by Lynn Fuller

In early 1967 the four-track cartridge was controlling the industry with Bill Lear and his 8-track format waiting in the wings to become the "format of choice" for the next decade of pre-recorded taped music. Enter Frank Stanton, innovator of the 2-track PlayTape system. Stanton conceived the compact 2-track system in the 1940's war years when he served in the Navy. Sears and MGM records bought the first working model. The machine was unveiled to the general public at an MGM Records distributor meeting in New York in mid-1966. It was almost instantly a success. PlayTape was touted as a replacement to the transistor radio with the disc jockey removed. It was a light little machine, playing whatever music you wanted to hear . The self-winding tapes played from eight to 24 minutes, and they played anywhere. Quite an accomplishment in 1967!

Playtape 1200 -- picture by James Flanagan

Stanton felt that Playtape was a "standard system-not competitive with anybody. We have our own niche - from $1.00 - $3.00 retail cartridges, from mono to stereo, from the Beatles and Sinatra to Shakespeare and poetry." He would be proven wrong.

The first two PlayTape units offered were a $19.95 unit sold by Sears exclusively and an MGM model (retailing at $29.95) that had tone controls and a better speaker. Stanton had in mind over 15 different models to be available in 1967 -- home tabletop models featuring hi-fi speakers, an auto hang-on unit, a wide variety of portable units and special stereo models. units were cheaply made, sounded like you would expect a 3" speaker to sound and were troubled with the same crosstalk, azimuth problems of the 8-track.

In addition to musical entertainment, Stanton had the business market in mind for the PlayTape system as well. He introduced a special dictating device for the business market which he envisioned as a replacement for written memos and letters. His idea was marketed to the Smith Corona Corporation and called the Mail Call Letter Pack. The units that recorded the messages were advertised at "less than $70.00 a pair." Letter Pack cartridges were offered in 3, 6, or 10 minute lengths and were reusable. Even though the idea was a forerunner of the IBM dictating machine and to some extent the Internet and E-mail, the concept did not take off and music is still the medium for which PlayTape is remembered.

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