Radio Preservation Task Force – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Conference Announcement: Saving America’s Radio Heritage at the Library of Congress Tue, 08 Sep 2015 15:18:43 +0000


Post by Michele Hilmes, Professor Emerita at University of Wisconsin-Madison

The Radio Preservation Task Force (RPTF), a unit of the Library of Congress’s National Recording Preservation Board, will hold its first national conference February 25-27, 2016, in Washington, D.C.

Keynote speakers will include Professor Paddy Scannell of the University of Michigan, a noted radio scholar and historian, and Sam Brylawski, former Head of the LOC’s Recorded Sound Division and a digital recording pioneer.

In 2014, the National Recording Preservation Board recognized the need to address the perilous state of the nation’s radio heritage, which has not received the archival and critical attention of other U.S. media. Over the last two years, the RPTF has coordinated a nation-wide effort to identify major collections of radio recordings and other materials that will help to raise cultural awareness of America’s rich tradition of radio-based soundwork and make it accessible to future generations.

A year and a half later, we have built an organization consisting of more than 130 media studies scholars actively engaged in researching radio’s past and identifying key archival sources; over 350 affiliate archives, collections, and radio producing organizations across the US and Canada; and a growing number of online partners who aid in critical discussion and dissemination of our efforts.

The most recent additions to our group of affiliated organizations include NPR, the Pacifica Radio Archives, the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, the Association for Cultural Equity/Alan Lomax Archive, the Paley Center for Media, the Prometheus Radio Project, the Media Ecology Project, the Studs Terkel Archive, and the Third Coast International Audio Festival.

The Library of Congress Packard Campus of the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center located in Culpeper, VA.

Our first national conference, Saving America’s Radio Heritage, will bring these groups together, along with members of the broader academic, archival, media, and general public, to discuss what we have accomplished and plan for future activities. Over three days in February, we will tour the LOC’s Packard Center, meet for a day of panels focused on radio’s history and cultural significance at the LOC’s Madison Building, then move to the University of Maryland’s Center for Mass Media and Culture (formerly the Library of American Broadcasting) for a second day of workshops and caucuses focused on issues of outreach, growth, and education.

RPTF Logo 2

The Radio Preservation Task Force curates a regular series for Antenna about radio history and archival issues, which can be accessed here. More information about the RPTF can be found at the organization’s new website. Stay tuned for further news and discussion of the conference and the RPTF’s activities. For additional information about the task force, please contact: radiotaskforce <at> Questions about strategic planning and partnerships can be directed to the RPTF’s National Research Director, Josh Shepperd (Catholic University): shepperd <at>


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“Something Into Nothing”: On the Materiality of the Broadcast Archive Mon, 27 Jul 2015 20:50:29 +0000 2Post by Laura LaPlaca, Northwestern University

eBay launched when I was seven years old and I bid on a beat-up old pair of Milton Berle’s shoes. I watched episodes of The Texaco Star Theatre over and over again with the shoes perched next to me on the couch. I thought it was incredible that they could be on the television screen and in my living room at the same time – like I had the power to pluck enchanted objects out of fairy tales and keep them for my own.

By the time I graduated from high school, I had just under 3,800 pieces of broadcast memorabilia. As I accumulated each one, I polished it, and labeled it, and learned its story. The history of broadcasting, as I knew it, grew wider and deeper along with the piles on my bedroom floor.

The material relationship I developed with broadcast history as a collector and, eventually, as a media archivist in more formal settings, leads me to balk a little bit when I hear the radio and television archive referred to as “ephemeral.” There are certainly undeniable benefits to emphasizing ephemerality, not least of which is the perpetuation of a sense of urgency; it is imperative that we maintain a high level of alertness as we devise and implement strategies for preventing losses of content. But we tend to emphasize ephemerality to such a degree that we do not discuss the broadcast archive’s extraordinarily expansive physicality at all. Its size and weight, as well as the infrastructures – both physical and intellectual – that support it, too often go unremarked upon. We should recognize that deflecting our attention away from the corporeal mass of the broadcast archive can undermine institutions that need our continual support. I return often to one of archivist Rick Prelinger’s Tweets: “The ‘archive’ is overtheorized; ‘archives’ (where the labor of record keeping takes place) are undertheorized and underfunded. #archives.”


What’s more, fixation on that which is ephemeral – or missing from the archive – dampens the spirit of discovery that so powerfully impels us toward knowledge. An overwhelming majority of the time, researchers walk into archives seeking to corroborate a preexisting thesis. And an overwhelming majority of the time, they walk out of archives feeling as though they did not find “enough.” For them, the archive is lacking – what they need has not been saved. As an archivist, I often find myself imploring researchers to shift their attitude at this moment of resignation, to move past bemoaning the lack and move toward celebrating that which has survived. This is usually the point at which new and different kinds of histories present themselves.

