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Academic Journal Article
ARSC Journal
Volume 41, Number 2, Fall 2010
Archival Television Audio:
Surviving Television
Broadcast Sound Tracks
Representing Lost TV
Programs (1946-1972)
by Gries, Phil

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. This broadcast and the lost initial Don Pardo NBC TV Bulletins, which I personally gave to Pardo in 1997, announcing the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (22 November 1963), are two of the most outstanding audio air checks in the ATA collection.

Any material in the ATA collection which is sold is done so with the caveat that, "to the best of my knowledge and research, these TV audio air checks (1946-1972) have no notice of copyright, no current registration, no renewal of publication." Regardless, ATA holds no rights to any material transacted to others, providing only physical "audio air check" copies of material for research, educational and nostalgic appreciation purposes, and conveys no other rights to the user or purchaser or its affiliates. I further have stated to any commercial user of any material purchased from the ATA collection over the years, that commercial users of this material must assume full responsibility for securing any necessary clearances or rights, if needed, or required authorization, if needed, for whatever commercial use they make of the aforementioned material. Recent transactions have been made with the PBS series 'American Experience' ("Freedom Riders") and AMC's 'Mad Men.'

Currently, the archive consisting of thousands of boxes of 7" original reel-to-reel audio tapes, and thousands of audio cassette tapes are housed in a sub-basement area, which is to some extent temperature controlled. The intent is to store all tapes at a constant temperature of 50[degrees]-70[degrees] F and a relative humidity of 40-60%. To date only a small percentage of tapes have exhibited sticky shed syndrome, a condition when oxidation of the tape sticks to the magnetic heads of the playback machine, or vinegar syndrome, when cellulose acetate is subject to a slow form of chemical deterioration. The main symptoms of this problem are a vinegar like odor accompanied with buckling, shrinking, and brittle endangerment of the tape.

I have never stored any of my tapes in completely air tight boxes, and most of the collection is contained in original cardboard boxes, and stored upright in over 50 metal file cabinets. In a rare instance I once rescued a 1/4" reel-to-reel audio tape which was completely engulfed in green mold, fungi which can cause serious distortion and physical break down in most audio formats. My immediate instinct was to not even consider this tape, but the content was so "rich" and special (eight Edie Adams shows form 1963-1964) that I labored for days slowly cleaning this 2,400 foot reel of tape, inch-by-inch. Today, the tape plays back with pristine sound, and all the labored effort well worth the time and toil, preserving the dulcet tones of Ms. Adams, and guests which include Allan Sherman, and Bobby Darin--a great series of programs.

All tapes in the ATA collection are catalogued using a number sequence beginning with 001 (currently on the archives website, catalog number 6001 is logged). Access to any tape can be found by number, date, or title, computer file fields which are included when entries are logged on to the website. To date 50% of the collection has been entered and notated on the Archival Television Audio website. Currently only a small percentage of audio air checks have been digitized to CD sources or to hard drives, and only analog dubs are transacted for sale through the website (Audio Cassette or VHS Hi-Fi Track).

To research and confirm all data pertaining to the ATA collection, I have purchased a vast reference library, over a period of a half-century, which includes complete volumes of Ross Reports Television Index, Variety Television Reviews, Three Decades of Television, Tonight Show Complete Credits (1954-1969), NBC Archive Kinescope Holdings (1948-1975), Performers' Television Credits 1948-2000, and Metropolitan TV Guides (1953 thru 1980). The value of these lost historic television early records, surviving only as audio, is arbitrary. However, when only the audio exists it becomes all we have representing tens of thousands of television programs from an earlier time when TV broadcasting was in its infancy and the creation of live and taped broadcasts were exciting and fascinating to behold. If it were not for a handful of home recordists who had the passion and knowledge to record their television set, and preserve such recordings, a huge percentage of TV programming, aired during the first 25 years of broadcasting, would he lost forever. What we are left with is a form still revealing and memorable. It is illustrated radio with the visuals left to our imagination.

For further information and to learn more about Archival Television Audio go to the website where you will also be able to stream hundreds of television audio air check excerpts.

Sample of Archival Television Audio Air Checks no longer surviving as Video.

A number of the following television sound track excerpts, from the Archival Television Audio collection, can he streamed on the ATA website.
  1. Don Pardo announces first bulletins regarding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (22 November 1963, NBC).

  2. "The Tony Awards" (13 June 1965, WOR). Jean Shepherd hosts.

  3. "Speaking Out Loud" (1 May 1960, WNTA). Jackie Robinson recites "The Gettysburg Address' to his wife and family.

  4. 'The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" (16 September 1965, NBC). Muhammad Ali surprises Johnny Carson, verbally sparring with him over last nights show, when Carson made fun of Ali's pugilistic abilities.

  5. "Annie Get Your Gun" (19 March 1967, ABC). Ethel Merman reprises her New York Lincoln Center 1966 stage performance.

  6. "Here's Hollywood" (7 August 1962, NBC). Host Jack Linkletter interviews Steve McQueen in Munich Germany on the set of 'The Great Escape."

  7. Roger Maris hits his record breaking number 61st home run (1 October 1961, WPIX). Red Barber, Mel Allen.

  8. "Tonight! Knickerbocker Beer Show" with Steve Allen (31 August, 1-4 September 1953). WNBT New York City prototype late-night program. Beginning Sept. 27, 1954 broadcast nationally as "TONIGHT!."

  9. "Jack Paar Tonight Show" (16 May I960, NBC) with guest James Cagney.

  10. "CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite (6 August 1962, CBS). Reporting on the death of Marilyn Monroe.

  11. Hy Gardner interview with Paul Muni ... only TV interview he ever permitted (10 September 1956, NBC).

  12. Liza Minnelli & Bert Lahr introducing the first television showing of "Wizard of Oz" (3 November 1956, CBS).

  13. "And Here's The Show" (premiere 9 July 1955, NBC) Jonathan Winters first starring television series.

  14. "Victor Borge Special" (1, January 1955, NBC) First Victor Borge television Special.

  15. "Tonight! starring Steve Allen (10, December 1954, NBC) Carl Sandburg appearance on this "lost" telecast. Regrettably, 96% of all of the TONIGHT! shows were destroyed... this one being Allen's favorite.

Phil Gries, currently a resident of Sea Cliff New York, has earned an A.A.S. degree in agronomy from Farmingdale University, a BA. degree in Film Production from the City College of New York, and a Master of Fine Arts degree in Film & Television from t University of California at Los Angeles.

Since 1970 he has worked professionally as a Director of Photography, mostly on hundreds of documentaries, which have appeared on PBS, including the National Emmy Award nominated and winning documentaries "88 Seconds in Greensboro," and "Vermeer: Master of Light."

Since 2003 the author has been an Assistant Professor, teaching media courses at The Borough of Manhattan Community College in New York.


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UNIQUE in the WORLD audio air check recordings by 20-year-old Phil Gries, archiving the first, second bulletins & initial NBC TV broadcast coverage of President John F. Kennedy's assassination. Not recorded by NBC or any other resource in the country.

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