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Collecting Early Radio Programs

It must have been exciting to be around during the early days of radio in the 1920's and 1930's! Just browsing through a few old radio magazines or program guides gives a sense of the variety and adventure associated with those pioneer days -- Coon-Sanders Original Nighthawk Orchestra, Vaughn De Leath (The Radio Girl), The Cremo Cigar program featuring Bing Crosby, and many others. Unfortunately, very little actual radio programming from those days has survived - almost nothing at all from the 1920's, and only a small amount of material from the early 1930's. Most radio programs were broadcast live - like early television - and there was only limited technology available to record programs off the air. But if you're interested in collecting original copies of vintage radio programs, some material has survived, and it can be well worth picking up when you find it. You need to know what to look for, so perhaps some definitions are in order to start. There are two main categories of early radio material: transcriptions and airchecks.

Radio Transcriptions are pre-recorded radio programs. Most early radio was live, but by 1929 some programs were being pre-recorded. Transcriptions come in a variety of forms, and look very much like ordinary records. They may be 10", 12" or 16" in diameter, single or double sided, lateral or vertical cut, and play from the outside in, or inside out. Initially, most programs were recorded at 78 rpm, usually on 12" discs. A single, fifteen minute program could require as many as six separate sides. By 1930, transcriptions had started to appear on 16" discs, recorded at 33 1/3 rpm. This allowed a complete program to be put on a single disc. At first, these were one-sided, heavy shellac pressings. By the mid 1930's, the development of plastics allowed companies to make lighter, double- sided transcriptions.

In the early 1930's, most transcriptions were made as complete programs (usually 15 minutes in length) including commercials, and were made and distributed by sponsors who wanted to use radio as an advertising medium. Somewhat later, in the mid 1930's, a number of transcription service companies were established to provide pre-recorded music to radio stations on a regular basis. Each side of the transcription would contain a number of cuts, much like a modern LP. This was necessary since it was illegal to play phonograph records on the radio. There were no royalty or licencing arrangements for radio use of phonograph records until the mid-1940's, and transcription services were the only means for a radio station to get pre-recorded music. Companies such as Associated, McGregor, Standard, Thesaurus, Allied and others provided a regular catalogue of recorded music to stations in return for annual rental or subscription fees. The radio stations could use the material as they chose, adding local announcements and advertising.

Airchecks are recordings of live radio programs, made as the program was being broadcast. Virtually nothing from the 1920's has survived in this form, except some recordings made for historical reasons, such as political speeches, or Victor's recordings of Lindbergh's arrival in New York in 1927. At first, they had to be made by a record company using the same technology as regular records - obviously not a practical way to make a single copy of a particular program or broadcast, nor was it something which could be done at home. But by 1931, equipment had been developed to allow airchecks to be made more easily. The process is popularly known as a "soft cut" - a recording is made into a substance that is soft enough for the cutting needle to make an impression, but hard enough that the same disc can also be used for playback.

At first, pure aluminum discs were used, as aluminum is a relatively soft metal. Later in the 1930's, plastic coated discs were developed. Another method involved the use of glass discs. Each of these has its limitations: aluminum discs were meant to be played with thorn needles (a steel needle would ruin them, since steel is harder than aluminum), although today we can play them with a diamond stylus on a modern turntable. Those that turn up have often been badly damaged by improper use. Plastic coated discs are easily subject to damage from dust and they also wear out quickly, while glass discs are very easily broken.

If you're interested in early radio, what should you look for? Don't expect to find a lot of early radio material. Transcription material is very scarce, especially in Canada. Look for unusual labels on 12" discs - often these will be one-sided, with handwritten or stamped information on a plain white label. Label details are usually limited to something as simple as "Radio program #4, part 8", and the name of the sponsor, such as WHIZ, BULOVA, or DODGE. When in doubt, buy it and listen! You should also look for radio advertising discs made by film studios - these normally have the company logo on them, such as Paramount, Fox or MGM.

Of course, 16" transcriptions are much more easily identified as radio material - their size is quite unique. Canadian radio stations often subscribed to U.S. transcription services such as Associated or Thesaurus, and there were also some Canadian companies such as United Transcribed Service (which was pressed by the Compo Company in Lachine, Quebec). It is the early sponsored transcriptions, however, which are the rarest and most desirable. Because of their size, 16" transcriptions can only be played on a special turntable. If you don't have one, no doubt one of your fellow collectors does! And remember - the early ones often play from the inside out, and some are vertical cut.

Airchecks are even scarcer. More often than not, they have no identification at all, since the paper labels that were glued to them usually seem to have fallen off. If you find aluminum discs, chances are that they date from 1935 or earlier. Plastic coated discs could date from the mid-thirties to the 1950's. Glass discs usually date from the late 1930's or 1940's. And beware of home recordings made by Cousin Minnie for her great Aunt Matilda! Most of the 10" soft cut discs that turn up are of this variety, rather than airchecks from the days of early radio, since home recording equipment began to become popular in the late 1930's.

In summary, the chances of finding some authentic, original radio programs on transcriptions or airchecks are slim, but the potential rewards are great. You might turn up the only surviving copy of a particular program. Don't pass by those aluminum discs, even if they don't have labels. If you know some retired radio station employees, or have the chance to go through a pile of odd-sized discs, check them out. With a little luck, you just might find one of those elusive WHIZ programs featuring the Ben Pollack orchestra from 1930!