Word Warrior Richard Durham: Crusading Radio Scriptwriter
Sonja Williams / Howard University

Williams Richard Durham

The versatile Richard Durham, radio writer of the 1940s

Inventiveness, versatility, and social consciousness defined the talents of Richard Durham – an African American writer whose lyrical and politically outspoken radio dramas of the 1940s earned him posthumous induction into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2007. ((National Radio Hall of Fame: Richard Durham, accessed May 1, 2015, http://www.radiohof.org/richard_durham.htm )) In addition, Durham distinguished himself as an award-winning journalist and poet who authored a pioneering black drama series on television, co-wrote boxing champion Muhammad Ali’s 1975 autobiography and served as a speechwriter/strategist for Chicago’s first African American mayor, Harold Washington. ((“Bird of the Iron Feather,” accessed May 5, 2015, http://www.wbez.org/blogs/lee-bey/2013-02/bird-iron-feather-look-back-tvs-first-black-soap-opera-produced-chicago-105475; Muhammad Ali with Richard Durham. The Greatest: My Own Story, Random House, 1975; Renault Robinson interview with author, March 12, 2010.))

Born in rural Mississippi in September 1917, Richard Durham’s family migrated – like thousands of other Southern blacks – to Chicago, Illinois in 1923. As a teenager, Durham fell in love with poetry and several local and national periodicals published his poems. ((Richard Durham, Richard Durham Papers, Chicago Public Library, Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection, box 6, folder 12. (hereinafter Durham Papers) )) Durham also was drawn to the rather ethereal mass medium of radio, eventually becoming one of its more creative writers. This was a significant feat, given how few black Americans worked in this essentially “lily-white” industry during the 1930s and 1940s. In fact, a study conducted in 1947 by the civil rights organization known as the National Negro Congress (NNC), determined that Durham might have been the only Negro then working full-time as radio scriptwriter. ((“The Negro’s Status in Radio,” 1947, Papers of the National Negro Congress, part 1: Records and Correspondence, reel 34, series 2, NNC Records of the Executive Secretaries, 1943–1947, Harsh Research Collection, box 69, folder 0216, 1–2.))

Williams Club DeLisa

Richard Durham (far right) enjoys a night out in 1942 at Chicago’s Club DeLisa with (from left to right): Phyllis Peltz, his brother Earl and his wife Clarice, along with David Peltz (Phyllis’s husband and Richard’s IWP co-worker).

Durham had honed his scriptwriting skills while working for the federally funded Illinois Writers’ Project (IWP). Beginning in 1939, Durham documented life in Depression-era Chicago with other IWP writers. He soon gravitated toward the IWP’s radio division where writers created scripts for weekly dramas broadcast on local Chicago stations. ((Jerre Mangione, Dream and the Deal: The Federal Writers Project, Little, Brown, 1972, 128.)) For WGN’s Great Artists series – dramas about artists featured in the Art Institute of Chicago – Durham’s February 1941 script cleverly revealed why Spanish painter Francisco Goya created his famous anti-war scenes during the early 1800s. ((Richard Durham, “Goya: The Disasters of War,” Great Artists, February 11, 1941, Durham Papers, box 5, folder 3.)) Durham’s script quickly establishes a sense of urgency. A character named Armid frantically bangs on Goya’s door while the sounds of marching military troops intensify in the background. Suddenly, a gun is fired. A body falls. And briefly, readers are left in limbo. Who is Armid? How is he connected to Goya, and is he now dead?

Soldiers from French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s army, an invading force in Spain, soon arrive at Goya’s door searching for escaped prisoner Armid. Durham’s Goya calmly states that there are only a few pictures and paint in his studio. However, a soldier sees what he believes is a puddle of blood on Goya’s studio floor. Durham then pitches a curve ball, throwing in a detail that will take his script readers – and his soldier characters – by surprise. Goya tells Napoleon’s men that what they think is blood is actually poisonous red “paint.” Tasting a drop of this “paint” could kill a man, Goya declares. Goya’s deception scares the soldiers. But their captain demands that Goya draw something with the so-called red paint. Goya obliges, depicting Napoleon’s soldiers as monsters. Enraged, the captain forces Goya to put the paintbrush in his mouth, believing it will kill him. Once the soldiers leave, Goya tells an injured but alive Armid that he will fight oppression through his art – vividly rendering the horrors of war on his canvases. In subsequent Great Artists programs, Durham dramatized the lives of freedom-loving artists like Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Paul Gauguin. ((Federal Writers’ Project, “Works Progress Administration, Special Studies and Projects, Regional and National Files,” Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, boxes A862-A867, folders—Radio Scripts, Illinois.))

After leaving the IWP in 1942, Durham became a freelance scriptwriter for popular national radio shows like The Lone Ranger and Ma Perkins. And, Durham served as a star investigative reporter for the black-owned, advocacy-oriented Chicago Defender newspaper. Through his reporting and scriptwriting, Durham sought “to find the kernel of Negro life and plant it in the sunshine of some artistic form which will reveal its inner beauty, its depth, its realistic emotions, its humanness.” ((Hugh Cordier, “A History and Analysis of Destination Freedom,” 1949, Durham Papers, box 6, folder 4, 24.))

During the mid-1940s, Durham wrote for Democracy USA, a Chicago Defender-sponsored radio series about black Americans whose lives typified the principles of democracy and freedom. ((Richard Durham interview with J. Fred MacDonald, 1975.)) Durham also wrote and produced an all-black radio soap opera, likely the first of its kind, called Here Comes Tomorrow. It tackled issues that African Americans grappled with in a post-World War II, yet still racially segregated America. ((Richard Durham, Here Comes Tomorrow, September 1947, scripts, Clarice Durham personal files.))

Williams Destination Freedom

Publicity flyer, circa the late 1940s, advertising a weekly social that supported Richard Durham’s Destination Freedom series and other Chicago-based shows and entertainers.

But Durham’s crowning achievement during this period was his award-winning Destination Freedom radio series. Starting in June 1948, Durham dramatized the accomplishments of notable contemporary and historical black leaders, including entertainer Lena Horne, diplomat Ralph Bunche and abolitionist Sojourner Truth. Destination Freedom’s half-hour long, weekly dramas aired on Chicago’s NBC affiliate, WMAQ – boldly advocating for freedom, justice and equality for Negroes and all oppressed people.

For example, in Durham’s script about Denmark Vesey, leader of an 1822 slave revolt in South Carolina, Vesey states, “I read the Declaration of Independence . . . it said, ‘All men are created equal.’” But given the reality of racial inequality, Vesey defiantly notes, “Until all men are free, the revolution goes on!” ((J. Fred MacDonald, Richard Durham’s Destination Freedom, Praeger, 1989, 70, 62.)) For a medium that often ignored or negatively stereotyped African Americans, Durham’s radio characters were strong, dignified, if not downright militant people.

