It starts with the voices.
They reach us through softly modulated morning traffic and weather updates, arguments over sports on the drive home, nighttime recaps of the day’s political events chewed over by familiar radio hosts and their guests. They accompany us on long drives or short trips to the supermarket. They talk us to sleep at night and wake us up in the morning — and have been for almost a century. Radio’s voices are so seamlessly integrated into our lives that we habitually hear them without listening. Radio keeps us from being alone and keeps us from being lonely.
And yet those voices are being lost.
In broom closets and attics and library stacks across the country, the vinyl records and magnetic tapes that hold 100 years of the history of American sound are slowly disintegrating and dissolving. As they crumble to dust, a vital piece of our national history is lost.
Radio broadcasting as we know it has been around for almost a century. Many consider the 1920 presidential contest, when Westinghouse station KDKA in Pittsburgh offered live updates on President Warren G. Harding’s election, to be the first radio broadcast. Though radio scholars know “broadcasts” had existed for more than a decade by 1920, that election night program provided the basic model of broadcasting that lives on almost a century later.
KDKA’s program was live, electric and exciting: Before any newspaper or telegraph report could confirm the returns, anybody owning a radio set could listen in as Harding’s election seemingly occurred in real time, through the ether and over the airwaves.
Our nation, and our politics, would never be the same. Soon would come fireside chats calming an anxious citizenry, boxing matches and baseball games hooking even casual listeners, and war reports bridging millions of U.S. soldiers in Asia and Europe with their families back home. Radio quickly became embedded in our lives, an extension of ourselves so seamless that we hardly noticed it.
Despite a technological boom, radio remains one of the most pervasive media technologies in existence. According to the Pew Research Center’s 2017 State of the Media Report, an astonishing 91 percent of Americans ages 12 and over listened to terrestrial (that is, traditional broadcast) radio in any given week in 2016.
Yet for all its longevity and influence, we’re not very good about preserving radio and its sounds. Despite its ubiquity, audio from our receivers is rarely collected, stored and archived by either its audiences or its creators. Unlike television, which employed kinescope and film recording technology from its early years, radio grew up without a shared consciousness of the importance of preservation.
There are numerous reasons for this. The first is that radio is ephemeral and immaterial: For the listening audience, it seems to arrive out of thin air and then just as quickly disappear. Unlike a newspaper, which consumers can easily purchase and retain for personal or historic reasons, radio provides experiences rather than a tangible product. Radio’s chief characteristic is its liveness — the shared simultaneous experience, in real time, between broadcaster and listener. Unlike film and television, when radio sound is stored, it loses some of that connective power. So radio stations and networks emphasize this liveness and often devalue recordings.
Radio archivists remain indebted to those audiophiles from an earlier era who tinkered with recording devices to preserve historic moments, and corporations that had engineers smart enough to know not to record over important broadcasts. We wouldn’t have Russ Hodges’s indelible 1951 call of “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!” if a Giants fan named Larry Goldberg hadn’t asked his mother to test out his new recorder by taping the ninth inning of that fateful playoff game. An earlier type of wire recorder was being tested out in Lakehurst, N.J., on May 6, 1937, when the airship Hindenburg suddenly exploded. The description of that tragedy by WLS (Chicago) newscaster Herbert Morrison remains etched in American memory.
As these examples attest, too often the preservation of historic radio sound has occurred by luck or happenstance. Just like our grandparents and parents, we treat radio as largely disposable and demonstrate little concern for saving historic audio as the sounds float through our lives. Nor is it simply us, the listening community, that fails to realize the value of radio preservation. When legendary radio interviewer Mary Margaret McBride wanted to record her programs, her employer charged her the full expense of recording the more than 1,200 shows she produced that now reside at the Library of Congress.
The Library of Congress is seeking to rectify this historical problem before it grows worse. Beginning today, the Radio Preservation Task Force meets at the library to discuss and plan the future of radio’s history. (Made by History editor Nicole Hemmer will be one of the presenters.) Earlier Library of Congress initiatives, such as the National Film Registry, have proven successful in preserving and archiving historic films. The Radio Preservation Task Force seeks to accomplish something similar — assemble a catalogue of preserved radio sounds while supporting plans to make these moments accessible to researchers, scholars and the public.
These radio moments are a national heritage, but our nation’s foremost library has only a tenuous understanding of how much historic radio sound exists, where it’s located and how it can be accessed. It’s time to rectify this oversight.
In a world where presidential tweets are said to bypass the media like Roosevelt’s fireside chats once did, and fake news problems are often directly linked to Orson Welles’s infamous panic broadcast, radio’s legacy remains powerful and its lessons relevant. Are we doing enough to ensure these materials are preserved for future generations and future scholars? We need to find, catalogue and make accessible as many historic moments as possible, because ultimately this isn’t about radio — it’s about us.