Digging through a cabinet one day at my first radio news job at WOSH in Oshkosh, Wis., I discovered a Uher portable reel-to-reel tape recorder. News Director Bud McBain told me the German-made recorder had been standard gear for an earlier generation of radio news reporters.
That exotic Uher stayed in the back of my mind for years. I was curious to know more about how it fit into the history of radio news.
When my radio news career began in the early 1970s reporters were already depending on cassette machines for field reporting. The Sony TC-110 was ideal for broadcast news and used widely.
In those days, just about every commercial radio station had its own news department. At WOSH, and the other stations where I worked for the next decade, we covered the legislature, city council, school board, county board, courts and every local news conference we could get to.
We used alligator clip leads to tap our recorders into telephone handsets for feeding our live and recorded reports from the field to the newsroom. Usually our reports included actualities from newsmakers, sometimes they were ROSRs — radio on-scene reports — that used ambient sound in the background.
Back at the station the news anchor could go live at any time and speak to a reporter or newsmaker anywhere in the world, as long as they were near a telephone.
One day I heard a report on the police scanner that snow had caved in the roof of a local grocery story. With just minutes to my next newscast I consulted the city directory and called the barber shop across the street to record an eyewitness report.
Our tape-recorded audio cuts conveyed a sense of immediacy about news events every time we played them on the air.
Eventually FCC deregulation and radio consolidation removed the incentive for every station to do news, and a large percentage of stations freed themselves from that obligation.
I left my last full-time radio news job a decade and a half ago but I couldn’t forget that snazzy Uher recorder in the WOSH news cabinet. How did local radio news become the powerful medium that I discovered when I graduated from college and became a reporter?
The stories of how news figured in radio’s beginnings in the 1920s, and how radio networks were created so that the world could be informed of the momentous events of the late 1930s and the 1940s, are well told in authoritative sources such as Erik Barnouw’s “A History of Broadcasting in the United States” trilogy and Ed Bliss’s “Now the News.”
But these sources typically shift focus to television when they get to the 1950s. They fail to tell the story of what I would call The Golden Era of Local Radio News.
My search for books on the history of radio news after the development of television was fruitless. I had to go to other sources: former supervisors and their colleagues who were all a decade or two older than me and who had lived through this transitional period.
Radio news in the first half of the twentieth century was almost always live, for two basic reasons. The networks had policies against using recorded audio, and the available recording technology was bulky and unreliable. The news of that day was reported through wire copy and occasional live special event coverage. Wire recorders existed but they were not user-friendly.
The first major innovation that reshaped radio news was the magnetic tape recorder, which made recorded events sound as if they were live. German engineers played an important role it its development, and the technology helped trick the Allies during World War II. Captured models were spirited back to the U.S. right after the war ended. Magnetic reel-to-reel tape recorders began to be used in radio stations in the 1950s.
Wayne Corey was with WBCH in Hastings, Mich., when the station acquired two state-of-the-art, portable Ampex recorders in the early 1960s. They were in two big suitcases and were used primarily in the main control room. They could also be deployed for special events.
“I took one of them out to tape football games and occasionally set one up at a city council meeting,” he said. “The things we taped were rebroadcast in long segments.”
At about the same time Jim Orr was at KCRG radio in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He remembered noticing news sound bites, or actualities, starting to appear in ABC network newscasts in the early 1960s.
“Portable tape recorders were never used by newsmen at that station through 1964, possibly because the equipment wasn’t out there to any degree; it just wasn’t being done,” he said.
It took two more major technical innovations to complete the recorded audio revolution in radio news. The audio tape cartridge was introduced in 1959, and the tape cassette was introduced in 1963.
The tape cartridge used a tape loop of varying standard lengths to record commercials, news actualities, and other programming elements. After each play the cart would loop back to the beginning and stop. To be able to pop a cart in a player and press the start button was a great advancement.
“Even when properly cued on a rack-mounted reel-to-reel machine with remote start/stop switch right next to the mike button, there was always a risk of a wow sound as the reel to reel machine achieved full playback speed,” Orr said.
“The cart machine changed all that. Plus, you could have three or four cuts in the same newscast which would have otherwise required cueing and using four different reel-to-reel decks.”
Bill Vancil, a veteran programmer of radio stations in Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin, said stations in the early 1960s typically used small reels (3 to 5 inches in diameter). “They had a wall of pegs with these little tapes that they would quickly play, rewind, and replace just as they used cart machines later.”
Putting news stories on the air with actualities using tape cartridges was becoming common in 1966, when Orr arrived at KSTT in Davenport, Iowa, to be a field reporter and news anchor. Cassette recorders were available at this time, but the audio quality was deemed not yet equal to the larger tape format. Orr and other news reporters still preferred using portable reel-to-reel recorders, that by this time had shrunk to the size of a dictionary.
That’s when the Uher entered the story. Dick Record, a former news reporter at WISM in Madison, Wis., and then general manager of WIZM in La Crosse, remembers his Uher well.
“It was smaller and easier to carry and operate. It used a 5-inch reel but had several speeds including, I believe, 15/16ths inches per second. That meant I could tape a whole county board or city council meeting and get audio cuts for air use.”
Music and news
The technology of the 1960s allowed for more aggressive radio news coverage at the local level. Record believes it was actually the competitive radio environment that drove the change.
In earlier decades, when network entertainment ruled radio, listeners tuned in to hear their favorite shows rather than a particular radio station. After network entertainment jumped to television, innovative radio programmers seized on the idea of jukebox-style music programming. The Top 40 format arrived to revive radio in the mid-1950s.
When another decade had gone by, there were a lot of Top 40 radio stations. Many were searching for programming distinctions to help them attract larger audiences. They discovered that a station that had reporters on the street, covering local news events, had a promotional advantage. Unlike the early days of radio, newscasts were now heard hourly, even more frequently during rush hour.
Vancil recalled that this was a time when powerhouse Top 40 stations successfully combined fast-paced hourly newscasts with rock and roll music and personality announcers. They promoted news heavily, and in many markets they became a more popular news source than the traditional full-service stations.
He cited examples such as WISM vs. WIBA in Madison; KSTT vs. WOC in Davenport; KIOA vs. WHO in Des Moines; WLS vs. WGN in Chicago and WMCA vs. WNBC in New York City.
The 1960s and ’70s was an exciting time to be a radio news reporter. Society was going through major changes and there was lots of news to report. There were hundreds of radio news jobs across the country, with many stations in each market competing to have the best news coverage.
Since then the technology has evolved in other directions thanks to digital platforms, smartphones and the internet. Today there’s still radio news but it’s primarily confined to a much smaller number of all-news, news/talk and public radio stations.
However, there are thousands of men and women who share the memories of reporting news on the radio during the highly competitive Golden Era of Local Radio News.
Gordon Govier reported on news in Wisconsin, Ill., and Nebraska during his 30-year radio career. He produces a self-syndicated weekly radio program/podcast called “The Book & The Spade,” which covers biblical archaeology and can be heard at radioscribe.com.