Rock & Roll and Radio News


Radio was poised to move ahead into exciting new territory when World War II ended. The war coverage from Europe and the Pacific, and the desire for entertainment to lift spirits during the war, had created a nation of avid radio listeners. New technology from the war effort, including magnetic tape recording developed by German engineers, promised programming innovations.


There was just one problem: television. Despite massive growth (from 943 stations in 1945 to well over 5,000 AM and FM stations in 1967) [15] radio lost its supremacy in the nation's living rooms. The top broadcasters in entertainment jumped from radio to the new, more exciting medium that combined sight and sound. But radio eventually found a new, livelier format that brought new vitality to the elder medium.

"Everybody in the radio business who had given serious thought to radio's news service, either as programming in the public interest or as a highly salable commodity, had been predicting since before V-E Day that local news was destined to increase vastly in importance to the radio newsroom," observed one analyst. [16] During the war years radio news on the four networks (CBS, NBC, Mutual and ABC-created out of the NBC Blue Network) increased by more than 300 percent. Surveys in the months following the war showed interest in news had not dropped significantly.

Some radio stations had experience assigning reporters to cover local news. Most did not. The National Association of Broadcasters sponsored a series of clinics in 1945 and 1946 for broadcasters across the country. The topic of most interest was "Local news: What are we doing with it? What can we do with it?"

The National Association of Radio News Directors was formed in March, 1946 (becoming the Radio Television News Directors Association-RTNDA-in 1953) to cultivate news professionalism. The INS newswire began circulating a publication called the Newscaster, a free 4-page monthly, focusing on local radio news issues. In the November, 1945 issue, Iowa broadcaster Jack Shelley challenged his colleagues, "Now is the time to discover your police court and statehouse with your own men, if you've never done it before. With wire or film recorders, there are dozens of state and local stories which can be covered with on-the-spot material you didn't have room for during the war days." [17]

Even better than wire or film recorders were tape recorders, the real first wave of a tide of audio recording innovation that continues to this day. Magnetic tape recorders were developed by German engineers during World War II and discovered by allied soldiers at wars end. The technology jumped across the Atlantic with the returning GI's and soon was seen (and heard) in radio studios across the country.

While the magnetic tape recorder was a great tool that found an immediate home in almost every radio station, three more innovations were needed before radio news took full advantage of the technology.

The first was the transistor, discovered in 1947 by three Bell Laboratory engineers in New Jersey. (Walter Brattain, John Bardeen and William Shockley received the 1956 Nobel prize for their discovery.) [18] The transistor and other electronic innovations eventually (several decades later) helped tape recorders to shrink in size and become more portable, increasing their utility to radio field reporters.


Reel-to-reel tape recorders are large and heavy. So while they were quickly implemented by radio stations in the decades after World War II, their use through the fifties was primarily in the studio or for special event coverage. When radio stations used taped audio in their news it was usually an extended segment.

WBCH in Hastings, Michigan acquired two state-of-the-art, portable Ampex recorders in the early 1960's. They were not their first tape recorders but they were an exciting step forward. They were used primarily in the main control room but could be deployed for special events. "I took one of them out to tape football games and occasionally set it up at a city council meeting," remembers newsman Wayne Corey. "The things we taped were rebroadcast in long segments." [19]

At KCRG radio in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, newsman Jim Orr noticed news sounds bites, or actualities, starting to appear in ABC network newscasts in the early sixties. "Portable tape recorders were never used by newsmen at that station through 1964 - possibly because the equipment wasn't out there to any degree AND it just wasn't being done," he recalled. [20]

tape carttape cassette


In the mid sixties two major technical innovations started to make their way to radio stations across the country, revolutionizing radio news. The audio tape cartridge (above left), [21] introduced in 1959, and the tape cassette (above right), [22] introduced in 1963.

Cart Machine

The tape cartridge or cart, as it's usually called, used a tape loop of varying lengths to record commercials, news actualities and other programming elements. After each play the cart would loop back to the beginning. To be able to pop a cart in a machine and press the start button was a great advancement over reel to reel tapes which had to be threaded across the playback head and then cued precisely to the correct start location on the tape.

Radio stations started using cart machines almost immediately. They were a little slower to adapt cassettes into regular news use. The changes happened in different stages at each radio station across the country. The examples of a few stations in the Midwest are representative of many others.

