A History of Radio Program
by Professor Marvin R. Bensman, J.D., Ph.D.
University of Memphis
Department of Communication
In the 20th century it has been broadcasting that has most immediately documented our social and cultural history. Few researchers and scholars have made use of broadcast primary resources due to the lack of information on how to locate and the difficulty of obtaining broadcast material.
Radio program collecting starts with the ability to preserve sound. In 1877, Thomas Alva Edison invented the first Phonograph. It worked with a revolving cylinder, but did not produce very good sound. Edison obtains a patent in 1878.
In 1886, Emile Berliner applies for a patent on the first flat phonograph disc.
That year Heinrich Hertz also demonstrates the existence of electro-magnetic radio waves. He links a spark gap, fed from a high voltage generator, to a sort of antenna. Similar antennas, at a distance, pick up something. Nobody knows quite what for some years to come.
The tape recorder is theorized in 1888 by Oberlin Smith as a piece of string dipped in glue and coated with iron filings. In 1893, Valdemar Poulsen, a Danish engineer, used wire to store magnetic impulses that could reproduce sound. In 1921, magnetic tape was first proposed. But it required further electronic development such as the 1924 Western Electric Corporation patent permitting electrical sound recording. In the same year, the loudspeaker supplanted the use of headphones.
In 1927, Thomas Edison had experimented with a long-playing record and achieved 20 minutes per side on a twelve-inch disc, running at 80 revolutions per minute. Edison did not see a use for this improvement and left the recording industry soon thereafter.
Commercial 78's with radio program matter were available to the public from 1928 on, the first being "Amos `n' Andy" recording their WGN routines for use by over thirty radio stations when they were still known as "Sam ‘n‘ Henry." The five minute playing time and noise level kept such recordings from being widely used by broadcast stations.
Western Electric developed the 16-inch, 33-1/3 rpm disk before they were used in radio. These disks were first used as the sound tracks for early 'talkies.' Sound On Film optical tracks did not follow until later
The ETs in the 20s, 30s, and 40s, right on up to the day they quit making them, used standard groove needles. What was standard was subject to some degree of variability. Most professional playback equipment of that era used a 2.7 mil stylus with a 90 degree included angle. However, 2.4 mil styli were used and some material was recorded with a 70 degree included angle. This was an attempt to improve the high frequency response of the slow turning ETs. Both Vertical and Lateral recording was employed, with the W.E. camp tending to favor the former and RCA preferring the latter. The advantage of vertical recording was that it eliminated tracking error as a source of distortion. Most of the broadcast turntables used through about 1950 for standard groove playback employed straight tone arms with no offset, so tracking error was a problem. The arms on both RCA and W.E. turntables were quite long, running about 24 inches, in an attempt to minimize the angular errors. There was also some attempt to design the stylus assembly so that it had a sloppy lateral support characteristic, making the tracking angle less critical. Equalizer curves varied all over and many stations did not bother to match the playback curve with what was recorded. Direct cut acetate records were often cut with a bass turnover, but flat highs. This was done to save head room on both the amplifier and the record, and the disk could consequently be modulated harder with less danger of overcutting the grooves or overdriving the usually modest cutter amplifiers used at the time. This did result in somewhat higher surface noise, but the practice was justified by the fact it overall 'sounded better.' People in that era were used to surface noise and didn't notice it the way people brought up on CDs do.
It is this practice of using little or no high frequency equalization that results in the muffled and bassy playbacks of much of the old material that you hear today. People unfamiliar with the medium use 90 degree 3 mil needles and, worst case, RIAA equalization to play back a disk that was recorded with little or no equalization using a 2.7 or 2.4 mil 70 degree stylus.
RCA Victor introduced the "transcription" running at 33 1/3 rpm on a ten-inch disc. The standard Electrical Transcription running 15 minutes per side at 33 1/3 rpm on a 16-inch disc shortly afterward in 1932, and it became a broadcast standard. The sound quality, even on those pressed for syndication, was quite high compared to the standard home 78 rpm record. Program length acetates were mostly reference copies, or delay copies meant to be played only once or twice, so wear was not a big factor. Short form material such as commercials, were cut several times on the same disk, and each cut was only played about ten times, then x-ed off and the next cut used. There was a type of ET that was aluminum based, with a black vinyl coating. During World War II, when metal was scarce, many of these ET's were scrapped for their metal content. Wartime ET's were of a glass base and were extremely fragile. The networks destroyed many of these records as they moved operations and reduced their storage costs. However, many affiliated stations, primarily on the West Coast which had to record network programs because of the time zone difference, kept their recordings. Radio engineers who had taken the ET discs home were also sources for older programs dating as far back as the 1930's.
