Dec 3, 2012 11:19 AM by Stan Parker - Q2 News
It was Vince Long's love for old-time radio that landed him the tapes - boxes full of reel-to-reel recordings from as far back as 1947.
They were all recorded by a Billings man named Ed Keefe on the very first tape recorder available on the consumer market. Recording the sounds of his life, Keefe preserved radio programs, family events and community gatherings.
After Keefe's death, the reels laid dormant for years in the basement of his wife, Lorene. That is, until she found Vince Long, at the time a technology teacher at Billings Senior High.
She discovered Long and his passion for radio history after a lecture he gave at the Yellowstone County Museum. She tracked him down and made him an offer to sell the tapes.
What interested Long most was the old radio broadcasts. Collecting and sharing programs has been a hobby of his since the 1960s.
"It just became a hobby to start collecting those programs, and my collection went from a couple hundred programs, to about 3,000 programs," he said. "Until the internet came along and allowed collectors to actually get together."
With the sharing power of the internet, Long estimates he now has between 60,000 and 80,000 programs.
So now with 200 tapes of mystery to unfurl, Long went to work. Going through each tape, he passed them all into his computer to make digital files. He started with the family gatherings, and gave CDs to Keefe's relatives.
And there were also recordings made around town. Being a Shriner, Keefe captured several of their meetings.
"One of the great ones was, they had a 'kangaroo court,' I guess you would call it, for one of their members ... And that was pretty hilarious," Long explained. "He was actually the County Sheriff at the time. So you learned a lot about that organization and the things they did. But those local live recordings, I haven't released, except to family members if I could track them down."
And Long was able to put all of the radio broadcasts online to share with the old-time radio community.
There's a mix of music, news, sports and miscellaneous broadcasts -- an audible cornucopia of immersive soundscapes. Some came from local radio stations, and others from far-off towers.
And his contribution to the online community was appreciated. One unique recording of a 1950s boxing match swamped the bandwidth at Senior High, where he had the files hosted at the time.
The unexpected morsels of family and local history captured his attention. But it takes an overwhelming amount of time to mine and refine that history.
I asked him why he did it.
"Well, you never can tell what you might find," he said, smiling. "And I've always thought it was interesting to study history through found sound."
Found sound -- that's exactly what you might think: They're sounds that you find.
"And so being that I'm not from Billings, when I found this recording from the Skyline Club, I'm like what, the Skyline Club? Where was that? And so that sent me down to the library where I would spin through old microfilms of the Gazette and look up things for various dates."
Long learned of the Skyline Supper Club, a restaurant and nightclub perched atop the Rims. Ed Keefe's tapes contained two live broadcasts from the club, complete with swinging big band music and an exemplar of 1940s radio announcing voices.
He also exchanged emails extensively with Addison Bragg, a longtime pillar of the Billings Gazette who was a great resource for local history.
"Because it's a recording, you're able to immerse yourself in it," Long said. "And for me, there was a second part of doing the history, as I wasn't just learning about the historical events that were captured on tape, I was learning about Ed."
"Who was he? And why was it important for him to record this? And so it was as much a personal history as it was a more global history."
The complete collection of the Paper Tapes Archive is available on Long's website: otrannex.com/papertapes. Which one is your favorite? Let us know in the comments.
Live broadcast from the Skyline Club in Billings: