Tapesponding, tape recorder clubs, podcasting and beyond

Frank and Kathleen Ross, c.1925

Tapesponding is the rather forced moniker given to the hobby of, simply, corresponding by tape. People would post tape back and forth between themselves, or possibly amongst a group of people, each recording a segment for the next listener to hear and then add to.

Tape recorder clubs incorporated tapesponding in their repertoire, but also indulged in creating field recordings, documentaries, and other such audio output. Sort of do-it-yourself radio.

I’ve recently stumbled upon the above phenomena and I’m enthralled. Regular readers will know I’ve got a bit of a thing for radio and field recordings and such like, and the discovery of all this has really captured my imagination.

For me, the most significant attractor to audio and radio is the personalisation of the medium. When you’re reading written words, they can only convey so much. But, being humans, we can get so much more from the intonations and delivery of the words we use. Beyond the spoken word, the ambient sounds in a recording can lend an awful lot to the listening experience. One needs only to think of the importance of foley artists – those geniuses who add ‘sound effects’ to film soundtracks to further convince us that what we are seeing is real, however subtly.

Some examples of the types of audio that I have stumbled upon lately include an episode of This American Life, that fabulous series from Chicago Public Radio. In Accidental Documentaries, the first act tells the story of a “recorded letter” sent from a family to their son away at medical school. The family members each give a rundown of the minutiae of their daily lives to the son, and the whole package tells a lot more than the speakers perhaps intended. As is often the way with these things, the tapes ended up in a secondhand shop and the rest is history. The episode is available to stream online.

On from there, Radio New Zealand‘s long-running Spectrum featured a story about a tape recording club from Rotorua, and with members all over the world, all exchanging tapes in a circular tapesponding loop. This episode of Spectrum is available on RNZ’s website in MP3 and OGG formats.

Wanting to know more, I had a bit of a hunt on the web and found a great little site with some more information about the history of some of these tape recording clubs in the UK. Mark Vernon’s Meagre Resource website features brief histories of three different clubs, explaining that – again – his original interest was sparked by finding some tapes at a car boot sale. Vernon appears to have had a long and involved interest in radio and audio production, and he has made several programmes on the subject, featuring recordings from these sorts of tapes. Samples are available on his site, and a couple of the programmes themselves can be streamed at Sound and Music (and they are extremely well put together, and very entertaining!).

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All of this caught my imagination, and got me wishing I could have been involved in such a project. And then it occurred to me that, not only was I involved in one, I actually instigated it.

Running from December 2006 to August 2007, ‘my’ modest little podcast was created with the help of other members of a messageboard I have long frequented. The board was originally in support of Scottish band Biffy Clyro, and more recently as an off-shoot of the official board, populated by friends who met eachother there.

The Biffy Board Radio podcast was a simple idea, and has some parallels with the way Phyll Moore of Rotorua, and no doubt countless others, ran their tape clubs. With me as the ‘presenter’ and editor, I asked for those interested to record some vocals of them chatting and introducing a few songs, and for them to email me the recording, along with the songs they picked. Ostensibly it emerged out of the trend often found in online  communities of music fans wishing to spread the word about songs they love (or, more pessimistically, to brag about their wide-ranging and eclectic tastes!).

But more than that, I think it helped to connect our rather disparate collective in a way that the continuous, interwoven conversations of a messageboard can only go so far to do. Those unique elements of sound recordings again – accents, intonation, laughter – it was those elements that really brought to life some of the people we had never met.

The brief was simple, and there was more than enough interest and activity to fill nearly 20 hours of podcasts (albeit primarily with music). Friendships were bolstered through the podcast too – particularly my own, with a chap from Denmark who I’ve become good mates with, and we’ve both visited eachother more than once.

Listening back to the podcasts now and then really makes me smile. They were made with the absolute best possible intentions, and it is infectious hearing people tell jokes and introduce songs they are in love with. In this culture of sticking up a rapidshare link to an entire album with little personal input, it was the vocal introductions, whether with a biography of the artist, description of the artwork, or simply a back story on the announcer’s love affair with them, which really told you what you wanted to hear.

The production quality was rarely perfect; I was mixing together recordings from various sources in a mixture of Garageband and Audacity, whether they were from built-in computer mics or digital cameras. Some voices came through booming and distorted, others needed amplifying to make them audible. But the spirit was always there. And some of the music we played was fantastic. In later episodes, we even had a snappy jingle, cobbled together by my talented friend (and soon-to-be-housemate!) John Tucker.

As much for me as anyone else, the entire project is archived online, with all the completed episodes free to stream or download.

The whole project has provided me with lots of happy memories. Occasionally, the question of starting a second wave of podcasts is posed. However, for better or worse, the project existed at a time when our sub-community existed within a larger space, amongst strangers, and the podcast was just one of many ways of us keeping in touch and maintaining a collective identity. Board stalwart Chris Campbell went the distance in creating a Biffy Clyro fansite (amusingly entitled Biffier than thou) and, in doing so, created an unofficial messageboard.

When the official board went down for an extended period, many of the core members migrated across to this offshoot board, and have stayed there ever since. The board is still loosely linked to Biffy, but the unspoken vibe is that of a collection of ‘real life’ friends all just hanging out. In many ways, this newer board is just the natural progression of our social group as we have grown up, and is a close sibling to projects such as the Biffy Board Radio podcast.

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Finally, mention should be made on the subject of Audioboo – a cracking service that enables the user to record instant audio blogs which get sent to their twitter accounts and blogs. Big users of it include Stephen Fry and Documentally (the former helped put it on the map, the latter does it very well indeed, amongst others). The ease of use tends to lead to very natural, conversational descriptions of the recorder’s environment, often including ambient sounds and other voices. As a listener, if the subject is of interest, it really adds to your experience of following a topic of conversation or an event.

My biggest problem is that the service is largely tied to an iPhone app. Although I’m sure if I had an iPhone myself, I wouldn’t complain! However, restriction to the iPhone means you can generally expect fairly high audio quality, as audio recording is one thing all generations of iPhone do nicely.

Video is one thing people are getting more into, but if the likes of Audioboo can get people thinking about audio recording more often, then I’m all for it.

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