To fuel his writing, Richard Durham sifted through mounds of documents in the Negro history collection housed in Chicago’s Hall Branch Library. Durham then skillfully crafted his dramas, alternating between relatively straightforward narratives with more whimsical takes. In the “Rime of the Ancient Dodger,” for instance, Durham paid homage to Jackie Robinson. Robinson integrated baseball’s all-white major leagues when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers team in 1947. Durham’s friend and fellow writer Louis “Studs” Terkel played Sammy the Whammy, the show’s narrator. Durham used rhyme, humor and fantasy to let Sammy witness and comment on the discrimination levied against Robinson as soon as he stepped up to the batter’s plate:

There wuz umpires, umpires everywhere,
an’ the pitcher hadn’t thrown a ball.
But when this Robinson ups to the plate
Some ghostly umpire calls. . .
“S-t-r-i-k-e a t-[w]-o-o”. . .
Here wuz an’ umpire callin’ two strikes on a man
before he gets to bat,
an’ the bleachers wuz quiet like that.” ((Ibid, 234.))

Studs Terkel raved about Durham’s “talent for capturing the idiom, not just the African American, [but] the American idiom. He was just gifted.” ((Louis “Studs” Terkel, interview with author, May 30, 2001.)) When Durham’s Destination Freedom series ended its run in August 1950, he continued writing and influencing people through Chicago’s labor union movement, and through his editing of the Nation of Islam’s weekly national newspaper. Until his death in 1984, Durham remained a crusading writer and activist – a word warrior extraordinaire.

Image Credits:
1. Richard Durham, Courtesy of Clarice Durham.
2. Club DeLisa, Courtesy of Clarice Durham.
3. Destination Freedom, Courtesy of the Richard Durham Papers, Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection, Chicago Public Library.

Can We Invent a Field Called “Radio Preservation Studies”?
Carolyn Birdsall / University of Amsterdam

Birdall Recorded Radio

Recorded radio program, SWR archive, Baden-Baden

In 2005, Michele Hilmes titled a review: “Is There a Field Called Sound Culture Studies? And Does It Matter?” In this essay, Hilmes described a new research agenda that no longer limited its understanding of sound to particular media or as one of the components within media representations. In Hilmes’ words, this scholarship in sound studies of the early 2000s had worked to: “redefine it less as the study of sound itself, or as practices of aurality within a particular industry or field, than of the cultural contexts out of which sound media emerged and which they in turn work to create: sound culture.” ((Michele Hilmes, “Is There a Field Called Sound Culture Studies? And Does It Matter?” American Quarterly 57.1 (2005): 249-259, here 249.))

Ten years after these observations were first made, a surge of activity in sound studies is in evidence: from readers, handbooks, journals and professional organizations to a host of festivals, exhibitions, blogs and educational programs. Radio scholars like Hilmes, too, have become increasingly interested in sound studies approaches to broadcast history, even though radio has remained in the margins of much of this research ((For a recent collection, in which radio is included in the project of sound history, see Alejandra Bronfman and Andrew Grant Wood, eds. Media, Sound and Culture in Latin America and the Caribbean. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012.)) . Where Hilmes’ review reflected on a noticeable trend in scholarship, this Flow post will discuss the possibility of imagining a field that does not yet exist: Radio Preservation Studies.

Which precedents can be identified? By now, there is a distinct and thriving field that has come to be known as Film Preservation Studies. While defined by its ongoing investment in developing preservation techniques, the field is informed by exchange between film archival history, policy, theory and praxis. An early impulse for the field was the establishment of the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) in 1938, as a joint effort between institutional partners from the US, UK, France and Germany. These founding institutions promoted a range of different approaches to film archiving, with varied emphasis on access and preservation. ((Malte Hagener, “Inventing a Past, Imagining a Future: The Discovery and Institutionalisation of Film History in the 1930’s.” Cinéma&Cie: International Film Studies Journal 6.16/17 (2011): 29-39.))

Film Preservation Studies is significant in that we can observe a sustained reflection on preservation methods, institutions and infrastructures. The field is also attentive to ways in which films are re-constituted in formal practices of restoration, archiving, exhibition and distribution as well in the public’s engagement with forms of digital access, museum presentation, creative re-use, re-mixing and DIY archiving. ((For key texts in this broader field, see the work on film archival theory and preservation approaches (e.g. Paolo Cherchi Usai, Giovanna Fossati, Julia Noordegraaf), re-mix and re-use practices (e.g. Jamie Baron, Erica Balsom, Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin), and historical institutional analysis (e.g. Penelope Houston, Haidee Wasson, Paula Amad, Rolf Aurich, Eric Hoyt).))

Birdsall Celluloid Remix

Celluloid Remix for the creative re-use of film heritage

In radio studies, the archive has tended to be a source rather than a primary object of study. Until now, the theme of sound archiving and preservation has only been marginally thematised in relation to European broadcast systems. ((See, for instance, Andy Linehan, ed. Aural History: Essays on Recorded Sound. London: British Library, 2001; Hans-Ulrich Wagner, “Sounds like the Fifties: Zur Klangarchäologie der Stimme im westdeutschen Rundfunk der Nachkriegszeit,” in Harro Segeberg and Frank Schätzlein, eds., Sound: Zur Technologie und Ästhetik des Akustischen in den Medien. Marburg: Schüren, 2005. 266-284; Erik Granly Jensen, “Access and History: The Digitisation of the Danish Broadcasting Archives and Its Cultural Heritage.” International Journal of Media & Cultural Politics 8.2-3 (2012): 305-16. For the US context, see Alexander Russo, “Defensive Transcriptions: Radio Networks, Sound-On-Disc Recording and the Meaning of Live Broadcasting.” The Velvet Light Trap 54 (Fall 2004): 7-17.)) On the whole, however, the role of the archive and sound archiving practice has not been the subject of investigation in any major radio history, whether in past institutional histories (for example, the multi-volume studies by Erik Barnouw and Asa Briggs) or more recent social and cultural histories. ((For instance, the studies published by Paddy Scannell/David Cardiff (1991), Susan Douglas (1999), Michele Hilmes/Shawn VanCour (2007).)) When the history of sound recording in radio has been acknowledged, it is either not connected to the archive or only discussed in relation to specific program formats.

