How Cassette Tapes Changed the World | On the Media – WNYC Studios

November 26, 2021
BROOKE GLADSTONE On this week’s On the Media, how the cassette tape brought down governments, collapsed time and space, and remade how we share information.
SIMON GOODWIN All of the early computers. Certainly this side of the Atlantic. Even the Apple’s used cassettes.
DANIELA SIMONE The idea that you could have your own compilation that you made and you could have songs in any order you wanted. It’s like a sort of a superpower this technology was giving you.
JAROSLAV ŠVELCH It took about six days to spread across the whole country. There’s a term for it, it’s called Sneaker Night. People in sneakers running around and distributing cassette tapes.
MOHSEN SAZEGARA So they duplicated the thousands…
SIMON ADLER …and thousands and thousands of times when Khomeini called for strikes on these tapes, they happened.
SIMON GOODWIN Well, get your tape recorders out. Load your tape. Stand by for blasting because here it comes in… three…two…one.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The outsized influence of a little piece of plastic after this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I’m Brooke Gladstone. Those of you of a certain age and disposition may be right now sitting on the floor of your childhood bedroom or crouched in the family attic or going through boxes of junk in your parent’s basement. I mean, if not Thanksgiving weekend – then when? And if you are doing that, have you come across any cassette tapes? You know, dusty little plastic cases with unspooled tape and a giant brown tangle. Have they cast your mind back to painstakingly compiled mix tapes expressing your old dreams and demons way back when. Radiolab reporter Simon Adler has spent the last year listening to, thinking about, and researching the cassette tape. And what he concluded was that this object, this little piece of plastic, changed the world. It brought down governments, collapsed space and time, remade how we share information. Over five episodes, Simon and the Radiolab team take us to China, Vietnam, South Sudan, Czechoslovakia and 1940s America. Exploring this object’s impact and how, yes, even now, we’re still living in a cassette world. This week’s show is one of those episodes, and it begins with another Simon.
SIMON GOODWIN So I am indeed Simon Goodwin. I’ve been inventing gadgets and writing computer software since the late 1970s.
SIMON ADLER Back then, most people had no experience with computers.
SIMON GOODWIN Yeah, people understood computers as being, quote, giant electronic brains. Right? That couldn’t be argued with.
SIMON ADLER They were just big government owned math machines. And so, Simon, he could really only share his passion for these things with a small group of oddballs like him, which he did.
SIMON ADLER On this local independent radio show he worked at.
ROB YARNOLD Good evening and welcome to Radio Wyvern Computer Club. [CONTINUES UNDER]
SIMON ADLER It was a weekly magazine style show broadcast in West Central England.
ROB YARNOLD [PICKS UP] I’m Rob Yarnold. And with me tonight, Simon Goodwin.
SIMON GOODWIN This week, I’ll be explaining what sorts of steps make up machine code [CONTINUES UNDER]
SIMON ADLER Heard by, I don’t know, maybe a couple hundred people.
SIMON GOODWIN We did things like Which computer should I buy?
SIMON GOODWIN [PICKS UP] Potentially the Commodore 64 is the best machine on the market, although it’s very economically priced. [CONTINUES UNDER]
SIMON GOODWIN The answer to which should be one that hasn’t been made yet. And what’s the jargon mean?
SIMON GOODWIN [PICKS UP] The most sensible reason the contents of every memory location is called a bit. [CONTINUES UNDER]
SIMON ADLER And then also…
SIMON GOODWIN [PICKS UP] Well, this week we’ve had three new titles in… [CONTINUES UNDER]
SIMON ADLER …lots and lots of computer game reviews.
ROB YARNOLD [PICKS UP] …One of those for the Commodore 64 called Everest right out [END CLIP]
SIMON ADLER and well for Simon. This was fun at all. It seemed small.
ROB YARNOLD I mean, I’d already been deeply, deeply moved and had my life changed by these obscure computers, and I knew that clever computing. It’s not about shooting games or driving racing games, it’s about, it’s about sharing.
SIMON ADLER Huh? And how did you know that?
SIMON GOODWIN Well, I used to ride my Vesper motor scooter to a pub where there was a computer club. We’d bring along the software that we’ve written ourselves. We’d show people and they’d usually be. Can I have a copy of that? Can I have a copy of that? And we’d swap.
SIMON ADLER And when you did that, you weren’t just handing them a program.
SIMON GOODWIN You’d be swapping inspiration and ideas, too.
SIMON ADLER And so really, before most he saw the future filled with these computers.
SIMON GOODWIN Oh yeah. I believed they were going to change the world.
SIMON ADLER I mean, way back in 1983, he was already imagining open source software file sharing, a world where ideas and information would be shared across borders and between people frictionlessly.
SIMON GOODWIN And so it was pretty obvious that we needed to do something innovative.
ARCHIVE CLIP Right? Now if you press enter. [COMPUTER PLAYS 8-BIT SCALES]
SIMON GOODWIN Obvious to me, anyway…
ARCHIVE CLIP And that’s it Mike. Not really exciting, is it? [END CLIP]
SIMON ADLER And one day…
SIMON ADLER That using nothing more than a simple cassette tape. He could create the internet, or at least an Internet.
