Recording devices are integral elements of our media systems: they enable the preservation, collection, distribution and re-use of content. Their history traces a recurrent pattern of technical innovation, industry disruption and contentious cultural diffusion. New recording technologies have successively transformed Australia’s media.
Before World War II, radio broadcasting relied on a few sources of content: live performance, familiar gramophone discs and the ‘transcription discs’ used to distribute programs. But discs were difficult to produce quickly and reliably. Broadcasters needed devices that could record and play back interviews, talks and performances more rapidly, and a variety of machines for these purposes began to appear in Australian radio production studios from the 1930s onwards. From the perspective of later technologies, these early systems seem very limited, but they represented dramatic extensions in the capability of broadcasting and audio production.
The ABC acquired a few disc-based devices, and by 1936 it had a Marconi-Stille recorder that used metal tape. While disc recordings were of relatively high quality, they were limited to only a few minutes for each of the side of the disc, and could not be edited. Metal tapebased systems were more useful, but also more technically complex. The Marconi machine, for example, could record programs up to 30 minutes. The metal tape could be wiped and reused, cut, spliced and soldered back together, although this editing process weakened the tape, and breakages were a frequent problem. Early recording technologies for post-war television were just as complicated and cumbersome, with specialised film cameras (‘Kinetoscopes’), used to capture audio-visual content.
Plastic tape-based recording transformed both radio and television in the 1950s and 1960s, with dramatic improvements in the cost, quality, reliability and immediacy of recording. Editing was dramatically improved. Tape became the medium for advertising and made possible all kinds of repetitive program elements.
Histories of recording technologies often emphasise two over-arching trajectories: the first a rising curve representing continuous improvements in quality, and the second a line falling equally quickly, representing reductions in cost. The significance of this dynamic cannot be under-estimated for the industry, politics and cultural aspects of broadcasting. A simple example is the appearance of the community radio sector in the 1970s, which would not have been possible without the falling costs of professional-quality tape-based broadcasting.
Two further elements of this evolution draw out the importance of these changes for our media history. The first is mobility and portability. While the first tape and wire recorders and the Kinetoscopes gave broadcasters some control over the process within the studio, plastic tape and the technologies around it helped to take media production and news-gathering out of the studio.
Solid-state electronics enabled smaller, more mobile devices. In the 1970s, the analogue video ‘Portapak’ emerged as a cheaper, more flexible alternative to 16mm cameras, creating the conditions not only for a self-conscious brand of ‘eyewitness’ journalism, but also for a wave of activist, social documentary, known in Australia as ‘process video’. In the same period, Marantz produced a series of lightweight professional- quality audio recorders using compact cassettes.
The second is a related transformation, where the technologies of video and audio recording migrated from specialised professional markets for media production into a new world of media consumption. Consumer devices for recording media began to proliferate in households in the second half of the 1970s. They are important in the history of Australian media for many reasons. Along with the other ‘new television technologies’ of the period—among them cassette- based early home computers and games consoles, and optical disc drives—they began to open up television to new sources and kinds of content.
In Australia, the earliest recording devices to achieve widespread diffusion were audiocassette recorders, from the early 1970s, and then the video-cassette recorder (VCR), introduced in 1978. VCR ownership in Australian metropolitan households climbed steeply through the 1980s, reaching a mid-80 per cent level by 1996, and a high point of 89 per cent in 2002.
VCRs changed television in unexpected ways. They gave viewers a form of local storage, and a new format for sharing, rental, purchase and exchange: the book-sized, plastic cassette. Initially bitterly resisted by producers and rights holders, the video market became a vital additional revenue stream for the producers of movies and television shows, if not for the broadcasters. Almost incidentally, VCRs gave viewers remote controls, which enabled them to jump between channels, avoiding, muting or fast-forwarding through advertisements. So VCRs began a larger redefinition of television, from a single-source device designed and dedicated to broadcast television to a general-purpose domestic audiovisual display.
A final phase of transformation is important to note. The turn-of-the-century switch to digital household media, in the form of CDs and DVDs, represented a deliberate step back from consumer recording: these were for playback only. The same can be said of the more recent internet-based streaming media, including the on-demand services offered by broadcasters, and the platforms controlled by Apple, Amazon and other digital behemoths. An interesting feature of this new media environment is the flourishing, alongside these new systems for controlling content, of a remarkably resilient and vibrant informal economy of household recording, sharing and exchange—an economy that remains the subject of sustained controversy, both within and beyond our media.
REFs: D. Morton, Off the Record (1999); J.F. Ross, Radio Broadcasting Technology (1998).