Whenever possible, we should strive to walk into archives with a spark of that collector’s greed that is such a terrific incitement to curiosity. We should let an acquisitive impulse – an open desire to know as much as possible – drive us, so that the archive can inspire, rather than merely support, our work. The process of grabbing on to something material, celebrating its miraculous survival, and then compelling it to dictate its own story is powerful. And when we let the objects come first, the problem is no longer that the archive is found lacking, but that we will never be able to discover everything that the archive has to offer. While this shift in attitude doesn’t change the hard facts of destruction and deterioration (which again, we need to continue to stay apprised of), it does facilitate the circulation of otherwise untold stories and, in this way, works as something of a preservationist tactic in and of itself. Indeed, many objects in archives are not constitutively “ephemeral” at all, but have nevertheless been obscured or erased by our sheer inattention.

Eugenia Farrar

Eugenia Farrar

The following is one of my favorite examples of what can happen when an ignored artifact asserts its materiality and cries out to be interrogated. This is the story (in brief) of radio pioneer Eugenia Farrar – the first person to sing over radio waves – and her century-long post-mortem fight against ephemerality.

In the fall of 1907, Farrar visited the Manhattan studio of Lee de Forest, an early radio inventor, to aid in the test of an experimental transmitter. Since de Forest had not yet invented a radio receiver, there would be no way of knowing if the transmission had been successful – and absolutely no record of Farrar’s song. Somewhat sardonically, Farrar approached the curious machine and said, “Here goes something into nothing!”

As she began to sing a rendition of “I Love You Truly,” a popular song of the day, a civil engineer tinkering with the USS Dolphin’s new radiotelephone at the Brooklyn Navy Yard clutched his earpiece and trembled, listening in rapture to what he could only assume was the voice of an angel. The engineer, 19-year-old Oliver Wyckoff, called the papers to report that he had experienced divine communication. The editor on duty dismissed the call as a prank, but – just in case it were true – buried the story on the seventh page of the next morning’s paper.

Lee de Forest

Lee de Forest

The Farrar story became the stuff of legend: no one could verify Wyckoff’s testimony, de Forest was notoriously fond of claiming credit for dubious innovations, and the broadcast itself had disappeared “into the ether” without a trace. De Forest and Farrar attempted to promote their achievement throughout the early 20th century, but their story faded and was almost entirely forgotten.

In 1966, six decades after having heard the “angel’s” voice, Oliver Wyckoff received a cardboard box containing Farrar’s cremated remains. He left the box unopened on a shelf in his office for years. The extended Wyckoff family inherited the remains, which they respectfully referred to as “The Madame,” and shuffled the box between their closets and garages until 2007. By this point, exactly one hundred years after the historic broadcast, the box itself was on the verge of complete disintegration.

Farrar’s remains were acquisitioned by the Brooklyn Navy Yard Archives and sound artists Melissa Dubbin and Aaron Davidson were commissioned to design an urn to properly contain them. Dubbin and Davidson used phonograph cutting techniques to carve a mid-20th century recording of “I Love You Truly” into a ceramic urn like the grooves on a wax cylinder. Farrar’s post-mortem journey ended with her ashen physical remains protected by the materialized solid form of her voice. The “angel” was interred during a ceremony at the historic Green-Wood Cemetery in 2010.

Perhaps there is no event as “ephemeral” as this forgotten broadcast of “something into nothing,” and no artifact more precarious than an “angel’s” displaced ashes.

Yet the stark materiality of Farrar’s remains, the way that they literally escaped their container and demanded to be attended to, preserved this important story about early radio innovation. Confronted with a tangible object, Dubbin and Davidson, as well as a small cohort of researchers, were incited to reconstruct the long-forgotten events of the fall of 1907, which were widely circulated by the media over a century later alongside coverage of Farrar’s interment ceremony.

I had the rare privilege of hearing the “angel’s voice,” quite on accident, when I was on fellowship at the Library of Congress. I was archiving a collection related to the radio talent program Major Bowes’ Original Amateur Hour – the earliest example of a phone-in voting contest, in the mode of American Idol. I was thrilled when I heard early performances by Frank Sinatra (his voice cracked fantastically), Paul Winchell, and Connie Francis. But I was absolutely stunned to find myself holding the small square form of Eugenia Farrar’s intricately embossed calling card, addressed to Major Bowes himself, requesting a spot on his show. A note from Lee de Forest followed, with a tiny golden radio tower emblazoned on it. I located the tape of the broadcast and listened as Farrar sang “I Love You Truly” in her lilting, distant voice and explained to the audience that, since only one man had heard it the first time around, she was glad to reprise her song “so that it might not be forgotten.”

Although I never saw the urn, Farrar’s words about the persistence of memory conjured the image of her song etched in ceramic, buried beneath the earth, and turned into a material thing. For me, the urn stands in for a whole class of artifacts that are both beautiful and haunting for the very fact of their durability.


