Nov 12, 2021

Mixtape: Cassetternet

In 1983, Simon Goodwin had a strange thought. Would it be possible to broadcast computer software over the radio? If so, could listeners record it off the air and onto a cassette tape? This experiment and dozens of others in the early 80s created a series of cassette fueled, analog internets. They copied and moved information like never before, upended power structures and created a poisonous social network that brought down a regime. 

In tape four of Mixtape, we examine how these early internet came about, and how the societal and cultural impacts of these analog information networks can still be felt today.

Mixtape is reported, produced, scored and sound designed by Simon Adler with original music throughout by Simon. Top tier reporting and production assistance was provided by Eli Cohen.

Special thanks to: Alex Sayf Cummings, Martin Maly, Piotr Gawrysiak, Joe Tozer, James Gleick, Jason Rezaian, Gholam Khiabany and Mo Jazi. And to Arash Aziz for helping us every step of the way with our story about Khomeini. And Simon Goodwin for making us that secret code. And to Micah Loewinger to tipping me off to these software radio broadcasts. 

Support Radiolab by becoming a member today at   


THE LAB sticker

Unlock member-only exclusives and support the show

Exclusive Podcast Extras
Entire Podcast Archive
Listen Ad-Free
Behind-the-Scenes Content
Video Extras
Original Music & Playlists




[ARCHIVE CLIP: The Gospels, cassette two. The Book of Matthew. Chapter 14.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Enjoy the six top-quality Bible tape.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Jesus said unto them, "Give ye them to eat and they said, "We have here but five loaves and two fishes."

[ARCHIVE CLIP: This recording is copyrighted…]

[ARCHIVE CLIP:  And he said ...]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Watch what you can do with this Apple II personal computer.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: "Bring them hither to me."]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: We can write information to a…]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Cassette duplication. Cassette duplication. ]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: And they did all eat and were filled.]


SIMON: I'm Simon Adler. This is Mixtape. A series about how the cassette allowed us to record, reshuffle and reimagine our lives. And in this case, welcome in a new world order.


SIMON: And we're starting off today with a second Simon: Simon Goodwin.

SIMON GOODWIN: So, I am indeed Simon Goodwin. I've been inventing gadgets and writing computer software since the late 1970s.

SIMON: These days, he sports a white goatee and a, like, a waterfall of white hair running down the back of his head. Kind of has the vibe of a mad computer scientist.

SIMON GOODWIN: I'm afraid—yeah, that's—you got it. Absolutely, yeah.

SIMON: I have to imagine that when you were growing up in the 1970s, like, there weren't a lot of computers around.

SIMON GOODWIN: Actually, the situation was that having a computer at home really set you out as a—as a bit of nutter, I would say, at that point.

SIMON: I mean it’s hard to imagine today but back then, most people didn’t have any experience with computers.

SIMON GOODWIN: Yeah. People understood computers as being quite giant electronic brains...

SIMON: Right. 

SIMON GOODWIN: That couldn't be argued with.

SIMON: They were just big government-owned science machines. And so Simon could really only share his passion for these things with a small circle of oddballs like him. Which he did… 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Radio Wyvern!...]

SIMON: On this local independent radio show he worked at... 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Rob Yarnold: Good evening and welcome to the Radio Wyvern Computer Club.]

SIMON: It was a weekly magazine-style show broadcast in west-central England.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Rob Yarnold: I'm Rob Yarnold. And with me tonight, Simon Goodwin…]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Simon Goodwin: This week, I'll be explaining what sorts of steps make up machine code]

SIMON: Heard by maybe, I don’t know, maybe a couple hundred people. 

SIMON GOODWIN: We did things like, which computer should I buy?

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Simon Goodwin: Potentially, the Commodore 64 is the best machine on the market, although it’s very economically priced.]

SIMON GOODWIN: The answer to which should be one that hasn't been made yet. And what's the jargon mean?

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Simon Goodwin: For no sensible reason, the contents of every memory location is called a byte.]

SIMON: And then also …

[ARCHIVE CLIP: [Well, this week we had three new titles in.]

SIMON: Lots and lots of computer game reviews.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, SIMON GOODWIN: One of those for the Commodore 64 called Everest.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Rob Yarnold: Right-O.]

SIMON: And well, for Simon, this was fun and all, it seemed small.

SIMON GOODWIN: I mean, I'd already been deeply, deeply moved and had my life changed by these obscure computers And I knew that home computing, it's not about shooting games or driving racing games, it's about—it's about sharing.


SIMON: Huh. And how did you know that?

SIMON GOODWIN: Well, I used to ride my Vespa motor scooter to a pub where there was a computer club. We'd bring along the software that we'd written ourselves, we'd show people and they'd usually be, "Can I have a copy of that? Can I have a copy of that?" And you'd swap.

SIMON: And when you did that, you weren't just handing them a program ...

SIMON GOODWIN: You'd be swapping inspiration and ideas, too.

SIMON: And so, really before most, he saw the future filled with these computers.

SIMON GOODWIN: Oh, yeah. I believed they were going to change the world.

SIMON: I mean, way back in 1983, he was already imagining open-sourced software, file sharing, a world where ideas and information would be shared across borders and between people frictionlessly.

SIMON GOODWIN: And so, it was pretty obvious that we needed to do something innovative.


[ARCHIVE CLIP: Right. Now if you press enter. [COMPUTER TONES]] 

SIMON GOODWIN: Obvious to me anyway. 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: And that's it, Mike. Not really exciting, is it?]

SIMON: And one day...

SIMON GOODWIN: I had an abnormal idea. [making computer sounds]

SIMON: [laughs]

SIMON: That using nothing more than a simple cassette tape, he could create the internet. Or at least an internet.

SIMON GOODWIN: [laughs] Of freely downloadable software. 

SIMON: To explain ...

SIMON GOODWIN: All of the early computers, certainly this side of the Atlantic, even the Apples, used cassettes.

