The Incredible Story Of Marion Stokes, Who Single-Handedly Taped 35 Years Of TV News

From 1977 to 2012, she recorded 140,000 VHS tapes worth of history. Now the Internet Archive has a plan to make them public and searchable.

In a storage unit somewhere in Philadelphia, 140,000 VHS tapes sit packed into four shipping containers. Most are hand-labeled with a date between 1977 and 2012, and if you pop one into a VCR you might see scenes from the Iranian Hostage Crisis, the Reagan Administration, or Hurricane Katrina.

It's 35 years of history through the lens of TV news, captured on a dwindling format.

It's also the life work of Marion Stokes, who built an archive of network, local, and cable news, in her home, one tape at a time, recording every major (and trivial) news event until the day she died in 2012 at the age of 83 of lung disease.

Marion StokesPhoto courtesy of Michael Metelits

Stokes was a former librarian who for two years co-produced a local television show with her then-future husband, John Stokes Jr. She also was engaged in civil rights issues, helping organize buses to the 1963 civil rights march on Washington, among other efforts. She began casually recording television in 1977. She taped lots of things, but she thought news was especially important, and when cable transformed it into a 24-hour affair, she began recording MSNBC, Fox, CNN, CNBC, and CSPAN around the clock by running as many as eight television recorders at a time.

She'd feed a six-hour tape into the recorders late at night. She'd wake up early the next day to change them (or conscript family members to do the same if she wasn't home). She'd cut short meals at restaurants to rush home before tapes ended. And when she got too old to keep up, she trained a younger helper named Frank to run the various recording equipment.

But the majority of her days were structured around paying attention to and saving whatever was on the news. "Pretty much everything else took a back seat,” says her son, Michael Metelits. “It provided a certain rhythm to her life, and a certain amount of deep, deep conviction that this stuff was going to be useful. That somehow, someone would find a way to index it, archive it, store it--that it would be useful.”

Stokes bought VHS tapes by the dozen. As she recorded, she made stacks so high they would fall over. The project took over several of the apartments she owned. “It was just a logistical nightmare--that’s really the only way to put it,” Metelits says. When people asked her why her home was filled packed with televisions, recorders, and tapes, she’d tell them, “I’m archiving, that’s all.”

Photo courtesy of Michael Metelits

How One Woman’s Eccentric Hobby Became Another Man’s Treasure

To acquaintances, Stokes’s extremely time-consuming and expensive passion for archiving could seem eccentric.

Roger Macdonald thinks it's heroic. He's the librarian who runs the television portion of the Internet Archive, a non-profit organization dedicated to building a free Internet library. Since 2000, his team has been recording national television news to a digital format in hopes of one day making it all part of a searchable archive (broadcasts from the last four years are already available). His system is much simpler than Stokes’ elaborate video cassette juggling act--it’s just a very small rack of computers with discs spinning and cables going in and out--but the visions behind both projects are aligned. “Television has been our most pervasive and persuasive medium,” Macdonald says, “but we’ve never really had much of a pause and rewind button on our experience of it to reflect back on television news, to compare and contrast and mine it for knowledge.”

When Macdonald heard about Stokes’s massive archive, he emailed her son for more information. He got an answer but it only made him more curious. So he called. “Everything I learned would ratchet my eyes ever wider. How many tapes are we talking about? How did that work? How did the family live like that? It’s just an amazing, amazing story.” The Internet Archive had received large collections of 100 or 200 tapes from individuals before, but nothing quite like this.

John Lynch, the director of the Vanderbilt Television News Archive had a similar reaction. “Normally when we get someone who calls in about a collection, we try to send them somewhere else really quick, because the nature of our collection is that we record things ourselves,” he says. But there was a special significance in what Stokes had accomplished.

Early broadcast news isn’t easy to find, Lynch says, because while networks often did a good job of archiving the footage they used to make the show, they were less meticulous about saving the show itself--a pattern he attributes to “a sense of modesty on their part.” More recent news reports are more likely to be available from stations themselves, but stations typically charge an access fee.

The Vanderbilt Television News Archive is one of the most, if not the most, comprehensive collections of television in the world. It has its own news recordings going back to 1968, and researchers can borrow them on DVD for a small fee to cover the costs of operation. Having been sued by a network during its early days, however, the organization is careful about the way it shares its content (“We’ve been doing this for a long time, and we want to be careful to not mess it up,” Lynch explains). It does not post all the footage online for anyone to access instantly.

