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 World War II

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.
Electrical Transcriptions (ET's)
By Scott Fybush

Courtesy of DesMoines

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 ensure recording levels stayed even and to keep the flammable shavings from the disk from catching fire and burning down the entire studio. It was 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 1940's.  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, recreations such as the first broadcast of  KDKA from election night 1920 was never recorded at the time because the technology to do so simply did not exist.  The recording played today were actually made in the mid-thirties by the original announcer.

A few present-day hobbyists do own equipment that can play ETs . In addition to being too large for a home record player, they 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.

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. “Air checks” from that era are thus all but nonexistent.

Post World War II

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 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.

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.

Reprinted with permission.  Courtesy of Scott Fybush.

An old Rek-O-Kut 12 inch turntable modified with a 16' pickup arm in order to play the electrical transcription discs.  Note an old trick of placing pennies on the pickup arm to add weight and keep the needle from skipping.   

(Photos courtesy of Gary Avey,  Chico, Ca. )