Transcribers and Wire Recorders

wire recorderpresto transcriber

The wire recorder (above left) were used in offices for dictation in the twenties and thirties. During forties they were used by reporters assigned to cover World War II. Wire recordings were not impossible to edit, but it was not easy. They were introduced as consumer recorders in the forties but the much handier magnetic recorders with better sound quality, introduced after World War II, doomed their popularity.

The Associated Press reported recently that a wire recording of a Woody Guthrie concert was recently sent to the Guthrie family by the heirs of a man who had recorded the concert in 1949. It's the only recording known of a live Woody Guthrie concert.

Transcribers (above right), or disc cutters, created a new acetate record with every recording. The quality was similar to a commercially produced record but the disc could not be edited unless it was dubbed to another medium, such as magnetic tape. The machines were large and bulky and difficult to move, so they deployed for news reporting in the field only on rare occasions. This was the kind of machine that Herbert Morrison used to record the wreck of the Hindenburg.

Twin sisters Maxine and Eileen Newcomer were popular singers of WWVA radio during the forties. After their death a cache of hundreds of homemade records was found in their belongings. They not only recorded their own performances but many other performers of the era, as well as radio news reports and other events. The recordings are now at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.


Reel to Reel tape recorders

Ampex 600

The magnetic tape recorder's roots go back to the end of the 19th century,[56] when an early prototype was demonstrated at the Paris Exposition. German engineers developed the magnetic recorder in the early 20th century but the technology didn't become widespread until after World War II. Allied soldiers were impressed with the sound quality and brought the recorders back to the U.S. Radio stations across the U.S. soon turned in their disc cutters and wire recorders for the magnetic tape recorders. The Ampex 600 (shown left) was designed as a portable recorder (note the handle on the side). It was about the size of a Samsonite suitcase, and weighed about the same as a suitcase packed with books. Such recorders were typically taken out of the radio studio only for recording special occasions.

Uher 4000

Transistorization allowed tape recorders and other electronics to reduce their size and become more portable. The Uher recorder (shown right) was popular with radio news reporters in the late sixties, when coverage of local radio news was becoming common practice at competitive radio stations across the country. About the size of a large dictionary, or a couple of laptop computers stacked atop one another, the Uher was a big improvement over the heavier tape recorders that preceded it.

The Tape Cartridge Recorder and Player

The Tape Cartridge format was introduced in 1959 specifically for use at radio stations. The format is similar in concept but technically different than the 8-track stereo tape format that was briefly popular with music consumers about a decade later. Before the tape cartridge recorded commercials, announcements, and news audio was played off of records or reel to reel tape recordings.

cart machine

The reel to reel recordings were often on small reels that could be cued quickly by using leader tape. But quickly was a relative term, it was still a time consuming process, prone to error, to thread the tape onto the heads of a tape player. On longer reels a slip of paper might mark the location where the playback of a specific segment was supposed to begin. A moment's inattention on the part of the board operator could easily lose the important location, and precious time would be lost cueing back and forth to find it.

The tape cart solved that problem with a tape loop that always returned to the inaudible cue tone that marked the beginning of the audio segment. Commercials, news actualities, public service announcements, sound effects, all were dubbed to cart and then easily accessible by popping the cart into the machine. It made radio much more efficient, and radio news much more interesting with many more voices available in each newscast.

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

Cassette Tape Recorders

The compact tape cassette was introduced by Philips in 1963, just about the time radio news reporting became highly competitive among local radio stations across the country. The format wasn't technically on the same level as reel to reel recordings at first, and reporters weren't ready to give up their compact reel to reel recorders at first. But the technology improved.

Sony TC110

SONY's introduced of the TC 110 seemed designed particularly for radio news reporters. The TC-110 was particularly handy for filing phone reports from the field complete with actuality. The reporter would cue up the audio cut and patch the recorder to the phone with alligator clips. Then while the tape was rolling back at the station or even broadcasting live over the air, the reporter would press just the record button to send his own voice over the phone, switch to the play button to play the actuality down the line, and then switch back to the record button to wrap up the report. (The record button and the play button had to be pressed simultaneously to actually make a recording with the TC-110.)

The SONY TC142 was even better for radio news, and like the TC 110 was very durable. Reporters were known to get quite attached to machines, as they relied on them year after year to bring in each day's news stories. SONY model TCM 5000 tape recorder, suitable for radio news coverage, is still available through electronics stores for about $500. Most radio reporters now use digital technology though.


Mini Disc and Digital Audio Tape

Sony Dat machine

In the eighties digital recording technology became available in the form of Digital Audio Tape (DAT) and MiniDisc. DAT machines were favored by purists because they did not compress the audio as the MiniDisc did. Eventually CD recorders and other digital technology surpassed DAT and SONY stopped selling the machines in 2005.

Sony MiniDisc

The MiniDisc format recorded a compressed audio signal on a disc about half the size of a CD. The discs were re-recordable for an unlimited number of times. And because most MiniDisc recorders were only slightly larger than the discs themselves, their portability made them very attractive to many news reporters. Unlike cassette machines, where tape had to be forwarded and rewound to locate a cut, MiniDisc audio clips would be marked and accessed almost immediately. Some machines also had internal editing capabilities so cuts could be rearranged and sound packages edited in the field. However, the machines were not always as reliable as the analog audio cassette and Digital Audio Cassette machines.

Edirol flash recorder

Flash Recorders

Radio news reporters today favor portable flash recorders, digital technology that records easily downloadable WAV or MP3 format audio onto media such as compact flash cards or secure data cards. This audio can be downloaded into a computer in a matter of seconds for easy editing with a computerized audio editor.

Audio recorded by a cassette recorder, DAT machine or MiniDisc recorder can also be edited by a computerized audio editor. However it first must be played into the computer in real time.

The News Wire

WPRE news printer

For decades the news stories flowed into radio newsrooms through a data line connected to a wire service printer that clanked continuously. The Associated Press and United Press International each had a special broadcast wire, which provided news copy written especially for broadcast. The wire provided national and international news, as well as state news. The news was the same for every station in the state, although each station had the option of rewriting the stories and supplementing the stories with their own coverage of local news.

"The radio newsroom, in its simplest form, is nothing more than a news printer set up in a closet off somebody's office, delivering its sixty words of news a minute," wrote Mitchell Charnley in 1948. [57] In this photo, news director Norb Aschom prepares a newscast at the newsdesk next to the UPI news printer at WPRE in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, circa 1970.

By the late seventies new, faster printers began to appear in newsrooms, offering menus of specialized news feeds. Today the news wire is fed into a computer containing specialized software that sorts the news by category. News reporters also use the internet to confirm facts and investigate alternative stories and story ideas.


56. For an in-depth treatment of the development of magnetic tape recording, see Casettes Chronicled, a project of my classmate, Kristin Czubkowski, at

57. Charnley, 72