One interesting exception is the portal Archive Pioneers: Saviours of Sound at the BBC, which explicitly thematizes the history of sound recording and archiving practices from the mid-1930s onwards. ((For further reflections on the pioneering preservation work of Slocombe, see also Sean Street, The Memory of Sound: Preserving the Sonic Past. New York: Routledge, 2015.)) This site includes spoken interviews with BBC technicians, program makers and archivists such as Marie Slocombe and Ludwig Koch. Such public history initiatives are a welcome development, since the portal provides online access to recorded sound, images and texts that address some of the ways in which recorded sound was historically perceived and used in British broadcasting. The site also draws the public’s attention to the status of particular archival records in the collection (e.g. bird recordings vs. famous speeches), and to historical developments in recording technology and production practice. And, importantly, it serves as a reminder that radio preservation projects should not only ‘follow the sound’, but reveal how sound in broadcasting was constituted in relation to other, print-based records, such as internal correspondence, memos, scripts, program guides or photos. ((On this point, see Josephine Dolan, “The Voice that cannot be Heard: Radio/Broadcasting and the ‘Archive.’” The Radio Journal 1.1 (2003): 63-72.))

Birdsall Telex Room

Telex room, Cologne radio station, 12 February 1954

Why should broadcast scholars care about preservation? One of the most compelling arguments is that, from its earliest years, there has been a strong preoccupation of radio producers (and consumers) with not only the live qualities of wireless transmission, but also the possibility to record and re-use these ephemeral sounds. From the 1920s onwards, the increasing use of recorded sounds established recording and archival practices as central components in what radio sounded like for its listeners. Such practices not only suggest an overall influence on aesthetic changes in radio sound and programming, but require scholars to reconsider the co-constituting role of the archive in radio production. ((For a useful resource on the production of (radio) sound in terms of studio labour and technological practices, see Paul D. Greene and Thomas Porcello, eds., Wired for Sound: Engineering and Technologies in Sonic Culture. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2005.))

While various practices of collecting, ordering and re-using sound have been central to program production, there is a key difference between film and broadcast archives. Recordings held in broadcast archives today are closely linked to the production context and the needs of program makers, yet they are disconnected from the original domestic context in which broadcast sound was received. Indeed, while broadcast reception was one of the defining and ubiquitous experiences of twentieth century modernity, the sounds emitted via receivers leave few traces in the archive. Sound archival records, moreover, are often the product of multiple transfers and re-recording, and should be understood as the product of “phonomanipulation” techniques and acts of “reading sound.” (( Patrick Feaster, “‘A Compass of Extraordinary Range’: The Forgotten Origins of Phonomanipulation.” ARSC Journal 42.2 (2011): 163-203; Greg Goodale, Sonic Persuasion: Reading Sound in the Recorded Age. Urbana/Chicago/Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2011.)) On the whole, the existence of many radio recordings are connected to the demands of program production, rather than historical documentation or preservation concerns.

Birdsall Song Archive

Sound archive, Berlin radio station, November 1946

The Radio Preservation Task Force (RPTF) meeting and conference in early 2016 will offer its participants a forum to pool resources and exchange information. At the same time, it represents an invaluable opportunity for scholars, archivists, policymakers and broadcasters to develop a shared field of inquiry devoted to radio preservation. ((For my own reflections on how radio preservation can be situated in a broader field of sound preservation and media archiving, see “Sound in Media Studies: Archiving and the Construction of Sonic Heritage,” in Maria Hanáček, Jens Gerrit Papenburg and Holger Schulze, eds., Sound as Popular Culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press (forthcoming 2015). Recent sound preservation projects in Europe include LARM Audio Research Archive (Denmark), BBC Genome Project and World Service Archive Prototype (UK), along with Europe-funded collaboration projects like Europeana Sounds and Transnational Radio Encounters (TRE).)) Currently, the RPTF members are endeavoring to compile information on sound collections connected to radio stations across all U.S. states. On this basis, collective efforts will be made to identify the most important and urgent materials for digital preservation. One of the challenges for the RPTF will be to develop comparative perspectives within and beyond the U.S. context, which is related to a concern articulated by Hilmes about sound studies publications in the 2000s:

“[I]f our investigations of sound – surely one of the most elusive and boundary-defying media of all – is to be kept strictly within national borders, we will not only miss out on much that might add to our discussion, but we will build on a tendency to think that the specific ways that sound culture developed in the United States are somehow necessary and natural. […] We should be careful not to do with the variables of sound culture what has been done to sound generally in this visual age: create a seemingly transhistorical, transcultural essentialism that is actually predicated closely on an American model.” (( Hilmes, op. cit., 258.))

In these reflections on sound studies, Hilmes draws an analogy with radio. Scholars most familiar with U.S. radio history, Hilmes reminds us, should endeavour to make sense of other cultural impulses and models for the production, distribution and reception of radio. The European traditions of radio art and experimental radio traditions are given as an illustrative case in point for such variables in sound culture, let alone historical developments in radio sound preservation. ((One of the first formal radio archives was established at the Berlin local station in 1930, but archival practices in Germany have been split across local stations and regional/national bodies. While largely centralised activities of the BBC can be observed from the mid 1930s, the privately-funded British Institute of Recorded Sound recorded radio as part of its broad remit from 1955. International collaboration in music and sound archiving was formalised in post-war organisations such as the International Association of Music Libraries, Archives and Documentation Centres (IAML), and the International Association of Sound Archives (IASA).))

As such, Radio Preservation Studies will be required to reflect on the diversity of engagements with radio, but also the ongoing exclusions created within broadcasting and through normative ideas of radio heritage. ((An important concern includes the alternative practices generated by those denied access to broadcast channels. For a recent study which contrasts African American preaching on wax to white religious preachers on US radio: Lerone A. Martin, Preaching on Wax: The Phonograph and the Shaping of Modern African American Religion. New York: NYU Press, 2014.)) Attention may be directed to different types of radio (e.g. community, commercial, state-funded), and alternative models (e.g. pirate radio, closed-circuit radio, peer-to-peer practices). Radio archiving and preservation has also been constituted differently in organizations representing the civic, regional, federal and transnational (e.g. EBU, IBU). In order to fully address past and future preservation issues, this new field will necessarily continue in the interdisciplinary vein of radio studies, and will surely benefit from insights from archive and library studies, public history, heritage studies, museology and curation studies, memory studies, material culture studies, media archaeology, technology history and critical production studies. Without a doubt, Radio Preservation Studies still needs to be fully conceived and articulated. Yet not unlike the enthusiasm for sound studies a decade ago, radio preservation studies is a long overdue and promising new direction.

Image Sources:
1. Recorded Radio Program
2. Celluloid Remix
3. Telex Room
4. Sound Archive

The Informal Economy of the Amateur Archive: Collectors as Cultural Intermediaries
Shawn VanCour / New York University

Vancour QLR Card

QRL Card, Courtesy of Marty Biniasz and Forgotten Buffalo

It’s a Friday morning in October 2014, and I am interviewing Marty Biniasz of Buffalo, New York, on behalf of the Library of Congress’s Radio Preservation Task Force. Marty is a former news anchor, past president of the Buffalo Broadcasters Association, and holds a personal collection of several hundred audiocassettes with over 20,000 hours of airchecks featuring local DJs, news, and public affairs programming from more than a dozen Western New York stations. He and fellow collector Steve Cichon are authoring the first book on the history of Buffalo broadcasting, and together they have helped preserve thousands of films, audio, and pieces of broadcasting ephemera for their local historical group, Forgotten Buffalo. You have likely never heard of either of them.

