LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) – When Terry Layman was given his first radio more than 50 years ago, it opened the door to a world of tinkering with vacuum tubes and filter capacitors, and late-night tuning in to faraway places.
“We lived in Florida back in the ’50s and a relative gave me a Hallicrafters S-38B – shortwave. I must have been about 11. It was the first inspiration. I took it apart, trying to get an understanding of what made it tick, and I listened to foreign broadcasts.”
We’re in a small room in his shop that’s been designated, Layman says, for relaxation. A gracious host, he lifts a radio chassis off the lone armchair and offers a seat. There are newer shortwaves and AM-FMs on the floor and radio-related memorabilia in boxes all around.
An old cardboard dial from the Crosley Radio Corp. of Cincinnati lists stations and kilocycles from Algeria to Venezuela; “You’re there with a Crosley,” it says, promising to be a radio adventurer’s magic carpet to far-flung lands.
On his Hallicrafters, Layman traveled as a boy to prerevolutionary Havana, Moscow, London – wherever he could find on shortwave, “and, of course, regular broadcasts in America on broadcast band. It was fun to listen to see how far you could pick up something.”
“It looked like that one up there,” he says, pointing to a boxy shortwave on a shelf around the corner.
“It was fun to do what we call DXing, trying to find that little station in the middle of nowhere on the dial, late in the evening. DXing was ‘the art of radio listening.’” And DXing could also give you bragging rights: “Bet you can’t guess what station I found last night.”
But that first Hallicrafters was just the hook.
“I started to collect more radios. I had radios stacked on the dresser, pretending it was part of a showroom. My mother was a little perplexed, but she didn’t discourage me,” he says. He kept a glowing radio chassis by his bed as a nightlight and strung antenna wire across his sister’s ceiling. The night it all fell down on her in bed became part of the family lore: “Mommeee!”
By the time he was a teen, Layman had moved with his family back to his home state of Ohio. He studied music performance, another passion, in college in Cincinnati. A regular orchestra gig took him past what was then a vast collection of radio antennas on hundreds of acres at the Voice of America relay station: “So every week I was driving up I-75, past this array of blinking lights and thinking oh, that’s just neat.”
Turning the dial forward: Layman and his wife, Janet, moved to Lexington in 1987, after he retired from a career as an Air Force bandleader. He got a master’s degree in music from the University of Kentucky, but his boyhood dream was hard to squelch.
“I kept telling my wife, ‘I sure would like to open up a shop,’ and she said, ‘Well, go ahead. Let’s give it a test run.’ And that was in 1991. So I’ve been open 21 years,” says Layman.
Some of his first advertising was on a local station that played old radio shows, and he made lots of contacts through a booth at the Angliana Avenue antiques market. Places like Barney Miller’s and Pop’s Resale send him referrals.
The business has moved a few times over the years, but now he’s back on the street where he started, Porter Place off Versailles Road.
What is most satisfying? “Probably uppermost is the history behind a lot of the radios that come in. It was purchased by a customer’s parents or grandparents, maybe as kids they could hear programs on it. It’s a treasure to them, and likewise, I’m honored to put that back in their hands. And it’s thrilling to bring something back to life that hasn’t worked for 70 years.”
“Plus, I really like the stylings,” he says.
There’s a lot of styling in the front room: classic Philco floor consoles and table models – an Air Castle, a Silvertone and radios with dark Bakelite or cream-colored Plaskon cases.
“A lot of the department stores produced their own brands,” says Layman. “They didn’t make the radio but would have the dials designed.” Air Castle was Spiegel, Silvertone was Sears. Aetna was the Walgreen brand back in the ’30s. It was popular to hitch the name to flight: Goodyear stores sold a model called Wings.
But there’s a more earthbound quality to some of the radio style nicknames: tombstone, casket. “Dress up your parlor with the new casket-style radio!” Layman has one from 1924. Open the lid, read the label and you find it’s a Freshman Masterpiece. One case in his shop is devoted to “widowmakers” – all-metal models that had the annoying habit of shocking anyone attempting a repair near the kitchen sink.
Layman estimates he has nearly 300 radios in the shop. Some are for sale; a case full of transistors, including a model alluringly named the Suburbia, represents “a smidgen from my personal collection.” It’s probably best not to contemplate the size of that collection.
Layman can refinish cabinets that have spent years in the barn and renovate interiors where mice have lived as squatters. A lot of what he does, he says, is fix what the handyman fixed – quick repairs made at a time when the radio was the only entertainment around, and it was important to keep it going. Radio repairmen used to provide loaners when something needed to go in the shop. Layman says he has offered a loaner or two in his day.
Is there anything else the reporter should ask? “Well, how about, what’s my favorite radio?” he says.
“Yeah, that’s a tough one,” he answers. “I have some Bakelites from the ’30s that I just love the stylings, but then I’ll see a floor model.” his voice trails off. There’s one he’d really like to find, he says, and digs out a photo of a 70-year-old Majestic 2A50-F. “It’s not pretty, it’s just so strange.” Built into a nondescript box is a speaker that swivels like a one-eyed robot. “It doesn’t do anything more than make you uneasy,” he says, unable to disguise the longing in his voice.
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