As the clock struck 12:01 a.m. on Dec. 5, 1933, a truck full of beer departed Anheuser-Busch in St. Louis — a seemingly unremarkable event. That shipment, however, was something special: Prohibition had just ended. Beer was on its way to the White House.
KMOX CBS Radio in St. Louis was on hand to broadcast the celebration to the nation.
In real time, listeners heard brewing magnate August Busch’s delight at releasing the first case of beer bottled at the plant in 14 years. “May I just add a word about good, wholesome beer, which contributes so much to good cheer, good health and true temperance?” he asked.
This slice of American history is just one example of thousands upon thousands of recorded broadcasts that members of the Library’s Radio Preservation Task Force have brought to light or helped to preserve in archives across the country since its launch in December 2014.
The task force enters its 10th year this month with a solid record: It has sponsored three major conferences, each connecting hundreds of specialists; created a searchable database of more than 2,500 radio collections at archives nationwide; and supported dozens of successful grant applications to preserve at-risk recordings.
Its newest project is Sound Submissions, an initiative to facilitate donations of digitized recordings to the Library.
The task force’s work has been “incredibly important” to communicating the breadth and depth of radio collections across the U.S. while underlining the urgency to preserve recordings, said Patrick Midtlyng, head of the Recorded Sound Section.
The National Recording Preservation Board established the Radio Preservation Task Force after a major Library study found that many broadcast recordings had been destroyed or were no longer traceable.
From the mid-1920s until well into the 1950s, radio was the nation’s major source for entertainment and news, as well as a mirror of the times, the 2010 report states. Yet “little is known of what still exists, where it is stored and in what condition,” threatening “an irreplaceable piece of our sociocultural heritage.”
The task force — a consortium of academics, archivists, recording professionals and independent scholars — has responded by raising awareness of the riches of radio history and its power to fill gaps in the American story.
“One thing we started to find almost immediately was different primary source trails in sound that you don’t necessarily find on paper,” Josh Shepperd, the task force director, said. “In other words, the manuscript reading room might have NAACP history, but maybe it doesn’t have the sound history of civil rights activism in Indianapolis.”
Shepperd is a media studies professor at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Library’s vast radio collections and its expert staff and technology quickly attracted him and many others to the project.
“The Library of Congress name has so much resonance with historians,” Shepperd said.
The Library started collecting radio broadcasts in 1938, not long after recording technology — 16-inch lacquer discs at the time — made it possible to capture more than a few minutes of broadcasts.
Networks, with their ample budgets, recorded most early radio.
The NBC collection — around 40,000 hours of news, comedy, live music and drama from 1935 to 1978 — is the Library’s largest and most used radio collection. It includes such iconic recordings as the network’s June 5–6, 1944, broadcast narrating D-Day and Marian Anderson’s April 9, 1939, concert at the Lincoln Memorial after DAR Constitution Hall refused to let her perform because of her race.
The task force’s first project involved inventorying lesser-known American radio collections in archives around the country and developing a searchable database to expand their use.
Shepperd estimates the effort has identified about 80% of existing collections. “I’m certain we haven’t found everything, but we’ve been pretty successful,” he said.
Researchers anywhere can now easily find the Gay Peoples Union Records at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, including the nation’s first regularly scheduled gay and lesbian radio show; a public radio collection on rural life at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, that includes programs like “Shepherds, Bumpkins and Farmers’ Daughters”; and Campus Radio Voice at Columbia University, provider of content to U.S. college radio stations in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Following the task force’s first conference in 2016, its project attracted major media attention. Shepperd recalls doing 30 to 40 interviews, leading to stories on NPR and in The Atlantic, Time and elsewhere.
“All these people realized the same thing we realized, that there’s this whole history here,” Shepperd said. “Why haven’t we touched this?”
An elevated profile led to funding to digitize and preserve collections, including projects previously rejected for support. “Before the task force, there really wasn’t much funding for radio preservation,” Shepperd said.
In 2018, University of Oklahoma Libraries, for example, received $49,900 from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) to digitize the “Indians for Indians” radio show, broadcast from 1941 to 1976 on the University of Oklahoma’s AM radio station.
Broadcasts include host Don Whistler’s April 20, 1948, entreaty to listeners to “run, don’t walk, to the nearest telegraph station or post office, and get your protest on the way to Washington.”
A congressional committee was then considering abolishing the commission that decided tribal claims against the U.S. government.
Now available online, the recordings are “an important microcosm of U.S. history told through a Native perspective,” in the words of task force member Lina Ortega, a curator at the university.
Shepperd and others helped draft applications to CLIR, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Mellon Foundation and other funders to preserve collections curated by task force members and affiliates — other radio research and preservation groups — and they’ve written letters to support upward of 90 applications.
“We’ve been very successful at attracting grants over the years,” Shepperd said.
He believes the biggest challenge now is saving the local and community collections, many fast deteriorating, that are still out there.
“They’re in people’s basements, attics or garages. It’s usually the people who did their own show,” he said. “So, you have a local talk show host, and they saved all of their recordings. But the station didn’t want it, and they just have it at home.”
Once such collections are digitized, they need an archival home.
Shepperd sees Sound Submissions, the task force’s latest project, as a potential model. Based at the Library, it seeks donations of already digitized small radio collections for the permanent collections.
“Digitization removes a large obstacle to getting a collection,” Midtlyng said. “Much more work and resources are needed to take in a physical collection.”
Task force member Frank Absher, a longtime St. Louis broadcaster and media historian, obtained and digitized the live broadcast documenting the end of prohibition.
“It’s still fun,” he said. “You can hear the end of prohibition the way the rest of the world heard it.”
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