For most people the term "early radio" is used pretty loosely...anything before the introduction of format radio in the fifties would qualify, and certainly anything involving drama, comedy or variety programming. But for those of us involved in the collecting and documenting of radio history, its hardly appropriate to refer to, say , a reel of "Johnny Dollar" episodes from 1960 as being representative of "early radio." It would be more accurate to confine the use of this term to radio up to 1935.
The date 1935 was chosen for a specific reason. It was in that year that NBC, spurred by the introduction of the so-called "acetate" recording disc, established its radio recording division. For the first time, a radio network took it upon itself to record and archive its programming for the use of artists, advertisers, and network staff. CBS began making recordings on a more limited basis three years later.
But recordings prior to 1935 do exist. Experimental recordings were made by various phonograph companies and research laboratories almost from the beginning of broadcasting in the early twenties, using the newly-developed electrical recording process and producing phonograph-record pressings from wax masters. Some of these recordings were commercially released, others were made for experimental purposes and remain largely unknown. The Victor Talking Machine Company, The Compo Company of Canada, the Thomas A. Edison Laboratories, and Western Electric were among the companies producing such recordings. Later, some recording companies branched into the radio-syndication business, and part of that work involved recording certain network programs by line check for later broadcast on stations not connected to network lines.
From the late twenties, private recording studios in major cities were recording radio broadcasts off the air on behalf of advertisingagencies or performers, using a primitive instantaneous recording system. The process usually used bare aluminum discs of from six to twelve inches in diameter, a special blunt-tipped recording stylus, and a heavily weighted recording head. The modulation would be indented into the surface of the disc creating a recording of the broadcast. By 1932, several companies were providing this service in New York, among them the Speak-O-Phone Recording Studio at 201 West 49th Street in Manhattan. This company maintained branches in other major cities as well, including Chicago and Boston. Another large New York based company was Broadcast Producers, Incorporated, which maintained a studio at 220 West 42nd Street. And, in Chicago, the Universal Recording Laboratories began in 1931 to provide a regular airchecking service. Companies such as these are responsible for most of the existing radio programs before 1935.
A home recording system was marketed by RCA beginning in late 1930. Instead of aluminum discs, the system used recording blanks made of a plastic material, either solid or bonded to a cardboard core, and unlike the smooth, ungrooved surface of the aluminum disc, the Victor blanks guided the tone arm along the surface of the disc by means of a narrow pre-groove. The wide, blunt tip of the special home recording needle spread this groove as it travelled along the disc, and embossed the modulations into the very top of that new, widened groove. The records had to be played back with the same wide needle, and playing them back today is very difficult -- a standard 78rpm stylus travels below the modulation, giving the impression of a weak recording. To play these discs properly, a stylus of at least 5 mils width is required. Home Recording was featured on several high-end radio consoles marketed by RCA from 1930 to 1932 under the Radiola, Victor Radio, and RCA Victor nameplates. Home Recording was also featured by General Electric and Westinghouse as a result of their crosslicensing agreements with RCA.
So, the technology was in place by 1930 for widespread recording of radio broadcasts. And, contrary to the mythology which has arisen over the years, recordings were commonly made. Many ad agencies insisted on full recordings of the programs they sponsored, for post-air critiques. Fred Allen, in his book Treadmill to Oblivion notes that the agency producing his first series, "The Linit Bath Club Revue" of 1932-33, would listen to recordings of each of his programs the day after they aired and offer blistering criticism of the performance. Doubtless this practice was the rule for many agencies and advertisers determined to get the best value for their entertainment dollar.
Artists also recorded and collected their own programs. In a 1933 column, New York Daily News radio columnist Ben Gross mentions that orchestra leader Al Goodman was the proud owner of a complete run of recordings from the "Ziegfeld Follies Of The Air" series broadcast from April to June of 1932 over CBS for Chrysler...and that Goodman was negotiating with the sponsor to possibly syndicate these recordings for local rebroadcasts. (At least two of these programs still exist.) Although nothing appears to have come of this deal, it does indicate that recordings were not at all rare in the early years of network radio.
So, where are they? If hundreds, perhaps thousands of programs were recorded off the air before 1935, why do so few exist today? There are several possible explanations.
One is the inherent fragility of the aluminum recordings themselves. The soft metal grooves were easily gouged into an unplayable condition. The discs were intended to be played only with fibre or bamboo needles. A single pass with a common steel needle was enough to permanently destroy the recording. Many discs no doubt suffered this fate.
Another factor is the purpose for which the recordings were made. In most cases, artists and agencies didnt have the foresight of Al Goodman, or of Rudy Vallee, who began to keep a meticulously catalogued archive of his programs in mid-1932. Independently made broadcast recordings, for the most part, were made for purposes of immediate evaluation...and once they had been examined, they might be put aside and forgotten or even thrown away.
A third factor cropped up years later: the scrap drives of World War II. With aluminum a crucial war material, citizens were urged to turn in as much of it as they could for recycling. Many patriotic performers could see no reason to hold onto ten year old broadcasts when there was a war to be won, and no doubt hundreds of early programs were thus lost.
And a fourth factor is simply the fact that many OTR collectors today are unaware that the aluminum-disc system ever existed, let alone even more obscure formats such as celluloid or gelatin discs. Most books and articles written on the subject of radio-show collecting gloss over the technical aspects of the recordings, leaving the novice collector with the impression that the 16 inch lacquer-coated transcription was the only method of preserving shows until the introduction of tape in the late forties. Even some advanced collectors may share this belief. Thus, when they run across an old uncoated aluminum platter, they dont recognize it for what it is. Labeling information is often sparse on the discs, often no more than pencil scrawling on the bare metal...and if you dont know what they are, its easy to pass them by. And, even if a collector does recognize the discs when they are found, they are easily damaged by incorrect playback equipment. Home recording discs made using the RCA system are even more challenging, since if played back with an incorrect stylus, they reveal no recording at all!
So, despite the fact that the recordings were made in significant numbers, few have survived, and even fewer are in circulation. Exactly how many? Thats a difficult question to answer, but Id like to try and find out. What follows is a listing of authentic radio recordings made thru the end of 1931 that I either have in my personal collection, or that I know to exist. By "authentic" I mean a recording made either by linecheck or aircheck of an actual radio broadcast, and which can be confirmed to be authentic. Syndicated programs are not included in this list -- although they may be mentioned where historically noteworthy -- nor are commercially or privately released phonograph records not made directly from actual broadcasts.
Elizabeth McLeod's Documenting Early Radio Page.