Hunger for news from the war in the Mideast has boosted sales in portable televisions, shortwave radios and cable TV subscriptions, judging from an informal survey of merchants yesterday. Some news junkies are going for two-inch televisions that run on batteries, and others for radios that pick up the audio portion of television broadcasts. The truly tuned in (outside of ham radio operators) are buying shortwave radios that bring the news directly from government-approved Radio Baghdad or filtered through the ideological prism of Radio Cuba, which offers a female newscaster with a crisp Irish brogue.
"Shortwaves are all but sold out," said Ed Juge, director of market planning for Radio Shack's 7,000 stores nationwide. "People were buying them not just for themselves but to send to relatives stationed in the Middle East."
Although Juge said sales figures did not yet show any increase in the numbers of portable televisions being bought, local salespeople at Radio Shack, Luskin's, Hecht's, Sears and Montgomery Ward said they were virtually sold out of them.
"They're selling like crazy," said Tom Chandler, a salesman at Montgomery Ward in Springfield. "People are buying them to take to work." He said the most popular model has been the $119 Casio, with a screen less than two inches square, leaving only the $329.99 Sony 2.7-inch TV in stock.
Cable TV companies in the Washington area are reporting substantial increases in requests for service, ranging from a 25 percent rise in Fairfax County to about 15 percent in Montgomery County. Figures for Prince George's County were not available.
"I've never seen a single event that created interest similar to this," said Thomas E. Waldrop, chairman of Media General in Fairfax. The company, which has about 185,000 subscribers, is doing 1,250 installations a week compared with the usual 1,000.
Tom Beach, general manager of Howard County Cable Television, said that compared with a normal week at this time of the year, his company has seen a 20 percent increase in subscriptions over the past six days. He couldn't pinpoint the influence of the war and CNN's coverage of it, but said, "I'm sure CNN has had a big impact."
District Cablevision's Ronald H. Hopkins said his company has also seen a 20 percent increase in subscriber requests but declined to give precise figures. He too attributed the rise largely to viewers' desire for CNN.
John Eddy, president of CableTV Montgomery, said that company had received 1,700 calls in the past six days, a 15 percent leap. He said the majority of that rise is directly related to customers wanting CNN or C-SPAN. Eddy said that many of those calls have come from government offices and defense contractors in the county who want to keep close tabs on the Persian Gulf conflict. But not everyone wants cable for more war coverage. "One guy called and said, 'There's too much news on. I've got to have more entertainment,' " Eddy said.
Cable companies in Alexandria and Reston also report an increase in sales, but a spokesman for Jones Intercable, which serves Alexandria, wasn't sure whether the rise was because of the war or a discount on the usual $39.95 hookup fee.
Bars and restaurants that feature large-screen televisions -- usually used for sports events -- have had them almost continually tuned in to war news. "Last night was the first night someone asked to see the basketball game since the war started," said Libby Bennett, manager of Joe Theismann's at Baileys Crossroads.
"So we had the TV at the bar tuned to that and the others had the news."
Charley's Place in McLean struck a similar compromise. Last Saturday a customer noticed one bar set had a basketball game with the sound off, the other had CNN with the sound on. "Most of the time they're tuned to CNN," said general manager Phil Wenino.
The shortwave aficionados are perhaps the most dedicated, constantly fiddling with the dials as the signals recede and resurge, enduring the weird whines, crackles and static that sound as though they're coming from another planet, and sifting through the maze of foreign languages for the English broadcasts beamed for our attention. But the rewards can be great for the persevering.
"I heard Radio Israel the other morning," said Radio Shack's Juge. "Then I got Radio Japan and then switched to Radio Canada, which had an expert on chemical warfare talking about what Iraq has. Sometimes you have to hang a wire out the window, but you can pick up signals from all over the world."
Juge attributed the recent sales to interest in the Persian Gulf War, but suspects enthusiasm will wane once it's over. "It'll be like CB radios during the gas crisis. Some people will stay with them, but others will forget about them," he said.
Staff writer Stephen Buckley contributed to this story.