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Audiovisual Archives and the Context Conundrum Mon, 13 Jul 2015 13:00:56 +0000 Distribution brochures for instructional radio series, from the paper archives of the National Association of Educational Broadcasters (NAEB) at University of Maryland

Distribution brochures for instructional radio series, from the paper archives of the National Association of Educational Broadcasters (NAEB) at University of Maryland

Post by Stephanie Sapienza, Project Manager at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH)

Historical collections of audiovisual material are housed at repositories of an extraordinarily varied nature: within museums, libraries, historical societies, private collections; within media production units; and within traditional archives (only a small percentage of which are specifically dedicated to audiovisual collections). Archival paper collections are certainly more ubiquitous across all these institutions and more, representing the vast majority of the overall archival record.

As someone who has utilized, studied, worked in, and then managed projects related to audiovisual archives, there’s a trend I’ve been tracking for some time which continues to vex me. This trend relates to a very common scenario – split collections of media and related paper/textual collections – which are accepted into archival repositories and then, for lack of a better analogy, “separated at birth.” The collections are accessioned, and then broken apart and processed using very different and separate techniques, guidelines, and description schemas. Quite often, the two collections never get near each other again – physically or ontologically.

I will try to succinctly break down how this phenomenon occurs. Archival institutions often utilize a traditional description approach for paper-based materials such as transcripts, production and field recording notes, press kits, photos, correspondence, provenance and copyright materials. This usually results in an online finding aid. Conversely, institutions with significant audiovisual holdings traditionally favor an item-level approach, often with the aim of preparing for a preservation effort which requires metadata on item condition, formats, etc. Often the “split but related mixed media collections” scenario occurs within an institution that holds both paper and media materials, yet processes them differently and in different departments. Other times, as with the case study I’d like to discuss, the paper and media collections are also geographically separated.

Paper archives of the NAEB Collection

Paper archives of the NAEB Collection

The National Association of Educational Broadcasters (NAEB) historic radio collection spans the breadth of twentieth century mass media. Throughout its 60 years of existence, the NAEB ushered in or helped to enable major changes in early educational broadcasting policy. The NAEB audio collection, now fully digitized through a collaboration with the American Archive of Public Broadcasting, is held at the University of Maryland Libraries and represents the archives of the radio programming service of the organization, known as the National Educational Radio Network (NERN). The paper materials, comprising correspondence, reports, clippings, speeches and more, remain at the Wisconsin Historical Society. The finding aid for the NAEB paper collection alone reveals that it contains a depth of contextual information relevant to the study of the tape collection. Digitized paper materials would reveal even more.

For example, The Jeffersonian Heritage, a 1952 series of 13 half-hour radio programs, was recorded by the National Association of Educational Broadcasters and syndicated for commercial-free broadcast. Funded by a Ford Foundation grant, The Jeffersonian Heritage starred English-born actor Claude Rains, made famous by appearances in The Invisible ManMr. Smith Goes to WashingtonCasablanca, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious. An attempt to create radio that could be both “educational and appealing,” The Jeffersonian Heritage began its first series by educating the public about Thomas Jefferson’s attempt to have an anti-slavery clause written into the U.S. Constitution. With subsequent episodes attempting to tie themes from Jefferson’s personal and political history to contemporary events, The Jeffersonian Heritage provides a rich vein of material for explorations of how mid-twentieth century Americans engaged in remembrances of an agrarian past. How was Thomas Jefferson presented through the lens of anxieties about America’s place within the Cold War world? How were these episodes marketed and promoted to the public?*

Aural Press brochure, describing the American Life Series

Aural Press brochure, describing the American Life Series

To gain an accurate picture of the importance of these broadcasts, researchers would need to understand not just the content of the broadcast but also the circumstances of its production and its reception. For starters, the NAEB paper collections contain a brochure which reveals that the series was marketed by Aural Press of Western Michigan University as part of an “American Life Series” alongside other program series such as “Patterns in Pop Culture,” “Women,” “Abortion,” “Sounds of Poverty,” “Censorship,” and “The Nostalgia Merchants.” Placing one highly specific (and dramatic) series in context alongside such broadly-conceived topical documentary programs indicates that it held a certain level of specialized merit as an individual historical record.

A speech by former NAEB Chair William Harley which says the following about The Jeffersonian Heritage: “In 1951 we produced a dramatic history series called The Jeffersonian Heritage starring Claude Rains as Jefferson; a dramatic series on cultural anthropology called ‘Ways of Mankind’ and a series produced in conjunction with the Russian Institute at Harvard called ‘People Under Communism.’ The significance of this project is that our products convinced Scotty and his Board that educators were professionally competent and deserved support as they ventured into the new field of television. Thus did educational radio help the launching of educational television, for the Fund for Adult Education and later the Ford Foundation itself poured millions of dollars into projects fostering the start of education television.”

