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Why The Public Radio is sixty dollars (2018) (pencerw.com)
60 points by zdw 17 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 57 comments

This product just seems... like a throwback to the first decade of this century.

A time when we rebelled against over-advertised, and over-priced Gillette Fusion cartridges. Not by growing beards (that would come in the 2010's). But rather by shaving with $100 German double-edge razors, badger hair brushes, and artisial shaving soaps instead.

This here is a cheap pocket radio, like you could find at Walmart for $5. Except that it is built to tune into only one frequency, it has no headphone jack, and its form-factor is a old-timey mason jar. It's "artisanal", and "locally-sourced" and all that, and it does look like a pretty conversation piece. But do people still gravitate to stuff like this?

I'm asking from genuine curiosity, because I'm not sure whether the "hipster" era faded away, or if it's still there and I just grew a little too old?

(Note: I co-created this product, wrote this blog post, etc)

Your skepticism is something I hear a lot, and something I make it a rule not to argue with. A lot of people look at The Public Radio with disdain, and at least as many look at it without any emotional reaction at all (which is arguably worse). This was never meant to be a mass market product, and it's okay that not everyone likes it.

I will say, however, that our customer base might not be as young, bearded, and IPA-drinking as you might expect. We do sell a lot to Brooklyn (I live in Brooklyn; Kickstarter is in Brooklyn; etc) but one of our biggest customers to date is KUER, which is Utah's NPR affiliate. We've also sold large orders to a pop station in Singapore, an Orthodox Jewish community radio station in New Jersey, and to someone's grandma in rural Nebraska who makes mason jars into light fixtures that look like fireflies (one of our first customers, back in ~early 2014).

As to whether the market's going away: As I mentioned in another comment, I'm continuously surprised when I see The Public Radio in the wild and can say without reservation that we have sold way more of these things than I ever expected. And if it were someone else's creation, there's a good chance that I'd look at it with furrowed brows as well.

I really admire this respectful and level-headed comment. I think your product is neat, keep it up!

Wow, internet compliment of the year. Thanks!

You should try selling it to the DPRK, except tuned to a different frequency.

A Merkur 34 costs $40 and blades are $6/100. I broke even vs. cartridge razors in three months, a decade ago.

This is not a throwback to the safety-razor hipster era of yesterday, this is a manifestation of the artisan-chic post hipster/hipster-yuppie/yupster reality of today.

Alternate take: in an increasingly complicated world, people are coming to value simplicity and aesthetics, and will pay for these things.

Chiming in on shaving.

The double-edge safety razor can either be something that's cost saving compared to Gillette or an expensive hobby. I personally know people that spent $750 in shaving equipment, only to go back to an electric Phillips within five years.

Echoing, at 7 years in with my original DE and brush, I've saved hundreds of dollars by now and created a lot less waste compared to disposables even at costco pack prices.

But if you're the type that is going to spend huge amounts on fancy soaps and multiple brushes etc.. Then yeah you won't save money but you'll probably be spending it on other stuff anyway if you're that type.

> 7 years in with my original DE and brush

Badger hair brushes should really be replaced more frequently than once every seven years. The soaps/creams build up over time, and bristles get damaged during use, and it's something that frequently gets wet with hot water which can cause bacteria buildup.

In business school we have a framework for understanding customer needs.. jobs to be done (functional, emotional, social).

In this case the "job to be done" is probably not really to listen to news/music (there's a million better things for this).

Likely it's emotional.. decoration, nostalgia, "toy"

Therefore alternatives to this product are not other radios but other fun decorations, throw back items, or simple electronic devices.


For modeling I think this is similar to "the light phone" that also did well on crowd funding. So I think there is a trend here.

My 16 year old daughter has a spotify premium account yet has discovered vinyl and now is collecting it (yikes).

I think it's about the overall experience: tactile, "old fashioned", and functional.

Pressing play on an iPhone is a thoughtless experience. Lifting the needle or grabbing a knob is more engaging.