SIMON: Strange as this may sound, before there were flash drives or floppy discs, there were these data cassettes. I've actually got a couple with me right here. This is Finance 1 for 1979 Apple computers. This one's Arcade Classics for the Commodore 64. And I mean, these were the exact same cassettes you'd use to play music on your stereo but instead of music ...

SIMON GOODWIN: A cassette plays two different tones, a bit like Morse code. [COMPUTER SOUND] So what I'll show you now is, this is the original 1982 [COMPUTER SOUND] model of the spectrum.

SIMON: Sitting in his office over Zoom, he actually isolated these tones and played them for me.

SIMON GOODWIN: Here we go. [COMPUTER SOUND] A deep note for a one, and a [COMPUTER SOUND] note an octave higher for a zero.

SIMON: And so to load a program, you'd literally play those tones into a computer off a cassette, the computer would listen to those tones, flying by super-duper fast, convert each of them into a zero or a one, and then display whatever you’re running on your screen.

SIMON GOODWIN: Roughly speaking, that’s exactly right.

SIMON: And so, Simon thought ...

SIMON GOODWIN: I mean, the synergy with radio was obvious. Because that...


SIMON: Since this software is sound, we could use our little radio show to broadcast it.

SIMON GOODWIN: And not only that, I mean, we were already using our cassette recorders to record hit records off the radio...

SIMON: So, people could tape that radio broadcast...

SIMON GOODWIN: Onto a cassette.

SIMON: Have their own copy.

SIMON GOODWIN: And then play it into home computers.


SIMON: Did anybody—did anybody you were working with say, like, "Simon, what the hell are you talking about? This is a terrible idea."

SIMON GOODWIN: Well, in those days if you'd got a home computer, you were regarded as mad anyway. [laughs]

SIMON: [laughs] Okay.

SIMON GOODWIN: So, you didn't get much challenging.

SIMON: And so ...


SIMON: One evening in December 1983, Simon wrote up a small bit of software to share with anyone who was listening.


[ARCHIVE CLIP: Radio Wyvern!…]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Rob Yarnold: Simon will this load on the 16 and the 48?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Simon Goodwin: Should load on both machines.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Rob Yarnold: Well, let's hope he does. Well, get your tape recorders out, load your tape. First of all...]

SIMON: Inside the radio station, Simon and his co-host walked people through what was about to happen. Prepared them to hit record. And across the broadcast region ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Stuart: All right, there's a lot of people around here poised with their fingers already over the recording button as it is now.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Rob Yarnold: Okay, Stuart.]

SIMON: People were ready and waiting.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Simon Goodwin: Stand by for blasting, because here it comes. And it loads in 3-2-1. [COMPUTER NOISE]]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Rob Yarnold: And there it was. Actually, it was ...]

SIMON GOODWIN: Well, presumably quite a few people switch off. But beyond that, it worked. Yeah, it did. [laughs]


SIMON: Across the county, hundreds of people had captured these mysterious tones onto a cassette, played that cassette into their computers, and then on their screen…

SIMON GOODWIN: First they would see the pixels arrive on the screen, and then as the tones changed timbre, they would see…


SIMON GOODWIN: Something that I thought looked a bit like a reindeer. [laughs]


SIMON: It was a little Rudolph animation.

SIMON GOODWIN: He's—he's wagging his leg or something along those lines. Of course, you couldn't tell his nose was red. The graphics were black and white.

SIMON: Okay. And why Rudolph?

SIMON GOODWIN: It was Christmas.

SIMON: It was—okay.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Rob Yarnold: Well, that's your present from the Radio Wyvern Computer Club for this evening. Lots and lots of programs and many thanks to everyone that sent in today, even Ian and Adrian. Also to Simon ...]


SIMON: Okay Simon’s reindeer was sort of hilariously rudimentary. But this was 1983. Before Tiktok, before twitter or texting or, really even, emails. Simon managed to send an animation across space to hundreds of people instantaneously. I mean at that time the only way to send someone a bit of text was by letter. And the only way to share a picture or a song was by going over to someone’s house and handing them the actual physical photograph or cassette. And well back then, yes, you could record something onto a cassette tape, making a copy of that tape was a technological feat beyond the grasp of all but a few people. Until that is, along came a guy by the name Lord Sugar. 

DANIELA SIMONE: Yeah, Lord Sugar.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Lord Sugar: I'm sick of looking at you at the moment. Get out that door. You're fired.]

SIMON: Who currently is actually the host of the UK's version of The Apprentice.

DANIELA SIMONE: He plays the sort of the boss character.

SIMON: Okay. Was he knighted? And is that why he gets to call himself Lord Sugar?

DANIELA SIMONE: Yeah, because he built up an electronics industry just at exactly the time when that was the place to be.

SIMON: In 1984 he released this dual deck cassette recorder.

DANIELA SIMONE: These machines that would allow you to record from one cassette tape to another cassette tape.

SIMON: This is legal academic, Daniela Simone. She's an expert on UK copyright law who remembers this twin deck cassette player. 

DANIELA SIMONE: It was a truly revolutionary technology of distribution and a very fond memory of my youth.

SIMON: So, did you have one of these growing up?

DANIELA SIMONE: No, the people who had that at school were really, just the coolest, really. I wasn’t—you can tell, having become an academic, I was not one of the coolest kids.

SIMON: Oh, I was willing to give you the benefit of the doubt. [laughs]

DANIELA SIMONE: Oh probably, I’ve given myself away then.

SIMON: But Daniela says she did go over to her friends’ house that did have one.

DANIELA SIMONE: Some twins, Katherine and Timothy.

SIMON: They—of course have they have the dual deck, of course the twins have the twin cassette recorder.


SIMON: And copying these tapes with her friends, she says, was crazily empowering.

DANIELA SIMONE: Like magic. You know? Cus before this record companies, they were able to control the way in which you would access what they were selling. 

SIMON: Like you couldn’t make a playlist. You couldn't even just buy the songs wanted.

DANIELA SIMONE: You had to buy the entire album. And so the idea that you could have your own compilation that you made and you could have songs in any order you wanted, it’s like sort of a superpower this technology was giving you.

