Be Careful What You Wish For

I’ve always been the youngest; youngest in my family, youngest in my class, youngest at work. And when you have always been the youngest, there is only one thing you want to be:

The oldest.

Be careful what you wish for.

When got my first job in public radio in 1984 at WBEZ in Chicago, we recorded stories on brown tape so hair-thin that it would stretch and wrinkle if you didn’t slow it down before stopping it on the reel-to reel machine (remember those?). Failure to do this would render it unusable. Then, after recording on it and splicing it all over, we would just bulk erase and use it again. And again. And again. It got to the point where there were so many splices in it, I thought it was the visual genesis of the term “talking a blue streak” (for those of you under 35, splicing tape was blue).

Then there were the typewriters. If the word Selectric means nothing to you, stop reading now. Erasable ribbons were groundbreaking. For my first story and every one after that, I got into the habit of logging tape (with pen on a legal pad), writing script (with pen on a legal pad) and then literally cutting my log apart and taping the parts I wanted to use between my script (on aforementioned legal pad). People made fun of me even then. Others could just remember the actualities they wanted to use from an interview. But I had to listen to my tape. A lot. Eventually, it started talking back to me and suggesting sentences and structure. And thank God since it often took hours to come up with opening lines.

I next got a job in Washington DC at the Smithsonian, helping to produce a show creatively named, “Radio Smithsonian.” That was a revelation. Big twelve inch reels of thick, black, Ampex tape. Wow. Beautiful. Plus, an engineer to EQ and mix the story together. Insane! When we were done with the tape, we casually razor-bladed it off the reel into…..the garbage! I secretly wanted to gather it all back up and send it home to Chicago Public Radio. Oh, and did I mention that we were now using leader tape?…. A revelation.

At NPR, they laughed at my dinky seven inch reels and looked at my yellow plastic leader tape like it was a wax cylinder. They used twelve inch reels and white paper leader tape (the better to tear on the fly while running around on deadline like your hair is on fire). They were so advanced that they had special typing paper with some kind of carbon on the back that made three copies of everything as you typed it so you could snap it apart and run one copy to the director and one to the host. Miracle of science (Of course that was back when you could do a seven minute essay about chin hair. Now three and a half is considered documentary length and that is before they cut it for time. But I digress).

Sony Walkman? An absolute Marvel. We stared at it as though it was the first electric light. Datman?! Like Marconi on his hill. No hiss! No cassettes! No moving parts to get clogged with sand or slowed down in the humidity! Flash recorders? Friggin’ magic. How the hell do those work?

In a few weeks I turn fifty. I host a show. My producers have been young enough to be my children. Come to think of it, even my children are young enough to be my grandchildren. I’m so far from the young wave entering the field, I have to ask for help printing two-sided documents. I’m not old enough to have shlepped Nagras around (though the engineers did when I first got to NPR if I recall correctly — memory loss…this is what happens when you get older. Make sure you never do), but I do feel like my career, if you can call it that, is a bit of a parallel to the industry’s development. I don’t know if that makes me a valuable piece of history or just another obnoxious old relic harping on with a lot of “remember whens.”

Now that I have been back at WBEZ (though employed by Third Coast Festival now), I find myself looking around at all my co-workers, busily thumping away on their computers, Xerox machine beating out a steady rhythm, no reference books, no in-house library, no tape in site, not a grease pencil to be had, and one day I just had to stop. I turned to my first and present boss, Johanna Zorn and asked her, remember back when? What did we DO all day?

Gwen Macsai

Gwen Macsai

Gwen Macsai is the host of the Third Coast Festival's weekly radio show, Re:Sound. In a former life she worked at NPR as a freelance producer and essayist and was the author of Lipshtick (Harpercollins 2000) a book of humorous essays. For a brief while and in a state of delirium, she was the creator of the ABC -TV sitcom "What About Joan," starring Joan Cusack.


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  • Smokey



    Get used to it, babe, we don’t get any younger.
    All the best, Smokey

  • lincoln



    I live in awe. I doubt I could have done radio when you had to work hard enough to cut tape and type the copy. Yikes!

    Your essay gives me hope. I have taken up the hobby, at my community radio station in northern California, KMUD fm, of putting together stories for the local news–and I did my first 30 minute essay this month.

    Sometimes I do not know why I like doing this, because it is so hard for me to figure out how to use the “actuals” to tell me a story–that anyone besides myself is interested in hearing. Reading that you have had difficulty with this, and persevered through, gives me a reason to continue to struggle along.

  • Ben



    What do I miss about tape? The tactile sense of cutting, actually physically *cutting* up the sound…The tape machines themselves with reels going around and the sound/tape/past flowing by…magical.

    What don’t I miss? Hunting around, with minutes to air, for that little scrap of essential tape that somehow fell into that pile of scraps on the floor…More essential tape getting stretched or knarled by a cranky machine or operator error…

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