In current media studies parlance, we might categorize the forms of collection and preservation pursued by these individuals as part of an “informal economy” of archival practice, existing beyond the boundaries of official broadcasting institutions, below the level of chartered libraries and museums, and off the radar of most academic media historians. These bottom-up modes of archivization form the invisible substrate on which much of the history of local broadcasting may be written, impacting what sounds can enter the historical record and what cultural significance is accorded to them: if journalists, as the saying goes, write the first draft of history, the amateur archivist is the first to gather and organize its traces. To facilitate effective dialogue between these often neglected custodians of local broadcasting history and official keepers of national cultural memory, we must recognize the operational logics of the amateur archive, whose informal economy I suggest may be broken down into three smaller, component economies:

1. Moral Economy (Bootlegging as Public Service)

Vancour Radio Shack

Cover of 1968 Radio Shack Catalog

In a recent post on OTR fandom, Nora Patterson notes the instrumental role that bootleggers played in preserving programs not actively archived by commercial networks. The concept of “moral economy” is useful for explaining such activity, adapted from E. P. Thompson’s formulation by scholars of fandom to describe responses to perceived breaches of contract between producers and their audiences. In a 1997 article for the New York Times, critic Allan Kozinn boldly declared “Bootlegging as a Public Service” that righted the wrongs of an entertainment industry whose overzealous antipiracy efforts had also threatened more ephemeral content unavailable through commercial channels:

“From a broader cultural perspective, bootleggers are doing something crucially important . . . . preserving recordings that would not otherwise have been kept, including material taped from radio.”

Fandom is by no means a precondition for bootlegging, nor is amateur archivization necessarily the province of fan studies. Nonetheless, the concept of a moral economy seems in many ways applicable: the bootlegger responds to failures by established institutions (both commercial and cultural) to adequately preserve and value local broadcasting, producing an unofficial, grassroots archive to complement the official one.

Moving this amateur archive into channels of official memory involves not just a physical transport of recorded material but also a negotiation between traditionally opposed structures of cultural valuation. Intended acts of cultural recognition may in this context be easily mistaken for symbolic violence – an attempted cooptation or perversion of alternative knowledges whose legitimation has been repeatedly denied in the past.

2. Fiscal Economy (Gray Markets)

Vancour Cassette Wallet

Rain Blanken, “Make a Cassette Tape Wallet,” DIYFashion.com

Informal economies are never wholly separate from nor resistant to economies of capitalist exchange, occupying the space of so-called “gray markets.” As Clinton Heylin notes in his history of bootlegging, this “secret recording industry” has always been subject to market forces, with bootleggers cultivating markets neglected by official producers, who may in turn claim them for their own once their value has been proven.

While bootlegging is often not for profit, neither does it operate outside the sphere of monetary exchange. If recordings hold the stored labor of the musician, as Jacques Attali claims in his political economy of music, so too do they that of the bootlegger, who may seek appropriate compensation for his time and materials. Ed Brouder’s Man from Mars site, for instance, lets collectors view databases of his own holdings and purchase copies of desired recordings, for which the site explains, “Fees charged are for studio time, tape stock, office supplies, and postage only.” Richard Irwin’s Reel Radio online aircheck archive moved from a free to paid subscription service in 2006 to cover server costs, and by 2010 had nearly doubled its fees to meet increased operating expenses that Irwin attributed to “[listener] attrition, lack of corporate support and ongoing theft and trade of our exhibits.”

Online services are also directly impacted by the formal economies of official copyright regulation; Dale Patterson’s Rock Radio Scrapbook collection announces on its front page that “Rock Radio Scrapbook pays music licensing fees to the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada,” while the growing popularity of Irwin’s site has made it a target of an RIAA crackdown that leaves the legality of many similar services in the U.S. in serious question.

Understanding the forces of capital that shape and limit the amateur archive is a necessary condition for effective dialogue between official and unofficial keepers of cultural memory, while raising concomitant policy issues that directly impact prospects for broader public access to archived materials.

3. Libidinal Economy (From Bootlegger to Ragpicker)

Vancour Ragpicker

Edouard Manet, The Ragpicker (1865-70)

In his book on the late Orson Welles, Joseph McBride cites a 1981 talk in which Welles proclaimed, “I’m an amateur director . . . in the sense that ‘amateur’ derives from love.” This libidinal economy of amateurism, applied to collecting, moves us from the figure of the bootlegger to Walter Benjamin’s ragpicker, who strives to rescue the detritus of mass culture from destruction. In what sense may these salvage missions be characterized as labors of love?

Speaking with collectors, tales abound of last-minute rescues of master tapes discarded or on the brink of destruction by station owners who failed to see their value. As Benjamin says in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” “every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.” The collector here appears as the final bulwark against otherwise inexorable forces of historical destruction and amnesia, the hero in a desperate scene of object-rescue.

In his work on collecting and consumerism, Russell Belk argues that efforts to save the object are often acts of love, but a love of two kinds: agape, that “selfless love” in which the collector gives himself over to the object, and eros, in which the object forms the screen for the collector’s own projections and desires. The amateur archive is suspended between these two loves.

Vancour Babel Vancour Anatomical

Erik Desmaziere, Library of Babel; Anatomical Cabinet of Frederik Ruysch

Agape relinquishes the object in the very act of saving it and may better facilitate its reinscription within a new order of the official archive. However, it may also produce an indiscriminate antiquarianism that levels differences in meaning and complicates prioritization for preservation purposes, making all objects equally important and worthy of saving.

Eros rescues the object from antiquarianism but may also trap it within the collector’s own private echo-chamber, yielding not a Library of Babel so much as a Wunderkammer whose secret code must be broken before its materials can be extracted and made usable for other forms knowledge-production. Eros bears within it the seeds of critical history, in its selective cutting-up and rearrangement of the past, but it may also foster a possessive individualism whose hold cannot be easily broken. We must learn to recognize which is which.

Closing Thoughts: The Noble Amateur?

Vancour Barb Rose

“Boris Rose, King of the Bootleggers”

In analyzing the informal economy of the amateur archive, we should take care not to replicate the myth of what Andrew Keen has called “the noble amateur.” While I do not share Keen’s views about the amateur’s destructive impact on creativity and professionalism, knee-jerk valorizations of bottom-up modes of cultural praxis should indeed be questioned, along with their presumed opposition to forms of top-down institutional power. Amateur archivization includes a broad range of practices (some valorous, others not), while efforts to open exchanges between amateur and official archives are ill-served by placing them in a relationship of a priori opposition.