SIMON: And this super power wielded by millions of kids in their bedrooms was beginning to threaten the music industry.

[NEWS CLIP: Home taping is killing music. Home taping.]

[NEWS CLIP: We are losing £20-million a year.] 

DANIELA SIMONE: I mean, there was this great degree of panic.]

[NEWS CLIP: The flood of illegal produced albums and tapes. 

[NEWS CLIP: Half the country's teenagers tape music from ...]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: These people are organized crime. I mean, we must ...]

SIMON: And I mean, this panic even had Simon Goodwin nodding along.

SIMON GOODWIN: Probably for good commercial reasons.

SIMON: By this point he was making and selling cassette-based computer games.

SIMON GOODWIN: It was a side revenue stream, but the particular one that was a hit was a exploring underground game called Goldmine. 

SIMON: You'd play as this little stick figure burrowing down into the ground ...


SIMON GOODWIN: With a pickaxe and they would start exploring the space, trying to avoid getting crushed.


SIMON: Anyhow, Simon had spent dozens if not hundreds of hours working on this thing. And so, with all this pirating going on ...

SIMON GOODWIN: I spent as much time on the copy protection as I did on the game.

SIMON: Using a bit of computer magic, he wrote a bit of code into the program that would detect if that cassette was a duplicate. And if so…


SIMON: It wouldn't play.

SIMON: I'm hearing a slight tension though, because on the one hand, Simon, you—you love the sharing with your compatriots, but on the other hand, you're trying to lock that thing down so that it can't be used to its full extent, potentially. So how did you square those two in your mind?

SIMON GOODWIN: I was being paid. [laughs] I was being paid for the commercial software, whereas for the radio program, I won't ask whether you're getting paid, but radio is not a way of making a living.

SIMON: Touché, Simon. Touché. 


[ARCHIVE CLIP: Let's get this quite clear. A pirate is a thief. The only investment he has is a piece of tape, and he is making money out of everybody.]


SIMON: And this is the tension, once money got involved. For people like Simon, the people making stuff, sharing effectively became stealing. However, across the Iron Curtain…


SIMON: Questions like, who’s the pirate and who’s being harmed were even harder to answer. In fact, the whole situation was playing out in this fascinating almost upside down kind of way.  

FUXOFT: First of all, the—the term "software piracy" was—was unknown back then. The pirate was only the guy with the parrot and one eye and nothing else.


SIMON: This is Frank.

FUXOFT: František. And that's—that's Frank in English.

SIMON: But online, he goes by a different name. 

SIMON: Do you prefer Sir Fuxoft or Mr. Fuxtoft? Now...

FUXOFT: Now you've done the classic mistake. It's pronounced Fuxoft.

SIMON: Fuxoft. Oh, excuse me.

FUXOFT: I have had—I've had this problem with English-speaking people for a long time. [laughs]

SIMON: Anyhow, he says in Czechoslovakia at that time ...

FUXOFT: The copyrights were something completely alien concept in our country.

SIMON: The idea that a person could "own" a song or an idea, and therefore insist that it not be copied, like that just didn't exist because

FUXOFT: There is a maybe interesting story which illustrates this. Many of Western songs were just adapted to Czech and officially released over here with completely different lyrics.

SIMON: What would be an example of a song? Can you think of a specific song or two?

FUXOFT: Of course. So for example ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP: [singing] Take My Breath Away]

SIMON: Berlin's, "Take My Breath Away" here.

FUXOFT: Stolen ...

SIMON: And re-written as ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP: [singing Czech]]

SIMON: "Please Don't Laugh At Me."

SIMON: Really?

FUXOFT: Yeah. And there were literally, like, dozens of these songs.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: [singing] Don't Cry For Me, Argentina]

FUXOFT: "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina,” it was released over here as a song about…

[ARCHIVE CLIP: [singing Czech]]

FUXOFT: Drive carefully in your car when you are going through the mountains.]

SIMON: [laughs]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: [singing in Czech]]

SIMON: And Fuxoft was so cut off that growing up he was convinced those were the original versions.

FUXOFT: Yes, I thought those were Czech songs. I'm not sure how much do you know about how socialism worked, in fact. Because...

SIMON: Treat me like I'm a child and I know nothing.

FUXOFT: Yeah, okay.

SIMON: Yeah.

FUXOFT: So let's say you wanted something from the West. Anything, like clothing, computers, calculators. Illegal. There was simply no legal way to get it.

SIMON: So as late as 1980, he'd never seen the computer.


FUXOFT: But then, I visited exhibition of achievement of Soviet republics.

SIMON: Sort of like a Communist science fair.

FUXOFT: They were showing the best that socialism has to offer. And there was a computer. It was probably some kind of stolen clone of an Apple computer.


SIMON: By today’s standards, super simple.

FUXOFT: There was no graphic. It was just green symbols on the black screen. And older guys than me were programming that computer. And that was like complete science fiction for me. And I was absolutely fascinated by this. And I immediately saw that this is something I wanted to do in my life.


SIMON: And so Fuxoft became like an eastern bloc version of Simon Goodwin 

[NEWS CLIP, Fuxoft: František Fuka [speaking Czech] student.]

SIMON: Only a little more celebrated. 

FUXOFT: I was, like, a wunderkind.

[NEWS CLIP, Fuxoft: [speaking Czech]]

FUXOFT: They were making interviews for TV and for newspapers with me. Like, "This boy, he understands computers."

[NEWS CLIP, Fuxoft: [speaking Czech]]


SIMON: Because he’d taught himself to program, he became a sort of Communist Party show pony.


FUXOFT: We were being paraded. "You, see? This is our future. They are playing with computers."


SIMON: But while the communist party was showing him off as the best of the best, he was about to realize just how far behind the curve he, and everyone he really knew, really was. He said he doesn’t recall the specifics perfectly but signed off on my taking a few creative liberties for you. He says it happened...

FUXOFT: I would say '84, probably. I knew a guy who could get commercial games.

