Saving America’s radio heritage

Preserving at-risk archival radio broadcasts

Last week, librarians, archivists, and audio preservation enthusiasts from around the country joined forces in a mission to save America’s radio heritage at the first ever Radio Preservation Task Force (RPTF) Conference.

Josh Shepperd, National Research Director for the RPTF, writes: “It’s safe to anecdotally contend that we’ve certainly already lost over 75% of radio history, and perhaps as high as 90%. Why is this important? The short answer is that radio has held a unique and important position in U.S. cultural history. Radio has been a media industry that developed a mature art form through storytelling and entertainment, while acting as a communications technology that has been utilized for community building and public discourse.”

As historic audio recordings dating back to the beginning of the 20th century rapidly deteriorate, the race to digitize and preserve these recordings grows more urgent every day.  And digitization alone doesn’t ensure preservation: in fact, without proper care, digital recordings can be even more vulnerable to loss than physical formats.

At Pop Up Archive, one of our goals is to make recordings searchable for audiences in perpetuity. Check out some moments from 20th century radio history captured in our public archive.

 The First Ladies of radio: Eleanor Roosevelt & Mary Margaret McBride

During her 40 years on the air, Mary Margaret McBride’s broadcast influence was so great, she was called “The First Lady of Radio,” appearing on ABC, CBS, NBC, and the New York Herald Tribune’s syndicated radio broadcasts. At her peak in the 1940s, the daily audience for her program captured the attention of six to eight million listeners. Pre-dating Studs Terkel and Terry Gross, McBride’s program featured interviews with many major figures of the day, like actress Carole Landis.

The actual First Lady of America was no stranger to radio herself. In the 1940s, Eleanor Roosevelthosted a biweekly radio show on NBC, “Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt’s Own Program,” where she discussed topics like home arts, youth organizations, and life in the White House. Interestingly, her position as First Lady didn’t stop her from turning down advertising revenue: Roosevelt can be heard endorsing products like “Sweetheart Soap.”

For more on the pioneering women in radio, check out The Kitchen Sisters’ Fugitive Waves two part special, WHER: 1000 BEAUTIFUL WATTS, about the first all-female radio station in America.

Wartime leaders: speeches from Hitler, Churchill, and FDR

In this public domain collection of World War II recordings, you’ll find pivotal moments and figures from modern history as they were heard by audiences more than 50 years ago. Hear Winston Churchill’s Address To Congress On The Allied Struggle in 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Fireside Chat On The Progress Of The War in 1942, or even Adolf Hitler’s Address on the Sudeten Germans in 1938.

Voices of activism: Harvey Milk and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

It was through TV and radio that the actions of civil rights movements were broadcast into the living rooms of America. Hear the original broadcasts that first introduced many Americans to the oratory style of Martin Luther King (UC Berkeley Ethnic Studies Library), or to the election and assassination of the first openly gay man elected to public office, Harvey Milk (Pacifica Radio Archives).

The sounds of the 1960s and 1970s: from sea shanties to the avant-garde 

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, The Free Music Store was a live weekly concert series recorded in an old church building by WBAI in New York City. From “baroque chamber ensembles to country fiddling to sea shanties to the avant-garde,” the series featured musical legends like John Cage at their experimental peaks in pieces for shows like “Four-handed piano music: acoustic and electric” from 1971 (Pacifica Radio Archives).

Together with the National Recording Preservation Foundation, the RPTF already distributed its first grant to the Lily Library at Indiana University to save the complete Orson Welles radio broadcasts. The work is expected to be finished in 2017 and will be the first time these recordings, now in the public domain, have ever been made available in completion.

Looking for more stories from radio history? In addition to the digitized audio already stored and preserved in collections on Pop Up Archive, our friends at the Internet Archive boast a special “Old Time Radio” collection with over 2,000 audio items. And with more projects on the horizon, like the transcription of public media spanning the past 60 years from the American Archives of Public Broadcasting, we’re working to secure the heritage of American radio for many generations to come.


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