We Americans love our hobbies. A survey conducted by Statista.com released this year revealed the surprising finding that amongst 18-64 year olds, the most popular hobby was baking. This was followed by reading, pets, and video games (respondents could pick more than 1 hobby). “Radio”, “audio”, and “music” weren’t categories, though “making music” was.

Also not an option was collecting radio station bumper stickers, yet that’s exactly what Phil Bytheway does. By the way, that’s his real legal last name. It’s British and it’s pronounced just as you think. Since I try to focus on radio and vintage music related topics, I thought this subject, which combines both radio and something vintage, would be perfect for this month’s blog article.

Bumper stickers are indeed vintage. You don’t see them as often as you used to, perhaps because newer cars don’t have bumpers, or at least not like how bumpers used to be. According to radiostationpromotions.com, “the bumper sticker as we know it today can be traced back to a screen printer in Kansas City, Mo., named Forrest P. Gill. In the 1940s, he had a surplus of two wartime technologies: adhesive-backed paper and fluorescent paint. He combined the two, and the bumper sticker was born. His new creation significantly improved handmade signs that were easily worn down or fell off cars…Radio Stations began using bumper stickers in the 1950s and 1960s to promote their stations to listeners, often with a contest.”

Bytheway, a retired electrical engineer, has been collecting radio station bumper stickers for nearly 35 years. I emailed him at his home in Washington state to learn more about his hobby, which is as unusual as his last name.

Some bumper stickers recently listed on eBay.

Peter: When did you start collecting radio station bumper stickers? I imagine it’s not a very expensive hobby compared to others.

Phil: “I have been seriously collecting since 1991 when I purchased a collection from a long-time collector. He had some 20 boxes of radio promo items… mostly paper (which has since been recycled).

Check out the prices for stickers on eBay… they can be pretty expensive… but I don’t bid on singles… usually collections, so I increase my collection and my traders.”

Peter: What was the genesis behind this unusual hobby?

Phil: “When I was in Jr High (1968), I got interested in tuning my AM radio for distant stations. I started collecting verifications of the stations I heard, which required me to tabulate program details for around 15 minutes and sent a letter asking for confirmations. Some of the stations would include a sticker with the verification… and I started collecting them. Eventually, I started writing stations asking for stickers. Once the internet became available, I started searching for websites and emailing the stations. Much quicker, and occasionally I send an SASE.”

Peter: How many stickers are in your collection?

Phil: “I have around 50,000 US and Canadian stickers…an unknown number of foreign ones and around 100,000 extras for trade…”

Peter: What’s the most unusual item you have?

Phil: “I have a stuffed Tookie Tookie bird (from George of the Jungle fame) from a station on the east coast.”

Peter: What’s your favorite sticker in your collection?

Phil: “Tough question. Many stickers from Hawaii are the most colorful ones. Favorites I guess would be stickers from stations I’ve heard on the AM band… there are many. Kinda nice to have a visible representation of the stations I’ve heard. Note, not every station will verify reception, nor is it always possible to get enough program information to ask for one!”

Peter: What’s the most distant radio station you have a bumper sticker from?

Phil: “Many from Australia/New Zealand. Also, quite a few from Europe/Asia. I don’t do distance, so not really sure the farthest. Maybe I should add a column [in my spreadsheet] for distance?”

Bytheway with his bumper crop of bumper stickers. The sticker he’s holding is for full service AM station WAIK 1590 out of Galesburg, Ill which went dark in 2019. Photo courtesy of Phil Bytheway.

Peter: What’s the oldest sticker in your collection?

Phil: “I presume many of the stickers are from the 60s or 70s… although not many. Same is true for the air checks… although there are a few from the late 50s.”

Peter: Is there a station you really wanted a bumper sticker from that didn’t cooperate?

Phil: “Can’t think of any. Most stations today do not do stickers… the popularity amongst the “normal” folks has dropped off dramatically. I really don’t see many on cars anymore… and the ones I DO see tend to be older. I think there is a different focus for stickers now. There are many that are smaller than what would work on a car, so I think they are intended for laptops or cell phones… not sure though.”

Peter: What’s your success rate when you ask for items from radio stations?

Phil: “I do exclusively email now… and get around 5-10% response… of those, around 10% say they are going to send something, but don’t (very frustrating). I really wish they would be honest with me. I do keep track of stations that say they are going to send something, and when I get the items in the mail, I always send a thank you. And, I have sent a follow up request from time to time… but the response to those is really small!”

Peter: What do your friends and relatives think of your hobby?

Phil: “[They think] it’s weird… and I have no one in the family to pass my collection on to!! Then again, a lot of folks collect sports cards… and I think that is odd (our son collects them). Sports cards are worth something though… and stickers don’t tend to be worth much, even though folks on eBay tend to think they are worth a lot.”

