Where do Old Radio Shows Come From?

When you drop an audio cassette of “The Fred Allen Show” or “The Lux Radio Theatre” or any old radio show into your “Walkman” or car stereo, have you ever asked yourself where the recording came from? I don’t mean whether you bought the tape from Radio Yesteryear or some other company, or got it from a friend or library. Have you ever considered how a radio broadcast, heard once some fifty or more years ago and sent out into the airwaves, never to return, wound up on your tape deck?

Somebody at the network, or at one of the network’s affiliated stations, or at a recording studio or in somebody’s home, took the trouble to record the program on discs (before the war) or on magnetic tape (after the war). Who made these recordings...and why? Were they made for fun or profit? Were they done well by sound engineers or recorded poorly by amateurs? Please permit us to pause just a moment and trace that great band remote or “The Adventures Of Sam Spade” you’re listening to from the microphone to your tape machine.

Most vintage radio broadcasts were saved on the 16” electrical transcriptions I’ve described elsewhere. They may have been recorded for the performers to hear, for the ad agency and the sponsor, for the network legal department, for rebroadcast, for audition purposes or for many other reasons. But just like that one dinosaur bone that’s dug up after millennia underground while thousands of bones from many other dinosaurs are never seen again, these recordings were among the few that were saved from the past.

Today, radio hobbyists thoughtlessly ask, “how many of a particular broadcast series are in circulation?” Radio shows in circulation? What a dumb idea! My dictionary has eight definitions of “circulation.” Let’s look at just the first two: “movement in a circle or circuit” and “the movement of blood as a result of the heart’s pumping action.” Perhaps what the questioner really means to ask is “how many examples of a given program have been found and how can I hear them?” Usually however, to “circulate” a radio recording means to copy it. Unlike a library, where a book can be “circulated” to many people with no degradation in quality beyond an occasional gravy stain, circulating a radio show often means making a copy of a copy of a copy. Each copy generation increases the recording’s faults until a “circulated” recording has as many errors as does the message in the kid’s game we used to play called “Telephone.” Like our second definition of “circulation” (“the movement of blood”), the further a recording is from its “source recording” (the “heart”) the more waste products the “circulated” recording will have.

If there’s noise, distortion, a limited frequency range, off-pitch music and pieces missing, your enjoyment of the program is bound to suffer. It is for similar reasons that many people visit museums and art galleries to view works of art, while others are satisfied with reproductions in picture books. There is a difference...a big difference.

I would love to claim that all the recordings in my collection originally came from discs, but that wouldn’t be true. It is accurate to say that most of them did. This is a statement that few collectors of radio recordings can make...or would want to. Recording radio programs from discs is a lot more difficult, more time consuming and more needful of arcane skills than merely playing back a tape while hitting the “record” button on a second machine. I’ve described some of the exotic equipment we use to record these discs elsewhere. A good question to ask any potential source of radio recordings is, “do you have transcription disc transfer capability?” If the answer is “no,” look back at the name of this essay and ask, “well then, from where did you get these programs?” Somebody must have made the master tapes.

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, I must admit that there are many broadcasts that I did obtain from tapes that others recorded from discs. It’s at this point that a professional attitude makes another big difference. Every radio program we have, unless otherwise noted, has been listened to, timed, described and evaluated. Several decades ago, an official at the National Archives asked me for a copy of a program from the wartime series “The Man Behind The Gun.” Eager to impress, I made what I thought was a first-rate copy, only to have it criticized because the recording ran almost 32 minutes. It was then I learned about the importance of “timing accuracy.”

You should be aware that every “half hour” network show only ran 29:30 from the first sound to the end of the system cue. “Fifteen minute” programs ran exactly 14:30. That’s a fortunate thing, for without having these reference points, the only way one could tell a program was “on-speed” would be to have perfect pitch and some musical content with which to establish a reference. Without music on the program, having an “ear” for the voices of certain actors and the ability to recognize that his or her voice was pitched too high or too low would be required to detect a speed variance. I’ve only met one person who could do that, Professor Eli Segal of Governors State University.

Syndicated programs, non-network programs and programs without system cues cannot be timed using my “29:30” method. Every program that comes to us on tape is auditioned and timed before being mastered. By using a variable speed playback deck, a stopwatch, a 1000 cps reference tone, a frequency counter and a simple mathematical ratio, every network show can be brought back to its correct speed as it is mastered. We always do this to ensure the performer’s voices aren’t pitched too high or low and the music is “on key.”