The category of the “amateur” is itself problematic, blinding us to the expertise of the individuals involved – who often have extensive training as professional sound workers and web workers, may be published authors, and in some cases even hold part-time academic appointments. The “amateur” designation may here prove a problematic othering strategy that absolves us from the difficult work of interrogating the foundations and authorizing forces of “official” histories and archiving institutions. Creating effective dialogue between official and unofficial sites of cultural memory is essential for achieving the RPTF’s long-term goals of preservation and public access, but success in this area requires understanding the component economies of the amateur archive and critical questioning of the institutional forces that for too long have rendered it mute and invisible.

Image Sources:
1. QRL Card
2. Radio Shack Cover
3. Cassette Wallet
4. Ragpicker
5. Library of Babel
6. Anatomical Cabinet
7. Boris Rose

“Selling” America to Americans: New Deal Radio and Media Education 
 Joy Hayes / University of Iowa 

Hayes SSD

1939 Social Security Board poster promoting the new family provisions of the Social Security Act. Pleasantdale Folks, a radio serial produced the same year by the Social Security Board, U.S. Office of Education and NBC, also aimed to sell social security to the American people.

Radio history offers fertile ground to explore the roots of contemporary media forms and formats, as well as perennial problems faced by mediated communication. These problems include questions of authenticity and verifiability, the dialectic of isolation and connectivity, and the issue of media education. The role of media as means of education remains a pressing question in the face of global health emergencies, large-scale disasters, and geo-political conflict. Civic groups, NGOs, governments and corporations continue to use both traditional and Internet-based media to communicate educational and pro-social messages to large and small communities alike. Just as important, however, is the role that media play in everyday learning via cultural production, consumption and socialization. What does it mean, then, to educate through media? Is it a process of propaganda, modeling, selling, or informing? How do these practices work together?

This column offers a brief exploration of these questions by examining the educational broadcasting experiment undertaken in the 1930s through the institutional framework of the Federal Radio Education Committee (FREC). ((The FCC created the FREC in 1934 with the aim of promoting educational broadcasting locally, regionally, and nationally. See Shepperd (2013) for a detailed discussion of the FREC. )) Using the mandate of the FREC, New Deal government agencies – particularly the U.S. Office of Education and Federal Theater Project Radio Divisions – worked closely with commercial networks to develop educational programs for national distribution. After Roosevelt’s landslide reelection in 1936, “federal agencies flowered into [radio] programming centers,” and, by the end of the decade, over 40 government agencies and divisions were writing and producing radio broadcasts. The Office of Education received an estimated $2.8 million worth of network airtime for 12 radio series, and the Federal Theatre Project was given $5 million worth of network radio time for 59 series. ((Smith Sayre, J. (1941). An Analysis of the Radiobroadcasting Activities of Federal Agencies. Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard. pp 22, 25))

Government officials involved in the New Deal broadcasting project argued that radio should be developed into a medium of “democratic propaganda” that “can spread the ideas and ideals of America, can ‘sell’ America to Americans…” (( Anning S. Prawl quoted in Spring, J. H. (1992). Images of American life: A history of ideological management in schools, movies, radio, and television. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, p105)) In the spirit of advertising associated with commercial broadcasting, another official stated, “I believe you can sell government the way you sell soap.” (( Evan Roberts quoted in Smith Sayre, 1941, p113)) While deep tensions existed around the concept of propaganda in the interwar period, the idea of persuasive communication in the service of selling was deeply ingrained in American culture. Advertising and publicity gained a foothold in everyday life in the 1920s and 1930s with the growth of chain stores, corporate-controlled media, and broadcast advertising. Rather than seeing a contradiction between propaganda, education and advertising, these New Deal officials identified a kinship between them.

Working primarily with commercial networks and stations, New Deal radio divisions developed programs that would fit audience (and producer) expectations of what a “commercial” program was. They adopted commercial genres including variety shows, detective stories, audience participation shows, and the historical pageant or “cavalcade” program popularized by DuPont’s Cavalcade of America (1935-1953). Cavalcade shows, which offered a procession of historical, scientific or cultural achievements, included The Epic of America, American Immortals, History in Action, Women in the Making of America, Gallant American Women, Americans All-Immigrants All, Brave New World, and Freedom’s People. Freedom’s People, in particular, developed an innovative and gripping sound montage to present an historical revision and celebration of African American life. ((See Shepperd, J. (2013). Electric Education: How the Media Reform Movement Built Public Broadcasting in the United States, 1934-1952. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Wisconsin, Madison. for a detailed discussion of Freedom’s People.))

Hayes Wings

Entertainment-Education: Wings for the Martins

The New Deal radio divisions also produced shows in the “family drama” genre that rose in popularity in the late 1930s and 1940s with commercial programs such as One Man’s Family (1932-1959) and The Aldrich Family (1939-1953). This genre, which focused on non-ethnic, white, middle-class domestic life as a bulwark against social insecurity, provided a forum for popularizing New Deal social programs. (( Hayes, J.E. (2012). White Noise: Performing the White, Middle-Class Family on 1930s Radio. Cinema Journal, 51, 97-118.)) Two of the most widely distributed family drama programs were Wings for the Martins (1938-1939), produced by the Office of Education, National Congress of Parents and Teachers, and NBC for broadcast on the NBC Blue network, and Pleasantdale Folks (1939-1940), a transcription program created by the Social Security Board, Office of Education and NBC for distribution to NBC affiliates and other stations.

A look at these programs reveals an approach to educational broadcasting that resembles the philosophy of contemporary Entertainment-Education (E-E). Theorists and practitioners of E-E argue that the distinction between media entertainment and education is a needless dichotomy: what works to sell commercial goods can also sell pro-social messages. The practice of E-E is fundamentally based on the concept of modeling – the idea that mass media “educate” people to the extent that they provide powerful models for behavior and attitude formation. ((Singhal, A. (1999). Entertainment-Education: A community strategy for social change. London: L. Erlbaum Associates.)) For example, the first episode of Pleasantdale Folks invited the listener to, “Meet the Johnson Family of Pleasantdale: a typical American family in a typical American town. They should be as familiar to you as people in your own home…” ((Pleasantdale Folks (1939). Recordings. Records of The Federal Public Housing Authority 196.4 (Social Security Board, U.S. (FSA) 196-29.) Motion Picture, Sound and Video Branch. National Archives and Records Administration. College Park, MD.)) Listeners were invited to see themselves in the Johnson Family and learn about Social Security programs that could alleviate their hardships.

