For some in South Jersey, RCA is still dear

Frederick O. Barnum III, author of a book about RCA in Camden, at the Camden County Historical Society. Barnum has become the keeper of RCA memorabilia. KEVIN RIORDAN / Staff
Frederick O. Barnum III, author of a book about RCA in Camden, at the Camden County Historical Society. Barnum has become the keeper of RCA memorabilia. KEVIN RIORDAN / Staff
Posted: May 09, 2012

If RCA was the Apple of its day, one could say Camden was the Cupertino.

But unlike the firm and the California suburb Steve Jobs made famous, the company that made records, radios and TVs in Camden long ago ceased to be a player in the consumer electronics revolution it helped start.

For people like author Frederick O. Barnum III and his audience at the Camden County Historical Society, however, RCA-Camden’s star will never dim.

“It’s part of who we are as South Jerseyans,” society board president Sandy Levins told about 20 people Sunday at the museum on Park Boulevard. “We all took our RCA transistor radios down the Shore. We grew up under the watchful eye of Nipper.”

The trademark terrier — once as familiar as, say, that little bitten apple logo on your iPod — now cocks an ear to hear “His Master’s Voice” atop an RCA building that became an apartment complex a decade ago.

Only two other structures from what had been a 20-building RCA-Camden complex along the Delaware River still stand. But the mighty technological engine that once employed 20,000 people roared back to life in Barnum’s PowerPoint.

“The history of RCA is in large part the history of communications and electronics,” said the Cherry Hill resident, 54, who wrote His Master’s Voice in America in 1991.

Since then, Barnum, a business development manager at the successor company to RCA in Camden, L3 Communications System-East, has become the unofficial curator of RCA memories and memorabilia. But he remains more of a conduit than a collector, even as his book has become a collector’s item

Published by General Electric, which bought RCA in 1985, the handsome volume had a 5,000-copy press run. It is out of print, and a “mint condition” copy that sold for $38 in 1991 recently was offered online for $2,200.

Producing a second edition “would not be possible” for technical and other reasons, Barnum said.

“I always think about publishing a new version of the story,” he added. “Due to my full-time job, I really don’t have time to do that. But I would consider it in the future.”

Several people at the presentation asked the author to autograph their copies, including Michael Muderick, a broadcast history buff from from Havertown.

“I have a Victrola at home,” he said, referring to the gramophone mass-produced in Camden by the Victor Talking Machine Co., which RCA bought in 1929.

An impressive array of other products for consumers, the military and NASA also were made at the Camden complex. Among them: the backpack communications system that relayed Neil Armstrong’s “one small step” to Earth from the moon in 1969, as well as the 300-foot antenna that stood atop the World Trade Center on 9/11.

The creative ferment among engineers and executives that produced these and other innovations was supported by generations of production and clerical workers. Several descendants of the family-like workforce were on hand for Barnum’s talk.

Kathy May, from Haddon Heights, was there to share memories of her dad, A.J. May, an acoustical engineer whose specialties included microphones and speakers.

John Powell, a Runnemede resident whose mother was an office worker, said she often she spoke about what a thrill it had been meeting RCA recording artist Lena Horne.

And via e-mail after attending the talk, Courtney Malcarney, 74, a physician from Haddonfield, talked about growing up with RCA.

“My father was hired as a supervisor,” Malcarney said. “My mother worked on the assembly line (and) they were married in 1937.”

His mother remained loyal to the company even after she stopped working there. His father’s loyalty was rewarded; eventually, although he did not have a college degree, RCA made him an executive.

So deeply was the company embedded in the life of South Jersey that patients in Malcarney’s office often asked, years later, “whether I was related to Art Malcarney,” the physician recalled.

This kind of connection between company and community has been “lost,” he noted.

And not only in Camden.

Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the metro columnists’ blog, “Blinq,” at www.phillynews.com/blinq.

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