Watch CBS News

Flashback 1981: When headphones were just a "fad"

It seemed to have happened overnight: Americans wearing headphones in droves
1981 Flashback: America falls in love with headphones 03:17

You'd be hard pressed today to look anywhere without seeing someone wearing headphones. We've all seemingly accepted that the world will be tuned out in favor for whatever is traveling up those cords.

But in 1981 widespread use of headphones was new enough to warrant a report by the "CBS Evening News." Thankfully, former CBS News correspondent Bernard Goldberg knew just how to explain the transformation taking place.

"From the noisy streets of New York to the laid back tranquility of California, Americans are tuning out and tuning in," reported Goldberg. "It's the latest fad, tiny stereo cassette players with featherweight headphones."

CBS News correspondent Bernard Goldberg talks to a man about his headphones, 1981 CBS News

The model most seen in the story appears to be Sony's TPS-L2 -- the first model of the first-generation Walkman personal stereos. Sony says that critics inside and outside the company thought that "without a recording function, it won't sell," but the device proved to be a huge success.

So huge, in fact, Americans couldn't get enough of it.

Sony's TPS-L2 SONY

"You know listening to Beethoven, walking in Manhattan, walking in the streets, it's pretty nice as opposed to hearing sirens going by and jackhammers," said one man. "It just puts you in your own world by yourself."

"It's like carrying your stereo with you, you know, on your head and it's light," said another man.

How deep one's pockets were seemed to have no bearing on who purchased headphones. At $150 apiece, about 750,000 were using them on the go, according to Goldberg's 1981 report. For perspective, consider that every iPhone comes with a pair of headphones; Apple sold 10 million new iPhones in the first three days of sale in September 2014.

"Everybody is buying the machines, anyone from wealthy executive who likes to spend his weekends out on a sailboat listening to Beethoven, to the street kid listening to new wave music down in the subways," said audio salesman Douglas Corley.

"Is it the Me Generation gone wild?" wondered Goldberg. "The height of anti-social behavior? Electronic snobbery?

One fan of headphones in Atlanta reasoned: "The rest of the world tunes out to me sometimes, so I may as well do it to them."

A woman rollerblades with her cassette player in Central Park, 1981 CBS News

The sudden love affair with the headphones may make you wonder how people coped with noisy commutes before the devices became readily available. As it turns out, the people of the 80s didn't mind heaving to lift a big boom box to hear their tunes.

"Some still prefer last year's model, the radio that's about as big the Empire State Building and as loud as World War II," Goldberg joked.

A man holds a large boom box in New York City, 1981 CBS News

It didn't take long before Goldberg found a young man blasting music on a boom box in New York, providing the perfect opportunity to ask him what he thought about people who used headphones.

"I don't know," said the man. "It's different strokes for different folks."

Different strokes indeed, in the midst of this serenade, developed one of those mellow happenings that exemplify the sophistication for which New York is so admired.

A man, left, confronts a boom box listener, right, about being annoyed by the noise CBS News

"You're bothering me!" shouted an elderly man to the boom box holder. "Bothers the hell out of me! I think you're invading my life space with that damn thing! You are really. Not only mine but everybody else around here."

As Goldberg put it: "It's nice to know that music can bring serenity to people, that music hath charms to soothe the savage breast, it's really quite confirming."

Goldberg is a correspondent for HBO's "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel" and a commentator for Fox News.

And that's the way it was on Friday, May 22, 1981.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.