SIMON: He smuggled the cassettes in from Yugoslavia. And somehow Fuxoft got one of these games, either from him or someone else.


SIMON: Fuxoft played it into his computer. And when this scree of data was finished playing…


SIMON: He began to play this game from the West.

FUXOFT: One of the first was Moon Cresta it was called.

SIMON: It's one of those games where you're a spaceship moving laterally at the bottom of the screen, shooting upwards at alien spaceships. Very, very simple game.

FUXOFT: But it was—how to describe? It was better than anything I have seen in my life. I thought this is amazing. There were, like, different graphics and levels.


SIMON: The action was flashier, the sound effects were richer. This wasn't a game you just played and beat in an afternoon. You could play it for days.


FUXOFT: And I mean, it completely, like, changed my—changed my view of what's possible.

SIMON: It opened his eyes to what was already happening on the other side of the Iron Curtain. This world that his own government had completely cut him off from. And eventually, he thought, "I have to share this with my friends, so they can experience this too."

FUXOFT: Yes, yes. Something like that. But it had a copy protection scheme.


SIMON: That bit of code that Simon put into his games? This game had one of those too. And so to be able to copy and share it .... 

FUXOFT: IcI had to crack it.

SIMON: Essentially pick its digital lock.

FUXOFT: Okay, this shouldn’t be too hard to do myself.


SIMON: Fuxoft went for it.

FUXOFT: So basically, switch on computer and type in "last load." Decode loader. Inside another loading routine. Exit back to operating system.

SIMON: But—didn't work.


FUXOFT: They were really using all the tricks in the book.

SIMON: So, he tried again.


FUXOFT: Write my own save routine. No place to put—memory was full.


SIMON: Still didn't work.

FUXOFT: [sighs] 

SIMON: [laughs]

SIMON: Much to the glee of folks like Simon Goodwin.

SIMON GOODWIN: When I—when I'd create something, I'd do my best to protect it. And so, you don't put up something on the screen saying, "You are a nasty pirate!"  What you do is mislead the person by reporting a tape-loading error, because then they think, “Oh no, this is a world of pain I'm entering into! Who cares? Let's copy somebody else's game.”

SIMON: But for Fuxoft, cracking this thing was its own sort of game. 

FUXOFT: I was something like a quintessential geek. 


FUXOFT: So it was a challenge to me to actually I could, like, look into it and find tricks which they have used. , what I had to do. At the beginning, save the game as the loading started. Instead of running it—operating systems was—bright —every kilobyte was needed — operational screen—I was hating this—no modifications—press T for change origin—cannot be copied—overwritten—then, exit.


SIMON: I don't think I'm ever gonna fully understand what you just said.

FUXOFT: [laughs] Yeah.

SIMON: Which I think is okay. I think—I think I can, like, say a cartoonish version of it that—that communicates the idea, but I won't understand it. However, what I do need to understand is, did it work or not?

FUXOFT: Well, in that case, yes!

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Hallelujah Chorus: [singing] HALLELUJAH!]


FUXOFT: I cracked it and the game ran. And from that point on, it could be copied throughout the whole country.

JAROSLAV ŠVELCH: Very, very fast.

SIMON: That's Jaroslav Švelich.


JAROSLAV ŠVELCH: Professor at Charles University in Prague.

SIMON: He wrote a whole book in these pirated games. And he said… 

JAROSLAV ŠVELCH: Just by people kind of giving it to each other.

SIMON: This thing multiplied and spread internet style, almost as fast as that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer broadcast.


JAROSLAV ŠVELCH: It took about six days to spread across the whole country. And there was—there's a term for it. It's called Sneakernet. Like, just people in sneakers, running around and distributing cassette tapes.

FUXOFT: We had so-called copy parties. Like, dozens of people were meeting. All of them brought their small computers, put it on the tables and connected their tape decks to the one device.

SIMON: And through this rat's nest of cables ...

FUXOFT: They were doing copy to all of them at the same time.

SIMON: Somebody would then leave that copy party ...

JAROSLAV ŠVELCH: Running around the neighborhood with a plastic bag full of cassette tapes.

FUXOFT: He gave it probably to some of his friends.

SIMON: They took their copies to copy parties …

FUXOFT: And each of the copies from the originals created five or ten more copies.

SIMON: And those would then be copied. And so on and so on.

FUXOFT: And so on. [laughs]

SIMON: It was the loaves and the fishes. Suddenly, you could feed all of the people you wanted …

FUXOFT: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Exactly. Exactly. So basically, for people around me, I was something like a god.

SIMON: This, of course, set off its own cold war-style arms race, with folks like Simon creating new copy protections and folks like Fuxoft figuring out how to break them. 

SIMON: Well, and so over the course of your career, how many games do you think you cracked?

FUXOFT: I would say between 100 and 200.

SIMON: [whistles] Wow.

FUXOFT: Actually, how do you call it in English? I was looking forward to when there was a new copy protection method.


FUXOFT: Because I learned so much just from debugging their copy protection schemes.

SIMON: Strangely, this arms race became its own form of sharing.

FUXOFT: So, I got a great respect for the people who came up with those copy protection schemes. 


SIMON: And Simon says, he began to feel the same way

SIMON GOODWIN: It became a collaborative and creative process of, hmm, forward and backward communication.

SIMON: Each time he updated his copy protections, it became less an angry attempt to deny robbers. And more like, “Huh. Okay, Let’s see what you can do with this.”

SIMON GOODWIN: Yeah, so what we were doing there was, partly we were sharing knowledge and partly we were trying to show one another what was possible.


SIMON: And not just what was possible with zeros and ones or bits and bytes. I mean, by the late 1980s more and more pirated material of all types was being smuggled in and shared on these cassettes. And so, folks who had always thought “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” was about driving in the mountains, were suddenly and simultaneously experiencing this onslaught of slapstick, explosive, stupid, dynamic, compelling media that capitalism is so good at pumping out. And when I talked to Fuxoft, he told me that he, he thinks this media and the sharing that facilitated it, was at least one of the reasons why...

