The End of Days for the Walkman?

    As this article at Slate notes, the big surprise here is that Sony was still even making cassette-playing Walkmans. Until this year, that is. After selling 220 million of the players since introducing the Walkman in 1979, Sony stopped production in Japan in April. When they’re sold out in Japan, they’ll be gone.

(Sort of. Slate links to a Washington Post article which notes that Sony will continue to make cassette Walkmen in China for various markets around the world. But still, the device is clearly on its way out.)

Enjoyed the social history in the Slate piece. I also remember all the “Bowling Alone”-style handwringing going on the early 1980s. Some pundits were appalled at the social isolation they thought the Walkman represented; Americans were going to turn into disconnected, antisocial drones living in their own little bubbles of music. Teenagers sporting Walkmen were supposedly the worst, tuning out their parents and teachers as they clapped their foam-rubber-clad headphones over their ears, thereby ruining their hearing and any chance of becoming productive citizens.

In real life, of course, people spent most of their time in public settings avoiding eye contact with each other, so the Walkman simply set that music. And for every cranky old person bemoaning those darned disconnected teenagers, there must have been a hundred parents who were perfectly happy to let their teenagers keep their atrocious music to themselves. More Walkman history here.

My first Walkman was a Sanyo knock-off my folks bought for me in, maybe, 1981. What did I listen to? Well, anyone remember 98 Rock’s “Friday Night Six Pack?” Starting at midnight on Friday through the ’80s, KPOI would play six albums, in their entirety, jamming all the commercials into the side breaks. I’d tape the ones I was curious about on an all-in-one record player/receiver/tape deck stereo; one album for each side of a 90-minute cassette tape. (Would that be considered an illegal download now?) The album I mostly clearly remembered enjoying was The Police’s Ghost in the Machine, playing it over and over on the Sanyo.

People taped a lot of favorite songs off the radio that way, making mixes of tunes that all ended with abruptly interrupting radio commercials or DJ patter (didn’t you hate it when they’d talk over the end of the song?)

My best teenage social-isolation memory: In the bus during a science club field trip on the Big Island, listening to Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” on that Sanyo while reading Alan Dean Foster’s novelization of The Thing.

By college, I had one of those bulky, yellow waterproof Sports model of Sony Walkman, listening to whatever part of my vinyl LP collection I had copied onto TDK SA-90 cassettes for the journey to Indiana State University.

Now, of course, it’s the iPod for us, the ultimate Walkman. Apple has sold more than 260 million of them in less than a decade (compare that to 220 million Walkmans in 30 years). Tiny, great sound, no more rewinding and fast forwarding to skip to your favorite song.

My iPod also has 11,000 songs on it, a huge improvement in portability over carrying around a case of cassette tapes. Eleven thousand songs—yet wouldn’t you know, I can never find anything I want to hear.