It Was All Harry’s Fault

Magnetophon German Recorder

There was an interesting discussion this week, stirred up by a couple of Fred Jacob’s blogs; one asking if radio was losing the battle for the listener’s ear and the other questioning if radio’s “Live & Local” ship had sailed.

I’m sure you have your opinions on both.

But it got me to thinking about the history of radio and its battle over LIVE versus RECORDED programming.

Radio Was Born on LIVE Programs

In the beginning of commercial radio, the Federal Radio Commission had a decision to make, would it put a lot of radio signals into the air with mediocre content or limit the number of radio signals to only those entities that could provide LIVE quality programming content. It chose the latter.

Radio was born as a medium that broadcast only LIVE content. Music, news and sports was all broadcast LIVE; that is until a man named Harry came along.

The Following Program was Pre-recorded             

In the history of show business, Harry was a very popular entertainer and is remembered as its first “multimedia star.”

By 1948, half of the recorded music broadcast on radio was Harry’s, not to mention he was also a major Hollywood attraction at the movies.

But first and foremost, Harry was a savvy businessman, investing in Minute Maid orange juice, owning part of the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team and seeing the future of tape-recording technology.

In 1936, Harry became the host of a nationwide variety show. Because the network radio programs were all done LIVE, Harry not only had to do the show once, but twice, every night; once for the East Coast and again for the West Coast.

By 1945, Harry was tired of two shows a night and because his network, NBC, wouldn’t let him record his first show for replay, Harry and his network parted company when the season ended that year.

NBC Red & NBC Blue Networks

It was during this same time that NBC, which dominated America’s network radio with their Red and Blue networks had been forced by the government to sell off its Blue network, which would become the American Broadcasting Company and the ABC Radio Network.

ABC needed a headliner and they approached Harry to host their nightly variety show. Harry said he would do it, if he could record it for replay to the West Coast. ABC said he could, but only if the quality of the recorded show equaled that of a live broadcast.

The recording technology in that day was primarily the Electrical Transcription or ET disc. These were giant records, 16-inches in diameter (an LP is 12-inches in diameter), but even an untrained ear could discern whether what they were hearing through a AM radio speaker was LIVE or played off of an ET.

If you’ve ever heard the Herb Morrison broadcast of the crash of the Hindenburg, you know the level of quality this type of recording device delivers. Listen HERE

Recording on Magnetic Tape

A recording device that resembles a reel-to-reel recorder had been developed in Germany during World War II to record Adolf Hitler. After the war, an American GI brought one of these machines back home and began to improve upon it using American made components. Recordings made on this new machine sounded like the original LIVE performance and Harry thought this might be the answer he was looking for. There was just one problem, the company was broke. So, Harry put $50,000 in an envelope and sent it to Alexander Poniatoff, the head of the company called AMPEX.

To put this in perspective, $50,000 in 1948 would be the equivalent of more than a half million in today’s dollars.

ABC heard the recordings of Harry’s show on these new AMPEX recorders using 3M recording tape and gave them a “green light.”

Now, Harry only had to do one LIVE show a night on the East Coast with the West Coast hearing the recorded playback.

Radio’s Innovators

It’s always a challenge to say who makes a greater contribution to changing the world, as each generation has its great innovators.

Marconi gave us the wireless, a one-to-one form of communications that transformed the world.

General David Sarnoff (RCA) innovated the radio as a form of mass communication, giving us a one-to-many instant communication service of news, entertainment and advertising supported radio.

And Harry “Bing” Crosby was the person who introduced high quality recording technology to broadcast radio that sounded equal to the original LIVE presentation.

Like Steve Jobs, who didn’t invent the cellular telephone but had the vision to develop it into the smartphone we enjoy today, Bing Crosby was the person who had a vision to see how a new recording technology could be transformative to the radio industry.

Innovation requires investment.

For too long, radio broadcasters have been living off their “seed corn,” while technology companies have been focusing on improving the audio listener experience and by delivering  what the customer wants.

“It’s never too late to do great radio that serves your community.”

-Fred Jacobs

6 Comments

Filed under Education, Mentor, Radio

6 responses to “It Was All Harry’s Fault

  1. Dick, thank you for the kind mentions, and for helping to lead this conversation. It has become one of my favorite “issues.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jeremy Lansman

    Don’t forget about a competitor to tape recording, wire recording. Wire could be found in many early radio stations.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fun fact: on Christmas Day, 1932 the British Broadcasting Corporation first used a steel tape recorder for their broadcasts. The device used was a Marconi-Stille recorder, a huge and dangerous machine which used steel tape that had sharp edges. The tape was 0.1 inches wide and 0.003 inches thick running at 5 feet per second past the recording and reproducing heads. This meant that the length of tape required for a half-hour program was nearly 1.8 miles and a full reel weighed 55 pounds.

      Thanks for bringing up the wire recorder, which did indeed predate the magnetic tape recorder that Bing Crosby championed.
      -DT

      Like

  3. petesalantlcsw

    Dick, you’re one of a tiny handful of intelligent and thought-provoking writers for the radio industry with your DickTaylorBlog. You present content that grabs even those of us who’ve been out for ten years or more. This one’s among your best ever.

    Liked by 1 person

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