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A Hole The Size of a Pocket

As a business, it’s worth asking yourself what the need is that you satisfy. More often than not, this isn’t the same thing as answering the question of what service it is you provide or what product you make.

For example, when I turned ten years old, I received one of the best and most amazing birthday presents of my entire life. And not either by surprise or coincidence, but because it was something I had spent weeks if not months begging my mother for. In fact, I didn’t care if it was the only gift I received for my birthday that year. For all I know, it may have been. But I do know that if I hadn’t gotten this one thing, there’s a good chance I would have sulked and pouted from September until Christmas.

By now, I’ve probably built this up so much that there’s no way anybody will actually be impressed when they finally hear what it was.

This thing I had to have.

This thing that filled a giant hole in both my heart and my mind.

This …

A black and silver tape recorder, about the size and shape of a hardcover book.

To those who aren’t of a certain age, this will perhaps seem like an underwhelming outcome to such a huge buildup. After all, it’s just a tape recorder … right? Keep in mind, though, that this was a time before digital media. Before smartphones and iPods. Before compact discs. Before even Sony’s first Walkman, which was still a couple of years off yet.

The options for listening to music in one’s room at that time were limited to radio, vinyl records, or 8-track tapes. And the options for recording music or voice or any kind of audio were … basically none. Unless you were somebody with enough money to own one of those bulky reel-to-reel recorders the size of a suitcase. Which nobody I knew did.

But one of my best friends, Albert, had a tape recorder from Radio Shack. On which we had regularly been recording our club meetings that year. And I’m not ashamed to say that I coveted that thing. I’m not even sure why. After all, I was a rather shy kid who had no desire to create or record music. Or to become a newspaper reporter.

Yet something about the technology fascinated and called to me.

In hindsight, it may have had something to do with all the years I’d spent working with a speech therapist prior to this. Because since I had hearing issues early on, there were certain sounds — like “S” — that I wasn’t able to pronounce well. So for several years in elementary school, I would get pulled out of class every so often, and have to sit with a woman who’d try to help me hear the sounds I was making, and explain to me how they should sound.

One of the tools she used for this was a big metal machine with a slot on top of it. Into this slot would go a white card with a brown magnetic strip. A motor would pull the card through the slot and either record about ten seconds of audio or play it back. And this is what the therapist would use to play my voice back to me, over and over and over, saying S-heavy sentences like, “I was sad last spring because my baseball team lost.” Until I got it right.

Whatever the reason, having my own tape recorder that year became my sole focus. Then my birthday came, and I finally owned one … and had to figure out what to do with it. One of the things I did was record music from the radio or the record player to listen to later. Because it came with both a microphone that plugged into one jack and a white earphone with a single earbud that plugged into another jack.

And it could run on batteries, which made it portable.

I would even sometimes record the audio from movies or shows that I liked, patiently holding the microphone up to the speaker on the TV, so I could listen to those later as well, in my bed, late at night when I should be sleeping.

Once, I even used it to record The Cars entire first album, sticking the microphone under my bedroom door as my older sister played it at full volume down the hall. Because she’d told me quite plainly more than once what she’d do to me if she ever caught me borrowing one of her favorite albums. The quality of the recording wasn’t great, of course. But it got the job done on those days when I simply had to hear “Good Times Roll”.

Perhaps the most ambitious use of that tape recorder, though, was The Randy Show.

Inspired no doubt by all the sitcoms we watched at the time, The Randy Show was something my brother Guy and I came up with. The star of the show was, as you might have guessed, me. Or at least a younger, more troublesome version of me, who was always getting into some kind of hijinx or another. In the show, I would play myself, putting on a falsetto voice (kind of like Elmo before there was Elmo), and my brother Guy would play every other role.

One week, “Randy” might go to the 5 & 10 store downtown to buy school supplies, and the owner of the store would accuse him of stealing candy. Other weeks, he might be riding his bike down a hill, and the brakes would go out. Or he might climb a fence to cut through somebody’s yard as a shortcut and get chased through town by a big dog as a result.

Halfway through these shows, there would always be some kind of fake commercial, either for fake products or other fake shows. Because if there was one thing we knew about radio and TV shows, it was that they always had to have commercials.

In my mind, The Randy Show ran for many seasons and hundreds of episodes. Although, of course, it was probably more like a dozen. Or even just a handful over one summer. Needless to say, I wish I still had recordings of these shows. If for no other reason than it was one of my first attempts at storytelling. Because if memory serves, I wouldn’t start trying to write short stories until I was a teenager.

The reason I even thought about all of this today is that I read in the news that Lou Ottens, the person who invented the cassette tape — the technology that made my old black and silver tape recorder possible — died recently at age 94. What struck me as I read about Lou Ottens this past weekend is that, as an engineer for the Dutch-based Philips technology company, his goal when he first started working on the design for the “compact cassette” in the 1960s was not simply to make the existing clunky and expensive reel-to-reel technology smaller. According to documentary filmmaker Zack Taylor, “Lou wanted music to be portable and accessible. He advocated for Philips to license this new format to other manufacturers for free, paving the way for cassettes to become a worldwide standard.”

Even more interestingly, since this was new ground he was covering, Ottens needed a placeholder for the technology he was developing. To this end, according to Olga Coolen, Philips Museum Director, Otten “had a wooden block made that fit exactly in his coat pocket.” This wooden block served as the prototype and reminder for his vision, which was not simply to make a piece of technology as small as it could be for the sake of it, but …

To make it small enough for a hole the size of a pocket.

Because to Ottens, that would mean a cassette could easily be carried around and shared with others. And, by extension, also be easily stored and relatively inexpensive to produce. By design, he created with the cassette tape, not just a new form of sound media but also a new way of thinking about and experiencing music. Of recording conversations and meetings. Of taking notes. Of expressing one’s self by making silly fake radio shows.

Most notably, of course, Ottens ushered in the era of the mix tape. Which enabled a generation of teenagers and college students (myself included) to create both angst-ridden and love-inspired playlists to be shared with friends, to win over somebody’s heart, or to be blasted at top volume while speeding down the highway.

Ottens didn’t fill a technology-shaped hole. He filled a story-shaped hole.

Like the example of the quarter-inch drill bit that nobody actually needs, he created something that made other, deeper, more important things possible. Things like connection. And expression. And empowerment.

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Randy Heller
Randy Hellerhttps://randyheller.com/
Randy Heller is a writer and storytelling guide for small and solo businesses who aren't sure where to get started. Randy began his career with a Master's degree in Creative Writing and a love of computers, which then translated into 25 years as a digital marketer, web developer, and Marketing Director. Most of those years were spent in publishing, bibliographic data, trade magazine, and libraries space, always keeping him close to the world of written words and ideas that are his lifeblood. In 2018, Randy shifted gears to focus entirely on writing and storytelling and is now able to leverage his natural creativity and decades of corporate marketing experience and insights to help small businesses pursue their dreams. He can be found posting weekly about the secrets to business storytelling and owning one's personal narrative (often with a decidedly nostalgic bent) at StoryHeller.com, as well as on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (see links above). He can't wait to meet you and ask that magical question: "So ... what's your story?"

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