Jean Shepherd Air Checks and Dating
With the introduction of affordable reel to reel tape recorders, a whole new avenue of radio preservation was born. Previously, old radio shows were preserved on Electrical transcription discs, magnetic wire recorders and reel to reel tape at the studios.
Some home recording using the above methods was done as early as the 1930's, but due to the cost, the wire and tapes were 'recycled' to record newer shows. In the early 1950's as reel to reel tape became more affordable, tapes began to survive since they were not used to record on again as often.
Jean Shepherd listeners began to catch on to this idea of preserving shows, at least temporarily so they could be listened to later or sent to a friend or even a relative in the military.
As time progressed, the equipment became more affordable as well as the tape and by the late 1950s more and more shows would survive although not too many. In the 1960s reel to reel became an important part of any audiophiles equipment. As the price of tape continued to drop, tapes were less likely to be used again and the idea of preserving them 'forever' began to catch on.
One enthusiast made some of the best recordings during the mid sixties, many of them from FM when Shepherd was carried on both WOR AM and WOR FM. The AM quality was not as 'clean' as FM, so after the FM signal was dropped August 1st 1966 due to FCC regulations, all recordings had to be made from AM. In the 70s the show may have been carried occasionally in other cities via syndication efforts and thus carried on FM. But the original WOR broadcasts remained on AM until 1977 when Shep left the air.
Speaking of quality...
There are many factors affecting the quality of the shows that survive today. As mentioned above, Shep was being carried on both WOR AM and WOR FM from 1955 until the FCC ruling in 1966. FM provided a much cleaner recording environment free from the static of AM.
The next item affecting quality is the method by which the connection between radio and recorder is made. A lot of people, especially early on, recorded by placing the microphone in front of the radio speaker. If the recordee lived alone in a soundproof room, all would be well. But many early recordings that were done with a microphone are dotted with background noises such as dishes being washed, people talking, and even airplanes going overhead. The second method is a direct 'hard' connection between the radio and recorder. Usually the connection to the recorder was a standard plug, but because many people used older radios, there were ho jacks to plug into. Hence the creative people would remove the back of the radio, if it wasn't removed already to accommodate tube replacement, and make the connection to the speaker using alligator clips. (Sorry kids - this is way beyond iPod technology!) This method gave the best quality connection.
The final factor affecting quality is the recording equipment. The reel to reel recorder was the most predominant method, however in the 1970s the cassette recorder began to catch on.
There are reel to reel recordings that have surfaced which are "studio" copies which were recorded on professional equipment. These are superior quality and not discussed any further. Home recordings from reel to reel can vary in quality based on the type and brand of tape used. BASF vs Lafayette Radio. People (kids) with limited budgets opted for the cheaper Lafayette brand which, quite often, was used over and over leading to more quality issues. And the final factor was speed. Most reel to reel recorders offered 3 recording speeds: 1-7/8, 3-3/4, and 7-1/2 inches per second. The faster speed offered the best quality, but used the most tape. Depending on how many feet the reel held, you could usually fit 2 shows on each side. 1 show recorded on the left channel and one on the right on each side. Using the 1-7/8 speed allowed recording more shows, but the quality suffered a bit.
All of this covers just the initial recording of shows.
BUT - we like to share.
The original recording is considered a 1st generation copy. If you make a copy for your friend from that 1st generation copy, the new copy is a 2nd generation copy. If your friend makes a copy for a friend from that 2nd generation copy, the new one is a 3rd generation copy, and so on. Each time a copy is made there is a loss of quality, so is you compare a 4th generation copy to a 1st generation copy there is a noticeable difference.
And then there is the newer digital formats - MP3 being the most common used for Shepherd shows. Shows are converted from tape to MP3 using recording software on your computer. Digital is superior to tape since it does not deteriorate over time like tape does. Digital maintains its quality from copy to copy - ALMOST.
