Friday, November 12, 2010

Tape It To The Limit

I saw that History Channel piece on the Library of Congress's efforts to preserve historic recordings and convert them to digital media. It got me to thinking (danger, Will Robinson!) about our "preservation" methods at KAAY: quarter-inch reel-to-reel magnetic tape. Yep, that would be the stuff that they don't even MAKE anymore. In this iPod Age, it's as prehistoric as stone tablets, but we didn't give it much thought.

Most of us kept a reel or two of spots that we were proud of. My man Phil North undoubtedly had packing crates full of seven-inch reels--later, cassettes and now CDs or flash drives. He was (is!) fanatically prolific; of all of us, he was the one who had the most work of the sort you'd want to keep.

It needs to be pointed out that most radio production was mundane--and little has changed in that regard over the last forty years. Car dealers still want to yell at you and restaurants still insist on listing every last menu item in sixty seconds. The majority of what we produced was ordinary. Temporary. Fleeting and disposable. I don't consider it worthy of preservation, but I MIGHT be a little close to the forest to be objective!

Tape was expendable in our time; we treated it shabbily. We cut it with razorblades and jammed it back together with Scotch Formula 41 splicing tape. We hung great loops of it from the pegboard over the right front Ampex. Pat Walsh bought it for us by the case and never once groused about the way we used twice as much as other stations because we recorded at fifteen inches per second instead of seven-and-a-half. In addition to WAY better audio quality, 15 IPS gave us more room to work. If there was some annoying little snort between words--or even WITHIN a word--we could reach in there and cut it out. The production room floor was littered with 1/16" or 1/32" bits of tape that had been removed with surgical precision.

About the only nod we gave to long-term storage was to file away the reels of tape that contained that day's production. Even then, the tapes that were stored contained a multitude of splices--meaning that they were eventually going to break at those points. But that was okay: Pat was ALWAYS going to buy us some more.

As failure-prone as reel-to-reel tape could be, the endless-loop tape cartridge ("cart" as it was universally known) was a thing that WAS going to fail. It WAS going to crap out on the air, at the worst possible moment. But the cart was how we played back commercials and promos--it beat the very h*ll out of cueing up spots on a bank of reel-to-reel machines.

The tape path in a cart was both its advantage and its Achilles Heel. The tape would unwind from the center of a small reel, pass over the playback head and wind back around the outside of the reel. Sooner or later, the tape was going to break or jam or decide to spill out and wind itself around the drive mechanism of the reproducer. Sometimes, we'd have to break the plastic shell of a cart just so we could yank a few dozen feet of tape out of the guts of the playback machine. Fortunately, we could go get the master tape which contained the spot that had just self-destructed and record it onto a fresh cart. (I have seen Phil North take a cart with broken tape into the production room, re-splice it and put it back together in the space of one 3:30 record while he was on the air, but most of us mortals couldn't move that fast.)

Although most of what we did just went up the towers and out through the Universe in a straight line, Divine Providence saw fit to seed our coverage area with some wonderful folks who liked to RECORD what they were picking up out of thin air. Now, as much as fifty years later, we can hear what we did Back When--and say "Man, I can't BELIEVE we got away with that stuff!"

So, here's a huge THANKS to everyone out there under the skywave, hundreds of miles away, who preserved bits of KAAY. Those bits have all wound up as 1s and 0s in the digital realm, but they are true and faithful reproductions of what we radiated as analog all those years ago. God bless you Collectors, and keep your bits rolling in!

Gratefully Yours,

David B. Treadway
Doc Holiday VII
The Last PD

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