Wings for the Martins similarly asked listeners to recognize themselves in the Martin Family as it explored everyday problems of raising and educating children. Each program began with the announcement: “Wings for the Martins! A program for all of us who stand by while the younger generation tries its wings!” As the Martin family worked to adapt to changing educational practices, it drew on parent-teacher organizations and local community resources. In one episode, Arnold Martin learned about the new, more practical concept of “homework” that was replacing the old practice of “night work”. Instead of being a vehicle for promoting Jello Pudding or Palmolive Soap, the comical situations encountered by the family promoted new educational practices and a New Deal focus on community awareness and involvement.

Because they worked closely with commercial stations and producers, New Deal government radio divisions patterned their shows on successful commercial genres. Although New Deal radio programs informed listeners and offered them resources for further learning, they did not encourage the audience to examine or evaluate government policies. Instead, educational programs followed the commercial model: they sold New Deal social and cultural policies the way commercial programs sold soap.

Image Sources:
1. Social Security Poster
2. Wings for the Martins Poster, courtesy of the author.

A Sound History of Gender and Radio in South America 
 Christine Ehrick / University of Louisville 

Ehrick Gendered Soundspace
“Woman and microphone are incompatible,” concluded an unsigned column in a March 1934 issue of the Argentine radio fan magazine Sintonía. ((“Sintonizando.” Sintonía No. 57, 26 May 1934.)) Yet in October 1935, across the river in Montevideo, Uruguay, CX48 Radio Femenina became the first all-woman format radio station in the Western Hemisphere, eventually providing airtime to feminists, anti-war activists and even physical fitness advocates, before the station was blacklisted and temporarily shut down in 1944 due to the pro-Axis proclivities of one of its owners. At that point, back in Buenos Aires, a young radio actress named Eva Duarte was hosting Towards a Better Future, a radio program in support of a military junta that had assumed power in Argentina the previous year and which would elevate a young Colonel named Juan Perón – future President of Argentina and Duarte’s future husband – to national prominence. These and other vignettes speak to the important place of women’s radio voices in two of South America’s most important early radio markets and call our attention to the links between radio history, women’s history, and sound studies in Latin America and beyond. In my forthcoming book, Radio and the Gendered Soundscape: Women and Broadcasting in Argentina and Uruguay, 1930-1950, which will be published later this year by Cambridge University Press, I begin by asking what it meant to hear women’s voices on the radio during the medium’s so-called golden age. Perceived alternately as vulgar and seductive, shrill and soothing, women’s radio voices echoed and delineated the contradictory place of the feminine in modernity and of female bodies in the public sphere, all of which in turn underscore the gendered points of intersection between sound history and cultural history.

Ehrick Mundo Uruguyayo
Women have been integral to the story of radio in South America

Starting in the late 1960s, Murray Shafer laid the foundations for what would become the interdisciplinary field of Sound Studies with his concept of the soundscape, which he coined as a way to describe the “acoustic environment” of contemporary societies. ((R. Murray Schafer, The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World. Rochester, VT: Destiny Books, 1993, 7.)) Sound Studies has subsequently opened up an entirely new paradigm for understanding the role of the sonic in the forging of modernity. Jonathan Sterne has called on scholars to “think sonically” and to use sound to “ask big questions about their cultural moments and the crises and problems of their time.” ((Jonathan Sterne ed., The Sound Studies Reader. London: Routledge, 2012, 3. )) Scholars are increasingly using sound as a category of historical analysis, exploring how sound of term paper and the perception of sound have varied over time and place, as well as how one might “hear” social, cultural, and political change over time. ((Some recent and forthcoming sound studies-inspired historical studies include: Aimee Boutin, City of Noise: Sound and Nineteenth-Century Paris. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, forthcoming 2015; Edwin C. Hill, Black Soundscapes White Stages: The Meaning of Francophone Sound in the Black Atlantic. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013; Ana María Ochoa Gautier, Aurality: Listening and Knowledge in Nineteenth-Century Colombia. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014; and Isaac Weiner, Religion Out Loud: Religious Sound, Public Space, and American Pluralism. New York: New York University Press, 2013.)) Yet relatively little consideration has been given to the ways that sound might reflect and construct gender (and vice versa). Building upon groundbreaking historical work on women and radio by scholars like Michele Hilmes and Kate Lacey, I employ the concept of the gendered soundscape to advance a dialogue between sound history and gender history. ((Michele Hilmes, Radio Voices: American Broadcasting, 1922-1952. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997; Kate Lacey, Feminine Frequencies: Gender, German Radio and the Public Sphere, 1923-1945. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996.)) Helmi Järviluoma et al introduce the term, asking readers to contemplate the way gender – and gendered hierarchies – may be projected and/or heard in sound environments. We not only “learn gender through the total sensorium,” as they put it; gender is also represented, contested, and produced through the aural. ((Helmi Järviluoma, Pirkko Moisala and Anni Vilkko. Gender and Qualitative Methods. London: Sage, 2003, 85.)) Thinking historically about gendered soundscapes can help us conceptualize sound as a space where categories of “male” and “female” are constituted, and by extension the ways that power, inequality and agency might be expressed in the sonic realm.

One of the most immediately gendered sound categories is the human voice, a richly historical convergence of biology, technology and culture. Voice differences have roots in biological sex difference, but gendered constructions of the human voice vary widely over time and place. While by no means absent in the traditional gendered soundscape, women’s voices have been muted and private, and the near absence of female voices in the public realm is one of the primary ways in which the gendered soundscape has manifested and reproduced itself over the centuries. The advent of radio opened a new chapter in this ancient struggle of women to speak and be heard. Depending on content and context, these voices carried the potential to not only challenge taboos on women’s oratory, but to assert the female bodies into spaces and spheres from which they previously had been excluded. ((See Nirmal Puwar, Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies out of Place. London: Berg, 2004.)) By tuning into the gendered soundscape we come to understand radio as a key arena for the reinforcement and contestation of gender, as well as the often contradictory ways that the perceived dissonance of the female radio voice was employed to compel (and sometimes incite) listening audiences.

Ehrick Silvia Guerrico
Argentinian radio star Silvia Guerrico
Radio and the Gendered Soundscape integrates these theoretical considerations with the stories of five women and one radio station in the overlapping radio markets of Buenos Aires, Argentina and Montevideo, Uruguay. The two cities are focal points of a regional study of radio in what I refer to as the rioplatense cultural zone. Movement of people, ideas, and radio signals between the two cities was fluid and frequent. Uruguayan Silvia Guerrico was a journalist and author of moderate acclaim in her hometown of Montevideo before relocating to Buenos Aires, where she created a pioneering radio variety program in the 1930s. Residents of one city could quite easily hear radio broadcasts emanating from the other, and “foreign” broadcasts could and did become a matter of diplomatic conflict between neighbors. In the late 1940s, for example, the voices of exiles from Peronist Argentina – including popular female comedian Niní Marshall – sometimes reached back into their country via Montevidean frequencies. This book will leave the reader with a greater appreciation for the place of both women’s voices and Latin American broadcasting in the history of radio, as well as for the sonic dimensions of gender and the gendered dimensions of sound.