Sound processing, such as re-equalization or notch-filtering is used where necessary but as sparingly as possible. I feel that whatever can be done today, probably can be done better tomorrow, so the preservation of sound in as original a condition as possible is the goal. Of course, the upper limit of sound quality is the recording equipment chosen and its state of maintenance.

So, where do old radio shows come from? A former reporter for the Boston Globe did a story about me once in a trade publication. Describing me as “a young man (who) worked weekends at an important New York radio station,” he quoted me as saying that I “showed up at the rear of the radio station...loaded (transcriptions of) old shows into the back of a truck” and made a small fortune by “pilfering” those great old shows. Before calling my lawyers, I tracked the writer to his retirement home in Florida and gave him a call. We had a pleasant chat and he later admitted (in writing) that his “facts” were based on an interview he did with me “20 or 25 years ago” and that “I was relying on my memory (of that interview). There may have been some minor errors.” There have been other stories about the source of many of these recordings over the years. As much as I enjoy this reputation (like “The Saint”) of being “The Robin Hood Of Modern Crime” (stealing from the “rich” networks and giving to the “poor” collectors), I’m afraid these legends are just that...myths.

The truth doesn’t make nearly the same kind of good copy, but let me try. Most of the transcriptions over the years have been bought, usually ten or twenty at a time, from record stores, radio stations, syndicators, advertising agencies, the performers who were on the programs and some special situations as well. Many people involved with these programs have allowed me access to personal collections. Here are just a few stories about some of my more interesting sources over the years.

A number of Mutual net broadcasts were obtained with the help of George Brown, the former news director of WOR (a warm human being and a gentleman). WOR had sold the Mutual Broadcasting System years before I ever met George. RKO-General, like most station owners, had no interest at all in the history of their industry or even of their own property. A group of discs was being stored in a closet on the 14th floor of the office building in which the station was located. Also in that closet were many paper rolls for the station’s teletype machines. More space was needed for storage and the discs were in the way. With the help of Chris Steinbrunner, then a film buyer and producer for WOR-TV (also a one-time script-writer for “The Shadow” and vice president of The Mystery Writers Of America), the discs were rescued from the garbage. Alas, there were not enough discs to make “backing up a truck” worthwhile. Not even a small truck.

When Charles Michelson, a syndicator of “The Shadow” and many other programs was living in New York City, he apparently made a decision during the early 1960s to switch from 16” transcriptions to tape for the distribution of his broadcasts. Charlie had been involved in radio program sales since the 1930s, and was in fact responsible for bringing many famous series from England and Australia to American listeners. Being of a thrifty nature, to put it mildly, he sold those transcriptions to an old man named Alan Eichler who ran a used record shop on 12th Street and Broadway. There were, at the time, few people with any interest in 16” records or the ability to play them. Significant portions of my income were to be found on checks made payable to “Eichler Records.” I took great pleasure in later years selling recordings of these programs back to Charlie, who should have kept them in the first place.

When I was still a young man, the largest collection of 78 rpm records (which I also collected) in the world was owned by a guy named Jake Schneider. He had a huge quantity of radio transcriptions as well. Jake was notoriously difficult to deal with, an attempt I never made. But Jake had two weaknesses; he was a great fan of James Melton records and broadcasts and he took a liking to a dentist from Boston. Dr. Barry Brooks, acknowledged and thanked elsewhere in this book, had a rare ability. He could get along with many different types of people and he could borrow 16” transcriptions from Jake. Schneider wanted to hear his Melton broadcasts (and others) and so Dr. Brooks would travel from Boston to New York regularly, load his car with transcriptions and visit with me for several days on his way home. We called these visits “Blitz Trades,” as I was fortunate even then to have commercial quality sound equipment and the ability to record radio transcriptions as well. Barry and I kept many turntables and tape recorders going simultaneously for days at a time. I was happy, Barry was happy and Jake was very happy.

In the mid-1960s, NBC made a deal with a company called SCANFAX to transcribe and make available radio recordings from the NBC collection. A separate room was set up at the NBC studios, an NBC engineer was assigned the task of transferring the discs to tape. Guess who? Some very interesting recordings were saved in this way, but a great deal of junk was preserved as well. I haven’t yet gotten around to adding all these programs into our archives, they are a very low priority, but there sure are a lot of ‘em! All the discs were later returned to a bonded warehouse and were subsequently given away by NBC to the Library Of Congress. No trucks were backed up.