[NEWS CLIP: Hundreds of thousands of Czechoslovaks are in the streets.]

[NEWS CLIP: The young want an end to Communist rule altogether.]


SIMON: So many people all at the same time were primed to want more and ready to take to the streets to get it. 

[NEWS CLIP: They packed into Wenceslas Square...]

FUXOFT: Definitely through pirated movies and music and computer games, more and more people, including me, could see how better it is for you to live in a capitalist society.

[NEWS CLIP: Several hundred thousand people...]

FUXOFT: It just came down because of—because of this. Because it was no longer tenable.

[NEWS CLIP: [crowed] "Resign! Resign!" They demanded.]

FUXOFT: And I think that's why basically the communism ended basically at the same time—same time, the whole Europe.

[NEWS CLIP: [crowed cheering]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Watch what you can do with the Apple II personal computer.]

[NEWS CLIP: Czechoslovakia today became the latest to throw off its Communist yoke.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP:  And they did all eat and were filled.]

SIMON: And after the Iron Curtain did fall ...


FUXOFT: Someone paid me to come up with pr —copy protection scheme for his game.

SIMON: [laughs]

SIMON: Fuxoft took full advantage of his newfound freedoms.

SIMON: Oh, what a good little capitalist you became!

FUXOFT: I know. Did I tell you about bitcoins? About me and bitcoins?

SIMON: No, no, no. Tell me, tell me.

FUXOFT: Well, like, later I started blogging about movies.

SIMON: Okay.

FUXOFT: And I allowed people to send me, like, voluntary amount of money. Just if you want, send me money.

SIMON: Like an early Patreon thing or something?

FUXOFT: Yeah, yeah. Basically. And 11 years ago, I said, "Okay, here is this thing, this bitcoin. Here is how it works. It's very interesting. You can also send me bitcoins if you want to." Well, okay. And—and then they sent me something over 200 bitcoins.

SIMON: 200 bitcoin. Let me look this up.


SIMON: Okay, into US dollars. [laughs] $10 million.

FUXOFT: And now, I don't have 200 of them, but I can tell you I, in the last year I bought a new—new car and a new house with bitcoins. [laughs]

SIMON: [laughs]


SIMON: Turns out Simon Goodwin is right, radio is just not the way to make a living. 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: [singing in Czech.]]

SIMON: Now whether or not Fuxoft is right, that these Sneakernets and cassettes helped bring down the Iron Curtain is sort of impossible to tell. However, up next, we’ve got the story of a cassette internet that without a doubt sparked a revolution. 


SIMON: That’s after a quick break.


[ROMEO: This is Romeo from Ypsilanti, Michigan. Mixtape, a special series from Radiolab, is supported in part by Science Sandbox, a Simons Foundation initiative, the Shanahan Charitable Family Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: This is the end of side one of cassette four. Please turn the cassette over and start side two at the same point.] 



MOHSEN SAZEGARA: In politics, you can say something and thousands of people, or maybe millions of people pay attention because it relates to their destiny. And so, all politician have a strong motivation to be a god, to have the destiny of the people in their hands.

SIMON: Alright, we’re back. I'm Simon Adler. This is Mixtape. And for part two, sort of a B side here, I’ve got the story of how one man's voice upended a country's politics and continues to echo around the globe today. 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: The skills you’re about to learn about are the unspoken strategies for gaining power and getting ahead. In these cassettes, you’ll learn how to build a political power base and get the important information that no one reports in formal memos or meetings.]

SIMON: Starts off with the guy you just heard, Mohsen Sazegara.

MOHSEN SAZEGARA: I was born in Tehran in 1955.

SIMON: He was a precocious kid, bookworm, loved reading about political theory and political philosophy.  

MOHSEN SAZEGARA: I didn't know maybe you call it geek or something. [laughter] I tried very hard during all my education years.

SIMON: He left Iran, moved to Chicago in the mid-70s to study physics. But by 1978, his focus was very much back home...

MOHSEN SAZEGARA: Making a revolution.


[ARCHIVE CLIP: [crowd yelling]]

SIMON: At that time, Iran had already been engulfed in the years-long struggle against the country's tyrannical leader.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, The Shah: Iran Inshallah...]

SIMON: The Shah.

MOHSEN SAZEGARA: Shah came to power with a British and American plot and he was a military dictator.


SIMON: He and his secret police SAVAK ran the country with an iron fist and impunity.

MOHSEN SAZEGARA: The, you know, shadow of SAVAK was everywhere.

SIMON: And Mohsen and all sorts of other folks wanted this guy out. I mean, there were nationalists fighting against the Shah, Marxists and leftists, like Mohsen. And while they’d made some strides.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: [crowd yelling]]

SIMON: Getting people out onto the street to protest, things were stagnating.

MOHSEN SAZEGARA: Yes, without that we have a long battle.

SIMON: And so, Mohsen and his smarty pants leftist allies decided to hit reset, which is where our story really begins here.


MOHSEN SAZEGARA: We went to a small village 45 minutes out of Paris. 

SIMON: This town, Neauphle-le-Château, would be their new base of operations in France. They knew someone there who owned this rudimentary house they could stay in.

MOHSEN SAZEGARA: I remember there was one shower, which had no hot water in the cold weather of France.


SIMON: And they were bunking up with this relatively unknown and very unlikely ally. This long bearded cleric, the Ayatollah Khomeini.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ayatollah Khomeini: [speaking Farsi]]

KIM GHATTAS: Khomeini was quite old. He'd been in exile for quite some time. 

SIMON: That's Kim Ghattas.

KIM GHATTAS: Longtime journalist who's covered the Middle East and the United States.

SIMON: And she says Mohsen’s allies had hand-picked Khomeini to join them.

MOHSEN SAZEGARA: We needed a religious leader, that was activists against the Shah.

SIMON: Someone who could really inspire people to take to the streets. And Khomeini fit that bill.