Image Credits:
1. Radio and Gendered Soundspace
2. Women in Radio in South America; Image from Uruguayan magazine Mundo Uruguayo, 19 December 1935. Courtesy of the author.
3. Silvia Guerrico

New England Latinidades through Spanish-Language Radio: The Case of WFCR’s Tertulia 
 Mari Castañeda / University of Massachusetts, Amherst 

Castandeda NEPR

When people reflect upon the history of western New England, rarely do Latinos enter into the popular imaginary as a population that was central to the region’s growth in the post-World War II era. Yet in fact, there is a long history of Latinos in western Massachusetts, particularly Puerto Ricans, who labored in the tobacco and agricultural fields, factories, and service sector. People from the island began migrating to the region after Operation Bootstrap (Operación Manos a la Obra) failed to produce sustainable economic development on the island in 1950s. In many cases, families settled in the Northeast, and rarely to return to Puerto Rico on a permanent basis.

From 1950s to 1980s, the Connecticut River Valley, especially western Massachusetts, experienced a great migration of Puerto Ricans. In the region, Holyoke, MA became a central site of relocation and currently boasts the largest concentration of Puerto Ricans outside the island. Carmen Whalen notes that the vast migration of Puerto Rican farmworkers was the result of increasing agricultural labor needs particularly those in the “Tobacco Valley” of western New England, an area thirty miles wide and ninety miles long near the Connecticut River.

Castaneda Luis Melendez

Tertulia DJ Luis Alfonso Melendez


Over the years, the challenges and opportunities many of these Puerto Rican families faced in the dominantly non-Latino white spaces of New England as well as the need to create a far-reaching Boricua cultural space became a primary impetus for the creation of “Tertulia,” a Spanish-language radio program aired on Sunday nights on New England Public Radio, WFCR 88.5FM. It is currently the longest running Spanish-language radio program in the region’s public radio landscape, having begun in early 1980s with various iterations in the 1970s. The initial creator of the program, Luis Alfonso Meléndez, noted in an interview I conducted with him in 2004, “nobody in any of the local stations were talking about what was happening with Puertoriqueños in the region, so this program became a lifeline for many people in the community not only because Spanish-language music was being played – at the time, there weren’t many if any commercial stations oriented towards Latinos – but we also discussed real issues that affected Latinos locally, regionally, nationally and transnationally.”

The program was called Tertulia as a homage and connection to the tradition in Latin America and the Caribbean where tertulias are spaces of dialogue, debate, and expressive artistic interaction about culture and current affairs. Similarly, as noted on the website, Tertulia on WFCR “es el espacio donde el diálogo se desarrolla entre hispanos y todos aquellos que están interesados en la cultura latino americana, en la música, el arte,el lenguaje y los asuntos de actualidad para los latinos en Nueva Inglaterra” (Tertulia on WFCR is a space where dialogue develops between Latinos and all those who are interested in Latin American culture, music, art, language and current issues for Latinos in New England). WFCR’s Tertulia has a long history of operating as a very important resource for the communities of western New England, particularly for the ways it has brought the Latino voice and perspective to a wider audience through the airwaves.

castaneda Radio Vieques

Vieques Community Radio FM

Thus, the sound history of Tertulia in fact reflects, embodies, and links the cultural history of Puerto Ricans to other Latinos in Massachusetts, particularly with the ways in which Latino communities are transnational diasporic groups that are impacted by the political, economic and social changes that have affected the New England region and home countries abroad. For instance, one of the major issues that Tertulia covered between 1999-2003 was the occupation of Vieques, the tiny sister island off the main island of Puerto Rico. The U.S. military had used Vieques as a bombing site for over sixty years, and Viequense residents partnered with Puerto Rican activists, some from western Massachusetts, to mobilize against the military occupation and force the U.S. government to shut down the weaponry facilities. The six decades of constant arsenal attacks on Vieques created for the residents a slew of health problems and an abusive relationship with military personnel. Luis Alonso Meléndez’s coverage of the issue on Tertulia and active involvement in “Fuera la Marina de Vieques / Navy Leave Vieques” generated vast awareness in New England and beyond, especially because he would also visit Vieques and bring back interviews with people on the island that he would then rebroadcast. The Viequense plight reached global proportions and the military’s program on Vieques was successfully shut down in 2003 after massive protests on the island. After twenty years of programming Tertulia on WFCR 88.5FM, Luis left western Massachusetts and relocated to Puerto Rico. He has since joined forces with other activists from The Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques (CRDV), to create the first low-power radio station on the island. The LPFM station is called Vieques Community Radio FM (RCV/91.FM) and is known as providing programming that represents “La Voz del Este” (the Voice of East Puerto Rico). The transnational sound connection between western Massachusetts and eastern Puerto Rico is not simply embodied by the materiality of the radio waves, but more importantly, the lived experiences and relationships between the people laboring to create audio visibility in both regions and beyond.

As the demographics of the Connective River Valley region has changed, so has the emphasis of Tertulia, which has broadened to include discussions and dialogues regarding the multiplicity of New England Latinidades. The current radio producer of Tertulia, Raquel Obregón, has made a concerted effort to open the airwaves to local activists, scholars and community leaders that represent pan-Latino perspectives. Although Tertulia has a long history of bringing such folks to the radio station, it has become more imperative than ever to address the slew of issues impacting local Latina/o communities such as the state take-over of Latina/o-populated K-12 schools, the gentrification of urban Latino spaces, and the rising police violence against Latina/o im/migrants. In the late-2000s there was an attempt by New England Public Radio to discontinue the programming of Tertulia, but community members from across the region and as far away as Puerto Rico and Mexico mobilized to prevent the elimination of the only Spanish-language radio program on regional public radio that had become such a central outlet for discussing critical Latina/o issues. The NEPR management listened and in fact recommitted itself to supporting Tertulia.

One of the major challenges regarding the past and future of Tertulia is the ability to document and preserve its broadcast content. In many cases, non-profit, community-based Spanish-language radio programming lack of resources to ensure that future generations can refer to this sound history and its role in the making of local and regional communities. In the meantime, at least documenting in written form the ways in which sound history is also important for making visible the cultural history of Latinos is a step in the right direction towards making permanent the importance of such histories that are often ignored yet significant to U.S. culture.

