One Question Quiz
transistor radio
After Cyclone Gabrielle, demand for transistor radios has increased. (Image: Getty / Treatment: Archie Banal)

BusinessFebruary 22, 2023

The humble transistor radio makes a comeback

transistor radio
After Cyclone Gabrielle, demand for transistor radios has increased. (Image: Getty / Treatment: Archie Banal)

It’s the one thing everyone needed when the power went out during Cyclone Gabrielle. Now, they’re harder to find than ever.

You don’t have to look far to find new-found transistor radio fanatics. “We depended entirely on it,” one survivor posted to Facebook recently. “It was our lifeline,” said another. “Glad I have a hand-held one at home,” wrote a third. “I’m listening desperately for info on Wairoa. I still have no power at my house, so no wifi.”

They’re raving about this simple, ancient but essential piece of tech for a reason. When Cyclone Gabrielle arrived, it knocked out power stations around the North Island. When the power went out, cellphone reception soon followed.

That meant essential communications quickly disappeared. Emergency numbers couldn’t be dialled, and those affected by slips and flooding couldn’t let loved ones know they were OK. Those in cut-off communities like Muriwai, Piha or Wairoa couldn’t listen to the radio from their phones, so news from the outside was hard to come by.

One Piha resident told The Spinoff the local volunteer fire service couldn’t even find out what was happening. “We’ve seen none of the news coverage. We have no idea what’s happened to the rest of the country,” Jenene Crossan said. “That’s how bad the comms issue is. The comms issue is appalling.”

Enter, then, the humble transistor radio. First invented in 1954, the transistor radio was thought to have been made obsolete by Walkmans, then Discmans, then the iPod, then the iPhone. Despite the doomsayers, radio – the medium – keeps on trucking. Transistor radios – the delivery method – do as well.

transistor radios
Some of the transistor radios on offer at AV World. (Photo: Supplied)

That’s never more clear when disaster strikes. During a natural disaster, a battery-powered radio is a crucial source of information (as long as it’s not tuned into Newstalk ZB, apparently). “It’s certainly something that in the lead up to the cyclone, we’ve been encouraging people to have,” emergency management minister Kieran McAnulty told Stuff.

In the same interview, McAnulty admitted they’re also not the easiest things to get your hands on. “I also note that it’s actually not that easy to find these days,” he said. “It’s the sort of technology that when the power goes out it’s vital, but in peacetime, if you like, it’s not really used. And so [if] you go to a hardware store it’s sometimes difficult to find.”

It’s true. Suddenly, everyone – not just those attending retro dress-up parties as an 80s breakdancer – wants one. “We have seen a 79% increase in searches for transistor radios onsite so far this month when compared with the same period last year,” says Trade Me spokesperson Ruby Topzand.

Mike from AV World couldn’t be happier. He’s so keen to talk about a recent influx of customers buying them up that he won’t put the phone down even though his motorbike might be getting stolen. He’s known about the essential power of a transistor radio for a long time. That’s because he listens to his customers. “Older people tend to be very smart about disasters. They tend to be much better prepared,” he says. “As the radio warnings are coming out, they come in and buy transistor radios.”

He noticed an uptick in sales as Cyclone Gabrielle approached, and a surge after the storm hit. Last Friday, he sold three during the lunch rush. People are listening to warnings that a disaster kit, including a gas bottle, water, a full tank of gas and a transistor radio, is something you should have in case of emergency.

Mike’s been selling everything from $69 pocket radios to $300 ones with antennae so powerful you’ll be able to tune in from the furthest reaches of Aotearoa. Sometimes, he sells customers two: a designer model north of $1500, and a cheaper one for emergencies. He’s even got several himself. “A transistor radio is a lifesaver,” says Mike. “You cannot count on a cellphone for more than eight hours without a charger. As soon as you’ve got no comms whatsoever, what are you going to do next?”

So he listens to his customers who have been there before. “The smart elders who have been there, done that, they’ve lived through the Cyclone Bolas. They know what’s coming … they understand what a cyclone is,” he says. “It’s proper planning, right? We definitely get people who are organised because they are thinking about [surviving] for days.”

With power yet to be returned to some parts of the North Island, and cell services struggling along with them, it’s advice worth heeding. Another survivor, this time from the Hokianga, posted to Facebook that she’ll do just that. “My next purchase will be a transistor radio and a proper torch,” she wrote. Better get in quick.

Keep going!