The Internet Archive does want to make a television news archive available for instant search online. But it can’t simply borrow content from some place like Vanderbilt. It relies on donations for content recorded before 2000. So Macdonald agreed to accept, digitize and index Stokes’s archive.

“Some local news will be lost forever,” he says, “but who knows, because there may be other Marion Stokeses out there who had that similar passion.”

Turning 140,000 VHS Tapes Into An Archive

The Internet Archive wasn’t sure it would be able to digitize some of the older tapes, and Metelits sent them some samples to test. Arrangements have since been made to ship the rest of the tapes to the Internet Archive’s temperature-controlled storage center in Richmond, California. Shipping will cost Stokes's estate about $12,000. When the tapes arrive, they’ll sit until someone puts them into video players, one at a time, and begins to digitize them for the archive, a process almost as arduous as recording them in the first place.

“It will take a long time,” Macdonald says, “Like the little engine that can, we’ll just keep plugging away at it.”

There weren’t any provisions for the tape collection in Stokes’s will, but anyone who knew her knew she wanted them to be used as an archive. She had been born at the beginning of the Great Depression, and like many people of her generation, saved a lot of things. Scattered throughout the family's various properties, she had stored a half-century of newspapers and 192 Macintosh computers. But the tapes were special. “I think my mother considered this her legacy,” Metelits says.

The value of home-recorded newscasts isn’t immediately obvious, but when the collection becomes public, there will likely be many unanticipated ways to use it. Lynch remembers one year, back when students at Vanderbilt still had to physically visit its archive in order to use it, he looked through the list of those who had done so. “Every single school inside the university had used us,” he says, “Which meant the fine-arts school had found a reason why they wanted to look at old TV news. What happens is that when you make a rich collection available, there are the things you thought of, the reasons why you thought it was valuable, and those may be very much right--but what happens is that it turns out it has a life beyond that.”

On a trip to San Francisco in September of this year, when he visited the archive, Metelits saw the first digitization of his mother’s work. There, on a screen, was Ted Koppel talking about the Iranian Hostage Crisis on Nightline. Metelits started to tear up. And he did again when he recounted the story. “The idea that my mother’s project could be useful to someone was really kind of an emotional moment,” he says.

He recalled how Stokes had a habit of watching two televisions at once, and her son says she could pay attention to both at the same time. Plus, there were often several more televisions running without volume in bedrooms and hallways as they recorded other channels. It was a chaotic environment for most everyone but Stokes.

The day she passed away, December 14, was also the first day in a long time that no one changed the tapes. The house was quiet and absent the usual flickering screens casting frantic shadows. “Over time, I came to respect her project, but it wasn’t my project,” Metelits says. “It did feel weird, but it felt oddly kind of... the apartments were kind of peaceful in a way they hadn’t been in a long time.”

Had the TVs been on that day, they would have all carried news of the same event: the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary.

"I got to the house and this horrific news was going on," Metelits says. "Kids being killed. Teachers being killed while shielding children, that sort of thing." He takes a pause. After about a minute he breaks the silence. "I remember being very grateful that that wasn’t the last news she saw."

Update: The Internet Archive received four shipping containers of Stokes' tapes in December. After conducting a sample inventory, it realized that the family's initial estimate of the number of tapes was incorrect. The collection is about 40,000 tapes large. "I think it’s daunting when confronted with many storage containers, 20- or 30-feet deep, to figure it out," Macdonald says about why the mistake was made.

[Video Tape: Luis Carlos Torres via Shutterstock]

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108 Comments

  • John Smith

    this is one of those people who are not celebrities, not famous, not even know to many, but has made an amazing contribution to modern civilization...we are a society are better for her having been here on earth in our time...no she didn't cure cancer or anything like that, but she brings to life memories of millions who will momentarily enjoy what she has done

  • ernie1241

    I understand and share the passion which motivated Marion Stokes. What many people do not appreciate is that there are many "amateur historians" whom, in their own way, make huge contributions to human knowledge by collecting certain categories of information which even prominent scholars and researchers have not done.