Image Credits:
1. New England Public Radio
2. Luis Meléndez
3. Radio Vieques

Primary Sources, Primary Sounds: The Radio Preservation Task Force of the Library of Congress 
 Josh Shepperd / Catholic University 

Shepperd RPTS icon
Sound history is cultural history. And a giant part of our history has yet to be preserved, researched, or taught in our classrooms. Our omissions are disproportionately distributed among the local and the liminal, the pastoral and the public, and marginalized and minority experiences. Sound trails continue where paper trails end, and we have an opportunity to provide new insight into the cultural history of the U.S. thanks to recent innovations in sound preservation technology. The Radio Preservation Task Force (RPTF) of the National Recording Preservation Board (NRPB) of the Library of Congress (LOC) is a growing 125-faculty member and 275-archive Digital Humanities initiative working to broaden the historical record by unearthing, mapping, and making available materials that that chronicle experiences neglected in existing historical accounts, such as minority, political, orientation, social advocacy, and educational groups. Perspectives and events that have remained unaddressed by the primary document record will receive new recognition by focusing preservation on the conversational and community building character of noncommercial and local radio history.

Shepperd LOC Reading Room
The Jefferson Reading Room at the Library of Congress

A historical marvel of nation-building, serialization, and aesthetic innovation, radio has also been utilized for multiple purposes beyond entertainment: from education, to a technology of opinion-formation, to a medium for political problem-solving. Much of the early history of the ether consists of distance learning broadcasts, public forums, and civic debates, and in addition to local theatrical and drive time programming the task force is concerned with making these important historical records accessible for the first time. To frame the project in historiographical terms, the RPTF is approaching radio history as a study of what the Birmingham school might call the genealogy of how strategies for circulation of discursive codes, as representations, became central to an expanded concept of the public sphere that included popular culture. If we accept the historiographical argument that content representations are also implementations of discursive, political, and industrial strategies, then radio might be viewed as a medium in which institutional and intellectual projects endeavored to communicate with and persuade community members about a specific perspective or initiative. In this way, radio history has the capacity to reveal the development and dissemination of cultural aspirations and viewpoints, and its consequent archive can be understood as a series of concurrent media advocacies that sought to define conditions of social attunement.

Beginning with these guiding historiographical tenets, many dominant debates that we associate with the academic study of media theory, audiences, and media industries suddenly propel radio into a central position of interest. For example Paul Lazarsfeld and Theodor Adorno’s argument over how quantitative survey research of educational broadcasting might promote progressive goals is an ongoing debate between qualitative humanists and social scientists. Wilbur Schramm’s post-war construction of communication departments provided a stable home for educational broadcasting, early public policy analysis, and anti-fascist projects UNESCO and Voice of America. CBS president and Lazarsfeld protégé Frank Stanton built a huge production culture of writers, producers, and developers who defined radio as a civic medium for commercial practice. And in many ways, this paradoxical concept, commercialism as civic practice, is for better or worse the major successful media advocacy of the 20th century. Our memory of media history sometimes seems entirely inseparable from this logic of consumerism, to the extent that the discipline is overwhelmingly focused on affirmative or resistant reactions to what amounts to a very small sampling of the experience of media, as it has been facilitated by national and transnational entertainment.

Shepperd Herb Kent
Soul Music/Civil Rights Legend DJ Herb Kent at WVON-Chicago
Preservation activities are beginning to show us that a paradigm shift might be necessary within the discipline, one focused on a dramatically expanded notion of what media has meant, and how it has mattered. The expansion and new availability of primary sources will provide content for graduate researchers to write about previously hidden origin stories, genealogies, and struggles for diversity. It’s past due that a media advocacy take place within the discipline itself to promote new visibility for historically subaltern groups omitted or maligned by commercial mass media representations; an advocacy that would seek to reinterpret “media” history not only as the legacy of a robust and impressive entertainment-based infrastructure, but as an exegesis of how communications technology has been functionalized as a tool of discursive blocs. If radio is approached as a history of, for example, how civil rights groups have utilized communications for non-theatrical message circulation, we might re-orient our relationship to “old media” as a study of the sound of mediated social centers, as an apparatus whose practitioners sought not just a “target” audience, but purposive listeners.

The perceived historical record is primed to grow significantly over the next several years thanks to our mandate from the National Recording Preservation Board, NRPB Chair Sam Brylawski, and our large consortium of media researchers headed by Project Director and eminent historian Christopher Sterling. Digitization, education, and distribution initiatives will increase archival representation and access, and in truth we still don’t know what or how much we’ll turn up. But we do know that as the golden age of library science continues to streamline methods of preservation, that (without exaggeration) tens of thousands of historical statements will be introduced into circulation over the next 3-5 years.

As I write, the RPTF ((RPTF logo designed by artist Daniel Murphy (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee))) is conducting a second round of aggregation of participating archives. Our current participant consortium is impressive – besides the Library of Congress we will be working with the National Archives of the U.S. and Canada, Our Coordinating Archive – The Library of American Broadcasting, The Paley Center, Peabody Awards, Stanford Archives of Recording Sound, Syracuse Belfer Audio Archive, Newseum, and the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, among many, many others. ((http://www.loc.gov/programs/national-recording-preservation-plan/about-this-program/radio-preservation-task-force/affiliate-archives/)) But we believe that many of our most important finds will turn up in personal collections, radio station attics, library basements, and historical societies. Over the next 3-6 months the RPTF will be working to locate and nearly double archive participation to include these equally important repositories, culminating in a conference to discuss preliminary findings at the Library of Congress.

Shepperd RPTF LOC 2
Radio Preservation Task Force
Besides archive aggregation, over the next 16 to 24 months the task force will commence multiple projects. Our first mandate is to develop a metadata interface so that educators, radio enthusiasts, and researchers might locate content specific recordings. Building from these forthcoming analytics, we plan to promote the preservation of radio’s cultural history through two major initiatives. The first will be to construct a letterhead board of curators, federal and state archives, and media historians to identify and pre-designate archival locations to receive endangered collections before they are discarded or incinerated. Our second major initiative is to promote digitization and access through the creation of content-based research caucuses comprised of archives and research specialists. Our caucuses will work together to identify the most significant newly unearthed recordings, and apply for preservation and digitization grants. As the task force works to address historical gaps and secure safe sites for historical materials, our caucuses will commence a national educational initiative with multiple digital projects, including the American Archives of Public Broadcasting, to provide content analyses, syllabi, and curated exhibits for newly circulating recordings. Looking ahead – 24 months and beyond – the RPTF hopes to work with copyright organizations to make selected sound digitizations available for educational fair use.

Image Credits:
1. RPTF Logo, courtesy of the author; designed by artist Daniel Murphy (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee).
2. LOC Reading Room
3. DJ Herb Kent
4. RPTF Icon