SIMON GOODWIN Of freely downloadable software.
SIMON ADLER To explain.
SIMON GOODWIN All of the early computers. Certainly, this side of the Atlantic. Even the Apple’s used cassettes.
SIMON ADLER Strange as this may sound. Before there were flash drives or floppy disks, there were these data cassettes. I’ve actually got a couple of them with me right here. This is finance one for 1979 Apple computers. This one’s arcade classics for the Commodore 64. And I mean, these were the exact same cassettes you’d use to play music on your stereo, but instead of music.
SIMON ADLER A cassette plays two different tones, a bit like Morse code. [PRESSES BUTTON AND COMPUTER TONE PLAYS] So what I’ll show you now is this is the original 1982 [COMPUTER TONE PLAYS AGAIN] model of the spectrum
SIMON ADLER Sitting in his office over Zoom. He actually isolated these tones and played them for me.
SIMON ADLER And so to load a program, you’d literally play those tones into your computer, off a cassette, the computer would listen to those tones flying by super duper fast, convert each of them into a zero or a one, and then display whatever you’re running on your screen.
SIMON GOODWIN Roughly speaking, that’s exactly right.
SIMON ADLER And so Simon thought
SIMON GOODWIN I mean, the synergy with radio was obvious because…
SIMON ADLER Since this software is sound, we could use our little radio show to broadcast it.
SIMON GOODWIN And not only that, I mean, we were already using our cassette recorder to record hit records off the radio
SIMON ADLER So people could tape the radio broadcast –
SIMON GOODWIN onto a cassette.
SIMON ADLER Have their own copy…
SIMON GOODWIN …and then play it into their home computers.
SIMON ADLER And so one evening in December 1983, Simon wrote up a small bit of software to share with anyone who was listening.
BILLBOARD Radio Wyvern!
ROB YARNOLD Simon, will this load on the 16 and the 48.
SIMON GOODWIN Should load on both machines.
ROB YARNOLD Well, let’s hope he does. Well, get your tape recorders out, load your tape first of all [CONTINUES UNDER NARRATION]
SIMON ADLER Inside the radio station. Simon and his co-host walked people through what was about to happen. Prepared them to hit record and across the broadcast region…
STUART [PICKS UP] Alright, there’s a lot of people around here poised with their fingers already over the recording button as  it is now.
SIMON ADLER People were ready and waiting.
SIMON GOODWIN [PICKS UP] Standby for blasting because here it comes and it loads in three… two…one.
SIMON GOODWIN And there it was. [END CLIP]
SIMON ADLER Across the county. Dozens of people had captured these mysterious tones onto a cassette, played that cassette into their computer and then on their screen….
SIMON GOODWIN First, they would see the pixels arrive on the screen. And then, as the tones changed timbre, they would see something that I thought looked a bit like a reindeer.
SIMON ADLER It was a little Rudolph animation.
SIMON GOODWIN He is wagging his leg or something along those lines. Of course, you couldn’t tell his nose was red. The graphics were black and white.
SIMON ADLER OK? And why Rudolph?
SIMON GOODWIN It was Christmas.
ROB YARNOLD Well, that’s your present from the Radio Wave and computer club for this evening. Lots and lots of programs and many thanks to everyone who sent in today, even in an atrium. [END CLIP].
SIMON ADLER OK, so Simon’s reindeer was sort of hilariously rudimentary, but Simon had managed to send an animation across space to hundreds of people instantaneously. I mean, at that time, the only way to send someone a bit of text with telegram or letter and the only way to share a picture or a song was by actually going over to someone’s house and handing them the physical photograph or cassette. And well, back then, yes, you could record something onto a cassette tape. Making a copy of that tape was a technological feat beyond the grasp of all but a few people. Until that is along came a guy by the name of Lord Sugar.
LORD SUGAR I’m sick of looking at ya at the moment. Get out that door. You’re fired. [END CLIP]
SIMON ADLER Who currently is actually the host of the UK’s version of The Apprentice.
DANIELA SIMONE He plays the sort of the boss character.
SIMON ADLER Was he knighted? And is that why he gets to call himself Lord Sugar?
DANIELA SIMONE Yeah, because he built up an electronics industry just at exactly the time when that was the place to be.
SIMON ADLER In 1984, he released this dual deck cassette recorder
DANIELA SIMONE These machines that would allow you to record from one cassette tape to another cassette tape.
SIMON ADLER This is legal academic Daniela Simon. She’s an expert on UK copyright law who remembers this twin deck cassette player.
DANIELA SIMONE It was a truly revolutionary technology of distribution and a very fond memory of my youth.
SIMON ADLER So did you have one of these growing up?
DANIELA SIMONE No. The people that had that at school were really, like, just the coolest, really, I wasn’t– you could tell, having become an academic, I was not one of the coolest kids.
SIMON ADLER Oh, I was willing to give you the benefit of the doubt.
DANIELA SIMONE Oh, probably I’ve just given myself away then.
SIMON ADLER But Daniela says she does remember going over to her friend’s house that did have one.
DANIELA SIMONE Some twins, Katherine and Timothy.
