Ed Huether, whose family goes back to the early days of Forest Park, entered the world of radio repair when he was just seven years old.
“I was a little boy walking down the alley when I saw a radio someone had thrown away,” Huether said.
He brought it to the now-closed Trage Brothers electronics store on Madison Street, where Jack Wenzel ran the service department. Huether had Wenzel test the radio’s tubes. To his delight, the radio just had a burned out tube that was easily replaced.
The Trages immediately offered Huether a job testing tubes.
“They asked me for my Social Security number and I said, ‘What’s that?” He found himself on the Trage Bros. payroll and began repairing radios and Hi-Fi’s while he was still in grammar school at Grant White Elementary School. He learned everything about fixing radios. Wenzel taught him, “If you hear this noise, here’s what’s wrong.”
Today, Huether runs The Old Radio Shop out of his Forest Park home. He has a garage crammed with vintage radios and gets repair orders from all over the US and other countries.
Radio was at its peak of popularity in the late 1940’s. TV’s had not yet taken over.
“I listened to cowboy programs, like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers,” Huether recalled, “They were all tube radios back then. Transistors weren’t invented until the mid-50s.”
By that time, Huether was attending Proviso High School. He graduated in 1959 and went on to De Vry University to earn a degree in electronic technology.
“I never went back to Trages,” Huether said. “By the time I finished school, they had closed their repair shop.”
This didn’t stop him from fixing radios. He had been fascinated by them from the time he had his first crystal set.
“It had a little coil of wire,” Huether recalled. “I connected this antenna to my bedsprings for better reception.”
Crystal sets carried the first commercial radio broadcasts, which began in 1924. Commercial radio started in the 1920s. General Electric thought broadcast radio was a fad that would die on its own.
It didn’t die, thanks to the crystal sets. These primitive devices consisted of a board, with instruments mounted on top. It didn’t have a cabinet. Huether’s parents bought one to impress their neighbors.
But, there was nothing impressive about its sound quality. It was also difficult to operate. It had a volume control and three tuning dials. Huether still has a crystal set in his house and noted that, “few guys know how to restore them.”
World War II and the demand for news greatly increased the popularity of radios, which by that time were housed in handsome cabinets. Consoles became a piece of furniture.
“With these big monster sets, the sound quality improved,” Huether recalled. “They had a two-inch speaker and you could add a bass speaker for music.”
FM had been invented in 1939 but was put on hold during the war. FM greatly improved the sound quality of music and Huether listened to classical music exclusively.
“I was hooked on classical music. Tchaikovsky was my favorite. I played Ravel’s “Bolero” all day at Trages and drove Wenzel crazy.”
Besides being an avid listener, Huether played percussion in the Proviso school band. He can also sing and has been a member of the Harlem Mannerchor since 1973.
Radio transistors eventually replaced tubes.
“Solid state was more difficult to fix,” Huether explained, “There were no standard parts. They were all custom-engineered.”
Transistor radios became popular, because they were compact and portable. “Transistors peaked in the 1960’s,” Huether recalled, “But it’s still the technology used in radios.”
Another major innovation was the introduction of stereo and the advent of sound separation.
“I got hooked on headphones. I like the big ones,” Huether said. “They really improve the sound quality. I never got used to ear buds.”
Huether grew up in the analog era and was dismayed when digital sound was introduced in the 1960s.
“Digital compresses sound,” Huether explained, “Analog has a much richer sound. It’s old world technology with incredible sound.”
But, digital or analog, Huether can fix it.
“I’m still busy but I close down for six months in the winter,” Huether sais. “I get half a dozen calls a day.”
People ship him radios from as far away as South America but Huether doesn’t do house calls.
“I just fixed a bad microphone and PA system for the Eagles. They use a 1946 microphone to call Bingo,” Huether said. “It had a broken wire and I had it up and running again.”
The highlight of the year for Huether is the annual Radiofest that is held by the Antique Radio Club of Illinois. Closer to home, Huether wants to work with the Boy Scouts in Forest Park.
“I can show them how to clip a radio onto a wire and use it as an antenna to receive radio stations,” Huether said.
The Boy Scouts could benefit from Huether’s expertise and radio knowledge. He explained how night time atmospherics increase the range of AM radios.
Huether once repaired the radio of William Grunow’s granddaughter. Grunow had marketed the first battery-operated radio and his mausoleum in Forest Home Cemetery is flanked by figures representing the Spirit of Commerce and the Spirit of Radio.
“It was 1992,” Huether said. “And we were receiving Christmas music from Radio Moscow.”