Kids these days, eh?

The BBC’s Magazine section has a story on a 13-year-old kid’s experience over the course of a week using one of the original Walkman tape players, which came out 30 years ago this week. As you might expect, it’s replete with “How does this work? This looks funny. I can’t believe people actually used to think this thing was awesome!” from the younger generation. (It’s easy to wonder how he couldn’t understand a Walkman, but you have to remember he’s just 13. It would be like asking someone from my generation to figure out a reel-to-reel player in 1986.)

It took me three days to figure out that there was another side to the tape. That was not the only naive mistake that I made; I mistook the metal/normal switch on the Walkman for a genre-specific equaliser, but later I discovered that it was in fact used to switch between two different types of cassette.

He dinged the Walkman for its bulk, weight, battery life, and capacity, but enjoyed the way it had two earphone jacks instead of one (only the first Walkmans did) and the socket for plugging directly into AC power.

Did my dad, Alan, really ever think this was a credible piece of technology?

"I remembered it fondly as a way to enjoy what music I liked, where I liked," he said. "But when I see it now, I wonder how I carried it!"

The Walkman really was the iPod of its day, in more ways than one. Not only was it the way people listened to music portably back then, but it was the huge gotta-have-it device. Expensive, too—at over $200 in 1983 ($470 in 2013 dollars), it was tantamount to the iPod in price as well. I didn’t get mine until a few years later when they were running at $50 to $60 thanks to competition from other, cheaper brands. (In fact, my first one was a General Electric.)

Funny thing, though: you haven’t seen competition bring prices down as much for iPods as you did Walkmans back in the day. Probably that’s because they’re not as substitutable as Walkmans. Any player could play any cassette, but now you’ve got vendor lock-in with iTunes and other music apps. A switch from one device to another could mean going through a lot of rigamarole.

Anyway, Sony has never managed to recapture its glory days in the portable-audio arena. It’s had some portable device hits, such as the Clié PDAs and the PlayStation Portable, but in terms of audio players it’s by and large the also-ran. Really, it’s hard to find anything that can compete with an iPod these days.

mywalkmanOver the course of packing for my move to Greenwood, IN, I rediscovered my own Sony Walkman, one of the generation a few years later that was smaller and lighter with more features, as well as the Case Logic case I used to cart it and four tapes of my choice around in. I remember way back when, I was so into having my tunes available that I would take not only that case, but two 30-tape portable cassette cases with me everywhere I went. As nostalgic as I am for the bad old days, I still don’t feel any urge to ditch my 32 GB Android smartphone for it. Mobile technology marches on.


  1. A friend who used one told me it was like walking around with his own movie soundtrack playing. Seriously cool back then.

    For those of us who didn’t use them, it was a vast improvement over the idiots with their boom boxes polluting the silence.

    Last weekend, I had a long conversation with my nephew who is in his mid-twenties. He extolled the virtue of vinyl albums and paper books although he goes digital now in most things. The more things change, the more they stay the same, and a classic is still a classic.

  2. If you want to see something funny. See if teens understand how to use a dial phone. Many don’t and try to punch at the buttons. And when I worked at Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park, I’d ask visitors what they thought this was:

    Those over 40 usually knew it was a typewriter eraser. Those younger were often clueless. One told me it looked like a pizza cutter.

    In my case, a Walkman still made sense about seven years ago. Walking almost daily around Seattle’s popular Green Lake, I decided to make double use of my time by reading a book. Since the path had no cross streets, there was no risk of being run over, and I’m independent enough it didn’t bother me that others found my walking and reading odd. No, what turned me off to the idea was that it’s hard to read very fast while you’re walking.

    Then I noticed that thrift stores were selling those $100+ Walkmans for about $3. I picked up one along with books on tape from my local library. That was much better. I could listen faster while walking than I could read and I disturbed none of those who thought walking and reading odd. They probably thought I was listening to music. Instead, I listened my way through most of the Harry Potter series.

    I did flirt briefly with a CD player, since it was getting harder to find books on tape at the Seattle Public Library. Most were the more durable CDs. But that didn’t work. Cassette tapes save your place when you stop them. CD players don’t. I was losing my place too often.

    Then I worked a deal to get myself an iPod mini. Microsoft gave me an Office suite for participating in product testing–one of the perks of living in the Seattle area. I traded that for two refurb iPod minis, one of which I sold. I then used the other to listen to books as I walked. In fact, iTunes still supports the iPod mini and I still use it many years later to play recorded books in my dining area. Apple seems to support their technology longer.

    I’ve now migrated to a second-hand iPhone 3gs and mostly listen to podcasts on my walks. But when I made my cross-country move (2900 miles from Seattle to Auburn, AL) in August, I picked up some ebooks from Classic Tales to make that boring 50 mph, six-day drive pulling a trailer more endurable.

    There was actually nothing wrong with that Walkman if, when you went walking or jogging, you knew what you wanted to listen to. It wouldn’t have worked well with listening to podcasts though and you did need to flip or change tapes every 30 minutes or so.

    Those who’d like to listen to the free Classic Tales podcast can find it here:

    or via iTunes here:

    You can also find full-length books are reasonable prices from the same talented reader:

    In addition to the pleasure of listening to excellent literature, listening to world-class writers might improve your writing.

    –Michael W. Perry, Inkling Books

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