe that this panda, given to me by my girlfriend in 2002, is the panda I once owned, come back around to rejoin me. But I know that isn’t possible, because I broke the battery cover off my original panda and replaced it with black electrical tape … and the battery cover on this panda is intact.
Thankfully, we grow to a fuller appreciation of the things we owned as children — and eBay is there to fill in the blanks. I honestly never thought I’d see this panda radio again; had even forgotten what it looked like when I mentioned it offhandedly to my girlfriend one day. Within two weeks, it arrived in the mail and moved back into my life as if it had never left it. You can say what you will about Meg Whitman — heaven knows I have — but I sure am glad that eBay exists to facilitate these kind of father-and-panda reunions.
As time will do, my feelings about the panda radio have been reversed. Now I love it entirely for its looks, for the things that repelled me back in the day — that rolling belly-speaker, those surreptitious eye controls, the strange generic label on the back (“Electro Brand,” with a cheesy-looking atom symbol straight out of 1955), and the ponytail-like carrying strap that I’ll never use. It’s a wonderful modernist artifact, could have been a set piece from “Brazil” or “Akira,” and it’s positively crying out to be modded by the geeks at Lifehacker. Maybe they could put a USB reader in there, or make it into an external drive. One thing is certain: AM radio is no longer of any use to me, now that it plays nothing but static and Rush Limbaugh.
So it goes. In honor of my original panda radio, I have named this one Ping-Pong the Second, of the Gallip-Gallop Dynasty. Long may he reign from his venerated space atop my desk, next to my iPod and the other expensive, belly speaker-free gizmos that I love half as much as this silly radio.