Cassettes and the analog-digital divide

Two of my friends have recently posted podcasts of their writing on the internet, one on The Writers Block at KQED in San Francisco and another at Podbazaar. I am toying with the idea of producing one of my own stories in audio and posting it here.
     With podcasts, I can listen to my friends’ pieces either through my computer or downloading them to an mp3 player. Like audiobooks, podcasts could be good to carry along on a long drive somewhere.
     Clearly, audio is alive and well, the beneficiary of new technology in production and distribution of digital content. Today a writer who thinks they can hold a reader’s attention with their recorded voice, with access to a computer with a microphone, can use freely-available software (like Audacity) to record a piece. She can then easily find a place on the internet to host her story. Voila, a podcast is born. Why, there is even a site that will allow you to record your podcast through your phone.
     Podcasts are being used by professional establishments as well as independent artists and commentators. The internet had already allowed anyone to publish text. Now, it has opened the way for anyone to do ‘radio.’
     On a global scale, however, I am concerned about the analog-digital divide.

A year ago, I was sitting on the bus from Dhaka to Kolkata. Not wanting to listen to the religious words coming from the bus’s p.a. system, I put on my earphones and turned on my minidisc player. My seatmate, preparing to doze off for the night, asked, "Is that a cassette?" I said, "A disk. Something like a cassette."
      Where portable audio is concerned, cassettes — first introduced in 1963 — remain the point of reference among the masses in the developing countries.
     Here we are at the end of 2005, and in the west and among the well-off classes in the Third World, cassettes are nearly passe. They have been replaced by CDs and the trend is now towards digitized music in mp3 and other formats, played through computers, Ipods and other portable players, and systems that stream digital music through stereo systems.
     Last January I copied all my music on CDs to my computer, and I listen to it mostly by streaming it through my stereo or by downloading to my Ipod Shuffle. I still have a large collection of cassette tapes, some bought and others copied from albums, radio, and borrowed CDs; but I play them infrequently. My 7-year-old car has a cassette tape player but for at least the last year, I only use it to hook up my minidisc player or the Shuffle. I wonder when I will find the time to copy my music on LPs and cassettes to mp3 tracks. It is not a simple process and it may never happen.
     In terms of the technology, tape has given way to the compact disk and now to hard drive and flash memory. Perhaps in a few years flash memory will become the principal medium for portable audio.
     But cassettes are still alive and well in the developing countries. There are good reasons for this: tapes are cheap, they are durable within reason, and they still accommodate easy methods of copying and reproduction.

     I was born at a time when you listened to 78 rpm records on a gramophone. My mother would borrow such a contraption from someone and we would play Bengali songs sung by Hemanta Mukhopadhay. Each record had a single song on each side. You cranked a handle to make the machine play and the pins were metal, good only to play a few records. Instead of batteries, your ‘consumable’ item was the little container of metal pins. You could play music as long as you had a good supply of pins and your arms didn’t get tired.
     In the early 60s, a relative returned from Beirut sold us a Grundig reel-to-reel tape player and we immediately recorded numerous songs from 78 rpm records and from the radio. In the late 60s, a portable cassette player arrived in the house. After the Pakistani military crackdown of March 25, 1971, I recorded broadcasts off shorwave radio in which Pakistani soldiers transmitted their commands for atrocities against Hindus and the political opposition. The cassette recorder now became a chronicler of history.
     With the arrival of the Walkman and its clones in the 80s, the world had its first personal audio players. Cassettes became the dominant medium to distribute portable music, and soon the book on tape was also born. Today, audiobooks, on tape and CD, are on the shelves of bookstores alongside the printed word.
     In many countries, fundamentalist religious groups quickly learned the value of the cassette to distribute their propaganda. This has been true, for example, of both the extremist forces of political Islam across Asia and the Hindu nationalists in India. The cheapness, durability, and easy-to-record features of the cassette tape made it attractive. Audio was also a way to reach people in societies with low literacy rates where the printed word could only go so far. And you could easily hook up cassette players to P.A. systems and broadcast them from rickshaws and rooftops.
     I have often wondered why secular and progressive organizations did not make more use of cassette tapes. Perhaps this has something to do with the last two decades coinciding with the decline of the left and the rise of political religion. But there may be other factors in play. From the vast radio networks of fundamentalist Christianity to the cassette tapes of the BJP and al Quaida, did audio quickly appeal to religious-based forces because oral preaching is so central to their ethic? Does it also have something to do with the medium fitting an audience already predisposed to a certain world outlook, and with the voice being an easier way to carry emotional appeals while progressive forces tend to be biased toward more rational conversation?
     They say cassettes will die off within the next ten years. To become as widespread, the true replacement of the cassette will have to make it easy for anyone to record and distribute words and music just as easily as the cheap cassette recorder with a microphone. Podcasting and digital music are exciting developments, but to millions of people, computers to record with and distribution through the internet and mp3 players are still way out of reach.


A mythical place called Bangla Motors


Troubled waters


  1. Good point about the priveleges inherent in advanced technology. True, we are lucky to have the opportunities we do; but does that mean we should or shouldn’t take advantage of what we have?

    Also, an addition to your point about religious groups using cassette tapes. Yes, it’s quite true that fanatical groups use tapes to quite good effect. But, so do more moderate groups. My mother became introduced to her Jain guru via the medium of cassette tapes, and, while he is extremely spiritual, he is not an extremist, nor is he a fanatic…

    of course I’m just making minor points, but, since you referred to my podcast, I thought I should… 😉

    Great job on the blog, by the way! It’s great. I like the way you tackle the different issues…

  2. Sharada

    This is a fascinating subject… I enjoyed this articulation of your concerns.

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