SIMON ADLER Of course, they have the dual cassette player. Of course, the twins have the twin cassette recorder.
SIMON ADLER And copying these tapes with their friends, she says, was crazily empowering.
DANIELA SIMONE Like magic, you know. Cause before this, record companies were able to control the way in which she would access what they were selling.
SIMON ADLER Like, you couldn’t make a playlist. You couldn’t even just buy the songs you wanted.
DANIELA SIMONE You had to buy the entire album. And so the idea that you could have your own compilation that you made and you could have songs in any order you wanted. It’s like sort of a superpower this technology was giving you.
SIMON ADLER And this superpower wielded by millions of kids in their bedrooms was beginning to threaten the music industry.
NEWS CLIP Home taping is killing music.
NEWS CLIP We are losing 20 million pounds a year. [CONTINUES UNDER]
DANIELA SIMONE I mean, there was this great degree of panic.
NEWS CLIP The flood of illegally produced albums and..
NEWS CLIP Half the country’s teenagers take music.
NEWS CLIP These people are organized crime…. [END CLIP]
SIMON ADLER I mean, this panic even had Simon Goodwin nodding along.
SIMON GOODWIN Probably for good commercial reasons.
SIMON ADLER By this point, he was making and selling cassette-based computer games.
SIMON GOODWIN It was a solid revenue stream, but the particular one that was a hit was a exploring underground game called Goldmine.
SIMON ADLER You’d play as this little stick figure burrowing down into the ground…
SIMON GOODWIN With a pickax, and they would start exploring the space, trying to avoid getting…. crushed.
SIMON ADLER Anyhow, Simon had spent dozens, if not hundreds of hours working on this thing. And so with all this pirating going on.
SIMON GOODWIN I spend as much time on the copy protection as I did on the game.
SIMON ADLER Using a bit of computer magic, he slipped some code into the program that would detect if the cassette was a duplicate and if so, it wouldn’t play. I’m hearing a slight tension, though, because on the one hand, Simon, you you love the sharing with your compatriots. But on the other hand, you’re trying to lock that thing down so that it can’t be used to its full extent, potentially. So how did you square those two in your mind?
SIMON GOODWIN I was being paid. [LAUGHS] I was being paid for the commercial software, whereas for the radio program, I won’t ask whether you’re getting paid, but radio is not a way of making a living.
SIMON ADLER Touche, Simon. Touche.
ARCHIVE Let’s get this quite clear. A pirate is a thief. The only investment he has is a piece of tape, and he is making money. [END CLIP]
SIMON ADLER And this was the tension. Once money got involved, for people like Simon – the people making stuff– sharing effectively became stealing. However, across the Iron Curtain. Questions like who’s the pirate and who’s being harmed were even harder to answer. In fact, the whole situation was playing out in this fascinating, almost upside-down kind of way.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Coming up, Simon meets an unlikely pirate who explains how cassette tapes changed lives behind the Iron Curtain. This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media,  I’m Brooke Gladstone. A moment ago, Simon Adler explained that as tape cassettes were proliferating, so too were questions about what constituted stealing and what was honest to goodness idea sharing. Those issues took on a different hue behind the Iron Curtain.
FRANK FUXOFT First of all, the term software piracy was unknown, back then. The pirate was only the guy with the parrot in one eye and nothing else.
SIMON ADLER This is Frank
FRANK FUXOFT Frantisek – Fuxoft
SIMON ADLER He says in Czechoslovakia at that time…
FRANK FUXOFT Copyrights were completely alien concept in our country.
SIMON ADLER The idea that a person could own a song or an idea and therefore insist that it not be copied like that just didn’t exist.
FRANK FUXOFT There is a maybe interesting story which illustrates this. Many western songs were just adapted to Czech and officially released over here with completely different lyrics.
SIMON ADLER Can you think of a specific song or two?
FRANK FUXOFT Of course. So, for example….
SIMON ADLER Berlin’s Take My Breath Away Here,
SIMON ADLER –and rewritten as. “Please Don’t Laugh at Me”. Really?
FRANK FUXOFT Yeah, and there were literally like dozens of these songs…
FRANK FUXOFT It was released over here as a song about. Drive carefully in your car when you are going through the mountains.
SIMON ADLER And Fuxoft thought was so cut off that growing up, he was convinced those were the original versions.
FRANK FUXOFT Yes, I thought those two are Czech songs. I’m not sure how much do you know about how socialism works?
SIMON ADLER Treat me like I’m a child and I know nothing.
FRANK FUXOFT OK, so let’s say you wanted something from the West.
FRANK FUXOFT Anything like clothing, computers, calculators illegal. There was simply no legal way to get it.
SIMON ADLER So as late as 1980, he’d never seen the computer.
FRANK FUXOFT But then I visited the exhibition of achievement of Soviet republics,
SIMON ADLER Sort of like a communist science fair. 
FRANK FUXOFT They were showing the best of the socialism has to offer. And there was a computer. It was probably some kind of stolen clone of Apple computer.
SIMON ADLER By today’s standards, super simple.
FRANK FUXOFT There was no graphic. It was just green symbols on the black screen and the older guys programing the computer. And that was like complete science fiction for me. And I was absolutely fascinated by this, and I immediately saw that this is something I wanted to do in my life. 