First off, you want your digital copy to be made from a 1st generation tape using good reel to reel equipment with clean heads. Second you want to record your MP3 using the best quality format - 128kbps is a really good format for quality but the file size of a typical 45 minute show is about 45mb. If you use a lower bit rate such as 32kbps the file size is much smaller, about 7mb, but the quality suffers.
If you want good quality and have a lot of disk space, the 128kbps is the best choice.
And then there is eBay and the internet.
Most of the shows available on the internet or on eBay are 3rd+ generation copies and highly compressed files. (32kbps).
Max Schmid, who has shows on WBAI in New York is also a Jean Shepherd enthusiast and has amassed one of the largest collections of 1st generation tapes from fans who recorded the shows themselves. Max has spent endless hours preserving these shows first on tape and then digitally, making speed corrections when necessary, and cleaning them up to eliminate hums, hisses and make corrections to bass and treble. He has a catalog of cassette tapes of all these shows which he offers for sale through his Schmidco outlet. He also plays shows on his radio programs. At one time his Mass Backwards show was a weekly rebroadcast of selected shows which he tried to relate to either the date or recent events. These were recorded and posted on flicklives.com for those who missed the show or wanted to hear them again could download them.
Enter eBay and internet downloads. Most of the CDs for sale on eBay were compiled from Schmidco tapes or Mass Backwards replays. Some of these have Max's interruption for the WBAI station ID. These CDs contain hundreds of shows compressed at 32kbps or lower and are 3rd or 4th generation copies of the original show. The internet downloads are posted from these CDs so the quality is about the same.
The best source for quality is through Schmidco - not a commercial, just fact.
The only exception here is the Radio Again series of syndicated shows offered through Radio Spirits. These shows were recorded by Shep back arounf 1965-66 for the purpose of syndication through a company called Hartwest. This never happened and there are hundreds of shows that were never aired or heard. A deal was made a few years back to release these through Radio Again in sets of 4 or 8 shows. To date 56 shows have been released with hopefully a lot more to come. These are all high quality CDs made from original studio tapes. None of these shows have any dating.
Which brings us to... Dating!
Fortunately most people made note of the date of the shows when they recorded. Quite often though they did not or they made only reference to a partial date, Month and Day but no year. And then there were those who didn't date at all.
If a show has no date or even a partial one, it is possible to determine the date of the show using various hints contained in what Shep says, the music he plays, the commercials, news reports which were recorded at the beginning or end of the show, even breaking news interruptions. It may even be a combination of any of these.
First, listen to Shep. He makes a lot of little comments that are very important. He may just mention that it's Tuesday, or the first day of spring. He might ask "Did everyone have a good time last night? Wasn't that a great show?" which indicates he did a live performance - but which one? Keep listening for clues. Many times in the commercials there is a new book or movie coming out which could give us a month and year. He even does pitches for upcoming Limelight Shows or college shows which could help.
The music he uses could be an indication of a time period. Some tunes he used all the time but others he used only for a brief period.
Commercials are another indicator for periods of time. He may have had a sponsor called Ajax Plumbing but only for a few months in 1972 for example.
Reference to weather or holidays could help also.
One issue with dating occurs when syndicated shows are recorded. Shep did his show live every night for the most part. In later years there were various attempts to syndicate the shows and one example is with a Boston FM station who used to broadcast the shows about 1 week after the original airing. There was another attempt at syndication done by Shep and Herb Squire, his engineer, called International Jawbreaker. These show were sent out all around the country to various stations. These were 30 minute formats of earlier 45 minute WOR shows. The commercials were removed and some of Shep's dialog to make a 30 minute show. If those shows were recorded and dated there could be a mis-dating of several months.
MANY, MANY hours go into the preservation of shows to clean them up, as well as attempts to identify the dates when necessary. Over the years this effort has been carried out by a handful of dedicated Shep fans working together. Those efforts have yielded over 3200 shows most of which were originally recorded by fans.
Made in the USA
"Can you imagine 4,000 years passing, and you're not even a memory?
Think about it, friends. It's not just a possibility. It is a certainty." - Jean Shepherd - 1975