Archival Television Audio: Surviving Television Broadcast Sound Tracks Representing Lost TV Programs (1946-1972)

By Gries, Phil | ARSC Journal, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Archival Television Audio: Surviving Television Broadcast Sound Tracks Representing Lost TV Programs (1946-1972)


Gries, Phil, ARSC Journal


Between 1946, when commercial television first gained an initial foothold in the American home, and 1972, when Home Box Office broadcast with a test group of 365 subscribers in Wilkes-Barre, PA, hundreds of thousands of television programs that were never archived are now considered lost, erased or discarded. Many of these original broadcasts richly reflect a quarter of a century of nostalgia, the political and social events of our time, our television heritage and so much more--a huge archival hole representing the dawn of TV commercial broadcasting which will forever be a frustration to old and new generations--never to be replayed again.

However, thanks to a small group of television recordists, who literally took the back of their television set off and wired alligator clips to the speaker terminals of their television set, connecting a phone jack to the input of their 1/4" reel to reel tape recorder, thousands of TV audio air checks exist. These sound recordings have become the only surviving TV broadcast record of a specific television program broadcast which no longer exists as video.

The author is one of a handful of recordists who audio taped his television set. At the age of fifteen, in 1958,1 began tinkering with a Webcor model 210-10 1/4" reel-to-reel tape recorder, given to me as a hand me down from my Aunt Mildred. This 1950s recorder contained tubes, two motors, single channel sound, 7" reel size, three heads, and recorded and played at speeds of 7 1/2 ips and 3 3/4 ips. I was fascinated, and for my sixteenth birthday my parents bought me a brand new Webcor stereophonic model which recorded and played back monaurally in both directions without reel turnover. It had automatic shut--off! External amplifier output! Receptacle for a second sound system! Tape counter, and a great "green eye" level indicator. The manufacturer's List price was $239.95.

Over a half a century later, I look back to that time as the beginning of my love affair with recording my television set ... variety shows, talk shows, music shows, specials, etc. I audio recorded approximately 1000 TV broadcasts, mostly from 1959 thru 1965. and 1968 and 1969.

In 1987, I visited the Museum of Broadcasting; its name changed in 1991 to the Museum of Television & Radio, and since 2007, called the Paley Center for Media, in New York City. I quickly realized that most of what I had recorded years ago was not to be found in their museum in any form. I further researched The Library of Congress, The Museum of Broadcast Communications, UCLA Film & Television Archive, Vanderbilt Television News Archive, and other institutions, coming to the realization that what I recorded off the air in the 1950s and 1960s was special and in many cases, peerless television broadcasts representing the history of the media.

I collated my own collection of TV audio tapes. I became known by others and soon attracted the attention of newspaper columnists and, subsequently, I was interviewed by a number of them with personal profiles and my archive written up in New York papers. Soon, I was also asked to appear on local television interview shows.

Other collections became known to me, and I purchased a number of them (1995 thru 2000). I paid as much as tens of thousands of dollars, and as little as pennies for television audio, some of them about to be thrown away in dumpsters, I also traded and was the recipient of collections from others who also audio recorded their TV. My collection grew to where it exists today at approximately 12.000 broadcasts--15,000 hours of TV audio (1946-1979).

In 2002 a website was developed representing and listing the collection. During the same year the archive was accredited into The Guinness World Records for the most money purchased for one television audio air check. The American Theatre Wing purchased from ATA the lost Tony Awards broadcast telecast on local station WOR TV New York (13 June 1965) for four figures. …

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