The above two pieces of contextual detail were uncovered only from the two small boxes of paper material that was retained with the audio collection at UMD. The Wisconsin finding aid reveals two additional folders of information on this series, which could unearth a great deal more contextual information which is ripe with potential for teaching curricula or individual scholarly research.

A second example is the series Why is a Writer?, which originally aired from 1960-61. The individual media records for the series contain the following description: “Produced by the Iowa School of the Air, this series focuses on various works of literature from Shakespeare to Twain.” The description for one individual program, “Critic of the king,” has an additional program description: “This program focuses on English writer Leigh Hunt, also known as James Henry Leigh Hunt.”

UMD has, by all means, a very richly descriptive individual record for this one individual program recording – even to have two separate descriptions (one for the series as a whole and one for the program) is uncommon in most descriptive catalogs.

A cursory search in the NAEB paper archives unlocked the following information:

Iowa School of the Air Teaching Aid for Why Is a Writer?

Iowa School of the Air Teaching Aid for Why Is a Writer?

In 1967-67, several years after it originally aired, Why is a Writer was still being distributed to educators throughout the country through Iowa School of the Air, along with teaching aids and instructions on how to teach the material. This teaching aid included instructions for educators such as “Every broadcast should be preceded by a short warm-up period so that the pupils know why they are listening to and what to listen,” and “Every broadcast should be followed by an integration period during which the students tie together facts, form generalizations, discuss ideas presented, and plan related work.” Additionally, the teaching aid contains a much more detailed program description for “Critic of the King:” “‘Critic of the King’ is another way of describing the English writer Leigh Hunt. Through history the writer has often been a critic of powerful through corrupt men. This is often a dangerous practice. Leigh Hunt knew the danger, but wrote as he felt, nonetheless. James Henry Leigh Hunt, 1784-1859, was the friend of many great romantic poets, including Byron, Shelley, Moore, and Lamb. He was a liberal in politics and was the editor of many periodicals.”

Why is a Writer shows up again in paperwork related to programs later rejected by NPR in 1976 for “content validity.” To pass the content validity test, NPR required “users and/or producers of Instructional Program materials to provide documented research and evaluation results on the utilization and effectiveness of such radio program materials in formal teaching-learning situations.” This indicates that sometime between the mid-60’s and the mid-’70s, Why Is a Writer? became “invalid” for teaching purposes. This raises two interesting research questions: 1) What pedagogical changes or educational reform may have led to changing perspectives on the “validity” of Why is a Writer?, and 2) How did educators and users of the Instructional Program materials feel about NPR making content validity assertions which affected available content?

Both of the above examples have relevant contextual information related to both the subject matter inherent in the content itself, as well as the cultural and sociological forces which shaped its production and distribution. The NAEB collections account for more than a record of a specific broadcasting entity and its industrial/narrative production. They also provide an in-depth look at the engagements and events of American history, as they were broadcast to and received by the general public in the twentieth century. This may be evident in the recordings themselves, but the potential scholarly and educational insights are particularly apparent when presented with rich, contextual materials to accompany it.

The fact stands that there is a lost opportunity here, and in many similar instances. Unless researchers are able to travel between Wisconsin and Maryland to conduct this research (assuming they even know that there is deep contextual information to be found there, since no electronic catalog connects the two collections). Additionally, in instances where these two collections are linked, it could partially relieve the burden of catalogers, lessening the amount of labor needed to provide access to richer descriptive detail.

Despite public broadcasting’s mandate to “inform, inspire and educate,” most of this important historical content, produced at significant cost, has never been seen or heard again after its initial brief moments on the air. MITH is developing and seeking funding for a project which aims to create a prototypical user interface which would allow researchers to explore the split NAEB collections together in context, and hopefully provide a blueprint to inspire further work in this area. The broader goals of the project are to look at ways in which scholarly and archival processes and needs can converge in order to raise awareness of the cultural significance of broadcasting collections.

*Select prose from the discussion on The Jeffersonian Heritage contributed by Jennifer Guiliano.


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Pacifica Radio’s From the Vault Mon, 29 Jun 2015 15:08:23 +0000 archives

