Retro Tech Spotlight: Mr. Microphone

As a monthly feature of this blog, Audiogon looks at some of the technological marvels of the past that may have preceded your birth, escaped your memory, or come and gone without ever having made an impression. This month, we take a look at Ronco’s Mr. Microphone.

This feature is called Retro Tech, not Retro Audiophile Equipment, so forgive us if occasionally we travel a bit off the hi-fi path and amuse ourselves (and you, hopefully) with a look back at some childhood curiosities. THIS would certainly be one, as anyone over the age of 45 will attest. 

Mr. Microphone was a handheld, battery-operated wireless microphone for broadcasting over FM radio that was first sold in the late 1970s by Ronco, a Chicago-based company that endlessly hawked its assorted devices on television with ubiquitous ads that would become part of that generation’s pop culture.

The inescapable TV commercial for Ronco’s Mr. Microphone that clogged the airwaves in the late ’70s.

Mr. Microphone wasn’t even the first commercially marketed product of its type; it was just the best marketed and most popular. Essentially a short-range transmitter, all you had to do was tune a nearby radio to a particular frequency (typically at the far left end of the dial), turn on the microphone, and you were off to the races. 

Ronco was the brainchild of one Ron Popeil, who would also introduce an unsuspecting public to such “innovations” as the Veg-O-Matic, the Pocket Fisherman and the Inside-The-Shell Egg Scrambler. Popeil, his commercials, his catchphrases (“But wait, there’s more!”) and his company would be satirized by comedians for decades, including Saturday Night Live (the first-season sketch “Super Bass-O-Matic ‘76”) and Weird Al Yankovic (his original 1984 song “Mr. Popeil”).

“Yes, it’s just that simple!” — Dan Ackroyd in the classic SNL sketch “Super Bass-O-Matic ’76”

Popeil sold Ronco in 2005, but he’s still around and still selling stuff on TV. A younger generation knows him as the ever-smiling “Set It and Forget It” guy pushing Showtime Rotisserie Grills on late-night infomercials.

Unlike the Showtime Rotisserie Grill, however, Mr. Microphone wasn’t sold through television orders. Many Ronco products actually had wide distribution in popular department stores of the day, including K-Mart, Woolworth, Walgreens and the like, in packaging emblazoned with the slogan “As Seen On TV.”

“Just set it and forget it!” — Popeil today, with a Showtime Rotisserie Grill

And sell them Ronco did. The original Mr. Microphone was still being sold into the early 1990s. Even today, the Mr. Microphone trade name lives on, attached to a brand of Bluetooth mics for karaoke use. But it was in those early days, in the late ‘70s, in the twilight hour of polyester suits and man perms and disco and hot tubs and cokenails and harassing young women on the sidewalk from the back of a convertible without consequences, that Mr. Microphone had its heyday. 

And on quiet nights, if you turn your radio to the left of the FM dial and listen realllllly closely, you can sometimes still hear its spirit, calling to you ever so faintly …