Decades Before YouTube, Video Pioneers Captured Turbulent Era In the pre-digital age, shooting video was unwieldy and expensive. But in the late 1960s, storytellers calling themselves "Videofreex" used the first portable video recorders to film a changing world.
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Decades Before YouTube, Video Pioneers Captured Turbulent Era

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Decades Before YouTube, Video Pioneers Captured Turbulent Era

Decades Before YouTube, Video Pioneers Captured Turbulent Era

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

New technology almost always brings with it a new set of dedicated followers - those tech geeks who stand in long lines for the latest greatest thing and understand everything there is to know about that particular piece of technology. It's hard to imagine now, but back in 1967, Sony introduced the very first videotape recorder. The thing was revolutionary and so were the times. With so much social upheaval to document, the so-called media collective started forming. Armed with their newfangled cameras, they set out to record history in the making. One of the first called itself the Videofreex. That's Video-F R E E X. It's the subject of a new exhibition at the Dorsky Museum in New Paltz, New York and an upcoming documentary. Karen Michel has more.

KAREN MICHEL, BYLINE: Fueled by a mix of the tunes, the tokes and the times, video became part of the revolution it was documenting. Without knowing each other, Parry Teasdale and David Cort went to the Woodstock music festival in 1969 with their new video gear.

PARRY TEASDALE: I had some very clunky old surveillance equipment, really. And he had the first generation of portable video cameras and recorders. And so he and I decided to get together.

MICHEL: And Teasdale says they decided to turn their cameras away from the music and toward the community in the mud.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I think that it's really all ultimate spinach. And that the reason why it's happening is because it really is an aquarium age thing.

MICHEL: Teasdale and Cort returned to New York City and moved in together with Cort's girlfriend, Mary Curtis Ratcliff. They adopted the name Videofreex at the suggestion of a neighbor.

MARY CURTIS RATCLIFF: What we were doing is videotaping what was of interest to us. And it was what CBS, NBC and ABC were not videotaping - the counterculture. They had no cameras in the counterculture.

MICHEL: Nevertheless, their work caught the attention of an executive at one of those networks. CBS was canceling the "Smothers Brothers" and wanted something more timely as a replacement. Using portable video gear the network bought them, the group interviewed Abbie Hoffman of the Yippies, Black Panther Fred Hampton, seemingly random strangers - and recorded many demonstrations.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: What do you think about stopping the war, man? Do you think there's anything crazy about that?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Well, it should be stopped, but I don't think you're the person to do it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Well, who is?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Our government.

MICHEL: Ratcliff says they just kept recording.

RATCLIFF: You know, if we had stopped to think and someone said do you think they're really going to go for this? We probably would've said, well, obviously not. But we didn't even let that stop us. We just went for it.

MICHEL: The finished program was called "Subject To Change" and Videofreex Skip Blumberg remembers screening it for freaks, their friends and CBS execs.

SKIP BLUMBERG: They weren't high. We were high, but they weren't high. Anyway, they sat there evaluating this show which was kind of a mess, I admit. This was, like, so far removed from what CBS was doing. So I was not disappointed that we didn't replace the Smothers Brothers.

MICHEL: Still they got to keep the equipment and continued showing their work in their Manhattan loft on Friday nights. It wasn't exactly sustaining. Then the New York State Council on the Arts made grant funds available for video projects outside of the city. In 1971, the collective migrated upstate to a huge former boardinghouse in a small town in the Catskills.

BLUMBERG: The people in Lanesville were somewhat suspicious about these long-haired alternate culture types living all together in this big house. But after a while, because we were providing service to the community by putting people on, covering community events, you know, they began to trust us and became our really good friends. We were turning on people to video the way people were turning people on to pot.

MICHEL: The Videofreex started what may be the country's first pirate TV station - Lanesville TV - using a transmitter bought by Abbie Hoffman. Videofreex Bart Friedman remembers it was basically public access TV.

BART FRIEDMAN: We got the kids to participate in the kid's programs. We covered stocking of the stream, the firehouse, local resident's car accidents, gun club dinners, things like that. It was just local television.

MICHEL: They also made drama. In one video, a local woman acts out a fantasy of escaping the tedium of small-town life.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Goodbye, Lanesville. I've had 17 years of it, and that's enough. (Singing) La, la, la.

ANDREW INGALL: We made hundreds and hundreds of tapes. Some are gems; some are absolute duds.

MICHEL: Andrew Ingall, the Dorsky Museum show's curator says the Videofreex collaborated with and influenced other collectives and producers across the country. One of them is DeeDee Halleck, now professor emerita at the University of California, San Diego.

DEEDEE HALLECK: Their house in the Catskills became a kind of hideaway for a generation of rebels, such as me. I was - I really felt that this was a place that liberated the technology and enabled the kinds of learning, the kinds of expression - self-expression that could really make the change. I mean, we were very optimistic.

MICHEL: But by 1978, out of funds, this group disbanded - some moving back to Manhattan and some continuing to make video.

TEASDALE: I'm not so interested in Videofreex as cave drawings on the wall of video history.

MICHEL: Videofreex cofounder, Harry Teasdale.

TEASDALE: The show, I hope can be valuable to people, not because we were such a great success but because there's something perhaps to be learned about technology and living together and working together. And if that's true, then that will make it all worthwhile.

MICHEL: It was also, he says, a lot of fun. For NPR News, I'm Karen Michel.

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