Today, the news is available at our fingertips. You can catch it on TV or browse it on the Internet. You can even watch the news while you commute! However, the scenario was very different some 30 or 40 years back. Long before the introduction of the 24-hour news cycle, a Philadelphia-based woman understood the importance and impact of news on the general population. She dedicated the better part of her life documenting media and creating access to information. This is the story of Marion Stokes, the prolific archivist and hoarder who recorded news broadcasts, TV commercials, and everything else for over three decades.
In 1977, a former librarian and prolific archivist, Marion Stokes, started recording American television around the clock. Over the span of 35 years, she amassed the largest collection of news broadcasts in history.
Born on the 25th November of 1929, Marion Stokes was a fiercely intelligent woman who realized early on that television can both inform and misinform the audience. She knew that news programs, in particular, can heavily influence public opinion. Being an activist and civil rights administrator, she understood the importance of having access to information, and sometimes the same information from different angles. This notion motivated her to create the largest news archive in the world.
In 1975, she bought a Betamax magnetic video recorder and started taping bits and pieces of political news coverage, science documentaries, and sitcoms. With time, she got more into the habit of regularly recording various TV programs with a special focus on news. When the Iran Hostage Crisis took place in 1979, Stokes started recording 24 hours a day, and she continued doing so for over three decades until her death.
Before beginning her news-archiving project, Stokes had worked at a library for two decades. She was also a communist party organizer and a television producer.
A former librarian, Stokes had worked at the Free Library of Philadelphia for over 20 years. However, she got fired from the job in the early 1960s due to her association with the Communist Party. Between 1968 and 1971, she co-produced a Sunday morning talk show called Input. The show aired on the Philadelphia CBS affiliate and openly discussed various social justice-related issues. Her guests on the show included religious and community leaders, academics, scientists, activists, and artists.
Stokes’ political views and activism eventually aroused the attention of the government. In fact, she and her first husband had even tried to defect to Cuba before they split up. Stokes would later go on to marry John S. Stokes Jr., her co-producer on Input. After her second marriage, Marion had access to her husband’s wealth, which allowed her to begin and continue her project for so long.
Stokes’ commitment to the project was undeniable. She would schedule her life and family outings around the recording sessions.
At first, the recording project did not make sense to most, but Stokes saw it as a form of activism. She was seeking the truth, and she knew that her extensive archive would one day be invaluable. With the introduction of CNN, the first 24-hour news channel, the project took a more aggressive turn. Stokes’ tape collection included round-the-clock coverage of CNN, Fox, MSNBC, CNBC, C-SPAN, and many other networks. She would record the programs on multiple devices, and at one point, as many as eight different VCR machines would be running simultaneously.
Being a highly intellectual woman, Stokes was adept at noticing the subtle changes in technology and media. In fact, she was one of the early investors in Apple Inc. After marrying John S. Stokes Jr., she persuaded her already-wealthy in-laws to put money in Apple stocks. Needless to say, they made hefty profits out of their investments. Stokes would then put the money into her recording project. The work started at her Rittenhouse Square home, but over time, the archive grew exponentially. Stokes had to purchase nine other apartments just for storing the tapes.
Her commitment to the project was undoubtedly impressive and praiseworthy. She dedicated all of her time and energy into capturing every minute of television. Achieving this enormous task involved switching tapes every six hours. Her husband and other family members would help her out. She would even cut meals short and rush home from a family outing to switch the tapes. When she got old and lost her agility, Stokes got an assistant to help her with the work.
Marion Stokes died in 2012, but she left a lasting legacy. Her 71,716 tapes were donated to the Internet Archive. The documentary, Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project, which was released recently, outlines her life and project.
Marion Stokes passed away on the 14th of December, 2012 at the age of 83. She continued her work until her last days. Her son, Michael Metelits, inherited the large collection of VHS and Betamax tapes. Not knowing what to do with them, he contacted the San Francisco-based organization called Internet Archive. Impressed by Stokes’ achievement, the company acquired the tapes almost immediately. They are working on digitizing the tapes, and the digital versions will soon be available on their website for free so that the public can access them anytime.
American filmmaker Matt Wolf also took interest in the life and work of Marion Stokes. His documentary called Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project recently premiered at Manhattan’s Tribeca Film Festival. The movie is set to appear at many other festivals. It outlines Stokes’ life and weighs in on the impact of her work. Most people have the notion that big news channels and media houses have extensive archives. However, that is not true. In an effort to save money, media houses and news companies delete their old archives.
So, in a way, Marion Stokes’ tapes may be the only remaining archive which has that era of television media perfectly preserved. Unfortunately, VHS and Betamax are part of a dying format. However, thanks to the digitization efforts of the Internet Archive, the content would live on for a long time.