ARASH AZIZI: Yes, he was very adamant. He was kind of crazy. He was the kind of guy who would not compromise.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ayatollah Khomeini: [speaking Farsi]]

ARASH AZIZI: He said, the Shah should get the hell out of Iran.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: [crowd yelling]]

SIMON: This is Iranian writer and activist Arash Azizi.

ARASH AZIZI: He said, you know, he said, [speaking Farsi], means “Shah has to go.”

SIMON: And so, Mohsen and the other leftists...

MOHSEN SAZEGARA: because all of us were well educated in best universities of Western countries.

SIMON: Thought they could use Khomeini, overthrow the Shah and then cast Khomeini aside.


SIMON: And so, from this tiny town, these strange bedfellows hatched a plan to make Khomeini a superstar.

[NEWS CLIP: This small village 20 miles to the south of Paris has become the center of resistance to the Shah of Iran.]

SIMON: Mohsen and the leftists, with their connections…

KIM GHATTAS: They'd set up literally a media office.

SIMON: Made a bunch of calls. Sent out tons of press releases. 

[NEWS CLIP: Able to call for peace…]

SIMON: And before long…

[NEWS CLIP: His title is, “Ayatollah”...]

[NEWS CLIP: [speaking in French…]]

SIMON: Neauphle-le-Chateau became the center of the media universe.


[NEWS CLIP: Good evening from [speaking French] France…]

SIMON: And with the cameras trained on him...

[NEWS CLIP: Tonight the 78-year-old Muslim religious leader Ruhollah Khomeini...

SIMON: Khomeini became the voice of the revolution. Sort of. 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ayatollah Khomeini: [Speaking Farsi]]

SIMON: Because—And this is where things get complicated— sitting on the floor or out under an apple tree, Khomeini would let the reporter ask their questions...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Reporter: If the peaceful demonstrations do not succeed, will you then order your followers to fight?]

SIMON: And he’d then answer those questions…

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ayatollah Khomeini: [Speaking Farsi]]

SIMON: In Farsi.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ayatollah Khomeini: [Speaking Farsi]] 

SIMON: Which the reporters didn’t speak. 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ayatollah Khomeini: [Speaking Farsi]]

SIMON: So, the leftists like Mohsen...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Translator: We would like to continue the way as it is as much as possible.]

SIMON: Would step into translate. And what they said, what they translated, something soft, smart and diplomatic...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Translator: The cause that we are striking is the independence of the country and the liberty of our own people.]

SIMON: Was often quite different from what Khomeini had actually just said. 

KIM GHATTAS: Khomeini believed in what he called, “velāyat-e faqīh.” How do I transl—sorry, let me just check how I translate that.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

KIM GHATTAS: A state, a “velāyat-e,” of the “faqīh,” of the wise man. So, you know, an Islamic State on Earth.

MOHSEN SAZEGARA: Yeah. He thought that if you implement a religious order from Middle Ages, everything will be right and we will have a utopia on the Earth.

SIMON: So it was—like was that a red flag for you in any ways?

MOHSEN SAZEGARA: No. You know why? Because we were in danger by Secret Service of Shah, SAVAK. We were imprisoned by Shah. And we were ready to sacrifice our—our life. So our first priority was to bring down regime of Shah. And without that—Khomeini was in our side.


SIMON: And again, they also thought Khomeini was a useful puppet they’d eventually discard. They were in control. And so anytime he brought up this idea of this Islamic State...


KIM GHATTAS: They would omit that, as they called it, crazy talk. So that part of the message did not reach the Western media.

SIMON: But the problem was basically no part of the message was reaching the people of Iran.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Reporter: How are your orders communicated to the millions of your followers in Iran?

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ayatollah Khomeini: [Speaking Farsi]]

ARASH AZIZI: The Shah of Iran had an iron grip on media, and media would have been the radio and TV and the newspapers.

SIMON: Again, Arash Azizi, who says, the Shah had this media blockade that was effectively preventing all of this news coverage, all of this messaging, from making it back into Iran, to its target audience. 

MOHSEN SAZEGARA: And there was not, of course, any WhatsApp or any internet services.

SIMON: So, they needed to find some underground, analog way in. Enter the cassette tape.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: [sounds of praying]]

MOHSEN SAZEGARA: Every week at weekends, after evening praying...

SIMON: Oftentimes sitting in this blue and white striped tent they'd erected in the backyard.

MOHSEN SAZEGARA: Ayatollah Khomeini, he had this speech about sometimes an hour or less than an hour.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ayatollah Khomeini: [Speaking Farsi]]

SIMON: And this is where they’d let Khomeini be Khomeini.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ayatollah Khomeini: [Speaking Farsi]]

MOHSEN SAZEGARA: And we recorded them to cassette tapes.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ayatollah Khomeini: [Speaking Farsi]]

SIMON: Shah, you are not a king. You are a nasty, rebellious person. You are ruling the country against the rule of law. People want a politician or ruler whose beliefs are based on Islam. 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ayatollah Khomeini: [Speaking Farsi]]

SIMON: Islam is the religion that half a century ago conquered all countries in the region to make them decent human beings. Islam is not dictatorship. It is God's rule.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: [crowd yelling]]

SIMON: When Khomeini had finished his speech and the recording was done…

MOHSEN SAZEGARA: After his speech, I took that cassette to the basement…

SIMON: Recorded a little intro onto it.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Mohsen Sazegara: [speaking Farsi]]

MOHSEN SAZEGARA: The speech of the Great Leader...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Mohsen Sazegara: Neauphle-le-Chateau...]

MOHSEN SAZEGARA: Then the date.

SIMON: And then one day Mohsen or one of his allies thought, maybe there’s a way to send these cassettes, these back to Iran.

MOHSEN SAZEGARA: Maybe by telephone. 


MOHSEN SAZEGARA: In that house, we had an international line and a colleague in Iran, who was an engineer in telecom of Iran. And he and his friends, they could open international line, one international line from Iran for us, like a collect call.