Post by Brian DeShazor, Pacifica Radio Archives

The Pacifica Foundation, founded in 1946 by Lewis Hill – a Quaker, conscientious objector, poet, and pacifist – began broadcasting at KPFA, 94.1 FM in Berkeley, California, on April 15, 1949. It was the first of its kind. The mission was to create a new kind of radio, supported by listeners, owing nothing to sponsors, providing an outlet for poetry, independent journalism, free speech, creative expression, and a safe haven for artistic experiments with the radio medium. Predating National Public Radio, over the next 28 years, the network added four stations: KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles, CA (1959), WBAI 99.5 FM NYC, NY (1959), KPFT 90.1 FM Houston, TX (1970), and WPFW 89.3 FM Washington D.C. (1978). Perhaps best known as a chronicler of social justice movements and cultural change, Pacifica stations contributed to their communities by broadcasting unique coverage of HUAC hearings, the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam war movement, the women’s movement, the gay liberation movement, the student free speech movement, the Black power movement, the Native American Indian movement, and many others. Pacifica stations consistently embraced the performing and literary arts, offering sometimes the only forum for cutting edge and classical arts, as well as providing a stage to experiment with music, radio drama, spoken word, sound sculpture, and the art of radio documentary. This may be my favorite description of the programming ideals from a 1960 KPFK member folio program guide (all of which are freely available online at

“As a listener-sponsored station KPFK is free from the restrictions and inhibitions of commercial radio. We may attempt to discharge our special responsibility to the community with vigor, intelligence and imagination.

Our approach to broadcasting is permissive, bold and somewhat naive, because we feel that these attributes hold the secrets of growth and true wisdom. We choose to focus on the positive aspects of our freedom; what we are freed for; rather than what we are freed from.

We are free to serve: By tapping the creative resources of our nation and community we give hearing to deserving and unknown literary and musical talent, we provide a forum for the full discussion of public affairs, and we serve the community by an active participation in its cultural and intellectual life.

We are free to explore: In public affairs we are free to probe beyond the superficial level. Our programs are designed to stimulate, not to mirror complacency.

We are free to innovate: By broadcasting original works, special interviews, and live concerts, we can give free radio its rightful position as a provocative and intimate communicative medium. We are free to create new formats and recombine old ones. We can afford to risk without fear of the consequences on a popularity rating scale.

We are free to challenge: Our view of current happenings and long-term trends in this community and the world can be fresh and insistently honest, equally free to challenge the dogmas of the avante garde or the traditionalist, the intellectual or the anti-intellectual, the happy few or the complacent many, as the occasion requires. We frankly admit our prejudice, against the pretentious in any form or walk of life. Sacred cows find no sanctuary in our studios.

We have no commitments other than to these ideals.”

The Pacifica Radio Archives has over 60,000 program units, and has digitized approximately 10% since the advent of the digital age thanks to several grant funded projects and by public request. We are currently in the final months of a two-year project to preserve and make accessible 2,000 programs covering the women’s movement, in a project titled “American Women Making History and Culture: 1963-1982”, funded in part by a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission at the National Archives and Records Administration.

fromthevaultFrom the Vault is the Pacifica Radio Archives radio series produced weekly to rebroadcast and contextualize the history captured on reel-to-reel tape from 1949 to about 1999 by the Pacifica radio stations. The series is heard on the Pacifica Radio stations and its 200 affiliates. The series was created in 2006 in an effort to disseminate the history preserved to new audiences, promote the grant funded projects that helped digitize selections of the collection, and raise funds to continue preservation and access projects.

With thousands of tapes to choose from, it’s no easy task to curate. We begin each week mindful of current events and obituaries. We work from a calendar of historic events, commemorations and anniversaries to motivate our research. Programs of note include: The first march on Washington for Gay Rights, 1979; a previously unknown 1964 speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and my personal favorite, Flora Molton, a blind blues street singer from Washington D.C.

Flora Molton.

Gospel and country blues musician Flora Molton.

We are always seeking ways to make the materials contemporary and reach new audiences. In the works is a program on the 50th anniversary of the Watts Uprising in Los Angeles. We will be using the KPFK 1965 radio documentary, The Fire This Time, but not in the traditional way. On July 10, 2015, the archival sound will be used in a live concert event produced by Grand Performances as source material in a new hip-hop/ rap music mixtape performance curated by Lyricist Lounge co-founder Anthony Marshall, featuring dead prez, Jimetta Rose, ill CamiLLe, Bambu, food4Thot, and members of the Watts Prophets. From the Vault has produced 486 one-hour episodes to date.

Now that the Pacifica Radio Archives is partnered with the RPTF we look forward to expanding our Campus Campaign and our efforts to make the radio history part of educational curriculum.


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Teaching Radio’s History Wed, 24 Jun 2015 13:00:27 +0000 28-01-04-Coast-to-Coast-NBC-hookup

Map of NBC’s combined red, blue, orange, and gold networks in 1928.

Post by Bruce Lenthall, University of Pennsylvania

Teaching a media history course nearly 15 years ago, one day I found myself stumbling in search of a metaphor to help explain to undergraduates the network radio system that arose in the late 1920s.

“Think about network stations on television,” I suggested.

“What are network stations on TV?” the students asked. “How are they different than any other stations? How do you find them?”

“Do you remember those two knobs on a television?” I asked, trying to make this as simple and concrete as possible. Succeeding, instead, in showing my age. “Essentially, one knob let you change between the national channels, the network channels. When you turned the other knob, you changed channels among the local, non-network ones.”