    I recall a similar story from many years ago about a gentleman (I think he lived in Philadelphia) who had collected newspapers for something like 50 years and when he passed away his collection was donated to some institution. Among his collection were now-defunct major newspapers from New York City and his collection covered most of the 20th century.

    Some of us (myself included) have, for decades, made Freedom of Information Act requests to various government agencies and, as a result, have amassed a huge historical archive which often contains material not available in any library.

    So, thank you Marion! We will forever be indebted to you and your family for this contribution to our knowledge about our country and ourselves.

  • Art

    Great story. I have a particular interest in a local news story which ran in the New York city market on 5/31/2001. I really really need a copy of TV news for that day; from channels 2, 5 and 11. Any collectors out there who may have it?

  • sandy m

    I just stumbled upon this story and I wonder why no tv magazine: 60 Minutes, Dateline, 20/20 has covered it? These recordings will be so valuable to future generations. They will get an idea of each era's cultural zeitgeist, fashions, news emphasis, etc. As an example, look at news anchor desks before the long 60s. All white men. Likewise, commercials show us how U.S. society evolved over the years. We can see, for instance, how they gradually began to show different races together.

  • CodeStud3

    All that time that she wasted. She could have spent that time with friends and family. In this age of computers most things are recorded as they happen. He work was redundant.

  • John Ecash

    Did you read the part about how she may have the only record of some of these events?

  • blondie

    I'd rather point my perspective forward, into the future. We've already been there. Done that.

  • blondie

    a story about a woman who watched the world go by but did very little with herself whilst in it

  • John Ecash

    The job of a historian is to record the world. She did more that you give credit for.

  • Dendax

    Wow, this is amazing! Thanks for the great read. It is interesting that so many people are obsessed by this or similar activities that look a bit useless but in the end they might prove to be the opposite.

  • Yitzchak

    Better hire a private armed guards to protect these.... The gov't sure doesn't want you to realize how much they have lied to you over the years...

  • Oompaul

    Pity she probably never read Postman's "Amusing Ourselves to Death" - If she had she woudn't have bothered

  • Muhammad Abbass

    I'm fifty years old, so I've watched most of it probably and whilst it was not always obvious, it is ridiculously obvious that today whether it be the falsehoods spread by media about one false flag terrorist action after another, whether it has been Gulf of Tonkin, the Iranian hostage crisis or the Iraqi supposed unprovoked invasion of Kuwait, later Iraqi WMDs or Iran's mythical nuclear weapons program; in the end if not at the start the truth trickles forth and leaves the official news broadcasts as testimony only to what the PTB say things are which is never what it was usually. The mainstream media is controlled. Whether by self censorship or directly by editing, the news has long been considered too important to be merely fed to people without a filter. It's an old story, garbage in, garbage out. Not that this in any way detracts from the value of the collection made by Mrs Stokes. As a historical record of what was reported, what generally drove the people of the day to do what they did, it is of immense value. It just doesn't tell the true history is my only bone of contention. Considering what news journalism was supposed to be, that is a pity because it would seem to be something one should be able to assume otherwise.

    Unless you know of Operation Mockingbird and understand the implications of that at least, it is better you don't try and deny the news media is controlled. Do a search and read about it first because it is what I would refer anybody to if they first deny the media can be or has been or is controlled. Then the only thing you can do is to assume they are better now. :) Good luck with that idea if it's your choice. I'm thinking Snowden's revelations should have put paid to any such delusions people may be harbouring about the inate decency of their government and the PTB.

  • John Ecash

    After reading your comment I take it you have NOT watched the tapes in question. Stereotyping is never a good thing. Just think if I stereotyped against you for having the name Muhammad . . .Stereotyping is nothing more than a lazy mans way out.