SIMON ADLER And so, Fuxoft off became like an eastern bloc version of Simon Goodwin…
NEWS CLIP [IN CZECH] Frantisek Fuca; student [END CLIP]
SIMON ADLER … Only a little more celebrated.
FRANK FUXOFT I was like a wunderkind.
FRANK FUXOFT There were making interviews for TV and for newspapers with me like this boy, he understands computers.
SIMON ADLER Because he’d taught himself to program. He became this sort of Communist Party show pony.
FRANK FUXOFT We were being paraded like, You see, this is our future. They are playing with computers.
SIMON ADLER But while, the Communist Party was showing him off as the best of the best. He was about to realize just how far behind the curve he and everyone he knew really was. He said he doesn’t recall the specifics perfectly. He says it happened…
FRANK FUXOFT I would say ’84, probably. I knew a guy who could get commercial games.
SIMON ADLER He smuggled the cassettes in from Yugoslavia and somehow Fuxoft, got one of these games, either from him or someone else.
SIMON ADLER Fuxoft have played it into his computer, and when this scree of data was finished playing. He began to play this game from the West.
FRANK FUXOFT One of the first was Moon Cresta it was called.
SIMON ADLER It’s one of those games where you’re a spaceship moving side to side at the bottom of the screen, shooting upward that alien spaceships. Very, very simple game.
FRANK FUXOFT But it was. It’s hard to describe. It was better than anything I have seen in my life. I thought, This is amazing. There were like different graphics and levels.
SIMON ADLER The action was flashier. The sound effects were richer. This wasn’t a game you just played and beat in an afternoon. You could play it for days.
FRANK FUXOFT And I mean, it completely, like, changed my view of what’s possible.
SIMON ADLER It opened his eyes to what was happening on the other side of the Iron Curtain. This world that his own government had completely cut him off from. And eventually he thought, I have to share this with my friends so they can experience this too.
FRANK FUXOFT Yes, yes, something like that. But it had a copy protection scheme
SIMON ADLER That bit of code that Simon put into his games. This game had one of those, too, and so to be able to copy and share it…
FRANK FUXOFT I had to correct it.
SIMON ADLER Essentially pick its digital lock.
FRANK FUXOFT OK, this this shouldn’t be too hard to do myself.
SIMON ADLER Fuxoft went for it.
FRANK FUXOFT So basically switch on computer and type in “last load”… Decode loader…Inside another loading routine… Exit back to operating system…
SIMON ADLER But…it didn’t work
FRANK FUXOFT They were really using all the tricks in the book.
SIMON ADLER So he tried again.
FRANK FUXOFT Write my own save routine… No place to put – memory full…
SIMON GOODWIN …Still didn’t work.
SIMON ADLER Much to the glee of folks like Simon Goodwin.
SIMON GOODWIN When I when I create something, I do my best to protect it. And so, you don’t put up something on the screen saying you are a nasty pirate. What you do is mislead the person by reporting a tape loading error because then they think, Oh no, this is a world of pain I’m entering into. Who cares? Let’s copy somebody else’s game.
SIMON ADLER But for Fuxsoft, cracking this thing became its own sort of game.
FRANK FUXOFT I was something like a quintessential geek. So it was a challenge to me that I actually I–I could like look into it and find tricks which they have used.
So, what I had to do… At the beginning, save the game as the loading started… Instead of running it…operating systems was…write my… Every kilobyte was needed… operational screen… I was hating this… small modifications… press ‘T’ for change origin… cannot be copied… overwritten… then…exit.
SIMON ADLER I don’t think I’m ever going to fully understand what you just said, which I think is OK. I think I think I can like, say, a cartoonish version of it that that communicates the idea, but I won’t to understand it. However, what I do need to understand is, did it work or not?
FRANK FUXOFT Well, in this case?
FRANK FUXOFT I cracked it and the game ran. And from that point on, it could be copied throughout the whole country
JAROSLAV ŠVELCH Very, very fast.
SIMON ADLER That’s Jaroslav Švelch, professor at Charles University in Prague
SIMON ADLER He wrote a whole book on these pirated games, and he says –
FRANK FUXOFT Just by people kind of giving it to each other…
SIMON ADLER – this thing multiplied and spread internet style almost as fast as that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer broadcast.
SIMON GOODWIN It took about six days to spread across the whole country, and there was there’s a term for it. It’s called Sneakernet. Like just people in sneakers running around and distributing cassettes. .
FRANK FUXOFT We have so-called copy parties. Like dozens of people were meeting. All of them brought their small computers, put it on the table and connected their tape decks to the one device…
SIMON ADLER …. And through this rat’s nest of cables…
FRANK FUXOFT …They were doing copy to all of them at the same time.
SIMON ADLER Somebody would then leave that copy party –
JAROSLAV ŠVELCH Running around the neighborhood with a plastic bag full of cassette tapes.
FRANK FUXOFT He gave it probably to some of his friends.
SIMON ADLER They took their copies to copy parties…
FRANK FUXOFT And each of the copies from the originals created 5 or 10 more copies.
