October 31, 2015

From our overstocked archives: Battery operated tape recorders

The excellent new film, Bridge of Spies, was particularly interesting to me because I covered the Gary Powers story as a 22 year old Washington radio reporter. This photo  from the Washington Daily News shows me sitting to the right of Mrs. Powers during a news conference. Why was I sitting so close to her? Because I was using a new toy known as a battery operated tape recorder. Here's what I wrote about dealing with these devices:

Sam Smith - These devices were about three inches thick, five inches wide and ten inches long. The microphone, a small rectangular piece of plastic, was permanently attached by a cord just short enough to complicate the task of securing the mike to a stand at a news conference while simultaneously resting the recorder itself on the ground.

The recorders were so new that the engineer's union had initially insisted it send a member out with all reporters using one. Fortunately for the future of news radio, this particular piece of featherbedding was scotched. The tape recorders, however, presented a number of other challenges -- including a deep sensitivity to temperature. More than once I returned from an outdoor winter taping -- a burial at Arlington cemetery or a fire -- only to find my recorded voice sounding like Porky Pig as the batteries returned to full power once back in the studio .

Whatever the machines' faults, there were fewer than a dozen stations and networks in Washington that had them, so even a neophyte reporter such as myself had easy access to the most senior politicians.

In a manual on WWDC news reporting that I wrote shortly before leaving the station, I outlined some of the peculiarities of the technology:
The Mohawk is a temperamental machine that gives excellent service until the sunspot level gets too high or some other change takes place . . . [The Steelman recorder] is a useful machine when it works . . . Tape machine repairs are done at Brenner Photo store in the 900 block of Penna. Ave. NW. Parking on D Street in front of the back entrance has netted no tickets so far . . . Brenner Photo does not, as it may appear, swallow tape recorders. It merely chews upon them for several weeks or months, then spits them back at you in more or less repaired condition. Constant phone calls and in-person appearances results in some progress. If things really get desperate, Chuck can be prevailed upon to loan a recorder.

The various machines operate in various ways at various times. For example, they have different proper recording levels and sometimes these change after the machines have been repaired. . .

Do not let the speaker hold the mike unless he is in such a position that you can not comfortably reach him. You will find that the compulsive mike-grabbers often seem to be trying to record themselves internally. Saliva does not help the mike crystal.
The mike stands to which we secured our recorders often belonged to the networks. It took a combination of diplomacy and deference for a young newsman to safely affix his toy machine to the phallic symbol of CBS News, but over time these men became accustomed to such intrusions. My suggestions included: 
Covering events with you on the local level will be the three daily papers, an occasional wire service man, and sometimes a man from WMAL. The basis of successful operation alongside these other news people is largely intuitive and is worked out by experience. But if the WMAL cameraman asks you to move the mike a little to the left, you should do so as long as it does not hamper your work. If you need to get through a crowd of reporters with a mike, polite requests combined with the proper quantity of physical pressure will assure entrance.

There are many events at which over a hundred reporters will be present. Obviously, a dog-eat-dog attitude could easily result in chaos. A scoop is one thing, but it doesn't mean cooperation is eliminated.

Covering national stories, the networks present a problem. The network engineers and cameramen try to intimidate new independent newsmen and like to play tough. Some of their requests are responsible. Sometimes they just are trying to give you a hard time. It gains you nothing to get angry. Be good natured whenever possible; otherwise go about your business ignoring them . . .
In time this policy pays off. One cameraman, without being asked, gave me the idea for the paper clip mike holder. NBC's Johnny Langanegger repaired a transformer for me. A cameraman named Skip lent me a screwdriver at a crucial moment. These men have a job to do and take a certain pride in being old-timers at it. It helps to remember this . . .
Many interviews are done on a pool basis. In the case of fishing expeditions in the corridors of the Capitol, two independents may be seeking the same Congressman at the same time. It is often pointless and annoying to the interviewee to have to go over the same material two, three or more times in separate interviews. Make sure the other party agrees. Mike Turpin got so mad at Steve Dixon 'piggy backing" his interviews that the pair got into a fight that was broken up by a Capitol guard.
The manual also included advice on where to find electric and sound outlets, descriptions of common news locales as well as this note on how to report a presidential news conference:
After the conference there is a mad rush for the few phones available. Since the conferences always end on a half hour, you have a half hour before first airtime. So the simplest thing to do is to go the People's Drug Store on the corner of 17th & Pennsylvania Ave, buy a cup of coffee, sit down at a table and write your story in relative peace.

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