  • Muhammad Abbass

    I do not have to watch the tapes in question, I have had a summary of their contents. Since I am referring to these contents as a group defined in my comment as mainstream media and shown by the historical matter I referred to as including the same TV stations mentioned in this article. Operation Mockingbird is just one aspect of the whole thing of course, but it is not one you get to deny with silly pointless out of context words like "Stereotyping"

    As I point out below, you are the only "stereotype" here and your presumption about my name, backfires on you in fact, since you evidently hold some stereotypical outlook about my name which I am not aware of. Odd since I am an Anglo Celtic blood Aussie convert to Islam and a baby boomer so I thought I'd seen all the ignorance there is out there by now but as far as I can recall, the only people who attach any stereotypical connection to my name, are ignorant Islamophobes, since educated people these days have woken up to the propaganda being spewed forth in the Mainstream Western Media and the fact that those nasty hateful Islamist terrorists are not true Muslims but they are your actual allies, supported in treasure, training and morally in the Mainstream Western Media. Quite a trick that one. Somehow still pushing the war on terror and naming al-Qaeda as the enemy, yet the same media is selling the story of courageous freedom fighters trying to oust the wicked secular and unifying government of Syria at the same time. It takes a well trained flock of sheep to watch that playing out in increasingly bizzare permutations without any questions arising in the murky space between their ears.

    Idly tossing big words around and playing at the wise guy, is what I would call lazy. Instead of presuming your superior position of knowledge, which you've actually shown is just an opinion after all, and from this assumed lofty pinnacle of considered wisdom proffering your advice on how to improve my mental performance, I think it behoves you to actually win the argument first.

  • John Ecash

    For an old man who has not watched the tapes in question you are very close minded.
    I find it very funny how offended when some one wants to stereotype you for your name, but you have no problem stereotyping the tapes. Then again close minded people have never been fair have they/you?
    In short you don't like to be stereotyped, so don't do it to others.

  • Muhammad Abbass

    You're a dribbling idiot. 50 is not old, but if you think it is, then it does explain why your posts have the intellectual sophistication of a teenager. Now you're imagining you've offended me? You're a presumptive cretin given your profound inability to even grasp the subject in a rational manner. Let me spell out the foolishness of your position.

    You have not seen the tapes either, indeed given the sheer volume and the fact they have not yet been uploaded into a format and made available, nobody else has seen them either. So what? Just because you were born since cell phones were invented you evidently think there is some mystery about the world or TV news before you graced us with your resoundingly empty presence. We were watching the news in the seventies, that's how Mrs Stokes recorded it you dingbat and it wasn't just a private feed to her home, you realise? Clown! Now it is hard to imagine a stupider response than you persisting in this vein. The tapes are not a mystery you ridiculous little fellow, they are recordings of the news broadcasts on each of the TV stations mentioned in the article. There is no need to wade through all those broadcasts to know they represent exactly what I have pointed out, with the advantage of having proved my case. I don't have to even refer to the individual news items you tosser, because I have the history of Operation Mockingbird among other revelations which confirms from the horses mouth that they control the news media! It isn't a debate you're winning, it isn't even up for debate if one applies firstly the brain by informing it (which you seem immune to) and then attempts to amass enough reason to extrapolate the known history into today, given the fact nobody ever faced any censure or reversal of this admitted control they had in the seventies. Operation Mockingbird, something you in your closed minded, empty headed delusions apparently have neither heard of nor care enough about the truth to even find out, makes my case for me and you are just being a pompous dweeb making an arse of yourself as you prance about in complete ignorance of the fact, I have proven my point and you have not even entered into the debate. You began by asserting your opinion and I pointed out historical proof why it would be wrong. You didm;t miss a beat, you have simply grabbed the winners cup and declared yourself the king of the hill. Problem is that you never even put up anything, you didn't even respond to the actual posts and in the end what you have posted could as easily have been the work of a robot program actually. The level of comprehension and engagement with the issue in your case suggests you may be nothing more than an automatic writing program which we also know is being used to astroturf comments threads. Idiots really are redundant these days, they have programs which are as pointless, as stupid and as irrational as the most bovine mentality, plastic flag waving opinion regurgitator.

    You have your challenge little man. Prove me wrong by naming any news event which will be reported on those recordings of substance and which was presented in the news of the day accurately, completely and truthfully.

    If you could, you would. Your prancing antics are not cutting it.

  • John Ecash

    I find that only old people think that 50 is not old.
    If i have not offended you, do you always call people names who have not offended you. For being so old I would hope you would have some self control.
    I would love to discuss this with you, but you have proven without a doubt that you are an old man who is single minded and made up in his old ways. I am sorry for what ever happened to you in your life to make you a tin foil hat wearing conspiracy theory nut job. Though a Muslim nut job. . . never seen that before have we. Just imagined if you questioned your religion, the biggest conspiracy there is.
    Good day.