Music streaming

Early on-demand music delivery took a lot of nickel

Loretta Shepard was still a as a teenager when she started using a pseudonym and talking to strangers in the middle of the night. It was 1953 and Shepard, who went by name Joyce, was working after midnight in an undisclosed studio, tapping into what was, at the time, cutting edge technology. “We were told not to give out any information about ourselves, so we had to work under a different name,” recalls Shepard, who chose to be called by his middle name. “I remember they were very strict so that someone knew where you were at all times. It was for our own protection.

“Joyce” was not a Cold War spy, however. She was part of a small army of women in Washington State who worked as DJs for Multiphones, telephone jukeboxes. The devices were the Spotify of their day, providing what some might consider the first form of commercial streaming. Shepard, who worked in Tacoma, says she also acted as a therapist at times, especially with lone servicemen calling as much to hear another human voice as their favorite song.

“If we weren’t too busy, we would talk to them,” says Shepard, who still lives in the Tacoma area. “They just needed someone to talk to. We would just listen, you know [and] be nice to whoever was on the other end.

Imagined by Seattle inventor Ken Shyvers, Multiphones appeared in 1939. At the time, jukeboxes only played about 20 records at most. Shyvers wanted to expand the playlist, so he created the Shyvers Multiphone: a mini-jukebox, with an Art Deco aesthetic. It stood around 20 inches tall and, at its mid-century heyday, could be found anywhere from counters and bars to drive-ins.

A trio of Shyvers multiphones from the John Bennett collection. Michelle harris

The machine had over 170 songs to choose from, each with a different number. Customers would use their built-in phone to connect to the local Multiphone station, filled with records and turntables. A DJ with a friendly voice would wait at the other end to answer the call and play the requested record. The stations, located in Seattle, Tacoma, Bremerton and Spokane, were made up entirely of women.

“You would put your nickel [into the Multiphone] and you would hear a hostess at the central station asking over the loudspeaker, “What number, please?” And you’d say, I want number 202, “Fools like me.” And then they would take the record from the rack, put it on the turntable associated with where you were, play it, and that was it, ”says Seattle historian John Bennett, author of the next book. The history of the Shyvers multiphone. Bennett, who runs Jukebox City, a vintage jukebox business in the Georgetown neighborhood, is a Multiphone collector himself. A self-proclaimed antique accumulator, Bennett bought around 500 Multiphones in the 1980s, which he sold at an antique store he owned at the time. Back then, Multiphones were only selling for $ 100 a piece. Today they are much rarer and can cost over $ 2,000.

While Shyvers certainly improved the technique, listening to live music over the phone was nothing new. The first live broadcasting system, the théatrophone, was invented in France in 1881. The coin-operated wall telephone was installed in hotels, cafes and clubs, among others across Paris, and broadcast live programs opera, theater and information at five-minute intervals. The sounds were transmitted by cables passing through the sewer system. So-called wired music fizzled out at the start of the 20th century as jukeboxes and radio spread. However, it experienced a resurgence in the late 1930s.

“The sound quality on the phone lines was better then and in 1940 the big jukebox makers were thinking pretty well, phonograph jukeboxes are obsolete, and if I don’t go with this wired music, then I will be abandoned. behind. So basically everyone jumped on board and made their version of it, ”says Bennett. “The difference with Shyvers is that he invented Multiphones, produced and operated them himself, so he was the total owner of everything. But being a bit of a little guy, he just operated in the Northwest.

Shyvers Multiphones has not only brought a wider musical selection to Washington business establishments; it also provided jobs for dozens of women who answered telephone inquiries at stations. Like Shepard, many of them were young. “It was actually my first job. I was in my last year of high school and worked there for a year, ”Shepard says. She casually adds: “It was a job. He kept money in my pocket.

As most of the music requests came from bars and restaurants, the hours were late. On Fridays and Saturdays, Shepard’s shift usually ended at 1 a.m. “My husband, who was my boyfriend at the time, would pick me up,” she says. Although the women were ordered not to engage in telephone conversations with clients, this happened more often. To protect their identities, Shyvers had them choose a microphone name and made sure to keep station locations a secret. Still, that didn’t stop some male admirers, mostly sailors on leave ashore, from leaving roses and boxes of candy outside the studio door. Sometimes they even offered marriage to women via the Multiphone.

Loretta Shepard worked as DJ Shyvers Multiphone in the early 1950s.
Loretta Shepard worked as DJ Shyvers Multiphone in the early 1950s. Courtesy of Loretta Shepard

At the peak of their popularity, Multiphones were found in 120 locations across Washington. Then, says Bennett, other companies “brought out these really good stereo jukeboxes and Shyvers just couldn’t compete with them.” In 1959, Multiphones were obsolete and Shyvers took them off the market. Most of the surviving machines are in private collections, although a Multiphone is on display at the Connections Museum in Seattle, which displays antique phones and related equipment.

“The Multiphone was really an early version of streaming music,” says Peter Amstein, president of the nonprofit Telecommunications History Group, which manages the museum. Amstein plans to turn on the Multiphone and play music again, as he did in his prime. “It’s a very beautiful artefact to display in the museum,” he says. “It was a pretty crazy invention for the time.”

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