SIMON ADLER And those would then be copied and so on and so on… 
SIMON ADLER It was the loaves and the fishes. Suddenly, you could feed all of the people you wanted.
FRANK FUXOFT Yeah, yeah, yeah! Exactly, exactly. So basically, for people around me, I was something like a god.
SIMON ADLER This, of course, set off its own Cold War style arms race with folks like Simon creating new copy protections and folks like Fuxoft, figuring out how to break them. Well, and so over the course of your career, how many games do you think you cracked?
FRANK FUXOFT I would say between 100 and 200.
FRANK FUXOFT Actually, how do you call it in English?
FRANK FUXOFT I was looking forward to when there was a new copy production methods.
FRANK FUXOFT Because I learned so much just from debugging their copy protection schemes.
SIMON ADLER Strangely, this arms race became its own form of sharing,
FRANK FUXOFT So I got a great respect for the people who came up with those copy protection schemes.
SIMON ADLER And Simon says he began to feel the same way.
SIMON GOODWIN It became a collaborative and a creative process of forward and backward communication.
SIMON ADLER Each time, he updated his copy protections. It became less an angry attempt to deny robbers, and more like, ‘huh? OK, let’s see what you can do with this.’
SIMON GOODWIN Yeah. So, what we were doing there was partly we were sharing knowledge and partly we were trying to show one another what was possible.
SIMON ADLER And not just what was possible with zeros and ones are bits and bytes. I mean, by the late 1980s, more and more pirated material of all types was being smuggled in and shared on these cassettes. And so, folks who had always thought, “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” was about driving in the mountains where suddenly and simultaneously experiencing this onslaught of slapstick, explosive, stupid, dynamic, compelling media that capitalism is so good at pumping out. And when I talk to Fuxoft, he told me that he – he thinks this media and the sharing that facilitated it with at least one reason why…
NEWS CLIP Hundreds of thousands of Czechoslovaks, are in the streets. The young, want an end to communist rule altogether. [END CLIP]
SIMON ADLER So many people, all at the same time, were primed to want more and ready to take to the streets to get it.
NEWS CLIP They packed into Wenceslas Square. [END CLIP]
FRANK FUXOFT Definitely through pirated movies and music and computer games. More and more people, including me, could see how better it is for you to live in a capitalistic society.
NEWS CLIP Several 100,000 people. [END CLIP]
FRANK FUXOFT It just came down because of because of this, because it was no longer tenable.
NEWS CLIP Resign, resign! They demanded [END CLIP]
FRANK FUXOFT And I think that’s why basically the communism ended basically at the same time, same time in the whole of Europe.
ARCHIVE CLIP Watch what you can do with this Apple II personal computer. [END CLIP].
NEWS CLIP Czechoslovakia today became the latest to throw off its communist yolk. [END CLIP].
ARCHIVE CLIP And they did all eat and were filled. [END CLIP]
SIMON ADLER And after the Iron Curtain did fall,
FRANK FUXOFT …someone paid me to come up with product copy protection scheme for his game.
SIMON ADLER Fuxoft took full advantage of his newfound freedoms.
Oh, what a good little capitalist you became!
FRANK FUXOFT I know. Did I tell you about bitcoins? With me and bitcoins?
SIMON ADLER No, no, no. Tell me, tell me!
FRANK FUXOFT Well, later I started blogging about the movies and I allowed people to send me like a voluntary amount of money,
SIMON ADLER Like an early Patreon thing or something.
FRANK FUXOFT Yeah, yeah, basically.
FRANK FUXOFT And 11 years ago, I said, OK, here is this thing, this bitcoin. Here’s how it works. It’s very interesting. You can also send free bitcoins if you want. Well, OK. And then they sent me something over 200 bitcoins.
SIMON ADLER 200 bitcoin. Let me look this up.
SIMON ADLER OK. Into US dollars. [LAUGHS] $10 million.
FRANK FUXOFT I don’t have 200 of them, but I can tell you in the last year, I bought a new car and a new house [CHUCKLES] with bitcoins.
SIMON ADLER Turns out Simon Goodwin was right, radio is just not a way to make a living.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Coming up, the humble cassette tape plays a role in another revolution. This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I’m Brooke Gladstone. To round out our hour about the influence of the cassette tape on culture and politics, we head over to…Iran.
MOHSEN SAZEGARA I was born in Tehran in 1955.
SIMON ADLER Mohsen Sazegara, he was a precocious kid bookworm, loved reading about political theory and political philosophy.
MOHSEN SAZEGARA I didn’t know, maybe you call it geek or something. I tried very hard during all my education years.
SIMON ADLER He left Iran, moved to Chicago in the mid 70s to study physics. But by 1978, his focus was very much back home.
MOHSEN SAZEGARA Making a revolution.
SIMON ADLER At that time, Iran had already been engulfed in a years long struggle against the country’s tyrannical leader.
ARCHIVE CLIP Iran Inshallah…
MOHSEN SAZEGARA Shah came to power with the British and American plot, and he was a military dictator.
SIMON ADLER He and his secret police, SAVAK, ran the country with an iron fist and impunity.
MOHSEN SAZEGARA The, you know, shadow of SAVAK was everywhere.