I didn't appreciate physical albums when I was younger but now I find it difficult to throw them out, especially if they were bought in a store. Just looking at them reminds me of the time in my life that I bought them, who I was with and where I was.

I think it's meaningful to surround yourself with objects that remind you who you are, and your ability to shape your world. I do not get this sense with Spotify or Apple Music or Youtube. I still use those services but there's a sense of detachment, like listening to an song in a store.

My son has also gotten into vinyl and more recently... cassettes! I think part of the fun is going to the used record store with his friends. It's a pretty harmless hobby -- most of the tapes tapes are a buck apiece.

Another aspect might be just being different than his dad. I got my first hi-fi system in the early 80s. Today, my "home stereo" is an old cell phone and a bluetooth audio adapter board that powers a pair of bookshelf speakers.

I've got a friend (who, yes, is a Brooklyn hipster) who puts out his new music in two formats: FLAC and cassette.

Oddly enough, cassette might be a better business model. For second-tier and small time musicians, monetizing recorded music via digital distribution is nearly a bust. This is one reason why, even in this day and age, a traveling band will still lug a suitcase full of CDs around with them. There is still something about having a physical deliverable that makes people willing to pay for it.

"Free download code with every t-shirt" is a surprisingly effective model for indie artists.

You can get 200% markup on a decent T-shirt and not make it feel like it's gouging either.

As wonderful as my smartphone is at accomplishing a billion different tasks, occasionally I want something that does exactly one thing and does it well.

For many years I listened effectively to just one radio station, and something like this would have indeed been delightful.

I could see using this to rekindle my love for public radio.

I bought a double sided razor for $10. A pack of blades was only a few dollars more, mere pennies per blade.

This idea that non-cartridge shaving is an expensive hipster pursuit is probably FUD promulgated by the companies trying to sell you razor cartridges. Everything I currently own for shaving cost me less that a single pack of replacement cartridges.

I don't think there is a problem with the product per se; as others have mentioned I only listen to one radio station ever. That isn't a limiting factor for me, and I like the design and aesthetic it gives off. The kicker for me is I can't justify the cost, even if I understand 100% why it costs what it does.

That being said, there are still a lot of people out there in a certain age bracket with a certain life style for whom $60 isn't a big deal and they would be be more than happy to pay that much for something that 'brings them joy'. The Farmers Market set is still out there and living large, even if it isn't quite as rampant as it was a few years ago.

Now if it was $25, I would probably get one in a heartbeat, because that's my 'this isn't going to hurt me and if I enjoy it, why not' price.

(Co-creator of the product again)

For what it's worth, we would have loved to sell The Public Radio for $25 and tried for many years at $40/45. I think that our experience is a testament to the idea that at least sometimes, it's okay to raise your prices above what you personally would be willing to pay. But yes, it's a very expensive member of its category (battery powered FM radios) even without the UI limitations.

It would be a welcome addition to my dentist's office. He is forever struggling with his staff switching the office radio from classical to something else. I guess that's a use case.

That's also a use case for a cheap radio with mechanical controls and some glue.

I bought one of the original kit versions of this and also bought one of the most recent units as a gift to my mother-in-law. We love it; it runs in our bathroom in the morning, is dead simple to use, and lasts a very long time on a battery. Yes, a cheap plastic radio would be less expensive, but then we'd be dealing with tuning that can drift, a poorer speaker, and a less charming exterior.

I think it's a throwback to the B. Braun days when Dieter Rams was in charge. The product is more than the task it performs, it is a piece if art.

See also: tiny houses. Mobile homes or RVs were too low-class, I guess. Not enough hand-planed teak or whatever. Tiny home, now that signals you've attended higher education and have made a thoughtful philosophical choice rather than just being poor. eyeroll

the “first decade of this century”?

i think you’ve grown a little too old.

The price is a good conversation about globalizing supply chains.

But what's really cool is they have a way to program radios which are sealed inside a cardboard shipping box, without batteries installed.