There was a long pause.

Finally, with the air of one who has figured out something that has long confused her, a student spoke up. “This is really helpful,” she said. “My grandmother had a television with dials on it and I never could figure out what you used them for.”

IMG_2382The point here is not the futility of trying to explain television knobs and dials to a generation in the age of the remote control. The point is not even my own occasional cluelessness about current cultural experiences. No, the real point here is about some of the challenges of teaching radio history.

When I teach the history of radio – as I have done in a variety of course contexts from a media in history course to a history of American culture in the 1930s – I am routinely reminded that for undergraduate students, the basics of the early radio systems have long since been lost from cultural memory. Notions of national networks, of limitations on the number of stations – and with that, limitations on what audiences might hear and who might speak on the air – are unfamiliar. Even the metaphors a later generation might use to recall some of the early days of radio no longer have currency.

At the same time, though, other elements of the American system of broadcasting as it rose to prominence remain so entrenched in our deeply held assumptions that it can be hard for students to question them at all. For many of my undergraduates, commercially funded, for-profit broadcasting seems such a natural and positive way to organize media that it can be difficult for them to step out of such a system and examine it.

Such challenges are, of course, common ones for instructors: how to make the unfamiliar understandable and to understand the familiar by reexamining it through new eyes. And such challenges are why, in part, studying media history in general, and radio history in particular, is so powerful. Comprehending the unfamiliar media of the past can help us to see the familiar ones all around us anew. Digging into the history of broadcasting provides a comparative perspective – a comparison that enables us to see the system of our own time as distinct. Examining the historical comparison and the decisions that shaped past radio allows us to take what seems natural to us and to see it as something that has been constructed by choices – choices that could have been made differently. In turn, that perspective enables students to consider the benefits and costs of those choices.

As my classes explore the history of radio, we peer through three sets of lenses: the messages and content on the air, what radio meant to its listeners, and the structure of the industry. I ask my students, which frame of reference provides the most valuable insights into radio’s past? Invariably, my students say we need all three perspectives to really understand radio. That’s true, of course. But it also reveals how hard it is for novice scholars to take a stand. All of us who research radio know there are many valuable approaches to our work that we could take; but we also know that we have to pick one because we cannot do everything at once. My students are less comfortable choosing the approach that offers them the greatest insight.

IMG_2387There is no question, though, which is the easiest area for them to discuss. The early radio programs may be foreign to students, but discussing those programs is not. When we talk about Amos ‘n’ Andy in the 1920s and 1930s, for instance, my students quickly understand the importance of talking about the program’s construction of race. They may not see the differences between the works we read by Melvin Ely and Michele Hilmes on this question at first, but they get there. This becomes an opportunity to consider factors that made radio so popular and the role racial othering played in the creation of a mass audience. Similarly, students are comfortable considering Orson Welles’s “War of the Worlds” as a potential critique of the media itself (OK, for that one, they also see Citizen Kane to help them unpack Welles’s views).

My students have a more difficult time considering what radio meant for its listeners. Here I have raised for them some of the issues I address in my own book. What did it mean to connect with far-flung and often-imagined others? To be part of a mass audience? Where did listeners find a sense of control and where did they lack it? Maybe I am too close to some of these questions or maybe others need to come first, but I’ve never fully gotten students to engage with them. Instead, I have repeatedly found my classes tacking to questions of what was on the air and, even more, the early structure of the industry.

That last one, the structure of radio, is particularly hard for students to understand. It is not just, as I have said, that the comparisons we might offer are both too unfamiliar and familiar for them. More than that, such structures themselves were – and are – often invisible and inaudible. I also wonder if, in the United States, we are not always comfortable thinking about economic motives and structures as something open for questioning. The idea that a radio system that prized commercial success and the pursuit of profit could be something we created, rather than the natural state of a society that values freedom, can be a jarring one. Exchange students from France and Germany in my classes have been quicker than many of their peers to envision means of funding media other than through advertising.

Because the centralized and commercial system of broadcasting is so hard to make plain to students, it is doubly difficult to present alternatives that existed. Alexander Russo has a detailed account of the structures that bolstered radio beyond the networks – an account I have never taught. How to showcase for students the limits of a structure, when the students do not know the structure itself?

Ultimately, understanding that structure requires students exercise imagination as much as analysis: visually representing radio’s complex reach, for instance, and, critically, imagining alternatives to a commercial network system.

In the end, though, the difficulties in teaching this material help make it so compelling. When students successfully come to terms with radio’s messages, meanings and structures, they take something opaque and make it their own, and they take something that is very much their own and find the distance to shine a light into it. Considering a host of historical media systems and critiques – hopefully – sets them up to decide what they value in, and to consider alternatives to, contemporary media as well.

And if, in the process, they learn that once upon a time, people changed channels by walking across the room and twisting a dial, well, so much the better.