SIMON ADLER And Mohsen and all sorts of other folks wanted this guy out. I mean, there were nationalists fighting against the Shah. Marxists and leftists like Mohsen. And well, they’d made some strides…
SIMON ADLER Getting people out onto the street to protest. Things were stagnating…
MOHSEN SAZEGARA Yes, without that, we have a long battle.
SIMON ADLER And so Mohsen and his smarty pants leftist allies decided to hit reset. Which is where our story really begins here.
MOHSEN SAZEGARA We went to a small village about half an hour, 45 minutes out of Paris.
SIMON ADLER This town Neauphle-le-chateau would be their new base of operations. They knew someone there who owned this rudimentary house they could stay in.
MOHSEN SAZEGARA I remember there was one shower which had no hot water in the cold weather of France.
SIMON ADLER And they were bunking up with this relatively unknown and very unlikely ally. This long-bearded cleric, the Ayatollah Khomeini.
KIM GHATTAS Khomeini was quite old. He’d been in exile for quite some time.
SIMON ADLER That’s Kim, Ghattas.
KIM GHATTAS Longtime journalist who’s covered the Middle East and the United States.
SIMON ADLER She says Mohsen’s allies had handpicked Khomein to join them.
MOHSEN SAZEGARA We needed a religious leader that was activist against the Shah.
SIMON ADLER Someone who could really inspire people to take to the streets, and Khomeini fit that bill.
ARASH AZIZI Yes, he was very adamant. He was kind of crazy. He was the kind of guy who would not compromise.
ARASH AZIZI He said the Shah should get the hell out of Iran.
SIMON ADLER This is Iranian writer and activist Arash Azizi.
ARASH AZIZI You know, he said, [SPEAKING IN FARSI], means. ‘Shah has to go.’
SIMON ADLER And so, you know, Mohsen and the other leftists…
MOHSEN SAZEGARA Because all of us were well-educated in best universities of Western countries… 
SIMON ADLER Thought they could use Khomeini, overthrow the Shah, and then cast Khomeini aside.
SIMON ADLER And so from this tiny town, these strange bedfellows hatched a plan to make Khomeini a superstar.
NEWS CLIP This small village, 20 miles to the south of Paris, has become the center of resistance to the Shah of Iran. [END CLIP]
SIMON ADLER Mohsen and the leftists with their connections.
KIM GHATTAS They’ve set up literally a media office.
SIMON ADLER Made a bunch of calls, sent out tons of press releases.
NEWS CLIP Able to call for peace. [END CLIP]
SIMON ADLER And before long…
NEWS CLIP His name is Ayatollah… [END CLIP]
SIMON ADLER Neuphle-le-chateau became the center of the media universe.
NEWS CLIP Good evening from Ponchartrain, France. [CONTINUES UNDER]
SIMON ADLER And with the cameras trained on him…
NEWS CLIP Tonight, the 78-year-old Muslim religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini [END CLIP]
SIMON ADLER Khomeini became the voice of the revolution. Sort of.
SIMON ADLER Because, and this is where things get a little complicated…Sitting on the floor or out under an apple tree. Khomeini would let the reporter ask their questions…
NEWS CLIP If the peaceful demonstrations do not succeed, will you then order your followers to fight? [CONTINUES UNDER]
SIMON ADLER And he then answered those questions in Farsi…
SIMON ADLER Which the reporters didn’t speak. So, the leftists like Mohsen…
TRANSLATOR We would like to continue to wait, as it is, as much as possible. [CONTINUES UNDER]
SIMON ADLER …would step in to translate and what they said, what they translated– something soft, smart and diplomatic.
TRANSLATOR The cause that we are striking is the independence of the country and the liberty of our own people. [END CLIP]
SIMON ADLER Was often quite different from what Khomeini had actually just said.
KIM GHATTAS Khomeini believed in what he called [SPEAKING FARSI]. How do I translate, sorry, let me just check how I translate that…[PAGES FLIP] A state, a relier of the wise man. So, you know, an Islamic State on Earth.
MOHSEN SAZEGARA Yeah. He thought that if you implement a religious order from the Middle Ages, everything will be right, and we will have utopia on the Earth.
SIMON ADLER And so it was like, was that a red flag for you in any ways?
MOHSEN SAZEGARA No. You know why? Because we were in danger by Secret Service of Shah, SAVAK. We were imprisoned by Shah and we were ready to sacrifice our our life. So our first priority was to bring down regime of Shah, and we thought that Khomeini was in our sight.
SIMON ADLER And again, they also thought Khomeini was a useful puppet they’d eventually discard. They were the ones in control. And so any time he brought up this idea of the Islamic State…
KIM GHATTAS They would omit, that, as they called it – crazy talk. So that part of the message did not reach the Western media.
SIMON ADLER But the problem was that basically no part of the message was reaching the people of Iran.
NEWS CLIP How are your orders communicated to the millions of your followers in Iran?
ARASH AZIZI The Shah of Iran, he had the iron grip on media, and the media would have been the radio and TV and the newspapers.
SIMON ADLER Again, Arash Azizi, who says the Shah had this media blockade that was effectively preventing all of this news coverage, all of this messaging from making it back into Iran. To its target audience.
