There are many individuals who own copies of Old-Time Radio Programs on CD or audio cassettes. Most of these people have more than one cassette. They have private collections of radio programs. Many collections consist of one type of program (i.e. comedy, mystery, drama, adventure, detective, musical, and so forth). Some collections are more specific (i.e. Fibber McGee & Molly, Inner Sanctum, Suspense, Charlie McCarthy, etc.). In a few cases, an individual with a serious interest in a particular program or series will take great pains to "log" every program accurately. This usually requires extensive research in libraries and sponsors' old files. Collectors of this type are the true heroes of the hobby, as their logs become the "bibles" the rest of the collectors follow. Some collections are very general and consist of programs from almost every series.
Clubs have been formed that have libraries of various programs available to club members. Some clubs are devoted to a particular program or star. For instance, Jack Benny still has a "fan club". There are groups of collectors within clubs, or independent groups who borrow and swap programs among themselves. It's similar to collecting and trading stamps or coins. Let's go back to the beginning to learn how the collecting of OTR programs began.
The recording and collecting of Old-Time Radio Programs began almost simultaneously with the invention of sound recording equipment. The first thing we need to know is why these recordings were made. The vast majority of these programs were recorded by someone who was associated with the program being recorded. Usually it was the sponsor. Many sponsors wanted recordings of their "product", and kept these recordings for years. Stations, Networks, Stars, and Guests comprise the second large group who recorded radio programs for a variety of business and personal reasons. Most of these recordings were only played once by those who recorded them. These recordings were routinely destroyed after taking up space at various stations. Thankfully, some of them survived. The recordings themselves were usually sixteen-inch discs known as "Electrical Transcriptions". They were also simply called "Transcriptions" or ET's.
A smaller group of people who recorded programs were individuals who recorded radio programs off the air for any number of reasons. Many of these programs were kept by those who recorded them. It was these private, individual recordings that started the OTR Collecting hobby.
In the beginning, it seemed that radio and radio programs would be around forever, therefore only a few private individuals recorded programs off the air. Most people did not have home recording equipment in the early years, but there were consumer machines that recorded on disc, and there were "Dictaphone" machines that were sometimes used to capture a radio program now and then. In the late 1940s wire and tape recorders became available, and many individuals made a few recordings of their favorite programs.
By the 1960s it was evident that radio was changing drastically, and many programs had either left the air completely or moved to television. It was then that private collectors began to discover each other and started trading programs. Trades were generally in the form of copies. Suppose Trader "A" had a recording of a "Shadow" program that he recorded off the air. Suppose Trader "B" had a recording of "Gunsmoke" that he recorded. "A" and "B" would make copies of their show and exchange tapes. Now both "A" and "B" would have copies of both Shadow and Gunsmoke. Now, "A" and "B" could trade both programs with other traders for two different shows in the same manner, and before long many copies of the same shows would be circulating among traders.
These recordings were usually on reel-to-reel tape (cassettes had not yet been invented). There were various methods of recording on reels, and the accepted standard method would allow 12 programs to be recorded on a single tape. After a few years, the "veteran" traders would no longer trade individual shows. They traded entire reels for other reels. It would not be unusual for a person to have a collection of a thousand different programs on 120 reels.
The main problem with trading in this fashion is that every copy made was another generation away from the "master" recording. With each generation there was a loss of sound quality. Eventually the sound became so poor that the programs were difficult to understand. Something had to be done to get sound closer to the source.
Some avid collectors recognized the fact that many "transcription discs" might still exist, so they contacted the various sponsors, radio stations, stars, and guests from the old days. A great many discs were found in this manner. Collectors and clubs of collectors began transferring the material to tape. Some collectors actually formed companies and began to sell these higher sound quality recordings to other collectors. These recordings were usually on reels, but cassettes also began to appear on the scene.
As more and more discs were discovered, more and more cassettes were created. Reel-to-reel tape began to vanish, and CDs began to appear. Cassettes and CDs containing Old-Time Radio Programs were recognized by the general public. The average person on the street could purchase OTR programs at a reasonable price and begin to build a collection of radio programs with very good sound quality.
The availability of commercially recorded OTR did not put a stop to trading, however. People continued to trade copies of individual programs on cassette, but if someone wanted better sound quality, they could and did purchase the commercial cassette.
The early collectors saved radio from extinction by preserving and propagating these fine programs. Present day collectors whose only goal is to obtain as many programs as possible may represent a manifestation of a passing fad. Then again, there may be new collectors who truly appreciate the artistic value of OTR and represent the archivists who will preserve OTR for future listeners who never had the opportunity to hear Old-Time Radio as it was. There are still programs in private collections that have not yet been made commercially available. These un-circulated programs plus those already in circulation are the basis for private collections, and these private collections are the legacy of Old-Time Radio.