Yeah, Josh's method of tuning The Public Radio is super cool. We never actually implemented it in production, but our manufacturing line is in some ways even cooler (it's fully just-in-time) and is remarkably advanced for a FM radio in a mason jar :) I wrote it up in a separate blog post here: http://pencerw.com/feed/2018/2/8/the-public-radios-assembly-...

The key part seems to be this:

> In other words: We’re making a piece of consumer electronics just-in-time in the US.

It is indeed hard to bring down costs that way, but when each unit needs to be individually programmed, as in this situation, this is a sensible way of doing it.

This is also a good way to do low volume production in general for hardware side-projects and the like. My own Relay (https://foundrytechnologies.com/relay.php) is made in the same way - the components come from China but the assembly and firmware upload is done in the US. This also keeps the firmware confidential, which works well for IP protection. For higher volumes, I'd think we'd eventually move the assembly offshore, but not the firmware upload.

I'm constantly surprised that people aren't more alarmed at how much china owns the supply chain. It's virtually impossible to make electronics without at VERY LEAST buying components from china. Seems like a lot of power in their hands.

For example, I'm deeply uncomfortable with doing business with china because of the million Uyghurs in concentration camps - but if I want to buy simple passive electronic components to populate a circuit board I've got no other choice?

I am impressed if this business works. You're selling something for $60 with the same functionality as something I can get on Alibaba $0.30-$1 per unit. And the people are buying it because of all the artificial restrictions.

(Note: I co-created the product, manage the business that produces it, and wrote the original blog post)

In many ways I'd say the answer is still in flux. On the one hand this is a part-time business that has not, by any means, made either myself or my partner rich. On the other hand, we sold our first units in 2014 and are in continuous production today. It's a weird side business to have, but we've figured out a way to make it fit into our careers/lives.

In other words, I'm continuously surprised that The Public Radio continues to be a _thing_ and am always slightly shocked when I see one in the wild. And it's nice to have something like that.

For those confused as I was, you can switch the current station but it's not convenient or meant to be done often. You can basically disassemble the radio and press a button to cycle through available FM stations and leave it on the one you want.

Why this button isn't just available on the lid is beyond me. While I do appreciate simplicity I really don't understand the value of a single station radio either.

> https://www.thepublicrad.io/faq

Hey! Co-inventor of the product (and author of the link) here.

The reason that the button isn't on the lid is because that makes the lid uglier and, more importantly, undermines the philosophy behind the UI - which is to keep the device as absolutely simple as possible. The idea came from my partner (Zach Dunham) and was inspired partly by Radiolab's 2008 episode, "Choice" - it's a bit of a deep cut but I recommend listening to it and thinking a little bit about how choice functions in the FM radio world (which is, obviously, competing with Spotify & podcasts) today.

Also note that we developed the product in ~2013, when everyone in the hardware scene in NYC was all into IoT and making everything bluetooth. I think there was part of us that believed that IoT (and connecting everything to the internet) was misguided and that having a long term relationship with a local news/radio source (which for me is Hot 97, but for most of our customers is their local NPR affiliate) is actually really cool/powerful/valuable.

Lastly, you should note that a lot of our business now comes from selling The Public Radio to radio stations (again, mostly NPR affiliates) to give out as fund drive gifts. For obvious reasons, having a single-channel radio is attractive to both the station managers and their donating listeners.

> Lastly, you should note that a lot of our business now comes from selling The Public Radio to radio stations (again, mostly NPR affiliates) to give out as fund drive gifts.

Here in NYC, we have two NPR-affiliated public radio stations that often play different content, WNYC AM and WNYC FM, and their parent organization also runs WQXR (a classical music station) and NJ public radio. So even if you only listen to public radio (like I do), an untunable FM-only radio wouldn't be enough. ("Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.")

My ideal "simple" radio would be one that worked like my car radio: you can preset any number of AM/FM stations and then select them with forward/backward buttons. (And once you have a display that can indicate the station, it would be sad if it couldn't also be an alarm clock.)

Here in NYC

There are hundreds of other markets in the United States than New York City (and tens of thousands worldwide), and the vast majority of them have just one public radio station.

