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Proudly analog, a Missouri family business keeps cassette tapes alive for new generations

National Audio Company / Suzanne Hogan / Crysta Henthorne KCUR 89.3

Once seen as a musical relic, audio cassettes have survived the eras of CDs and streaming to win over music lovers of a new generation. That’s in large part thanks to the National Audio Company in Springfield, Missouri, the largest cassette manufacturer in the world.

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In the past decade music cassette tapes have experienced a revival. Sales have increased more than 440% and popular artists like Taylor Swift are releasing new music on this old analog format.

Some people may be surprised to learn that cassette tapes are even still a thing. It’s been a rocky road for the medium over the decades. The industry took a hit when the compact disc came along. And now downloading, streaming and digital formats dominate the media landscape.

But defying the odds, cassette tapes have held on. They now enjoy support not only from nostalgic cassette diehards but also from a growing number of new young fans.

“The demographic driving the popularity of the audio cassette is not nostalgic about audio cassettes," says Steve Stepp, who owns National Audio Company in Springfield, Missouri. "They weren't around when audio cassettes were the big thing.”

The company produces about 30 million cassettes a year, making Springfield the largest music cassette producer in the world.

A lot of hard work went into that distinction. National Audio stood up for cassette tapes when others were giving up on the medium And now this surprising city in the middle of America is enjoying its role in the revival.

“Could have been New York. Could have been L. A. Could have been Mexico City. But it was here because we were here,” says Stepp.

The beginnings of National Audio Company

In 1968, just a few years after the compact cassette was invented by Dutch engineer Lou Ottens of the Philips Company, Steve Stepp and his father, Warren Stepp, a retired minister, started what would become National Audio Company.

National Audio Company started just a few years after the cassette tape was invented in 1968. It was founded by Warren Stepp and his son Steve Stepp in Springfield, Mo. Now three generations deep, as Vice-President of the company Phil Stepp is looking to the future of the cassette tape industry.
Suzanne Hogan KCUR 89.3
National Audio Company started in 1968, just a few years after the cassette tape was invented. It was founded by Warren Stepp (seen in portrait) and his son, Steve Stepp, in Springfield, Missouri. Now Steve's son, Phil Stepp (right) is looking to the future as the company vice president.

They started out making broadcast cartridges and distributing blank tapes to radio stations and recording studios all over the country.

Warren Stepp passed away in 1994 and Steve has run the company since. He recalls one day when a representative from the company Ampex showed him his first ever audio cassette.

“He said, ‘What do you think of that?’ And I looked at it, and I said, ‘Not much. It looks like you could maybe put it in a doll, and the doll would have a voice. Doesn't look like much to me.’”

Little did he know that small, flat rectangle with its wheels of tape would go on to dominate the audio market for the next decade and would become his main bread and butter.

“I was wrong about the audio cassette,” says Stepp. “It became rapidly the medium for music.”

The cassette tape revolution

In the 1970s the boombox gained popularity in the United States, making it easier for people to play their cassette tapes wherever they wanted.

Then Sony introduced the Walkman in 1979 and music became even more portable.

By the height of the cassette craze National Audio Company had joined in and was just one of many in the cassette dubbing and distribution business.

The Stepps couldn’t keep up with the demand from their customers. So they bought their own cassette loading machine.

“That thing could make 2,000 cassettes an hour. We thought, that's it, we'll never need a second machine. Wrong again,” recalls Stepp, laughing. “Within a year, we bought two more. Within another year, we bought two more… So we knew something was going on here.”

By the mid 1980’s cassette sales surpassed sales of vinyl records. But it was also in the 80s that the same company and person responsible for this new analog darling, the cassette tape, also had a hand in creating the format that some might call its nemesis.

After compact discs came along and cassette tapes took a hit, National Audio Company started acquiring old equipment from companies that had given up on the format.
Suzanne Hogan KCUR 89.3
After Compact Discs came along and cassette tapes took a hit, National Audio Company started acquiring old equipment from companies who had given up on the format.

The rise of the compact disc and other threats

Lou Ottens, the Dutch engineer, also oversaw the division at Philips company that developed the compact disc. And as this new format caught on the outlook for the cassette tape began to dim.

By 1991 music CD sales surpassed vinyl records and cassette tapes. To a lot of cassette manufacturers this was a scary time. But the staff at National Audio wasn't overly concerned.

“We took kind of an unusual trip through the cassette industry,” says Stepp.

At the time the company wasn’t in the business of making duplications of music cassettes. They were doing books on tape and spoken word type of recordings.

“Compact disc ran the cassette right out of the music business. But it didn't touch the audio cassette and the recorded book business and structural materials. We weren't hurt by that,” says Stepp.

The company kept churning out cassettes. They also got into selling blank compact discs and VHS tapes. When other competitors in the cassette music business started to give up on the format, National Audio Company saw an opportunity and started acquiring their unwanted equipment.

“Everybody thought we were crazy. That's still true. Everybody still thinks we're crazy,” says Stepp. “And then a funny thing happened to the CD — downloading.”

In the early 2000s downloading and sharing programs like Napster and Limewire gave CD’s and all other formats a real run for their money. But Stepp remembers a particular job that validated his belief that cassette tapes had a future.

“We got a contact from Pearl Jam, the record label that was doing Pearl Jam at the time," he says.

