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The cassette tape is making a comeback thanks to a family-run company in Missouri

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Decades ago, a commercial for high-quality cassette tapes featured jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Can the amplified voice of Ella Fitzgerald shatter this glass?

ELLA FITZGERALD: (Vocalizing).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Now we ask, is it live, or is it Memorex?

CHANG: That catchphrase persisted, but the cassette tape - well, less so. Cassettes, though, are making a small comeback, thanks in part to a family-run company in southern Missouri. Suzanne Hogan of member station KCUR reports.

SUZANNE HOGAN, BYLINE: It might be a surprise to hear that cassette tapes are even around anymore. Formats like CDs, MP3s and downloading and streaming audio have drastically changed the way we consume music. But similar to vinyl records, there's been a resurgence in analog cassette tapes. According to Billboard magazine, sales have grown more than 440% in the past decade. One of the drivers behind this trend is National Audio Company, a staple in the industry for over 50 years. And one of its signature cassette releases is a well-known Disney classic.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN WILLIAMS' "STAR WARS (MAIN TITLE)")

HOGAN: "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" is among the thousands of tapes the company has produced. National Audio got its start in 1968, just a few years after the cassette tape was invented. Vice President Phil Stepp, whose late grandfather was the founder, says their family business has stood by the cassette through all the industry ups and downs.

PHIL STEPP: As long as tape is popular and selling and people want it, I mean, we're planning on doing it.

HOGAN: Phil's father, President Steve Stepp, says, as Cassettes gained popularity in the '80s, the company was doing well in dubbing and duplications. And a new invention was a big help.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HOGAN: The portable Walkman cassette player made it convenient to listen to music on the go. By the mid-1980s, Billboard reported cassettes were selling better than vinyl records. But it was also in the '80s that the cassette tape's nemesis hit the scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Phillips announced the next best thing to live music - compact disc.

HOGAN: The rise of the CD did bury some companies, but not National Audio because it wasn't dubbing music cassettes. It made books on tape and spoken word products. Steve Stepp says the company kept chugging along, acquiring unwanted equipment from companies who were leaving the industry.

STEVE STEPP: Everybody thought we were crazy. That's still true. Everybody still thinks we're crazy.

HOGAN: In the early 2000s, their company started fulfilling more music orders from mainstream acts like Pearl Jam and The Smashing Pumpkins, who were still releasing cassettes. And for independent musicians, National Audio Company became a vital resource because cassettes were the affordable option for underground artists who wanted to release music on their own terms and in smaller quantities.

S STEPP: We're dealing with about 5,000 independent labels worldwide.

HOGAN: But a major industry shakeup in the 2010s almost ended National Audio. It was in the business of making cassettes in house, but that didn't include the actual magnetic tape inside the cartridges. At the time, most big companies making the tape had pulled the plug. Supply was running out. To solve the problem, the company turned to its vice president, Phil Stepp, a chemist and former neuroscience professor. He and a team devised a recipe, process and machinery to make music quality magnetic tape. It is a very complicated process that involves getting material from all over the world. And it took years of trial and error to figure it out. On a recent tour of the assembly line, Phil Stepp shows off all the new and old technology.

P STEPP: This is a tape coating line. This is the base film right here. It's a little thicker than shrink wrap.

HOGAN: Belts and pulleys, large ovens, an old cigarette wrapping machine - there's a lot going on. Now the company is at a point where it's ahead on tape production. Steve Stepp says they crank out about 30 million cassette tapes a year, making National Audio Company one of the largest cassette tape manufacturers in the world. For NPR News, I'm Suzanne Hogan in Kansas City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Suzanne M. Hogan
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
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