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Looking for ‘Lost Radio’

Don Ramlow with his reel-to-reel tape deck and tapes and vinyl copies of old radio shows he’s found.
Don Ramlow hunts for and preserves Golden Age radio programs

In today’s world of Spotify, satellite radio, and podcasts available with the click of a mouse, it’s hard to remember that radio was once the dominant form of entertainment in people’s homes. It may be even harder to fathom that someone would search out and preserve radio programs from nearly a century ago, but that’s what Don Ramlow is doing.

Ramlow, 75, is perhaps best known in Kalamazoo as a founder and former director and executive producer of All Ears Theatre, a local organization started in 2002 that produces live audio theater performances in the style of the Golden Age of Radio, a 30-year period from the 1930s to early 1960s when shows like The Lone Ranger, Amos ‘n’ Andy, Fibber McGee and Molly, and The Bickersons kept audiences glued to their radios.

Ramlow has pulled back from involvement with All Ears in the past five years, but not from his passion for radio theater. Today, he puts that energy into finding and preserving recordings of radio programs made almost a century ago.

It’s estimated that during the Golden Age of Radio 250,000 individual shows were broadcast, says Ramlow, in genres from comedy and mystery to sci-fi, crime and westerns. But back in the day, they weren’t considered something to be saved for posterity. That is why only 10 percent of those shows are known to have been saved on recorded media. The rest are what preservationists call “lost radio” or “non-circulating” recordings held in private collections.

Since 2015, Ramlow has been a member of the Knights of the Turning Table, a loosely organized group of 20-some preservationists from across the U.S. and Canada who, over the last two decades, have found hundreds of lost shows and located greatly improved recordings of circulating shows.

The Knights don’t keep the recordings they find to themselves but rather put them on the internet for others to access. “We have a shared philosophy that these recordings need to be made available to the public, to anybody,” says Ramlow. (Copies of Golden Age radio shows, including many recordings found by the Knights, may be found at Internet Archive, archive.org.)

Rudimentary recordings

The earliest experimental recordings of radio programs were made on magnetic wire recorders and Edison wax cylinder recorders, but the recording capacity was short, capturing only program segments. The first recordings of full shows were cut with a diamond stylus into 12-inch or 16-inch vinyl — not for posterity but so production studios could prove potential copyright infringement. These discs were stored in closets, but when the discs became too numerous or cumbersome, they were tossed into garbage dumpsters.

“Fortunately for preservationists,” Ramlow says, “some astute employees would call somebody and say, ‘Hey, they just put a big batch of discs out there. Come by and see what you can salvage.’”

During World War II, vinyl was not readily available as a recording medium, so studios cut recordings on glass discs. Listeners used amateur home versions of disc-cutting lathes to record aired programs on thin flexi-discs, which had a coating of plastic applied to cardboard. Only a few of these have survived.
But the Armed Forces Network recorded shows on vinyl, using the highest-fidelity technology available, and shipped discs to troops throughout the world. Ramlow says that many lost shows have been found on those vinyl discs and that the playback quality is often quite good.

When magnetic tape became a popular recording medium in the 1950s, it was a half-inch-wide, reel-to-reel format and expensive. Studios would record an episode, save it for a few weeks, then erase the episode and reuse the tape to record a new episode. As a result, Ramlow says, “after 1956, there was a huge drop-off of preserved shows.”

But those years had some of the best shows ever produced, he says. “By the 1950s, radio theater had been going on for 20 years. The expertise had grown. The professionalism had grown. The writing, the acting, the producing, the technology, but television was fast gaining popularity.

“Those years were really the top,” he adds wistfully. “They were the best radio theater that nobody listened to.”

Where recordings are found

Generally, the Knights of the Turning Table find individual recordings or a few recordings at flea markets, garage sales and antique sales. Larger collections tend to come from estate sales.

“In the last five years,” Ramlow says, “several major collectors of old-time radio either got to the point where they couldn’t work with their collection or they passed on and the heirs didn’t want to keep the collection. They would approach a member of our group or other people and say, ‘I want to make these available to the public.’”

Sometimes the Knights pool their money to buy newly discovered recordings, but they don’t attempt to outbid wealthy individuals, who tend to buy and then keep these treasures to themselves, Ramlow says.

Ramlow tells of how shows are sometimes brought into circulation in a less conventional manner. One day at a radio theater convention, he purchased three flexi-discs for $3 each for the espionage thriller show Counterspy. “I didn’t have a way to play them, but I bought them anyway,” he says. “I mailed them to a friend in California. I’ll be a son of a gun if they weren’t complete episodes of non-circulating shows.

“You never know when or how a lost show is going to surface.”

How preservation is done

Once recordings are found, though, there’s work to be done.

If the Knights acquire a large collection, each person will take a batch of recordings and begin the process of cleaning the original media, then copy the originals to make computerized digital masters, which can be enhanced even further.

Ramlow prefers to preserve recordings that were made on magnetic tape. “I’m better equipped to restore reel-to-reel tape,” he says. “Tape is fragile, so I always clean the tape-deck heads with a Q-tip and a brush between each reel.

“In some cases, the tape squeals (because its binding material breaks down as it passes the playback heads). The way to fix the squeal — and it’s scary — is to bake the tape in an oven at a modest temperature for four or five hours. That dries out the oils (in which the magnetic particles are suspended) so they don’t squeal.

“Sometimes I’m running the tape past the playback heads and there’s a pool of black magnetic powder falling beneath the machine. That’s stuff falling off the tape, which means the original is no longer usable. But I keep it (the process) going because I’m getting the new master before the magnetic medium falls away.”

Knights who work with vinyl recordings clean the discs, then remove the sounds of scratches and pops from the digital master. Ramlow says that a preservationist who specializes in vinyl discs can spend thousands of dollars on needles and stylus cartridges.

“There are special needles for 78 rpm discs and special needles for 33-1/3 rpm discs. They come in different micro sizes,” Ramlow explains. “Then you have truncated needles, which means they’re cut in a certain way, and vertical needles. If the original disc has been played many times, the grooves will be wider, so you need a larger needle for a better fit because a smaller needle will move back and forth in the groove.”

Then there are metal discs, made of aluminum or steel, that engineers experimented with in the 1930s and early ’40s. These were coated with lacquer into which the recording lathe cut the groove, but they’re also subject to acidification and delamination. “The lacquer turns white, and pieces fall off the disc,” Ramlow explains. “When that happens, the disc is worthless.

But, he adds, people still save the pieces in a sealed plastic bag because a solution is on the horizon. “The technology isn’t quite there yet, and the equipment is very expensive,” Ramlow says, “but soon it will be possible to lay all the pieces on a table and have a computer scan the grooves, no matter where they are on the table, and electronically put the puzzle back together.

Even for vinyl discs that are still in one piece, Ramlow foresees the day when a computer will scan the grooves and create a digital master. “We’ll be able to get a wonderful recording without ever dropping a needle on the disc.”

Robert M. Weir

Robert is a writer, author, speaker, book editor and authors’ coach. You can see more of his work at robertmweir.com.

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