ARASH AZIZI And there was not, of course any WhatsApp or any internet services.
SIMON ADLER So they needed to find some underground analog way in. Enter the cassette tape.
MOHSEN SAZEGARA Every week, at weekends, after evening praying…
SIMON ADLER Ofttimes sitting in this blue and white striped tent that they’d erected in the backyard.
MOHSEN SAZEGARA Ayatollah Khomeini, he had this speech about sometimes an hour or less than an hour
SIMON ADLER And this is where they’d let Khomeini be Khomeini.
MOHSEN SAZEGARA And we recorded him to cassette tapes.
SIMON ADLER “Shah, you are not a king. You are a nasty, rebellious person. You are ruling the country against the rule of law.”.
SIMON ADLER “People want a politician, a ruler whose beliefs are based on Islam.”.
SIMON ADLER “Islam is the religion that half a century ago conquered all countries in the region to make them decent human beings. Islam is not dictatorship. It is God’s rule.”.
SIMON ADLER And when Khomeini had finished his speech and the recording was done
MOHSEN SAZEGARA After his speech, I took the cassettes to the basement
SIMON ADLER Recorded a little intro onto it…
MOHSEN SAZEGARA The speech of the great leader, and then the date.
SIMON ADLER And one day Mohsen or one of his allies thought, maybe there is a way to send these cassettes these speeches back to Iran,
MOHSEN SAZEGARA Maybe by telephone. In that house, we had a international line and a colleague in Iran who was an engineer in telecom of Iran. And he and his friends, they could open international lines. One international line from Iran for us, like a collect call.
SIMON ADLER And while, these speeches were less diplomatic, less polished than the messages Mohsen had been passing to the Western press…
KIM GHATTAS They didn’t mind whether the Iranians who were religious heard this message about an Islamic State because they thought, OK, it would bring them out onto the street and it’s never going to happen anyway. So let him say whatever he want because it’s all crazy talk.
MOHSEN SAZEGARA I remember the first time…
SIMON ADLER After one of Khomeini’s weekend speeches,
MOHSEN SAZEGARA I took the cassette upstairs to our colleagues, and I remember that they smoked cigarettes very much and the room, was always covered by smoke. And gave it to them, and then our friend in telecom connected the line and…
SIMON ADLER … With the revolutionaries in France, now, speaking to the revolutionaries in Iran. They attached this tape player to the phone and pressed play.
MOHSEN SAZEGARA and our colleagues in Iran…
SIMON ADLER Using a little tape player on their end…
SIMON ADLER And when the call was finished, the folks in Iran, they took the tape out, rewound it. Played it back.
KIM GHATTAS You can just imagine the crackly qualirt that you would get.
SIMON ADLER …And it worked. Suddenly, Khamenei was there with them in that room. With their proof of concept, they started going wild with this.
SIMON ADLER Once a week from France, they’d set up a conference call
MOHSEN SAZEGARA so there could be many phones calling at the same time.
SIMON ADLER All the folks on the call would record it.
MOHSEN SAZEGARA Answering machines are being used…
SIMON ADLER …From the various points in Iran. Then they’d start making call – spreading it further. And along each step of the way…
ARASH AZIZI This network of people… 
KIM GHATTAS You know, have almost a little cottage industry duplicating the tapes.
MOHSEN SAZEGARA They duplicated it thousands…
SIMON ADLER And thousands and thousands of times.
KIM GHATTAS It becomes a flood.
ARASH AZIZI So, yes, it’s estimated they took about nine hours from a speech being given by Khomeini to it being spread in large numbers of tapes in Iran
SIMON ADLER I mean, these things were spreading hand to hand from family member to friend. In the bazaar, in living rooms. I mean, at its peak, some 90,000 mosques were duplicating and distributing these tapes. Well, it feels to me like this is Khomeini seeing how to create virality before virality was a word outside of epidemiology.
ARASH AZIZI Absolutely. Absolutely. Khomeini knew exactly what he meant. The art of Khomeini was he exactly knew what to say to go viral.
SIMON ADLER What to say, and just as importantly, how to say it.
MOHSEN SAZEGARA Great politicians in the world, most of them can speak very well and have very good lectures. But Ayatollah Khomeini was not like that. His grammar is one of the worst. Maybe I gave him a ‘D’ or ‘F’.
NAZILA FATHI He used the verbs in the wrong way. He had quite a provincial accent.
SIMON ADLER This is Nazila Fathi…
NAZILA FATHI …Former New York Times correspondent based in Tehran for 17 years.
SIMON ADLER She also grew up in Iran as all this was happening, and she says his language was so strange that educated folks made fun of him.
NAZILA FATHI One of the jokes was that ‘yogurt is white.’ Yogurt is white. Three words because all his sentences were like that very simple and obvious things.
SIMON ADLER But while the upper crust was mocking him…
MOHSEN SAZEGARA His speech was more attractive for ordinary people.
NAZILA FATHI He was from rural Iran, and so were many, many Iranians, millions of Iranians, even the ones who had grown up in the cities, their parents came from villages. And so this was a very familiar language to them. Similar to the language of their fathers or grandfathers.