In 1930, Germany's I.G. Farben industrial company created the first magnetic tape. When I.G. Farben was broken up after WW II for producing the gas used in the concentration camps, BASF - one of its pieces - continued to manufacture magnetic tape.
Major recording innovations were introduced in the second half of the 1940's. In 1943, both Optical Film and Wire Recorders were used to document the allied invasion of Europe at the Normandy beaches. When the war ended some people acquired home disc recorders. A small group of programs available today from the thirties and early forties were originally recorded on these recorders using 7" discs which ran for 5 minutes a side. The wire recorder was also introduced for home use in the forties. During the war years, the Armed Forces Radio Service preserved a great many programs for rebroadcast to troops overseas. The AFRS disc has a brightness and lack of distortion that is hard to find even among network disc copies.
Major recording innovations were introduced in the beginning of the 1940's. In 1943, home tape machines such as the Brush Soundmirror using Scotch 100 paper tape supplied by the 3M Company were beginning to appear in the consumer market, but fell far short of professional requirements.
In 1945, Armed Forces (US) Col. John T. Mullin was part of a Signal Corps team investigating the military applications of German electronic technology. He was told by a British officer about a tape-recorder at a Frankfort, Germany radio station being operated by the Armed Forces Radio Service that had exceptional musical quality. There Mullin found German technicians working for AFRS using Magnetophone audio tape recorder/players. The technological improvements of a constant speed transport, plastic tape impregnated or coated with iron oxide and the employment of a very high frequency mixed with the audio signal to provide "bias" made these machines hi-fidelity.
The first two machines acquired were turned over to the Signal Corps and Col. Mullin disassembled two other machines and shipped them to his home in San Francisco. In 1946, Mullin rewired and reassembled the Magnetophone machines and went into a partnership with Bill Palmer for movie sound-track work, using those machines and the 50 reels of tape he had acquired.
In October of 1946, Mullin and his partner Palmer attended the annual convention of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers. He demonstrated the machine to the sound heads of MGM, 20th Century Fox and the chief engineer of Altec Lansing. Mr. Mullin was then invited to an Institute of Radio Engineers meeting in May of 1947 to demonstrate the German Magnetophone. It was there employees of Ampex saw and heard the tape recorder. Shortly thereafter Ampex began its own developmental project.
In 1947, the technical staff of the Bing Crosby Show on ABC arranged to have Mullin re-record original disk recordings of the Bing Crosby Show on ABC onto tape and then edit them. Crosby had been with NBC until 1944, doing the Kraft Music Hall live but did not like the regimen imposed by live shows. Since NBC would not permit recorded programs Crosby took a year off and returned on the newly formed ABC network when his new sponsor, Philco, and ABC agreed to let him record on electrical transcriptions as long as his ratings did not fall below a certain mark. That process required cutting a record and re-recording (sometimes two or three generations) and quality of sound suffered. In July of 1947, after the initial demonstration of editing, John Mullin was invited to give a demonstration of his equipment for Bing Crosby's producers by taping live side-by-side with transcription equipment the first show for the 1947-48 season in August at the ABC-NBC studios in Hollywood.
Bing Crosby Enterprises then negotiated financing for Ampex for exclusive distribution rights and Mullin was employed to record the Crosby show on his original German equipment until the Ampex machines would become available. With the original German tape-recorder's and 50 rolls of BASF tape, Mullin's first recorded demonstration show of August 1947 was broadcast over ABC on October 1, 1947.
In April of 1948, Alexander Poniatov and his team of engineers at Ampex in Redwood City, CA, introduced the first commercial audio tape recorder based on the Magnetaphone as Ampex Model 200. The first two, serial numbers 1 and 2 were initially presented to John Mullin and numbers 3-12 went into service at ABC. To meet the contract requirements Mullin gave his machines to ABC and later received Nos. 13-14 for his contribution. Mullin joined Bing Crosby Enterprises in 1948 and recorded his shows and others at ABC until 1951. Bing Crosby Enterprises, as the exclusive distributor for Ampex products, sold hundreds of recorders to radio stations and master recording studios.