This isn't a "public radio tuner." It's a single station tuner.

So for one, WNYC is actually one of our biggest customers to date. You'll hear our radios being plugged on Brian Lehrer (among others) periodically if you listen closely. Again, our philosophy is that customers are deciding on the station (not parent organization - the actual broadcasting station) they want to listen to every day and staying there.

For two, we definitely tried that early on! And we've had a lot of conversations about replacing the potentiomenter (which controls power and volume) with a rotary encoder (which, if you added a push button to it, could be used to control a lot of other interactions with the radio, including seek/scan, etc). The issue is that doing so would easily raise our cost by $5, which means we need to raise our retail pricing by $15 or $20, which ends up being crazy.

I've said this elsewhere in this thread, but The Public Radio totally isn't for everyone! But a surprising number of people like it just the way it is, and we've worked hard to build a business to support their needs as efficiently as possible.

The solution is obvious! Buy three The Public Radios! Isn't it genius? :D

> undermines the philosophy behind the UI - which is to keep the device as absolutely simple as possible.

But you're not keeping it simple, you're just pretending the complexity doesn't exist. The task still needs to be performed, and you've made it far more difficult.

Your argument certainly has validity, but the bottom line is that our customers don't interact with the choice of what to listen to (which is kind of the core idea of the product) on a day to day basis.

And, whatever philosophy we bring to the table is really neither here nor there. Our customers (apparently) like our product enough to buy it, and we have really low return rates, and the customer support emails (which I literally respond to 100% of) are almost exclusively positive and outright friendly. But that doesn't mean you have to like the product! And anyway the point of the blog post was to explain how our business works operationally - not to promote (or defend) the product itself.

An iPhone has approximately the same level of technical complexity as a Saturn V rocket. One can be used by a toddler; the other needed the entire might of the military-industrial complex to successfully operate.

Apparent complexity matters just as much as real complexity.

I <3 this.

Reminds me of the Muji CD player which has just on/off, eject. No skip tracks / rewind

Oh that's awesome - I wasn't aware of that at all!

If it had a button on the lid, it would just be another FM radio - not really a market that a small hardware company want to be in. The statement this radio makes by being untunable is literally the only reason anyone buys it.

Exactly - we never wanted to compete with the rest of the home audio industry!

But it is tunable which breaks the whole 'statement' for me.

That's fair, but if I were to guess I'd say only 5% of our customers are even aware that the radio is re-tunable. It's not a secret by any means, but we don't really promote it and even if you did once know about it you could easily forget that it's an option at all.

I really like this. The fact that it's re-tunable makes this reusable for people who would otherwise have to buy a replacement and throw this one away.

We recently moved house and had to return our radio, even just to stay on the same station (they broadcast on slightly different local frequencies across the country to overcome local noise).

I'm seriously considering buying one of these but wouldn't be if it wasn't reprogrammable; I'm not into throw-away electronics because of the environmental impact.

But it is tunable which breaks the whole 'statement' for me.

It's more "hackable" than "tunable."

If it was a "tunable radio," then the tuning mechanism would be exposed to the user.

I think it would be a good promotional gift for public radio pledge drives.

This is an interesting post from the perspective of logistics operations for a small scale consumer electronics product.

I'm fascinated by the idea that one of the features they chose to cut from their initial release - arbitrary tuning - has ended up significantly constraining how they can manufacture their product at their scale.

I'm guessing that there's a deeper philosophical reason for not building an end-user tunable radio that isn't simply "it's a feature we decided to cut so we could ship on time"

I'm an avid radio listener, literally every room in my house with a power outlet has one or more tabletop radios in it. Why would I want a radio that only tunes to one channel?

I tend to use vintage (80's era) clock radios at home for my tabletop radios, because of their decent pricing.

Maybe you're not the target market. I only listen to radio in the car, so I'm not that market either.

That said, it's a brilliant idea and I can see the appeal to many who do listen to one public station all day.

I mean I do only listen to one station all day, I virtually never change the station, but I like the ability to do so.

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