It’s November 4, 1979, and Marion Stokes is at home in Philadelphia as news comes in from across the world. A team of militant students have barged their way inside the American embassy in Iran and taken 66 people hostage. And nobody knows what will happen next. Watching the story unfold on American news, Stokes decides to do something. As it turns out, the woman’s actions on this day will set the template for the rest of her life.
Stokes had been a forward-thinker for her time – a person who anticipated early on just how central technology would become in all of our lives. This is perhaps illustrated most clearly by her vast assortment of Apple products, which she collected over many years. In fact, she even purchased some shares in the business back in 1984 when the company’s Macintosh computer hit the market.
But Stokes undoubtedly had problems in her personal life. And in the years leading up to her death in 2012, she had started to withdraw from the world. Stokes led a secretive life – isolated from even her own kids. Her existence, it seems, had come to revolve around her decades-long habit.
Stokes was an orphan who’d been born into the world in 1929. Sadly, she hadn’t had much growing up and moved around several homes before eventually being adopted into a low-earning family. When she was old enough to stand on her own feet, though, she took on a job as a librarian.
Stokes was a black woman in 1950s America, and she was attracted to the activism of the era. The librarian took an interest in left-wing politics and eventually found a partner with similar beliefs. This was a communist named Melvin Metelits, and the two married in the ’60s. They then later had a child together named Michael.
Stokes had herself become a devoted communist by this point. And she subsequently went on to make a life-changing decision. With such beliefs now rooted in her mind, Stokes sought a move over to Cuba the following decade. But it seems that she failed to convince her spouse to take such a step, so they all stayed put in the United States.
But Stokes and her husband’s relationship was on the rocks, and the two soon decided to call time on their marriage. This would have been a turbulent period for Stokes, as she was also let go from her job in the library at around this time, too. And on top of everything else, the FBI was reportedly keeping an eye on her – presumably because of her communist beliefs.
Eventually, though, Stokes got a job on a TV show called Input. This was a program that sought to bring together a range of different political opinions and perspectives in a respectful manner. It was while working on this program that she was also introduced to her second spouse: John Stokes Jr.
Stokes’ new partner was an affluent man, which meant her lifestyle changed considerably when they married. Having been born into poverty, Stokes now was able to live a very different life. She assembled a personal staff dedicated to her needs – made up of a secretary, a driver and even a nurse.
This was a strange period for Stokes, and she came to be known by the members of her community. The woman worked in television, after all. But Stokes nonetheless had her quirks and lived something of an isolated life. She only left her home to work and drink in her favored bar, according to The Guardian.
This isn’t to say that Stokes didn’t have her hobbies, though. So what floated her boat? Well, the former librarian had an intense interest in how news stories were reported. So, she bought a video recorder and started taping different broadcasts. By watching bulletins from both her area and the country at large, Stokes sought to pick out discrepancies in coverage.
As time went by, Stokes’ obsession with videotaping only grew. She also accumulated Apple products and invested in the company in 1984. Speaking to The New York Times in 2019, Micheal Metelits even joked that his mom Stokes thought of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs as more of a son than he was. And this was despite the rather pertinent fact that she’d never even met the business magnate.
But Stokes’ interest in documenting news stories reached a new height entirely in November 1979. As the Iran hostage crisis erupted in Tehran, she took it upon herself to record the coverage being broadcast to Americans. The technology enthusiast began by taping a single channel, but her habit eventually expanded into recording several of them.
Yet Stoke’s behavior wasn’t particularly out of character, according to Metelits. He told The Guardian in 2019, “She had been collecting books and newspapers for most of her life. But the television thing really took off from the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. That was when she became obsessed with the way stories were reported and how they changed. I was 18 at the time and it struck me as strange. But my mother was strange for her whole life.”
Explaining how his mother would work, Metelits explained, “She would be stationed in the room with one or two TVs going and she’d be recording. There were times when tapes needed to be changed and that became a form of controlling the flow of conversation around her. If there was a difficult moment, there would be a pause where she said she needed to change the tape.”
Though even as video technology developed around her, Stokes was totally closed off to the notion of undertaking her work digitally. Instead, she was adamant that her project be conducted using VHS tapes. But why? According to the British newspaper, Stokes feared that someone could eventually gain access to her footage if she used more sophisticated technology.
As you might imagine, Stokes activities had a significant impact on her family. Metelits told The Guardian, “The bizarre arc of my mother’s life is compelling. But it was difficult to live in. It was inspiring that my mother had an encyclopedic intellect, but she would use it in an adversarial fashion and that never made it easy to talk to her. She would see connections between things that no one else would. But that could come at the cost of her emotional relationships.”
And keeping on top of all this news coverage wasn’t an easy task. Every day, Stokes would place a six-hour tape into her recorders. Then at the end of that time she’d apparently replace the tapes with new ones. This obviously interfered with her daily life, but she persevered. In fact, this was such an important task for Stokes that she reportedly trained a young man called Frank to do the work when she became too old for it.
Evidently, Stokes tireless work put a huge strain on her personal life. But the content on the tapes themselves is truly astonishing. Over decades of daily recording, she managed to compile an archive of news stories ranging from deadly serious pieces to much lighter content. And whether it was a tale of war or a sporting triumph, it was all on the tapes.
