Low End Theory: The Gift That Keeps on Irking


By Brendan I. Koerner

Of all the lame Christmas gifts I've received over the years, two stand out in my memory as particularly egregious. The first was a Manhattan Transfer album, the awfulness of which requires no further description from these quarters. The second? A shower radio that assuredly cost its giver less than a tenner. I know, I know, it's the thought that counts. But when poor reception limits your showertime musical entertainment to a station that specializes in airing the devilish wailings of sackless lite-rock crooners, my holiday spirit flushes away like so much corn-flecked dung.

Not that I'm philosophically opposed to the concept of shower radios, and I realize that there are some groovy options out there. But let's face reality here: sub-$10 shower radios of dubious quality are too often the gearhead's equivalent of a lump o' coal—yes, even if they're shaped like Shrek. After the jump, a brief history of this water-resistant gadget's transformation into the fruitcake of geekdom. PLUS: Spammers aren't nearly as smart as you think.

Let's start by rewinding to a glorious year: 1984, when the Olympics came to my hometown and Ghostbusters rightfully reigned supreme at the box office. It's also the year when, to the best of my knowledge, executoy catalogue Hammacher Schlemmer first offered the WetTunes, the granddaddy of semi-affordable shower radios. Powered by a 9-volt battery, the WetTunes was pretty revolutionary at the time—we'd all grown up learning that radio plus bathtub equals death, so the product gave me a newfound sense of faith in technology's ability to solve all of humanity's pressing problems. Alas, priced at $30 (c. $58 in today's dollars), the WetTunes was too expensive for my dad; I think he got me some knock-off Gobots instead.

Shower radios stayed high-end for a few years then, with Sony (of course) entering the fray with a technologically superior, ridiculously overpriced model: the ICF-S77W (c. $89 in today's dollars). But then you saw the boom in home-shopping channels, the perfect medium through which to sell shower radios. See, here's what I've figured out about the likes of HSN and QVC when it comes to electronics: they don't care a jot about specs, what they need is a superficial "wow" factor. And waterproofing is a cheap, easily understandable wow. Heck, here's a little free advice, guys—waterproof a 13-inch TV by encasing it in plastic, and advertise it as "the first TV you can watch in the tub!" You'll sell out within minutes.

All of a sudden, you had shower radios crashing below the $20 barrier, then the $10 barrier. The fact of the matter is that waterproofing—or, more accurately, water resistance—is pretty straightforward: have your Guangdong factory make a mold for the case, then crank those puppies out en masse. (There may be an FCC approval step here that I'm missing, but I don't have much faith in that particular agency's regulatory zeal nowadays, for better or for worse.)

The problem with gadgets that sell on gimmicks, of course, is that they have no incentive to, y'know, make the blasted thing work as advertised. The GearToGo's and Sentrya's of the world know that these sub-$10 units are purchased by-and-large for novelty purposes, or as gifts. They depend on the receiver of said gifts to be so amazed by the fact that he can actually listen to the radio in the shower without being electrocuted, he won't really mind when his audio choices are limited to a half-dozen Clear Channel atrocities.

Low End Theory: The Gift That Keeps on Irking

Thing is, this is 2006, and such wowable consumers are a dying breed. In an age in which even Jessica Simpson namechecks HDTV video modes in commercials, shower radios float relatively few boats. So how about all us skinflint gearheads make a vow this year, in order to end the madness once and for all: if we are given a shower radio, we will kindly tell the giver that, while the thought appreciated, such craptacular electronics no longer have a place in our society.

Then, for dramatic effect, the radio in question should be thrown upon the ground and stomped into smithereens, in plain view of the giver who thought he/she was being oh-so-clever by spending $5.03 on such a gee-whiz gadget. Sounds heartless, I realize, but desperate times call for desperate measures. Who's with me?

BEHIND THE TIMES: Spammers are known for baiting potential dupes with absurdly good deals—mortgage rates of 2.15 percent and the like. So what to make of a recent spam I got from "USB Stick Factory", advertising a 1-gig Flash memory drive for $12.99? That's a decent price, for sure, but come on—I can easily get an identically sized drive from xPCGear.com (and lots of other legitimate joints) for just seven bucks more. Us low-enders are concerned about price, sure, but a $7 price differential isn't worth the gamble.

So, note to Douglas Ching, who identifies himself in this spam as "marketing manager, Starline International Group": you gotta keep up with the times and slash those tease prices, my friend. No one's gonna gamble on your goods unless they can save at least 75 percent by rolling the spam dice.

NEXT WEEK: Last-minute gift guide for that not-so-special someone in your life.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for both The New York Times and Slate. His Low End Theory column appears every Thursday on Gizmodo.

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