The following is one person's opinion and appeared in a slightly different form in the Metro Washington Old Time Radio Club newsletter, Radio Recall. The article is intended to invoke dialogue about something this author feels will have an impact on the current radio clubs.
Please feel free to copy this article to use in other publications as long as the following two conditions are met: The author's name and the copyright notice appear. The article cannot be modified in any way without permission of the author.
The Future of Old Time Radio Clubs and the Internet
By Jim Widner (© 2000)
During the last couple of years more and more advocates of Old Time Radio have been turning to the Internet for their regular fix of entertainment from the "Golden Days of Radio." The rise of the Internet has also brought in a whole new group of people who previously did not know that a sub-culture of collectors existed. Increasingly, more and more younger fans are finding an interest in radio of the past. As the interest between the Internet and radio entertainment from the twenties through the fifties proliferates, so too many more web sites are popping up with diversified content ranging from individuals' otr collections to sites featuring details on radio history, entertainers, newscasters and shows from a time when radio drama was very much alive.
The younger generation of collectors, having been raised on computers, are finding the compression files of MP3 appealing because they can place a lot of old time radio on a single CD. MP3 is a computer file of compressed audio. The compression sampling rate can be high and the audio quality for listening equally high. Because the sound quality of MP3 for most listeners does not seem any worse than regular taped copies, upwards to one hundred plus programs can be stored on a single CD. More and more computer users, young and old alike, are using CDR-style drives. This gives them the opportunity to "burn" their own CDs and trade with others on a more massive scale. And now, with the technology of MP3 players such as the Diamond Rio 500, these shows can be loaded into the player and provide aural entertainment for many, many hours. The latest generation of players can hold upwards to 28 hours of audio before needing to be re-loaded.
Because of the confusion and vagueness over copyright protection, more and more of these radio programs are appearing on the Internet for free download. So far, only one commercial vendor of Old Time Radio has made any attempt to cease and desist the offering of some of the programs claiming their own right to sell specific series. One need only follow the legal battles of Napsterto find that the audio industry is facing a crisis. Napster is a service that directs MP3 users to stored copies on other sites of musical programs for free download. The various musical entertainers such as Metalicca and Dr. Dre are not only suing Napster for copyright violations but also the individuals who offer these stored copies. Napster's legal troubles have taken a turn for the worse with the courts deciding in favor of the copyright. Yet because of vague or expired copyrights on old time radio, the same kind of issues do not always apply.
What does all of this have to do with the hobby of old time radio? Part of the sub-culture of the hobby is the radio club. In return for a membership, these clubs offer advantages such as a tape library from which one can borrow tapes for copying and building their own collection. Most clubs also offer a newsletter with articles and information about the hobby, and in many cases for the locals based in the club's home city, monthly meetings that might include re-creations or guests from the days of radio past. While there are many members of these clubs who use the libraries, as the interest in the MP3 and its easy availability on the Internet increases, the libraries are seeing declines in borrowing. SPERDVAC recently announced it was offering CDs (not compressed audio) partly because of few borrowings from its reel libraries. But if the club also has a good newsletter, membership remains strong. Yet as the Internet-savvy members increase and the technology of the World Wide Web and broadband improves, what is the future for these clubs?
I believe that the clubs are eventually going to have to create a strong presence on the Internet to ultimately survive. Granted there are still the die-hards (like myself) who prefer to archive my shows in tape format. But reel tape is becoming increasingly expensive and harder to find (could cassettes not be far behind?). So why not offer shows on CD? More and more are doing just that, but if no compression is used a CD will usually hold a little over one hour. Compression of programs is not bad for listening, though I am still not convinced that this is the way to archive these programs. But the technology of MPEG and other compression routines is becoming more dominant. Web sites such as Audible.com offer radio programs and commercial "books-on-tape" for sale and download. But they use their own compression method, though some of the player-manufacturers are buying into Audible's routine as a value add. That's the beauty of these new players - one can play regular and MP3 CDs or store programs in a flash memory similar to digital cameras.
Of what might an on-line club consist? One might include a library of compressed radio shows for download in a secure area. Members can download shows for listening and never have to store them since the site would be a repository. As cable modems, DSL and other high-speed access become more prevalent such downloads become a snap. Once the files are on-line the overhead of storage becomes minimal versus a large storage of tapes spread out among several librarians. Manpower to maintain the libraries is lessened, as "librarians" are no longer needed to spend time mailing, logging, verifying damage, and so on. Even if a main storage of originally archived taped programs is maintained, administration is minimal.
Newsletters can become e-zines that can be emailed or accessed at the club's web site. Perhaps even offered on CD for an additional cost. But unlike a paper version, these can be dynamic with embedded soundbites, or hyperlinks directing the reader to more information. An e-zine can include both black-and-white as well as color. Color copy in a print newsletter is usually much too costly to support. Costs of items such as paper, printing and mailing might be reduced or eliminated.
In the future even on-line chats or guests can be arranged for members to participate without having to be in the local city. It's even possible to literally stage a mini-convention of seminars via on-line access similar to a classroom-without-walls. This would be a huge benefit as more and more clubs are finding a need for a national presence in their membership base. Though loosely organized, there already exists an on-line chat session for old time radio fans. Clubs could each have their own private chat areas, or offer an open area while trying to entice new members.
For many who are not so Internet savvy this sounds like they are being abandoned. First of all, the transition from land-based club to virtual club need not be an overnight change. Many still like those paper newsletters as well as the analog tape libraries. I would hope that the clubs never remove their tape archive. Old Time Radio clubs might very well end up being the primary archive of an era gone by. I would hate to see that archive in a compressed format. But the Internet offers new horizons for this hobby. The Old Time Radio Digest (an on-line daily collection of opinions and discussions of the hobby delivered directly to your email address) demonstrates how dynamic an Internet-based hobby can be. But even going beyond the digest, the Internet offers an opportunity for a much more robust hobby not only through the individual web sites, but also through the clubs. I suspect that for old time radio clubs to ultimately survive this must be their future too.