SIMON: And while these speeches were going to be less diplomatic, less polished than the messages Mohsen had been passing to the western press…

KIM GHATTAS: They didn't mind whether the Iranians who were religious heard this message about an Islamic State because they thought, okay, it would bring them out onto the street—and it's never gonna happen anyway! So let him say whatever he wants because it's all crazy talk. 


MOHSEN SAZEGARA: I remembered the first time...

SIMON: After one of Khomeini's weekend speeches…

MOHSEN SAZEGARA: I took the cassette up the stairs to our colleagues. And I remembered that they smoked cigarette— cigarettes very much. [laughs] And the—the room was always covered by smoke. Gave it to them. And then our friend in telecom connected the line. And...

SIMON: With the revolutionaries in France now speaking to the revolutionaries in Iran, they attached this tape player to the phone and pressed play.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ayatollah Khomeini: [Speaking Farsi]]

MOHSEN SAZEGARA: And our colleagues in Iran...

SIMON: Using a little tape player on their end....

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ayatollah Khomeini: [Speaking Farsi]]


SIMON: When the call was finished, folks in Iran, they took the tape out, rewound it, played it back.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ayatollah Khomeini: [Speaking Farsi]]

KIM GHATTAS: You could just imagine the crackly quality that you would get.


SIMON: And it worked.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ayatollah Khomeini: [Speaking Farsi]]

SIMON: Suddenly Khomeini was there with them in that room.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ayatollah Khomeini: [Speaking Farsi]]

SIMON: With their proof of concept, they started going wild with this.


SIMON: Once a week from France, they'd set up a conference call.

MOHSEN SAZEGARA: So, there could be many phones calling at the same time.

SIMON: All the folks on the call would record it.


MOHSEN SAZEGARA: Answering machines were being used.

SIMON: From the various points in Iran then, they'd start making calls, spreading it further. And along each step of the way…

MOHSEN SAZEGARA: This network of people…

KIM GHATTAS: You know, have almost a little cottage industry duplicating the tapes.

MOHSEN SAZEGARA: They duplicated it thousands...

SIMON: And thousands and thousands of times.

KIM GHATTAS: It becomes a flood.


ARASH AZIZI: So yes, it's estimated that it took about nine hours from a speech being given by Khomeini to it being spread in large numbers of tapes in Iran.

SIMON: I mean, these things were spreading hand to hand, from family member to friend, in the bizarre, in living rooms. I mean, at its peak some 90,000 mosques were duplicating and distributing these tapes.

SIMON: Well, it feels to me like this is a Khomeini seeing how to create virality before virality was a word outside of epidemiology.

ARASH AZIZI: Absolutely. Absolutely. Khomeini knew exactly what it meant. That—the art of Khomeini was, he exactly knew what to say to go viral.

SIMON: What to say. And just as importantly, how to say it.

MOHSEN SAZEGARA: Great politicians in the world, the —most of them can speak very well and have very good lectures. But Ayatollah Khomeini was not like that. His grammar is one of the worst. Maybe I gave him a D or F.

NAZILA FATHI: He used the verbs in the wrong way. He had quite a provincial accent.

SIMON: This is Nazila Fathi.

NAZILA FATHI: Former New York Times correspondent based in Tehran for 17 years.

SIMON: She also grew up in Iran as all this was happening. And she says his language was so strange that educated folks made fun of him.

NAZILA FATHI: They would—one of the jokes was that: Yogurt is white. Yogurt is white. Three words. Because all his sentences were like that, very simple. And obvious things!

SIMON: But while, the upper crust was mocking him,

MOHSEN SAZEGARA: His speech was more attractive for ordinary people.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ayatollah Khomeini: [Speaking Farsi]]

NAZILA FATHI: He was from rural Iran, so were many, many Iranians, millions of Iranians. Even the ones who had grown up in the cities, their parents came from villages. So this was a very familiar language to them, similar to the language of their fathers or grandfathers.

SIMON: And on top of all this was the way people were hearing it.


ARASH AZIZI: People had cassette players at home, so you could listen to it at home and you could sort of gather round…

MOHSEN SAZEGARA: And altogether, listen to those cassettes.

SIMON: And when they did that, when they sat down and pressed play…

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ayatollah Khomeini: [Speaking Farsi]]

SIMON: It's not a politician speaking to a reporter. It's not a politician behind a lectern giving a stump speech. It's not even some image being beamed into your television and your neighbor's television and their neighbor's television.


SIMON: It's a man in your living room, speaking to you and saying that there's important work to be done and that you are invited to be a part of it. That you’ve been treated unfairly. That you've been wronged. But, but with your help, we can fix it. We can make the world a better place. We can make the world as great as it used to be. And that the only thing standing in our way, is one man.

NAZILA FATHI: So, his voice gave them an identity, purpose. This voice that they could keep hearing, and it would drill in over and over and over again.

SIMON: One Iranian man we spoke to who heard these tapes said, in hindsight, that it was almost like Khomeini had hypnotized him. And he was not unique.

MOHSEN SAZEGARA: Every, everybody in Iran, in every faction, listened to Ayatollah.

SIMON: Millions of people. I mean, when Khomeini called for strikes on these tapes, they happened. When he told people to take to the streets on these tapes, it happened. And when he told the Shah to get the hell out of Iran, that eventually happened as well.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: [crowd yelling]] 

[NEWS CLIP: The man who from long distance led a revolution to topple the Shah.]

[NEWS CLIP: The people were in a frenzy…]

NAZILA FATHI: It was through these cassette tapes that Khomeini mobilized the masses and managed to hijack the revolution from all the other political parties.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: [crowd singing]] 


SIMON: January 16, 1979 the Shah fled Iran. And he would be replaced by and what Khomeini’s victory would mean for Iran, began to come into focus just two weeks later, as Khomeini was flying from France back to Iran.

KIM GHATTAS: When they were on their way back to Tehran on the Air France plane that had been charted for them.

SIMON: Again, journalist Kim Ghattas.

KIM GHATTAS: As the plane entered the Iranian airspace, Peter Jennings of ABC, of course, managed to get up to Khomeini and ask a question.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Translator: Peter?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Peter Jennings: Could you translate?]