The label wanted to release an anniversary box set, and part of it included a cassette. Their company helped produce that, and it was so successful that other labels took notice.

In the meantime, National Audio Company also became more involved with producing music cassettes for independent musicians. Cassettes along with CDs were the affordable option for DIY musicians to release music on their own terms and in smaller quantities.

National Audio now deals with more than 5,000 independent labels annually.

The machines at National Audio Company combine both old and new technology. This machine's job is to cut all the tape they produce down to size before it's wound up onto reels and ready to be dubbed.
Suzanne Hogan KCUR 89.3
The machines at National Audio Company combine both old and new technology. This machine's job is to cut all the tape they produce down to size before it's wound up onto reels and ready to be dubbed.

In the 2000s and 2010s National Audio Company found itself positioned as a key part of the music cassette world. But even though the cassette was alive and well in their world, other companies bought into the narrative that the cassette was dead. And that caused a scary ripple effect.

National Audio Company didn’t make every part of their cassette tapes in house. Some parts of the production were sourced from other companies — including the actual tape that came inside the cartridges.

By the 2010s most big companies that were making this essential component had pulled the plug on cassette production. National Audio Company shopped around and eventually found a company called Saehan in South Korea still producing tape.

“Then we got notice from them, they'd made a sudden decision," Stepp recalls. "The cassette tape business was over with and as of December they would make no more cassette tape. We asked Saehan, how much stock have you got on hand? And they had 300,000 reels of tape on hand, and we said, ship it.’’

Stepp says he and his son, Phil Stepp, who started working at the company in high school, figured that stock would last about three years.

Monte Chaney is an engineer at National Audio Company who worked closely with the team to devise a process for making tape, which is a highly scientific process that involves materials from around the world.
Suzanne Hogan
KCUR 89.3 FM
Monte Chaney is a maintenance technician at National Audio Company with a long career in broadcast mediums.

“Phil and I looked at each other and we said, well, we got two, two choices. We can go out of business in about three years, or we can make tape.”

Turns out, Phil Stepp is a scientist who got his Ph.D. in neuroscience. After teaching for a while he decided in 2018 to go back to work for National Audio Company full time to join with the rest of the team on a monumental task.

They wanted to devise a recipe, process, and machinery to make tape — a complicated process involving a lot of science and requiring materials from all over the world.

Monte Chaney, a maintenance technician with a long history in broadcast, came aboard about that time. He speaks to the challenge of surviving in a medium whose inventors are fading away.

"The real problem with doing resurrection work like this is, everybody's dead," Chaney says. "If we need anything, we generally have to build it."

Mastering the making of tape

Cassette tape actually starts as a powder, then it has to be blended, made into a liquid slurry, leveled out, sent through big pressure pots, coded, and then cut. It involves physics, chemistry and magnetic and electrical engineering.

National Audio used some improvements in chemistry to get a better quality magnetic oxide on the tape.

Finally in 2019, after much trial and error, they started producing music quality ferro magnetic tape. It was a pivotal moment for the company.

Now National Audio Company is ahead on cassette tape production. Spools of blank tape fill a table ready to be dubbed.
Suzanne Hogan KCUR 89.3 FM
National Audio Company is stockpiling cassette tapes. Spools of blank tape fill a table ready to be dubbed.

“Trying to do something crazy or hard, I guess, and then pulling it off somehow,” says Phil Stepp, “is kind of gratifying.”

Of particular pride to the company is a cassette they produced for a Disney production — "Star Wars: The Force Awakens." The Stepps say it’s the best recording they’ve made in 55 years.

More good news: The Stepps say they're now ahead on tape production. They’ve got a table filled with blank spools of tape that they’ve made that’s ready to be dubbed. It’s quite different from the precarious situation they were in just five years ago.

It’s hard to predict the future of any music format. And to add an extra bit of uncertainty, the building that National Audio Company owns and operates out of is up for sale.

Steve and Phil Stepp say they don’t need the entire building any more for their operations and moving to a smaller place could save money. But they want to assure tape devotees that their commitment to the format is as solid as ever.

Phil Stepp worked hard with the team at National Audio Company to figure out a recipe and process for manufacturing tape, which is a highly scientific process that involves materials from all over the world.
Suzanne Hogan KCUR 89.3
Phil Stepp says their tape production plant is filling a critical void. He's hopeful about the longevity and relevance of this analog format for future generations.

Asked for predictions of what the next several decades could look like for the company and the cassette tape, Steve Stepp yields to his son Phil.

“Right now, tape is really popular. Hopefully it stays that way for a while,” says Phil Stepp. “I mean, we kind of know eventually there will be a format that comes along that will eclipse tape… But, you know, as long as tape is popular and selling and people want it, I mean, we're planning on doing it.”

This episode of A People's History of Kansas City was reported, produced and mixed by Suzanne Hogan with editing by Barb Shelly and Mackenzie Martin. 

Every part of the present has been shaped by actions that took place in the past, but too often that context is left out. As a podcast producer for KCUR Studios and host of the podcast A People’s History of Kansas City, I aim to provide context, clarity, empathy and deeper, nuanced perspectives on how the events and people in the past have shaped our community today. In that role, and as an occasional announcer and reporter, I want to entertain, inform, make you think, expose something new and cultivate a deeper shared human connection about how the passage of time affects us all. Reach me at hogansm@kcur.org.
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