Peter: You have a little radio experience, right?

Phil: “I did the news at UW’s KCMU (now KEXP) when I was in college during the summer once. That’s my only on-the-air experience although folks seem to think I have a “radio voice”. I volunteered at KING-FM, but only did clerical work. I was hoping to go into radio as my second career, but health issues prevent me from holding down a full-time job now…. I’m not much of an ad lib person, except for an occasional joke… so being a DJ would not work too well.”

Image from Classical King’s Instagram page.

Peter: What are some of your favorite radio stations?

Phil: “I enjoy classical music… and listen to [Seattle’s] KING-FM a lot… also other classical music stations on the internet. No real favorites though… I enjoy the variety radio has. I guess I enjoy listening to older top 40 stations… so I’m starting to collect air checks.” 

Peter: You also have some vintage air check tapes (recordings of DJ patter). Do you have any plans to post them on the net for people to hear?

Phil: “I recently acquired a large collection of reel-to-reel and cassette tapes, CDs and DVDs from a former collector in California who passed away. I am in the process of inventorying them, so I can offer them for trade. Posting on the internet might also be possible if I can figure out how to do it. There are 24 boxes, so it’s going to take a while. So far, I’ve inventoried the CDs and DVDs… but there are a lot of cassettes and reel-to-reel tapes to go. Will also need to figure out how to “convert” them to .mp3 before posting… that’s going to take a while. And I thought I could take it easy when I retired!!!”

Peter: Bytheway…that’s your legal last name. You must take a lot of ribbing.

Phil: “Yes. We’re from the UK, where someone lived on the road… and thus they were ‘by-the-way’. Mostly, folks don’t believe it… and I’ve had to get out my driver’s license a few times! I learned to not get upset when folks kidded me… a bit of armor reinforcement.”

Image from Honeywell.com

Peter: What’s your professional background?

Phil: “I was an Electrical Engineer for 36 years, working for Honeywell, Alliant Techsystems, Hughes, Raytheon and Technologic (a consulting firm). I designed circuit boards and eventually ASICs (Application Specific Integrated Circuits) which were used on the boards I designed. I participated in the design and check out of a series of testers that use software and cables to test various modules. My last job was debugging and repairing circuit boards returned for repair. I did quite a bit of traveling around the US to integrate and debug many of my designs… a few times being sent last minute to help fix a problem.”

Photo from the Washington Athletic’s facebook page.

Peter: Any final thoughts, Phil?

Phil: “I did design the “W” for UW [University of Washington] football helmet while I was a student manager for the UW football team (5 years in college). Guess that fueled my interest in stickers!! Given that I designed a large number of electronics… the “W” is really the only thing that has lasted… electronics are usually obsolete soon after they are on the market!! I am clearly a football nut… having played co-ed flag football for a number of years with the Underdog Sports group. Had to stop doing that when my medical issues prevented it!!”

One of Bytheway’s newsletters.

In addition to growing his bumper sticker collection, Bytheway is also involved with a couple of extensive monthly newsletters that take deep dives into radio stations and tuning distant AM stations.

Image from the JB105 facebook page.

I worked in commercial radio for almost 7 years. I was even a Promotions Director at one point at a classic rock station in New Hampshire. Yet I never amassed a collection of station stickers, T-shirts, or coffee mugs. I worked with a guy at one station who had an extra JB105 bumper sticker. JB105 was a very popular hit music station in Rhode Island when I was a kid. He promised to give me his extra sticker, but he never did. I definitely would’ve put that on my car.

Although I spot plenty of political stickers (which, unfortunately, are mostly offensive), rarely do I see radio station bumper stickers on cars. As Bytheway pointed out, fewer and fewer radio stations offer bumper stickers even though they’d likely receive a lot more exposure than other promotional items and are cheaper than T-shirts. With the cost of new cars today, I think people are more reluctant to permanently stick things on their cars. In any event, it’s nice to know there are still people in the world who appreciate radio station bumper stickers. Keep sticking it to them, Phil.

Trivia (from clashgraphics.com): ”In 1991, a Georgia resident was charged with violating a state law prohibiting automobile owners from attaching “any sticker, decal, emblem, or other device containing profane or lewd words.” In Cunningham v. the State, the owner successfully argued this law was unconstitutional. The court agreed with him, ruling that the law violated the 1st and 14th Amendments. As such, the bumper sticker was now protected by freedom of speech.”

Trivia: January is National Hobby Month.

Trivia: According to a June 2023 Gallup poll, 66% of adults aged 18-34 said their hobbies and recreational activities were “extremely or very important”. That dipped to 61% among 35-54 year olds, and 59% for the 55 and over crowd.

Trivia: This website honors a different radio station bumper sticker every day.

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Do you have unusual music-related hobby or would like to suggest a subject for an article? Let me know about it: stationsguy@gmail.com