SIMON ADLER And on top of all, this was the way they were hearing it.
MOHSEN SAZEGARA People had cassette players at home, so you could listen to at home and you could sort of gather around and altogether listen to those cassettes.
SIMON ADLER And when they did that, when they sat down and pressed, play…
SIMON ADLER It’s not a politician speaking to a reporter. It’s not a politician behind a left turn giving a stump speech. It’s not even some image being beamed into your television and your neighbors television and their neighbors television. It’s a man in your living room speaking to you and saying that there is important work to be done. And that you’re invited to be a part of it. That you’ve been treated unfairly, that you’ve been wronged. But, that with your help, we can fix it. We can make the world a better place. We can make the world as great as it used to be and that the only thing standing in our way is one man.
NAZILA FATHI So his voice gave them an identity. Purpose. This voice that they could keep hearing, and it would drill in over and over and over again.
SIMON ADLER One Iranian man we spoke to who heard these tapes said in hindsight, that it was almost like Khomeini had hypnotized him. And he was not unique.
MOHSEN SAZEGARA Every everybody in Iran, in every faction listened to Ayatollah.
SIMON ADLER Millions of people. I mean, when Khomeini called for strikes on these tapes, they happened. When he told people to take to the streets on these tapes. It happened. And when he told the Shah to get the hell out of Iran, that eventually happened as well.
NEWS CLIP The man who from long distance had led the revolution to topple the Shah.
NAZILA FATHI It was through these cassette tapes that Khomeini mobilized the masses and managed to hijack the revolution from all the other political parties.
SIMON ADLER On January 16th, 1979, the Shah fled Iran. And what he would be replaced by, what Khomeini’s victory actually meant for Iran began to come into focus just two weeks later. As Khomeini was flying from France back to Iran.
KIM GHATTAS When they were on their way back to Tehran on the Air France plane that had been chartered for them.
SIMON ADLER Again, journalist Kim Ghattas.
KIM GHATTAS As the plane entered the Iranian airspace. Peter Jennings of ABC, of course, managed to get up to Khomeini and ask a question.
KIM GHATTAS  And he asked him…
PETER JENNINGS Would you be so kind as to tell us how you feel about being back in Iran? [AMBI CONTINUES UNDER]
KIM GHATTAS And the Ayatollah listens to the translation of the question into Persian, and the answer is… Nothing.
SIMON ADLER And the translator, as always, one of these leftist intellectual types.
KIM GHATTAS He just can’t believe what he just heard. So he asks the Ayatollah…’Nothing?’ Khomeini repeats, and I’m reading sort of phonetically: I don’t feel a thing now.
SIMON ADLER What he meant by nothing. None of us will ever know for sure. But listening to that interaction, and this is something that Kim Ghattas felt too. You do get the clear sense of a man who sees himself as simply taking his next predestined step into power. A man who sees himself as apart from an above the trifling emotions of politics and men.
KIM GHATTAS Here is a man who’s been in exile for 15 years and he’s about to touch down in his home country and he feels nothing.
SIMON ADLER And his translator almost didn’t seem to know what to do with those words.
ARASH AZIZI He tells Peter Jennings…
TRANSLATOR He doesn’t make any comment. [CONTIUES UNDER]
KIM GHATTAS He doesn’t make any comment.
PETER JENNINGS Is he happy or is he excited?
TRANSLATOR Doesn’t make any comment? .
KIM GHATTAS  that moment on the plane is when you start seeing the danger of what Khomeini actually represents. But it was too late, I think it was too late.
NEWS CLIP Mounting tension between the U.S. and Iran.
NEWS CLIP …304 killed in recent protests. [END CLIP]
KIM GHATTAS And to this day, the Islamic government is ruling Iran.
NEWS CLIP Iran has launched a series of ballistic missiles…
NEWS CLIP The debate of whether women should wear hijab
NEWS CLIP In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals.
NEWS CLIP Shot down or Ukranian passenger plane.
NEWS CLIP The Iranian government responded with a five day internet shutdown. [END CLIP]
SIMON ADLER I guess I wonder Mohsen your voice on these tapes. How do you feel knowing that your voice is in some ways forever intimately tied to Khomeini’s voice?
MOHSEN SAZEGARA Not so guilty, I have to say.
MOHSEN SAZEGARA Because now that I look back, we know that the combining revolutionary ideology with the religion is a wrong way. But in those days, nobody knew that. Not only me as a 23 year old student, but none of the thinkers, even the Western thinkers. So I was a part of a big movement in Iran by the people of Iran.
SIMON ADLER You didn’t know how dangerous this thing was, that you were pushing on people.
SIMON ADLER But you’re doing it. Have you had to grapple with that fact?
MOHSEN SAZEGARA I can’t say that. Unfortunately, I didn’t think about the future, the system that he suggests. We thought that we can make an utopia on the Earth. We were wrong. I can say now that all those thoughts were wrong.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Mixtape was reported, produced and scored by Simon Adler with reporting and production assistance provided by Eli Cohen. A lot of other people contributed to the making of the series, whose names you’ll hear when you go to listen to the other episodes at Our engineer this week was Sam Bair, Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I’m Brooke Gladstone.


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