One of the questions most frequently asked here at The Archives comes from people looking for archival recordings of family members or friends performing on long-gone radio or TV stations. In an effort to better explain why it's unlikely such recordings exist, we offer this brief history of broadcast archiving:
PRE-WWII: Magnetic recording on tape or wire was not available for commercial use until after World War II, which means that anything that aired before 1947 or so was either a live broadcast or presented via the miracle of “electrical transcription”. Electrical transcriptions, or “ETs”, were records—but not in a form that could be played on a typical home record player. Usually 16" in diameter (as opposed to the 10" records of the day) and recorded at 33 RPM (instead of the 78 RPM then used for commercial recordings), ETs were used for the distribution of syndicated programming and other broadcasts that were not time-sensitive. ETs were relatively expensive to produce, as they were often made on a heavy aluminum-backed disk, and their sound quality tended to diminish rapidly after the first or second playing.
Programs that were broadcast live were very rarely recorded for posterity; in addition to the expense of the disks, cutting a successful ET required some skill at the cutting lathe (to make sure recording levels stayed even and to keep the flammable shavings from the disk from setting fire to the entire studio!) and was thus done only when an advertiser needed to be given a copy of a show. In most cases, once broadcast, a show was gone forever—particularly on small local radio stations that may not even have owned recording equipment. The national networks prohibited the playing of recorded programming of any sort until the late 1940s; prime-time shows were actually performed twice, once for the east and again three hours later for the West Coast. (NBC's broadcast of the famous recording of the Hindenburg explosion represented a major exception to the rule at the time!)
Most of the “old-time radio” shows that are now commercially available came from ETs that were made for advertisers or from disks of syndicated shows that somehow survived their first few playings. In some cases, they're recreations: the “first broadcast of KDKA” from election night 1920 was never recorded at the time (the technology to do so simply did not exist), and the recording that's played today was actually made in the mid-thirties by the original announcer. A few present-day hobbyists do own equipment that can play ETs (which, in addition to being too large for a home record player, also were recorded from the inside out and often used a “hill and dale” recording process instead of the side-to-side grooves used in commercial recordings), and we at the Archives can put you in touch with them if you happen to actually possess such a disk and would like to hear the audio on it.
Home recording did exist in this era, but required the use of expensive blank disks that held just three minutes of sound and often lasted for just a few plays before the grooves were worn down by the playback needle. “Airchecks” from that era are thus all but nonexistent (though WRR in Dallas did manage to restore a home-recorded disk brought in by a listener that contained a few minutes of a live music broadcast from 1932!)
POST-WWII: Magnetic wire recording came into fairly common use in the years immediately after the war, followed quickly by magnetic audio tape. The network ban on the use of recorded material began to erode, and by the early fifties it was common to hear “sound bites” and entire recorded programs, even on NBC and CBS.
Tape was still fairly expensive in the early days, though, and most stations still saved little or nothing of the programming they broadcast. As live programming gave way to less expensive “DJ” programs, there was little reason for stations to save most of their programming, anyway, since so much of it was made up of already recorded material anyway. When stations did log programming, it was often with a “skimmer” machine, which began recording only when the DJ was talking and stopped when he went back to music, or with a very low-fidelity, slow-speed logger machine. Even in the rare cases when those logger tapes have somehow been saved, the equipment needed to play them often no longer exists, especially for the specialized tape formats meant for logging emergency phone calls and such. (In a few cases, logger tapes made on ordinary 1/4" tape at very slow speed have been restored with passable results, but this is extremely uncommon.)
Some of those DJ shows were saved by hobbyists, though; as tape became cheaper and the equipment needed to record radio broadcasts came into wider home use, some fans began taping the popular DJs of the day. A handful of recordings from the 1950s thus exist and are widely traded; thousands of hours of radio from the 1960s were saved by hobbyists and are widely available today. Uncle Ricky's Reel Top 40 Radio Repository is one good source for such recordings; another is Rick Kelly's NortheastAirchecks.com. In most cases, the surviving airchecks represent a fairly narrow chunk of the radio of the era, being heavily oriented toward big top 40 stations like WRKO, WMEX, WABC, and their cousins nationwide. Very little was saved of full-service stations like WNAC, early country, classical or beautiful-music stations, or the early FM stations.
As for the stations themselves, however, one thing has remained true down the decades: radio stations are lousy archivists of their own history. Stations get sold, change format, move their studios, and little or no attention is paid to saving even the most basic of recorded material. Particularly in the recent deregulatory era, it's not unusual for a station to be on its third or fourth owner and second or third studio location in a decade! Even at big “heritage” stations, it is rare to find much in the way of archives. The author worked at WBZ in Boston in the mid-nineties, and can attest that the only recorded legacy of the station's then-75-year history consisted of a dozen or so reels of jingles and music beds tucked in a production room closet. While station audio was logged for legal purposes (at that time, on cassette tape; later on VHS HiFi tape and probably digitally now), the tapes were not kept for more than a year at most. And in this era of Howard Stern and Opie & Anthony, it's sometimes to a station's advantage NOT to keep tapes; the FCC needs to hear a recording of a questionable show before it will issue a fine, and if a listener hasn't recorded the show herself, it becomes her word against the station's if no recording has been kept.
(The rules are somewhat different where Canada is concerned: the CRTC has long required stations there to log all their audio, generally on slow-speed 1/4" tape or VHS HiFi, but the tapes can be—and almost always are—discarded or reused after no more than a year.)
So what does this mean for you, if all you're looking for is a recording of Aunt Molly playing her flugelhorn on WVDA in 1954?
First, we don't have it here at The Archives @ BostonRadio.org. We're merely a “virtual archive”, maintaining text and photo histories of broadcasters in the Northeast, and while our editors maintain their own private collections of airchecks and other memorabilia, they contain very little material before the eighties. While we'd love to someday have our own museum next door to the Gardner, the odds are pretty unlikely....
Second, the odds are close to 100 percent that whatever you're looking for was never recorded in the first place, for the reasons explained above.
But don't give up hope: if it's a DJ show you're looking for, it never hurts to check the aircheck sites mentioned above, which in turn contain many links to other sites and groups of hobbyists who trade such tapes. We are also told (though we've never checked it out ourselves) that some archives of now-defunct Boston radio stations, WNAC in particular, now reside at the Boston Public Library; we welcome any information our readers can provide if they choose to investigate this possibility.
In addition, several cities are home to local radio history organizations that sometimes have their own audio archives. Buffalo has the Buffalo Broadcast Pioneers; Rochester's St. John Fisher College has a radio history room in its library with some archives from WHAM and other early stations; in New Hampshire, broadcaster Ed Brouder is his own one-man archive. Such a group is long overdue in the Boston area, and in fact is slowly coalescing under the leadership of local broadcast veteran Len Zola under the name “The Radio Gang”; if you're a veteran of Boston broadcasting, you can contact Len for more information about their regular meetings.