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Saving College Radio Mon, 08 Jun 2015 14:11:47 +0000 WMUC Archives, 2012.

WMUC Archives, 2012.

Post by Laura Schnitker, University of Maryland, College Park

On March 26, 1971, an up-and-coming folk singer named Don McLean sat down for an interview at WMUC, the University of Maryland’s student-run radio station. Soft-spoken and thoughtful, McLean discussed a number of topics with DJ Craig Allen, including American music history, environmentalism, and contemporary singer-songwriters. When the conversation turned toward the tensions between commercialism and folk music, McLean introduced a new song. “Take you back about ten years ago when Buddy Holly died,” he explained as he tuned his guitar. “He was my idol. He’s the only idol I ever had. This is a rather long song,” he warned, “so better light up.” McLean then launched into an early rendition of “American Pie.”

Since it would be another two months before McLean’s iconic and best-known song debuted on commercial radio, its audition for a college audience is well-placed among historic gems of American popular music. And it might have been lost forever had it not been recorded and preserved on a 10” audio reel tape that floated around WMUC for over three decades before I spotted it in 2008. I was interviewing the general manager for the college radio chapter in my dissertation when I noticed a tape box on his desk with the inscription, “Interview with Don McLean, Spring 1971. DO NOT ERASE”. I asked if there were any more like it.

WMUC's Don McLean reel from 1971.

WMUC’s Don McLean reel from 1971.

Quite a few, in fact. Over 1,800 audio reels, cartridges, cassettes, and DATs documenting WMUC’s unique history were stacked to the ceiling in a dark, dusty storage room in the back of the station. Some of them were lying under piles of old equipment. Some were tangled in long tails of audio tape that had fallen off their cores. And with no climate control, the natural deterioration of magnetic tape in flimsy cardboard boxes happens at a much quicker pace. These recordings badly needed to be saved. But what constitutes “saving” beyond merely keeping something out of the trash, and whose responsibility is it to do so at a college radio station? Furthermore, what value might college radio archives have beyond the occasional interview with a Pretty Famous Musician?

One thing I’ve learned in the 10 years I’ve been archiving broadcast history is that radio stations have been notoriously remiss in preserving their histories. If they saved anything it was usually printed records; audio recordings were most often destroyed after the stations were reformatted or sold. With no aftermarket for old broadcasts, and the added complications of performance copyright and rapidly changing sound technologies, many station managers probably thought these recordings were more liability than asset. A large portion of the audio collections I manage at the University of Maryland Libraries came from unionized, dumpster-diving sound engineers whose appreciation for their historic value outweighed everything else.

College radio archives are just as elusive. I’ve heard from participants at other campus stations who have described their own storage rooms of neglected recordings that no one knows how to manage, or even care about. I cringed when one station advisor told me that an old reel containing a remote broadcast of Woodstock was being used as a coaster by their current DJs. However, the difference here is that most colleges and universities have the built-in resources to both save their materials and provide public access to them. This is precisely what they should be doing.

As student organizations, campus radio stations are part of university life, and their historical records belong in their university archives. When I asked Maryland’s university archivist Anne Turkos to establish a WMUC Collection in 2011, we embarked on a mission to demonstrate the station’s importance to campus history. With the help of WMUC student staff members, we identified the historic audio and print items that were no longer being used and moved them to the more stable environment of the special collections library. We created inventories and a finding aid, and thanks to the libraries’ new media reformatting center we began ongoing digitization of the audio materials. Listening to them revealed a multi-faceted history I hadn’t expected to find. In addition to music, there was 50 years’ worth of news, sports, dramas, live performances, promos, community affairs and even self-help programming.

Pat Callahan & Herb Brubaker, WMUC, 1955.

Pat Callahan & Herb Brubaker, WMUC, 1955.

In 2013, we created a gallery and digital exhibit to honor the station’s 65th anniversary. “Saving College Radio: WMUC Past, Present and Future” opened in September of that year, and over 150 station alumni showed up to celebrate what had for many of them been the most important aspect of their college careers. They had been vital in helping us reconstruct the station’s history which forever changed my perception of college radio.

Like most people, I considered college radio a mostly anti-commercial musical format favoring the experimental, the up-and-coming, the never-heard-of, the sometimes-unlistenable. While this may be true, college radio should not be solely defined by its relationship to the music industry. Since the first student-run station almost a century ago, college radio has represented empowerment and agency on many fronts: an opportunity for students to find their voices, gain hands-on technical experience, navigate local and federal policies, and influence campus culture. What’s missing from both popular and academic understandings of college radio are these unique station histories that illuminate how college radio stations are also shaped by their relationships to media, politics, geographical regions, campus administrations, the student bodies and the students who run them.