In 1951, Mullin and other engineers were spun off as the Bing Crosby Electronic Division to handle development of audio instrumentation and video recording. In 1956, the Electronic Division became the Minicom Division of 3M where Mullin served as head of engineering and Professional Recorder Development Manager until his retirement. He passed away July 1999.
Broadcast programming has been preserved by both institutions and interested individuals. Funding to support institutional archives is as variable as the institutions preserving the available material. The Library of Congress began to collect and preserve some programming in 1949 in its role as the U.S. copyright depository. The National Archives also collected and preserved programming from governmental sources and increasingly received donated event and news materials from stations and networks. Funding difficulties led the UCLA Film and Television Archive to discontinue the development of its radio archive which consists of 50,000 transcription discs and 10,000 tapes of radio from 1933 to 1983, to concentrate on film.
Serious recording and collecting of radio programs by individuals on home tape recording equipment began around 1950, after some twenty companies introduced an effective reasonably priced reel-to-reel recorder to the consumer market. This material, along with Armed Forces Radio Service discs which were produced to bring radio programs to our troops during WWII, and a few network and syndicated transcription discs, comprised the starting base of material which began to be privately traded in the sixties.
In the sixties, when radio as it had been was almost gone, small groups began to form to exchange material, information and sources on both the East and West coasts. More material became available as people gained access to radio station electrical transcriptions as those stations began disposing their stored material and programs from other sources were discovered.
In 1954, the re-broadcast market was started by Charles Michelson who obtained an umbrella agreement to license The Shadow to individual radio stations, LP recordings and home-enjoyment tapes. The first aggressively-marketed private seller of radio programs was J. David Goldin, a former engineer at CBS, NBC, and Mutual, who formed "Radio Yesteryear" and an album subsidiary, "Radiola" in the late 1960's.
Newsletters on radio program collecting began to circulate in the late 1960's. The most influential to set the standard was "Radio Dial" by the Radio Historical Society of America founded by Charles Ingersoll. Carrying on the tradition, the leading newsletter today is "Hello Again" by Jay Hickerson which began publication in 1970 and tied together over 100 of the most active collectors. Today, approximately 160 plus active collectors comprise the mass of privately collected broadcast material available.
Despite the interest of individual private collectors and the growth of institutional archives the preservation of radio programming faces a crisis due to a combination of problems and the lack of public policy.
The most basic problem is the increasing rate of disposal and destruction of material. The way programs have been recorded-electrical transcription to tape formats-pose problems for preservationists. As transcription turntables disappear and reel tape recorders are replaced with cassette recorders, the means for playing the available material are being lost or exist only in museums. The need to transfer the older formats into new forms is a time and cost problem. Magnetic audio tape deteriorates over time as it is exposed to heat, humidity and atmospheric pollution and is more subject to catastrophic loss of information than is print.
The policy problems are the conflict between competing interests and the lack of a national strategy among competing organizations.
As a nostalgia market for old radio programming has developed copyright owners became more interested in protecting their copyrights. Because the copyright law is not clear, owners, if they even allow archiving, impose strong restrictions on institutional and private use of their material. Also, ownership of many programs is very complex and depends upon contracts with directors, writers, performers and rights holders of music and other materials used in the broadcasts. Private collectors who charge for duplication or sell programs are more susceptible to copyright problems than are institutions. Under certain conditions specified in the copyright law, libraries and other archives are authorized to do reproduction for research and teaching.
Cataloging is haphazard and results in a basic lack of information as to what is available to be preserved, what has been preserved, in what condition and in what formats. Without a national policy and a national advocacy organization there is no way to tell potential funders how to begin to address the problem of preservation. Much material is "out there" and hopefully will continue to be preserved.
Angus, Robert, "History of Magnetic Recording," Audio , Volume 68, issues #8 (Part 1) and 9 (Part 2), August/September 1984
Mullin, John T., "Creating the Craft of Tape Recording," High Fidelity, Volume 26, issue #4. April 1976
Webster, E.M., "The Interdepartmental Radio Advisory Committee," Proceedings of the I.R.E. Volume 33, issue #8, August 1945. [IRE is Institute of Radio Engineers, now IEEE.
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