Reliable Radio artifacts broadcast a message from the past

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It’s said that some people have a face for radio.

Walter Floyd had the fingers for it — seriously.

Armed with a glossy work bench, an endless supply of P.R. Mallory & Co. batteries, and a rack of syrupy cements, thinners and varnishes, Floyd ran Reliable Radio, a repair business out of his various Aurora homes from the 1930s through the early 1960s. Throughout the medium’s golden years, Floyd, a certified “radio-trician” with the National Radio Institute in Washington, D.C., was the city’s resident squawk box guru.

But upon the advent of television in the 1950s and 60s, Floyd dipped out of the radio business and remained removed from the increasingly niche industry until his death in the late 1980s. He maintained his shop, however, making sure it was ceaselessly brimming with boxes of electronic tubes and other gizmos necessary for mending the wooden boxes that used to sit prominently in living rooms across the country. Before his death, Floyd left entire estate — including more than 1,800 individual radio gadgets —to the Aurora History Museum in the interest of preserving his favorite pastime and passion.

“We’ve used the various radio pieces in a lot of exhibits over the years, but we wanted to be able to display his workshop as well,” said MaryJane Valade, exhibits curator at the museum.

Valade and other members of the museum team have worked to recreate Floyd’s shop for the museum’s newest exhibit, “Don’t Touch That Dial!” which centers on the history of radio from its initial entry into the American zeitgeist in the 1920s, until it eventually took a back seat to television in the 1950s. Dozens of wood and plastic radios compose the exhibit, as well as Floyd’s reassembled workbench, complete with various tools and knick-knacks strewn about as if he had just wandered off to grab lunch.

“We have his workbench, which is cluttered with the things that someone would need in their day-to-day as a radio repairman,” said Jennifer Cronk, collections curator at the museum. “You’re able to see all of the belts, tubes, capacitors and all of the machines needed to check signals…to give you a sense of what went into fixing a radio.”

The exhibit also features artifacts given to the history museum on loan from the Boulder History Museum, the Lakewood Heritage Center and a private collector from Lakewood.

Slated to run at the museum through April 17, the exhibit showcases both the national and local impacts of the medium’s golden age — from fireside chats broadcast by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to descriptions of the homegrown stations and programs that have graced airwaves along the Front Range. Valade identified Jean Ruth Hay as one notable local personality to emerge from the early metro area radio scene. Hay rose to fame during World War II as the host of “Reveille with Beverly,” an early morning variety show she created and tailored for U.S. Servicemen as they started their day.

“Her program started off locally and focused on soldiers based in Denver and Aurora, but then eventually she transferred to Hollywood and it was later broadcast across the world through Armed Forces Radio,” Valade said.

The show, which began at KFEL in Denver specifically for troops stationed at nearby Fort Logan, also went on to be adapted as a movie with the same name starring Ann Miller.

Despite other similarly antique references, both Cronk and Valade said that the new exhibit in Aurora isn’t intended exclusively for grey-headed reminiscers and they’re hopeful that the recent proliferation of podcasts will help spark some additional interest in the exhibit.

“Now being able to stream online or on a phone, people can get radio in various ways and it’s almost coming full circle, especially with shows like ‘Serial,’” Valade said “So renewed interest is something we’re hoping people latch onto.”

An offshoot of “This American Life” produced by WBEZ Chicago, the true-crime podcast “Serial” broke iTunes records last fall for speed and quantity of total downloads.

“Radio has become more popular as of late and ‘Serial’ was definitely a big thing,” Cronk said. “Hopefully it will not just appeal to the people who had radios and listened back in the day, but younger people, too.”

Podcasts aside, terrestrial radio is by no means dead in the United States. More than 65 million reported listening to at least some radio once a week, according to a Nielsen study from last year.

Cronk added that the exhibit provides an interesting technological retrospective amid the never-ending rat race to create the next iEverything.

“We see so much changing technology in our lives now,” Cronk said. “So it’s interesting to see the change from the radios that took over the living room to the teeny-tiny iPhones and iPods of today.”