Stokes’ several decades spent filming meant that she managed to capture the initial reports of some earth-shattering events. During the ’80s, for instance, she recorded bulletins about the Iran-Contra scandal. She later taped reports about the 1991 Gulf War, basketball star Magic Johnson contracting HIV, and Bill Clinton being impeached.
And Stokes was, of course, recording on September 11, 2001, as news programs across America learned of the multiple terrorist attacks. Stokes managed to tape coverage from Fox, CNN, CBS and ABC – with CNN reporting on the attack first. The other channels were a little slower off the mark, but gradually they each turned their attention to the events of that tragic day.
As you might imagine, all of this news footage from across the decades required countless videotapes. And this obviously left Stokes’ household in disarray, with piles of tapes falling down all over the place. As son Metelits recalled to Fast Company magazine in 2013, “It was just a logistical nightmare. That’s really the only way to put it.”
But what about other aspects of Stokes’ life? Metelits opened up about how his mother’s habit impacted things, saying, “Pretty much everything else took a back seat. 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 sadly passed away on December 14, 2012. But this meant that for the first time in decades, the tapes in her apartment weren’t changed over. Though the news would have presented Stokes with a harrowing story. That was the day that a gunman opened fire inside Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Metelits recalled that day to Fast Company, commenting on how glad he was that his mother didn’t see it. He said, “I got to the house and this horrific news was going on. Kids being killed. Teachers being killed while shielding children, that sort of thing. I remember being very grateful that that wasn’t the last news she saw.”
Stokes had dedicated much of her life to her TV news archive. To many of us, such a lifestyle and the challenges it brought could sometimes appear outlandish. But there are people out there who think Stokes’ work was essential. Roger Macdonald, for example, works with a non-profit online library known as the Internet Archive, which also has a dedicated TV section.
Macdonald and his colleagues have recorded American news broadcasts as digital files since 2000. Their hope, ultimately, is to one day create an extensive archive that a person can access online. And you could say that the group’s activities and aims are very similar to those of Stokes.
Macdonald explained the motivations for his work in an interview with Fast Company. He said, “Television has been our most pervasive and persuasive medium. 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.”
So, when word of Stokes’ news tapes reached Macdonald, he felt compelled to find out more. He managed to get in touch with Metelits to get a fuller story. Macdonald himself remembered, “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.”
And Macdonald wasn’t the only person to be impressed with Stokes’ work. John Lynch heads up the Vanderbilt Television News Archive, so he naturally appreciates her efforts. After all, news bulletins that had originally been broadcast several decades ago can be very difficult to track down today.
The Vanderbilt Television News Archive has managed to retrieve news bulletins dating as far back as 1968. In fact, the organization claims that it has “one of the most – if not the most – comprehensive collections of television in the world.” Yet it’s run into legal difficulties over the years and was even sued early on. So the organization takes great care with regard to how it allows its archive to be accessed.
The Vanderbilt Television News Archive adheres to a strict access policy, so organizations such as Macdonald’s Internet Archive must look to other sources for old news footage. Donations are an important means of getting such content. And this is why Stokes’ tapes are so important. As Macdonald told Fast Company, “Some local news will be lost forever. But who knows, because there may be other Marion [Stokes] out there who had that similar passion.”
Stokes’ recordings will add a wealth of content to Macdonald’s archive. But would you want to be that person who sorts through thousands of video tapes? Macdonald commented on how daunting a task this would prove to be, saying, “It will take a long time. Like the little engine that can, we’ll just keep plugging away at it.”
Stokes hadn’t actually left any direct instructions in her will regarding what to do with all of the tapes. Though the people in her life all knew exactly what she would have wished to happen to them. Stokes had been a hoarder and had kept hold of old newspapers and computing equipment. Her tapes were different; she wanted these to be properly archived.
Having learned of Stokes’ collection of tapes, the Vanderbilt Television News Archive’s John Lynch was excited by the possibilities. But what value could be found in the countless hours of news content? Well, the collection’s importance might not be clear to see right away. Yet over time it may prove to have several applications. After all, different sorts of people with varying interests might find great content in it.
Lynch touched upon all the different sorts of people who had utilized the Vanderbilt archive in a single year. Speaking to Fast Company, he said, “Every single school inside the university had used us. 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.”
In 2013 Stokes’ son Metelits was given the opportunity to see some of his mother’s tapes in digital form for the first time. And he was understandably touched after viewing the content, telling Fast Company, “The idea that my mother’s project could be useful to someone was really kind of an emotional moment.”
We can all agree that the story of Stokes’ life and work is truly fascinating. And in 2019 it became the focus of a documentary. Matt Wolf put together this film, which he called Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project. The documentary includes snippets from Stokes’ tapes themselves and interviews with her loved ones. It also provides more context to this incredible woman.
Filmmaker Wolf was quickly hooked when he first heard of Stokes’ videotapes. After all, he’d already created films using archive footage. In his own words, though, Stokes’ archive was “unprecedented.” He told Boston radio station WBUR-FM in November 2019, “It felt like an archive that could include anything and everything. And that challenge and that possibility really appealed to me.”
As Wolf started to research Stokes and her work, he noted that her story was about more than simply an eccentric archivist. The director said, “I quickly realized that this wasn’t just a story about an unprecedented archive. It was also an emotionally intense family’s story about a really unique and singular visionary.”