How Bing Crosby Brought You Audiotape
In 1933, as the Nazis took control of Germany and began to prepare for conquest, one of their first priorities was research into radio communication. Two years later German industry produced a new tool for the trade of listening: the Magnetophon magnetic tape recorder. The Magnetophon was the first truly practical recorder that used tape, and it emerged in the aftermath of World War II to set the modern course of magnetic recording. In America Bing Crosby staked his career in broadcasting to start a revolution for Magnetophon technology.
At the beginning of World War II, when the Germans were relying on tape recording, the Allies turned to magnetic recorders running wire or steel bands. All three were roughly equivalent in their common uses: speeding coded transmissions, retaining flight and battle information, and monitoring enemy communications. The tape recorder, however, offered far greater potential for improvement.
As the German army advanced and occupied more territory—in various time zones—Nazi leaders balked at having to repeat their radio speeches over and over again. Two engineers at the German Radio Network, W. Weber and H. J. von Braunmühl, were assigned to improve the Magnetophon so that it could fool radio listeners into thinking that they were hearing live broadcasts. Working in Berlin in the summer of 1940, Weber and Braunmühl learned that the addition of a high-frequency current in the recording process would clear out extraneous hisses. At around the same time, I. G. Farben, the chemical concern, developed a plastic tape that improved the consistency of the Magnetophon’s sound reproduction.
The new Magnetophon was so effective that American intelligence officers didn’t even know of its existence until they noticed that certain German leaders seemed to be on the air around the clock delivering live speeches. John Mullin, an Army Signal Corps technical expert, reported hearing Berlin Philharmonic programs in the middle of the night with sound far better than from records. From afar the Americans realized that the Nazis had perfected sound recording.
When the Allies took the offensive in France in 1944, advance troops were given orders to retrieve a Magnetophon at the earliest opportunity. All that they found, time after time, was that German radio operators were obeying orders to destroy equipment before leaving it. Finally, in April 1945, the Americans captured a Magnetophon in Frankfurt-am-Main. Technicians, including Mullin, arrived to examine it, but by then the Signal Corps was overwhelmed with captured matériel.
As the war came to an end, the GI readers of ‘ Yank were asked to vote for the person who had done the. most to boost their morale overseas. The winner was Bing Crosby. Crosby was the number-one movie star in America and sold more records than anyone else, by far. He was also the most popular singer on the radio, yet when he said he wanted to prerecord his weekly show, the “warfare was practically frontpage news,” as he wrote in his memoirs. All prime-time radio shows were broadcast live before 1946. Recorded shows were outlawed on the basis that they would undermine the function of the networks and sound cheesy anyway.
ABC Radio, the weakling among networks, took Crosby in, gladly, and he was allowed to record his show using the reigning technology of the day, wax disks. This victory gave him creative control, but most of all it meant that he wouldn’t have to be in town and at the studio on thirty-nine straight Thursdays each year.
Bob Hope was the guest star on Crosby’s first recorded program, October 16, 1946, and on later shows. Whenever he ad-libbed something racy during the show or read a joke that fizzled, he would lean back and call over to the sound engineer, “Lift the needle on that one, will you, boy!” Editing a wax disk was a laborious process, but it allowed engineers to take what Crosby called “the flab” out of a show, leaving the best thirty minutes for broadcast.
At first the experiment worked; ratings were high. As the season progressed, though, the show faltered amid complaints that the music sounded tinny and Crosby’s voice “fuzzy.” The whole process appeared to be more trouble than it was worth, and Crosby came under terrific pressure to give it up and revert to live broadcasts. But he delayed a decision and asked his producers to investigate magnetic recording. Magnetic recording in its wire form was a rising star of the postwar market, but it seemed unlikely to offer anything good enough for a radio show until the producers met Mullin, who had sent two surplus Magnetophons home from the war. He staged a demonstration of his own improved version, developed in conjunction with a flagging company called Ampex.
The season premiere of Bing Crosby’s show, October 1, 1947, was the broadcast premiere—in America—of magnetic tape recording. It sounded so much like a live broadcast that other radio stars immediately demanded to prerecord their shows; the old network ban subsequently collapsed. Radio stations and record producers, rushing to buy Ampex tape recorders, were directed to deal with the distributor, Bing Crosby Enterprises. Ampex used its Crosby windfall to develop other commercial recorders, becoming a leader in the industry, and Mullin took the job of chief engineer at Bing Crosby Enterprises.
Bing Crosby was the only entertainer powerful enough to advance the development of magnetic tape so quickly. He also happened to be the only one clever enough to want to and stubborn enough to need to.