Meet the Betamax King: A citizen archivist preserving TV history — one tape at a time

In Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley, Colin Stirling operates a time machine. 

It’s housed inside a basement bunker and powered by videotapes. 

For the last 13 years, Stirling has been posting videos ripped from a mountain of old VHS and Betamax tapes he’s acquired and uploading them to YouTube under his moniker, Betamax King

“This is a treasure hunt first and foremost,” he said on a recent afternoon in the basement where he does this work. “Every time you put in a tape you don’t know what it is.”

He sources the tapes in a few different ways: by cutting deals with some thrift stores, posting ads online, and visiting yard sales. Because of copyright concerns, Stirling doesn’t monetize his channel like many other YouTubers.

Some of the equipment used by Stirling to digitize VHS tapes. (Andrew Sampson/CBC)

It’s all in search of a moment, one that can bring him back to simpler days, like when he was growing up watching Astro Boy or catching an episode of CBC Halifax’s Switchback with Stan the Man Johnson back in the 1980s. 

“It hits that nostalgic button and it’s just I’m like a kid,” he said.

But Stirling sees his work to archive these tapes and post material from them online as more than just a hobby — he believes he’s preserving a vital piece of history.

Since 2011, he’s amassed over 27,000 subscribers to his channel and uploaded over 9,400 individual clips, with a special emphasis on material culled from Atlantic Canada broadcast history.

“You can go back and you can watch everything, all your TV shows, remastered and cleaned up … but the experience of watching TV from these time periods is a unique one, and what I’m trying to do is save everything in between.”

By in between, Stirling means things like clips from series not available on streaming services, and commercials and bumpers that once played between programming. Recent finds include advertisements for the old Green Gables convenience store chain, and Jenny’s Place, a longtime pub on Lady Hammond Road in Halifax.

“That era of TV is disappearing. And it exists on tapes. And then that’s the only place that you’re going to find it now,” he said.  

A shelf shows well over a dozen tape players.
Much of the equipment used to digitize old VHS and Betamax tapes is no longer in production. Stirling collects players to help with his archival work. (Andrew Sampson/CBC)

Stirling is one of a number of so-called citizen archivists committed to making sure that broadcast media from the ’80s and ’90s is preserved for future generations.

“They’re not trained, they didn’t go to library school … but they see the importance of trying to salvage as much of this detritus,” said Ed Conroy, the man behind Retrontario, an online project that aims to rescue tapes containing broadcast history in Ontario.

A bookcase holds a number of video tapes. One is an Ann Murray concert film. Another is the VHS for Tron. Next to them is a stack of tapes, many of them homemade.
Some of the VHS tapes on display in the Betamax King’s rec room. (Andrew Sampson/CBC)

As Prof. Jennifer VanderBurgh, the author of What Television Remembers: Artifacts and Footprints of TV in Toronto, explains, there’s no central public archive in Canada that houses this kind of stuff. 

Old media, if it was preserved at all, is often stuck in broadcasters’ vaults in a kind of no-man’s land held back by copyright concerns. CBC’s own archives, for instance, are not typically accessible to outsiders.

That means it’s often easier for researchers like VanderBurgh to seek out digital copies of VHS tapes preserved by people like the Betamax King.

“There is this idea that everything has been recorded, everything has been archived, that somewhere there’s this magical location where television history, you know, just exists, but it takes labour to do that, it takes organization, it takes strategy to do that,” said VanderBurgh, who teaches courses on film, TV, media, and cultural memory at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.

A logo for All Around the Circle. The words all fit inside a circle. Next to it is a sign that reads: CBC In Colour.
The title card for All Around the Circle, a regional CBC television show that aired in Newfoundland and Labrador in the 1960s and ’70s. (CBC Archives)

In the early days, tapes were expensive, and programming was often taped over or destroyed — as happened in one memorable example in St. John’s when the local CBC erased all but a few episodes of All Around the Circle, a beloved show that aired for over 10 seasons in the 1960s and ’70s and spotlighted some of the most beloved musicians across the Island. 

Stirling’s work is more complicated than it seems.

Archiving tapes is done in real time, meaning that if a tape has six hours on it, it’s going to take at least six hours to restore. 

And then there’s the additional work Stirling does to make the content look and sound as good as possible — scraping off mould from tapes that were stored in less-than-ideal conditions and fixing video and audio sync issues. 

In addition to being time consuming, this work can be expensive. Because Stirling doesn’t monetize his channel, he relies on donations to fund the operation.

As the years stretch on, more and more VHS tapes once lovingly stored on bookshelves — documenting everything from family life to episodes of Dynasty — move to landfills, dusty boxes in garages, or thrift store bins. 

But the Betamax King — and other citizen archivists — want you to give these tapes another look.

“Think twice before you throw it away,” implored Stirling. “You might have [something] that doesn’t exist anywhere else. I just wish I could instill that necessity to preserve it like any other piece of history, because it’s significant. It’s no different than archiving World War II relics or Egyptian artifacts.

“It’s all cultural history that should be preserved.”

#Meet #Betamax #King #citizen #archivist #preserving #history #tape #time

Leave a Comment