Bill Vancil, a veteran of radio stations in Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin, recalls that before cart machines radio announcers had to be extra nimble. "Stations in the early sixties often used very small reels (3-5 inches in diameter) and had a wall of pegs with these little tapes that they would quickly play, rewind, and replace just as they used cart machines later down the line." [23]

Getting a tape cued and started could be challenging in the time sensitive radio station environment. Jim Orr explains:

"Playing short quick sound bites from a reel to reel deck just wasn't easy. 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. 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 if you didn't want to run over during the commercial and cue up the 2nd cut on a reel to reel." [24]

Back in Michigan, Wayne Corey moved to WSJM in St. Joseph in 1963. In the next couple of years the station installed cart machines and the WSJM newscasts began including actualities. WSJM's main competition, WHFB, was owned jointly by two local newspapers and used the papers as the main source of local information for its newscasts. But once the use of news actualities became common WHFB had to start generating its own news to stay competitive. [25]

KSTT Newscrew

In 1966, in Davenport, Iowa, the KSTT news department was expanding when Jim Orr arrived to become a field reporter and news anchor. Getting news stories on the air with actualities was becoming common practice. While cassette recorders were available at this time, the audio quality was not yet comparable to the larger tape format. So Orr and many other newsmen still preferred using portable reel to reel recorders. By this time they were available in models that were almost book size (a large book, like a dictionary).


One of the most popular, portable reel-to-reel tape recorders of this era (the 1960's) was the Uher. Dick Record, a former news reporter at WISM in Madison WI, and now the general manager of WIZM in La Crosse WI, remembers his Uher well. "It was smaller than tape recorders before it. And easier to carry and operate. It used a five inch reel but had several speeds including, I believe, 15/16ths ips. That meant I could tape a whole county board or city council meeting and get audio cuts for air use." [26]

It was helpful that the technology was becoming available to allow for much more aggressive radio news coverage at the local level. But Record believes it was the competitive radio environment which was driving the trend.

Back 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, a couple of innovative radio programmers seized on the idea of jupebox style music programming. The Top 40 format, based on the idea of continually playing the top 40 hottest songs, arrived in the mid fifties in the nick of time to revive radio. It also helped usher in a new style of music, which became known as Rock & Roll.[27]

After another decade had gone by, there were a lot of Top 40 radio stations. Many were searching for other programming distinctives to help them attract larger audiences. One competitive advantage a station had was local news coverage. A station that had reporters on the street, sending back audio cuts from local news events, had a promotional advantage. It was also often providing easily accessible information that listeners weren't getting anywhere else. Unlike the early days of network radio, newscasts were now heard hourly, even more frequently during rush hour.[28]

As Bill Vancil recalled, this was a time when powerhouse TOP 40 stations successfully combined fast paced hourly newscasts with rock & roll and personality jocks. They promoted news heavily, and in many markets they become more of a news source than the local full-service stations, such as WISM vs. WIBA in Madison, Wisconsin; KSTT vs. WOC in Davenport (two stations where he worked); KIOA vs. WHO in Des Moines; WLS vs. WGN in Chicago; WMCA vs. WNBC in New York City, and others.[29]

Sony 110

In the early 1970s SONY introduced the TC-110 cassette tape recorder and it soon became radio news standard for the next decade. It provided a quality recording for interviews and news conferences as reporters were sent out on their daily assignments in quest of news actualities.

The sixties and seventies were an exciting time to be a radio news reporter. Society was going through major changes and there were hundreds of radio news jobs across the country, with many stations in each market competing to have the best news coverage.




15. Gordon and Falk, 161
16. Mitchell Charnley, News by Radio (New York, The MacMillan Company, 1948), 235
17. Ibid, 237
18. Eliene Augenbraun et al, Transistorized http://www.pbs.org/transistor/index.html (1999)
19. Wayne Corey, email, December 3, 2007
20. Jim Orr, email, December 8, 2007
21. Bob Pooler Vintage Audio History http://www.videointerchange.com/audio_history.htm
22. Kristin Czubkowski Caught on Tape: Cassettes in the History of Recorded Sound, https://mywebspace.wisc.edu/czubkowski/J676/cassette.html, November 2007
23. Bill Vancil, email correspondence, November 7, 2007
24. Orr
25. Corey
26. Dick Record, email correspondence, October 26, 2007
27. Tom Shovan, "Radio's Pioneer Programmers." (Radio Ink, West Palm Beach FL: July 10-23, 1995), 96
28. Dick Record, email correspondence, December 4, 2007
29. Vancil

Photo credit: Cart machine photo is courtesy of www.videointerchange.com "Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 Video Interchange - Used with permission