Have you ever passed by a yard sale, glimpsed a box full of unwanted VHS tapes, and wondered who in the world would want to lug home a pile of grainy CityTV bootlegs from 1987? As it turns out, the answer is Ed Conroy, a Scarborough television buff and editor with kids’ monthly The Magazine. Conroy scours the tapes for pieces of the Toronto area’s broadcast heritage, which he posts to his wonderfully nostalgic YouTube channel, Retrontario.
Home to more than four hundred videos and counting, Retrontario is a haven for local television tidbits, including classic commercials (such as Johnny Cash shilling for Canada Trust), PSAs, news clips, and more (a 1942 travelogue called “Glimpses of Ontario,” anyone?). Torontoist recently caught up with Conroy to find out what motivates his quest for retro TV greatness.
Torontoist: Where do you get the videos from? Do you have stacks of old VHS tapes at home or do you collect them from other online sources?
Ed Conroy: I started out with my parents’ old VHS tapes, but moved on to Craigslist, garage sales, etc. I’m always on the look out for anyone with old tapes. Betamax tapes in particular—they still have the best quality and tend to be from the 1975–1990 time period.
Does it take you a lot of time to compile, process, and put up the videos?
The hardest part is finding worthwhile stuff on the tapes. [There's] a lot of fast-forwarding and adjusting tracking levels. It’s funny that most of the gold is at the end of tapes, where someone probably fell asleep taping something and ended up with half of a CityPulse Tonight broadcast, or in the best case scenario, a station sign-off.
Once I’ve ripped the material from tapes, cleaning up the files and uploading them to YouTube is fairly quick and straightforward.
Most of your uploads are commercials. Is there a particular reason for that?
I guess it’s because the jingles are what most of us children of the ’80s remember the best. I also think that advertising was a lot less cynical in the 1980s and a lot more earnest. So you can either enjoy its innocence or laugh at its tackiness, depending on your persuasion. There’s no CGI, or website URLs, or ADD editing, so they appear almost Martian. Which is nice.
You’ve already uploaded more than 400 videos, with more posted every week. How much longer can you keep going? Are you in danger of running out of material?
Forever, really. There’s always more tapes and more forgotten ads/bumpers/jingles. For me, personally, if I can find the holy grail, I might consider retiring. The holy grail being Wayne Gretzky’s ProStars cereal commercial from 1983, of course.
What drives you to do it? An ironic love of the retro? Pride in your city? Boredom?
Certainly a pride for the city and the province. Most of this stuff was welded into our psyche, but I realized a few years ago that it was in danger of disappearing into the great black hole of history—once people’s home-recorded VHS or Beta tapes bite the dust, then the only people left with recordings of this type are TV stations and ad agencies, neither of whom have a great track record for preservation.
YouTube is brilliant for people who like to mainline nostalgia, and since no one was focusing on Ontario-based stuff, I saw an opportunity to rekindle some retro love for our city’s awesome televisual past. Plus the responses the videos get—for example, some people send me pictures of themselves crying when watching Polka Dot Door clips—is quite touching.
I’m actually working on a website for more stuff and hope to get a forum for like-minded people to talk this stuff out. It’s our past, and we should not only be proud of it but also work to keep it alive. And anyone out there who has old tapes, please get in touch!