Saving the Sounds of Radio

(The following is a story written by Mark Hartsell, editor of the Library’s staff newsletter, The Gazette, for the July-August 2016 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine. You can read the issue in its entirety here.)

The Library of Congress is working to preserve the nation’s historical broadcasts

Herbert Hoover played a key role in regulation of radio broadcasting, 1925. National Photo Company Collection, Prints and Photographs Division.

Herbert Hoover played a key role
in regulation of radio broadcasting,
1925. National Photo Company
Collection, Prints and Photographs

When Wilt Chamberlain smashed an NBA record in 1962 by scoring 100 points in a single game, a radio broadcast provided the only real-time account of the Stilt’s incredible feat.

When Charles Lindbergh flew the Atlantic, Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed the nation in the Depression’s depths, Allied troops landed on Normandy beaches and Babe Ruth called his shot in the 1932 World Series, radio delivered the news.

For about a century, radio has informed and entertained Americans. The passage of the years, however, has left recordings of those historical broadcasts at risk, victims of deterioration, neglect, improper storage or just the ravages of time.

The Library of Congress for decades has worked to acquire, preserve and make those recordings accessible—efforts that in recent years have increased in scope and scale.

“We have an opportunity to sustain this material and make it available, but it’s a closing window—that’s the scary part,” said Eugene DeAnna, head of the Library’s Recorded Sound Section. “It takes action now on the part of archivists, producers and scholars to move us forward at a faster rate than we’ve up to now been able to sustain.”

Radio’s Missing Era

By the 1920s, radio was a staple of everyday life, an unprecedented blend of news and entertainment, brought to life with voices and delivered over the airwaves to American homes.

Few broadcasts, however, were captured for posterity—recording equipment was bulky, expensive and not especially good. As a consequence, recordings of broadcasts of, say, big stars or historic events from the Roaring Twenties are exceedingly rare.

When Lindbergh landed at Le Bourget airport following his historic trans-Atlantic flight in 1927, announcers broadcast the chaotic scene as thousands of spectators stormed the field to welcome him to France. All that remains of that scene today are black-and-white images—and silence. No recording of the broadcast is known to exist.

That’s a common tale: Of the 500,000 or so recorded radio broadcasts preserved in the Library’s collections, only about 50 come from the 1920s. The cultural loss is enormous—the soundtrack of an era forever missing.

“We don’t have that initial foundation of radio,” DeAnna said. “So much of the early broadcasts— radio and TV—just went into the ether. They’re gone.”

Radio, on Record

Radio Towers. Harris and Ewing, Prints and Photographs Division.

Radio Towers. Harris and Ewing, Prints and Photographs Division.

That changed in the mid-1930s. Radio networks flourished, making the recording of broadcasts economically more feasible. Theapproaching war in Europe fostereda sense that these momentous events should be documented for posterity. Technological progress helped, too: Equipment got easier to use and the addition of lacquer coating to aluminum discs improved the recordings’ sound quality.

The major radio networks—CBS, Mutual and NBC—began recording most of their daily broadcasts on lacquer discs and, after World War II, on magnetic tape.

Whether those recordings survived is another matter—and that’s where preservationists and institutions such as the Library come in.

Forty years ago, Congress mandated the preservation of broadcast recordings in its 1976 revision of copyright law, legislation that directed the Library to create the American Television and Radio Archives to “preserve a permanent record of the television and radio programs.”

The foremost challenge preservationists face is the degradation, over time, of the media on which broadcasts were recorded. Tape is vulnerable to mold, brittleness and signal loss. The lacquer coating of discs chips or peels off the aluminum base. An aluminum ban during World War II prompted networks to briefly adopt glass-based lacquer discs—an even more-fragile medium.

That problem is compounded, at many institutions, by a lack of good, climate-controlled storage that can extend the life of recordings.

The Library stores its collections of broadcasts in the underground, climate-controlled vaults of its National Audio-Visual Conservation Center campus in Culpeper, Virginia. But, DeAnna said, such storage is expensive and hard to acquire for many institutions, even larger ones.

“Getting these collections scattered around the country into proper archival storage would extend the timeline for us to get them recorded to digital,” he said.

Saving Sounds of the Past

The Library tries to acquire as many historically significant radio broadcasts as possible for preservation— its holdings include such major collections as the Mutual network, the Office of War Information, Voice of America, National Public Radio, and Armed Forces Radio and Television. The foundation of its massive holdings, however, is NBC Radio—the largest, richest, most significant collection of domestic historical radio.

For decades, technicians in the Library’s Audio Preservation Unit have transferred those recordings from their original, at-risk formats to other, more-stable media. Today, they also are converted to digital formats, archived in a digital repository. Some 30,000 radio broadcasts have been preserved in these ways.

The Library promotes preservation in other ways as well, aiding institutions in the preservation of their own collections, helping establish national preservation standards and policy, and generally raising awareness—efforts that have ramped up in recent years.

In 2012, the Library issued a national recording preservation plan—a blueprint for saving America’s recorded sound heritage. An outgrowth of that plan is the Radio

Preservation Task Force, created in 2014 by the National Recording Preservation Board—itself a congressionally mandated, Library-affiliated organization.

“When considering our radio broadcast legacy, imagine how we would treasure a comparable recorded history of the 19th century, how much our understanding of the Civil War, Lincoln, slavery and reconstruction would be enhanced,” DeAnna said. “This is the perspective future generations will have.

“It has fallen to us to secure this vast trove of fragile discs, degrading tapes and ephemeral digital recordings in sustainable digital archives before they are lost time.”

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