Today’s post is by Harrison Behl, Reference Librarian at the Recorded Sound Research Center.
Shortly after the formation of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division in 1978, one of our first reference librarians, James Smart, compiled a listing of the radio broadcast recordings the Library had acquired to that point. Covering the years between 1924 and 1941, the slim volume provides an interesting cross section of radio from its early days to its development as a major media form.
Due to the limitations of early recording equipment—such as poor sound quality, and short recording length – recordists were selective in what they chose to record; today, only a small portion of what was captured has survived.
Eric Barnouw, former Chief of MBRS and media history scholar, contributed a foreword to the book, where he pointed out that “the form of his log seemed to us ideal for our first catalog, for it plunges the reader at once into that strange potpourri of experiences so characteristic of our broadcast media.” He describes the form of radio media as “newspaper, night club, gossip corner, pulpit, lecture hall, pitchman’s platform, concert hall, political forum, and nursery school.”
As one pages through this strange cross-section of time, one unexpected name is a near-constant presence from November 1932 to September 1941: James Farley, a major force in American politics. Although a significant figure of his time, his name is little remembered today.
Mr. Farley, often referred to as a political kingmaker, was a prominent figure in New York politics and was instrumental in getting Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the White House. In 1933 Roosevelt made Farley his Postmaster General, in addition to his serving as head of the Democratic National Committee and the New York State Democratic Committee.
In this list of early radio recordings, James Farley looms large. He shows up on our list more frequently than almost any individual who did not appear on a scheduled program. He’s more prominent than Will Rogers, Alfred Hitchcock, Herbert Hoover, and Adolph Hitler; Roosevelt beats Farley, but just barely.
Farley’s collection is an extensive document of his public addresses and includes a brief address on election eve in 1932, remarks in support of the repeal of 18th Amendment (Prohibition), re-organization of the Postal Service, and an address for National Air Mail Week Celebration in 1938. He also spoke at the inaugural flight of the China Clipper, the first plane to complete a trans-Pacific mail delivery. The navigator for the flight was Fred Noonan, who would later serve the same role on Amelia Earhart’s daring last flight.
Despite the historical value of his remarks, their outsized place in the documentation of early radio highlights the scarcity of recordings of broadcast history. Networks such as NBC created a large collection of recordings and those recordings have made it into the Library’s holdings for preservation. However, other networks either did not record much of their programming or it was never kept, leaving significant gaps in what we can know about what was heard during radio’s peak.
The James Farley collection is also a reminder that sometimes unlikely evidence survives to speak to the future. When a researcher asks about radio recordings of a figure from the early 1930s, even though the likelihood is low, I always ask, “Did they ever share a stage with James Farley?”
Learn more about the Library’s NBC Radio Collection at The National Broadcasting Company at the Library of Congress and how to conduct further research in the Recorded Sound Research Center Any inquires to dig deeper into the history of radio or on other audio collections may be directed to the Recorded Sound Research Center or the Library’s Ask-a-Librarian.