KIM GHATTAS: And he asked him…

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Peter Jennings: Ayatollah, would you be so kind as to tell us how you feel about being back in Iran?]

KIM GHATTAS: And the Ayatollah listens to the translation of the question into Persian and the answer is....

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ayatollah Khomeini: Hichi.]

KIM GHATTAS: Hichi. Nothing. 

SIMON: And the translator, as always one of these leftist intellectual types.

KIM GHATTAS: He can’t believe what he’s just heard, so he asks the Ayatollah, Hichi?

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Translator: Hichi?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ayatollah Khomeini: [Speaking Farsi]]

KIM GHATTAS: Khomeini repeats and I'm reading sort of phonetically, “Hichi ehasi nadaram.” I don't feel a thing.


SIMON: Now what he meant by "nothing," none of us will ever know for sure. But listening to that interaction—and this is something Kim Ghattas felt too—you do get the clear sense of a man who sees himself as simply taking his next predestined step into power. A man who sees himself as apart from and above the trifling emotions of politics and men.

KIM GHATTAS: Here's a man who has been in exile for 15 years and he's about to touch down his home country, and he feels nothing? 

SIMON: And his translator almost didn’t seem to know what to do with those words.

KIM GHATTAS: He tells Peter Jennings...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Translator: He doesn't make any comment.]

KIM GHATTAS: He doesn't make any comment.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Peter Jennings: Is he happy? Or is he excited?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Translator: Doesn't, doesn't make any comment.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Peter Jennings: None at all. Okay. Thank you.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Translator: Okay, Peter. All right.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Peter Jennings: Thanks…]

KIM GHATTAS: That moment on the plane is when you start seeing the danger of what Khomeini actually represents. But it was too late. I think it was too late.

[NEWS CLIP: Mounting tension between the US and Iran.]

[NEWS CLIP: 304 killed in recent protests…]

NAZILA FATHI: And to this day, the Islamic government is ruling Iran.]

[NEWS CLIP: Iran has launched a series of ballistic missiles.]

[NEWS CLIP: The debate of whether women should wear hijab.]

[NEWS CLIP: In Iran, we don't have homosexuals.]

[NEWS CLIP: Shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: The Iranian government responded with a five day internet shutdown.]


SIMON: I guess I wonder, Mohsen, your voice on these tapes? How do you feel knowing that your voice is in some ways, forever intimately tied to Khomeini's voice?

MOHSEN SAZEGARA: Mmm? Not so guilty, I have to say. 

SIMON: Okay.

MOHSEN SAZEGARA: Because now that I look back, we know that the combining revolutionary ideology with religion is the wrong way. But in those days, I—nobody knew that. Not only me as a 23-years-old student, but none of the thinkers. Even the Western thinkers. So I don't think—I was a part of a big movement in Iran, by the people of Iran.

SIMON: Like as I've been preparing to talk to you, the person that you remind me of, is like, the sales rep for Purdue Pharma, who was going out and pushing OxyContin. Like, you didn't know how dangerous this thing was that you were pushing on people.


SIMON: But you're doing it. Have you had to grapple with that fact?

MOHSEN SAZEGARA: I—yeah. I—I can say that, unfortunately, I didn't think about the future. The system that he suggests, we thought that we can make an utopia on the Earth. We were wrong. I can say now that all those thoughts were wrong. 


SIMON: We got one more thing for you. It’s actually a secret message that you can decode. We’ll have that for you, right after one more quick break.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: [singing] After these messages, we’ll be right back. [whistle]]


SIMON: Alright, I’m Simon Adler. This is Mixtape. Before I let you go today, Simon Goodwin, the mad computer scientist from our first story today, he went to the trouble of coding a little secret message for you. It’s a secret message that he turned into zeros and ones and then high tones and low tones that we’re going to play for you, right here and right now. And so if you have an old ZX Spectrum computer or you want to go dig up an emulator online, you can take this sound that we’re about to play, put it onto a cassette and load the message. And in fact, if you’re listening to this on the radio, you can go further. You could actually record this straight off the radio onto a tape and run it into a ZX Spectrum just like Simon Goodwin did back in 1983. Okay, anyhow. I’m going to give you a moment to prepare yourselves. If you’re gonna tape this, you know, put the tape in. Get ready to hit record. Because here it goes. Three, two, one.


SIMON: Alright, there it is. If you get this to work, please let me know. I would love to hear about it. Shoot us an email or tweet at us. Yeah, I’m just super curious to know if this functioned at all. 


[SIMON: Okay. So, Mixtape is reported, produced, scored and sound designed by me, Simon Adler, with original music throughout by me. Top-tier reporting and production assistance was provided by Eli Cohen. 

We’ve got a bunch of folks to thank today: Alex Sayf Cummings, Martin Maly, Piotr Gawrysiak, Joe Tozer, James Gleick, Jason Rezaian, Gholam Khiabani and Mo Jazi. And to Arash Azizi for helping us every step of the way with our story about Khomeini. And to the one and only Simon Goodwin for making us that secret code. And Micah Loewinger for tipping me off to those software broadcasts in the first place. Okay. I’m Simon Adler. We’ll have one final tape for you next week.]

[LISTENER: Radiolab was created by Jad Abumrad and is edited by Soren Wheeler. Lulu Miller and Latif Nasser are our co-hosts. Suzie Lechtenberg is our executive producer and Dylan Keefe is our director of sound design. Our staff includes: Simon Adler, Jeremy Bloom, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, W. Harry Fortuna, David Gebel, Maria Paz Gutiérrez, Sindhu Gnanasambandan, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Alex Neason, Sarah Qari, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters and Molly Webster. With help from Tanya Chawla, Shima Oliaee and Sarah Sandbach. Our fact-checkers are Diane Kelly, Emily Krieger and Adam Przybyl.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: This ends cassette four. Please rewind and then continue with cassette five.]


Copyright © 2021 New York Public Radio. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use at for further information.

New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of programming is the audio record.