NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Tuesday, April 30th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. In the early days of the American Space Shuttle program, a man named Tom Taylor played a pivotal role. He helped create a flight simulator so astronauts could train for shuttle missions.
EICHER: His interest in engineering began when he was a teenager. He fixed radios in a shed in the backyard.
Fifty years later, he’s still doing it, except now fixing vintage radios.
Taylor finds his hobby keeps him grounded by using his wits and his hands to solve problems.
WORLD Radio’s Bonnie Pritchett stopped by for a visit to his home in Friendswood, Texas.
BONNIE PRITCHETT, REPORTER: That’s a 19-36 National ham band radio. Tom Taylor enjoys listening to the chatter while he works in his backyard shack.
But before entering his workshop, the retired NASA contractor tries to brace visitors for what they’ll encounter.
TAYLOR: I don’t know how to condition you for this, but I will tell you that when my sister-in-law first saw it, she was speechless.
AUDIO: [Sound of door opening and stepping into the shack]
A radio console sitting on the floor prevents the door from opening all the way. It is among the disembodied radio parts spilling from the shelves to the floor. The only visible floor space, about four strides long, marks the path from door to the workbench.
The pungent smell of moth balls betrays his efforts to keep rodents at bay. And a stuffed toy clownfish, a gift from his grandson, dangles above the vacuum tubes, wires, electronic gizmos, and gadgets that vie for space on Taylor’s workbench.
TAYLOR: So, everything across here is service equipment…top to bottom is a regulated power supply for everything tube….
Taylor is in his element.
TAYLOR: Down below it is a signal generator that is solid state for everything…the item on the bottom is a very old military tube signal generator that’s rock solid on every frequency…
Watching his dad fix everything from a radio to the family car sparked Taylor’s interest in electronics. A local ham radio operator helped fine tune his skills in radio repair. And Taylor turned the shed behind the family’s New Jersey home into his first workshop.
Today he works from a 24-by-24-foot aluminum-sided shed in his own backyard. Years of restoration projects have filled the the shed with radio bits and pieces.
Ironically, the abundance of parts is evidence of their scarcity. What’s needed to restore these old radios’ unique sound can be hard to find.
TAYLOR: Parts are scarce sometimes and you just don’t know when you’re ever going to find it…So, when you do go to an auction and something like this comes up, you’re thinking, ‘Man, I know full well I’ll never see it again, because you don’t. You just won’t.
So, for one part, he’ll buy an entire chassis. That’s the radio’s working innards.
And then he’ll sell the rest or set it somewhere in the work shed. Because he can’t bring himself to throw it away.
TAYLOR: One of the reasons why you just don’t go there is because you hear these stories…that somebody threw such-and-such away. Like this item sittin’ on the floor here, this is a Midwest chassis with 14 tubes in it. Those consoles…when they’re fully restored they bring $1,200 and more.
Searching for the elusive part is like a treasure hunt. And giving voice to a mute radio is pure gold.
Taylor recalled one particular “piece of junk” he repaired for a friend.
TAYLOR: And, so, I got his radio going, and I’ll never forget the day. It was a sunny, summer afternoon…and I tuned on a country western station…and it was playing a George Strait sound…and it was beautiful! It made this shack sound like a dance hall! I couldn’t believe it!
Taylor realizes today’s digital society is not clamoring for a 1933 Zenith Tabletop radio that plays AM only.
But for this man who helped prepare astronauts for space travel, giving new life to dead radios is reward enough. And gained from each restoration is the confidence to restore another and another…
TAYLOR: Behind the couch here on the right side is a 1952 German Opus 55…Next to it on the bookshelf is a small black item which is about a 1923, two-tube radio…Just to the left of it is a Zenith Table Top 1933, AM-only…And the largest console in the room is what’s called a Zenith Shutter Dial about 1938…Over on the left here is an English Murray, an A26 Murray made in England and I believe we found that was about a 1955…The black one on the floor….
Taylor thinks the digital generation has missed out on the character-building confidence that comes from working with your hands. He says there’s nothing like figuring out why something doesn’t work and then fixing it. He hopes to pass on the confidence he gained as a teenager by mentoring kids in the inexpensive hobby of radio electronics.
TAYLOR: You take it from dysfunctional or no function to ‘it works.’ It’s a realization, you know. It’s also empowers you. You think, ‘Hey! I can do that. I can do this.’ And, so, one step leads to another and before you know it you feel almost that you have no bounds.
He said it all begins with that first satisfying…
AUDIO: [Click of the radio knob]
…of the radio knob and waiting 10 seconds for the tubes to warm up and then…
BASEBALL ANNOUNCER: That ball has a lot of hook on it. Racing over and making the sliding catch is Grossman in foul territory…What a play by Robbie Grossman…!
Yeh. Kinda like that.
AUDIO: [Sound of radio]
For WORLD Radio, I’m Bonnie Pritchett reporting from Friendswood, Texas.