The “golden age of radio” may be gone, but Mel Check’s antique radio collection is still going strong.
Adjacent to Mel Check’s home in Karns City, Pa., is what used to be a large one-story garage. Check had to add a second floor to accommodate his collection of vintage radios. (“It was either that or get divorced,” Check jokes about his wife’s tolerance for his obsession.) So impressive is his collection of more than 800 radios that Check’s Radio Museum has been listed in travel guides for Pennsylvania, Armstrong County and Pittsburgh, and Check has welcomed tourists from as far away as Texas.
It was no accident that Check began collecting radios. In 1963, he joined KDKA radio as an engineer and stayed 34 years until his retirement. In 1970, he began collecting vintage radios and, after 40 years, the collection is still growing. His pieces range from primitive crystal sets of the 1920s and earlier to portable transistor radios of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. In between are large floor console models, vacuum tube radios, streamlined plastic radios and his favorites, wooden tabletop radios with beautiful inlays and fabric grilles that are sometimes quite intricate.
Check, with his engineer’s knowledge, has brought many of the radios back to life, restoring them to clear, rich working order. However, he says the cabinets can be much more difficult to repair. The beauty of the cabinets reflects the luxury status of many of these radios when they were first produced.
“Some of them would cost as much as a car,” Check says. “And you couldn’t buy just the radio. You needed the tubes, the battery and, sometimes, the speakers. It really added up.”
The most popular pieces in the collection include a hand-cranked Magneto in a black box that was used in Forbes Field; Zenith TransOceanic radios with AM, FM and shortwave bands; a streamlined Fada Catalin Bakelite radio (“Bullet” model); novelty radios (including replicas of fronts of cars); and a variety in which the dials, cabinetry or design are especially unique. The brand names include those that are still well known today—RCA, General Electric, Motorola and Westinghouse, but also Atwater Kent, Radiola, Freshman and Crosley.
Check says his collection is born of his love not only for the medium of radio, but also his work in the industry. “I love the nostalgia of radios,” he says. “But also the business, the entertainment value and, most of all, the people. Every radio here reminds me of that.”