You know you’re getting old when you see broadcast gear that you actually worked with on display in a museum. It happened to me in the South recently, when I visited a local museum that featured a 60s-era “vintage” RCA audio console from a broadcast station where I had worked as a college student.
There’s a funny thing about broadcast equipment. Most of it tends to become operationally obsolete very quickly. But, after a few years pass, it can take on a nostalgic quality. Some items keep on working and eventually acquire the status of cultural icons.
As one with a penchant for old things, I often find myself rummaging through ancient collectibles in New York City’s antique shops. Lately, I’ve noticed that old electronics — tube gear, consoles with huge grapefruit-sized knobs, deco-style “On Air” lights, microphones and even turret-style RCA television cameras — have begun to appear in these stores with prices that will knock your socks off.
Of course, these electronic components are not being sold for their functionality (most don’t even work) but due to their unique design. There’s something about a classic RCA 44 or 77 ribbon microphone or “On Air” light (which all still work quite well) that brings back remembrances of a simpler time when broadcasting still had a magical quality.
Companies like RCA, Gates and Shure have created aesthetically enduring product designs over the years. Many of RCA and Shure’s deco-era microphones reflect the same timeless design characteristics that we find in America’s great skyscrapers (the Chrysler Building and Rockefeller Center come to mind).
As far as design goes, the crown jewel of the Shure microphone line is the legendary 55 series, a microphone that not only made history for its groundbreaking technical achievement but turned an industrial product into a cultural icon associated with some of the most remembered moments in our musical and political heritage.
This year is the 75th anniversary of Shure’s Unidyne design, the first directional microphone using a single cartridge. The 55 series, where is all began, is still being manufactured — a record itself in broadcast technology.
From Frank Sinatra and Doris Day in the Big Band era to Elvis at the dawn of rock ‘n roll, 55 series microphones became — as a 1950 Shure print ad proclaimed—”The Microphone That Needs No Name.” Viewed from a design perspective, a reviewer wrote that Shure’s 55 microphones “exude all the coolness of a ‘57 T-bird, Stratocaster guitar or a James Dean movie.”
It was the same with RCA’s classic 44 and 77 ribbons, used on many historic broadcasts. Replicas are still being manufactured of these microphones at whooping high prices. Even in the digital era, these classics still sound great and there’s no tiring of their iconic design and great sound.
One thing that’s most certainly been lost in broadcast products today is design that stands the test of time. Perhaps that’s because most products, being IP based, are frequently no more than computer interfaces on a display. That’s a loss for those who are still fascinated by iconic broadcast design.