My favorite anecdote about the acquisition of radio recordings took place in 1969 and 1970, while I was still at CBS radio. William Paley was still the boss then. He had the idea to establish a Museum Of Broadcasting. The nucleus of the museum’s collection of radio recordings was to be taken from CBS transcriptions which were in wooden crates, stored in a warehouse in Fort Lee, New Jersey. At the time, I was the only CBS radio night engineer, until about two in the morning (I often fantasized about war breaking out some night, sending out a code 10 “Netalert” to the CBS affiliates and...well, you get the idea). This was real radio and I had the whole damn network to play with!! However, the most exciting thing that ever happened was the occasional “First Line Report” being recorded by a grouchy Dan Rather, or a circuit from Saigon. Having little to do after the 11 pm newscast (remember, this is a network, not a radio station), after which the hourly newscasts would originate from California, I was given the job of transferring the old radio shows for Paley’s museum to tape. This is, of course, like hiring a cat to guard your cream! Problems soon developed. For one thing, the studios had no turntables. When the maintenance department installed two “modern” turntables for the museum project, the equipment selected turned out to be poorly suited to the task. The network had no phono cartridges intended for use with radio transcriptions and certainly no 2.5 mil stylii. In addition, the museum specified that the recordings were to be made on cassettes. The only cassette recorders CBS then owned were the ubiquitous “Norelco Carry-Corders.” These were the only machines radio reporters were allowed to operate because of union jurisdiction considerations. They weren’t an ideal choice for sound archiving.

I brought my own blank tape, cartridges and stylii to CBS (coals to Newcastle, anyone?) to record the discs. If the museum wanted audio cassettes recorded on a cheap cassette recorder, made in a studio filled with full track Ampex 354s, who am I to say no? The base collection of radio recordings at this museum remains these audio cassettes, while the “back-up” full track Ampex tapes went elsewhere. What happened to the discs? Most of them were thrown out.

While I love the story about “backing up a truck” to a “large New York radio station,” it’s a legend that I regret has no basis in reality. Most of the programs were obtained the hard way...one at a time.

Where do old radio shows go? This is the obvious question to ask after “where do they come from?” Recordings (tape, record and otherwise) of these programs accumulate in archives and in the hands of individual collectors and hobbyists. The actual discs themselves have a different destiny. After making a tape master, and having no further use for the transcriptions themselves (you can’t collect everything!), I have, since 1976, personally given over 46,700 transcriptions to the National Archives, the Library Of Congress and other sound libraries. I’d like to think they’ll stay there forever, but I doubt it. Even though the Library Of Congress has standards equal to or better than mine, and being the government, also has the advantage of being able to print enough money to pay for state-of-the-art equipment and lots of people, the story has a grim ending. The storage requirements for “instantaneous” cuttings (the most important kind of transcription) are even more stringent than for magnetic tape. The slightest moisture starts a chemical/biological process that eventually results in the acetate flaking off the base aluminum disc, making the grooves unplayable. Many other ills can befall a transcription in its old age, especially the glass discs made during the war (in case you’ve forgotten, metals of all kinds were needed for guns and tanks, radio transcriptions were not considered as vital in the fight against the Nazis and Japs). Glass made an excellent substitute. Today, these glass-based transcriptions (used from approximately 1942 to 1946) still sound well, but are very, very fragile. I’ve thought about some day writing a monograph about glass record recording and preservation, but it’s an art that will soon have no value. Radio transcriptions, like nitrate film stocks, have built-in clocks ticking off limited lifespan. When last I checked, most of the discs I gave to the Library Of Congress hadn’t been catalogued and the National Archives considers the Nixon tapes to be far more important than H.V. Kaltenborn.

How many radio programs, of all the hundreds of thousands that were broadcast during the so-called “Golden Age” have been found to date? What percentage of what was broadcast will ever be found? The answers to both questions is, unfortunately, “not many” and “not much.” I’ve tried very hard to avoid locker-room comparisons. “How many shows do you have” is a question that I feel is as irrelevant as asking a museum curator, “how many paintings do you have?” Quality is far more important than quantity. I’ve spoken with several hobbyists who brag about the number of shows in their collection, but readily admit they haven’t listened to many of them. What a waste! Youthful beginning collectors of stamps and coins often buy them by the pound or “on approval.” The stamps and coins acquired this way are certainly fun when you’re just starting out, but it’s unlikely to generate a “find” of value. The search for other recordings continues by myself and those who will come after me. It’s impossible to predict how many programs will eventually turn up, any more than we can say how many more fossils or buried temples will be found. I can predict that no matter the current or future total, it will represent only the smallest percentage of what was broadcast during the “Golden Age.”