Sunday morning, feet up, reading the paper, listening to Desert Island Discs on Radio 4. Its the antidote to smartphone culture and not just among older people. “Buying the Sunday papers should have died out, its insane, but thirtysomethings are creating this nostalgic bubble,” says former ad-man Neil Johnson.
We often hear how the crackle of vinyl has made a surprise resurgence in the past decade and there must be an explanation. “A lot of things that happen on your phone are quite stressful,” Johnson says, “so I think people are looking, especially at weekends, to put modern tech down and immerse themselves in old tech, which is a lot less intrusive, and beautifully designed.”
Taking a step back from a successful career, Johnson, now in his forties, reassessed what he really wanted to spend his time on. That led to him launching Cleverbox Radios, first refurbishing vintage radios, then moving into record players, music centres and reel-to-reel tape decks. “Ive been into radios all my life,” he says. “My first one was a little Rolls-Royce car that had a hidden radio in it. I took it to bits to see how it worked, which is what I did with everything when I was little; its how I got good at repairing stuff.”
Older radios, such the Sovereign II, are especially “exquisite” for listening to the spoken voice
Last summer, Johnson bought a job-lot of 150 radios from eBay with a view to upcycling them with Bluetooth components. “I spent a long time finding chips that sounded really good,” he says, having heard poor quality updates in what were otherwise lovely old machines. “But then I got good at repairing them, bringing them back to their original working condition. Some of them are so beautiful, Id rather preserve them as a radio than convert them.
"But I can do both if people ask for it. Im more into restoration now, high-end radios with a great sound – Ive picked up some German ones recently, Blaupunkt and Telefunken, theyre amazing and so well engineered. We have about 200 fully restored, classic transistor radios from the Sixties and Seventies in stock – Hacker, Roberts, Bush, etc.”
And if youve forgotten what a good quality radio sounds like, its probably because youve bought into DAB. Yet with the advent of streaming, DAB itself is now out of date. And before DAB, there was FM, which, to Johnsons delight was never switched off with the advent of digital.
“People still love the channel,” he says, “and it sounds better. FM has outlived DAB, but it will only continue if people buy radios and listen to it.” Older radios, such the Sovereign II, are especially “exquisite” for listening to the spoken voice, he says.
For Johnson, these radios have huge appeal right across the generations. Older people love the idea that the well-used radio they have in the attic is worth something; then, he says, there are the fortysomethings with their records who “realise theres space in their life for another bit of analogue technology”; and then there are youngsters whove never heard of FM radio. “Most of them who listen to it are blown away by the quality.”
Cleverbox Radios sells Bluetooth-enabled vintage radios from around £60, plus quality restored radios and record players, from around £85. Contact Johnson via Instagram @cleverboxradios or visit his stall at the Classic Car Boot Sale vintage festival, 18 August, Granary Square, Kings Cross, N1 (classiccarbootsale.co.uk), entry £5