Beyond its significance to popular culture, the Don McLean interview marks an era in WMUC’s past when DJs were bent on professional careers as journalists, producers, and programmers. Many of them fashioned their broadcasts in early 1970s commercial parlance, while others emulated a then-fledgling NPR. It also reflects a time on campus when tensions between students and the administration were high; less than a year after the Kent State shootings, UMD students responded unfavorably to the police presence outside the Steppenwolf concert at Ritchie Coliseum (McLean was the opening act). Four years later, the next crop of students would dedicate their energies to obtaining an FM license, the ones after that to advocating for an all-freeform format. In this context, we see that college radio is not and has never been a fixed entity, but a continuously evolving collective of ever-changing identities.

Much debate surrounds the future of college radio, as streaming services and podcasts have shifted popular attention away from traditional broadcasters, and reports of recent NPR takeovers of college stations have some alarmists claiming that the latter’s demise is imminent. Of course, competition among noncommercial broadcasters for these coveted left-of-the-dial frequencies is not new; the Corporation for Public Broadcasting had college radio in mind in 1972 when it asked the FCC to stop issuing licenses to 10-watt stations in order to open channels for public radio affiliates. Yet despite these threats, and despite rapid developments in media formats, listening habits, access to music and administrations who are tempted by the PR boon and generous price tags that NPR offers, many college radio stations have still managed to thrive. I am not apprehensive about its future. It is time we focused on its past.


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A Turn Toward the Ruins of Radio History Mon, 25 May 2015 12:15:16 +0000 radioruin1Post by Peter Schaefer, Marymount Manhattan College

Given the tremendous wealth that continues to pour into Manhattan and Western Brooklyn, it’s hard to imagine that in the 1970s New York City came perilously close to declaring bankruptcy. The city nearly defaulted on large loans due in part to revenue reductions associated with decreased local manufacturing. To help remedy the situation deep cuts were made across the municipal budget. As a result, New Yorkers saw a city on the brink of collapse with irregular garbage collection, shuttered local libraries, and public school classrooms bursting beyond capacity. Public broadcasting was particularly hard hit with hiring freezes at the municipally owned public radio station WNYC, along with a reduction in staff and constant threats to curtail broadcasting hours. Budget cuts to stations like WNYC resulted in dramatically decreased efforts to save material from this era. In retrospect, the financial catastrophe of 1970s New York might seem like a mere pothole on the road to the city’s current renaissance. But in regard to radio preservation, the ‘70s fiscal crisis left a giant crater in the historical record.

WNYC logosBefore visiting the WNYC Archive I assumed that the older the broadcast era, the spottier the historical record becomes. That is not the case, however. Due to the 1970s fiscal crisis, WNYC recordings from that era are the least represented in the archive. It’s contrary to what one might assume, but there’s a richer and more comprehensive historical record for NYC public radio of the 1930s than for the 1970s. This example attests to the fact that what’s included in an archive depends on much more than the durability of recording formats. Archives develop over time because of decisions made in response to cultural assumptions and economic imperatives more so than the material conditions of sound recording. These decisions are often hidden from view when archives are made publicly accessible.

RPTF1In regard to radio preservation efforts, such as the vital new Radio Preservation Task Force, how might we think differently about the representation of extant materials such that what’s not preserved is also a part of the public face of an archive? In what follows I consider the implications of embracing the monuments to radio history while simultaneously acknowledging the surrounding ruins. I explain some of the emerging norms for radio preservation, and I conclude by connecting contemporary fallacies about the utility of information to the question of how to represent radio history.

The Radio Preservation Task Force, along with other like-minded initiatives such as the American Archive Content Inventory, is establishing what it means to preserve 20th century radio history in the 21st century. This history is still being written, but so far the public access points for the radio historical record employ tagged audio clips, social media updates, and keyword searches to databases. These interactive options are an important resource for communication historians and the public at large, and at the same time, these options are becoming ossified as the way we access the cultural history of radio. What if we offered additional ways of showing radio history that do more than provide a means to access and comment on surviving documents?

devon1Contemporary radio preservation efforts tend to present history in ways that elide the space between the past and the present. For example, take the show Nights in Latin America broadcast on WQXR from 1947 to 1971 and hosted by Pru Devon. Although the vast majority of WQXR materials are lost to the ages, much of the content and supporting documents related to Nights in Latin America survive. Ms. Devon’s daughter saved her mother’s scripts, research notes, air-checks, and fan mail and recently donated these items to the WQXR archive. The ruins of the station’s past now appear forgotten as preservations efforts for the show oscillates from transient to permanent.

Radio history appears stable, durable, and immutable via tributes to Nights in Latin America aired on NPR shows like All Things Considered and represented online. These preservation efforts and its attendant public face, do not show the fact that the historical record for WQXR is spotty at best. Some lacquer discs, some quarter inch audio tapes, and some assorted ephemera comprise the bulk of the archive for the station’s long 20th century legacy. What we see in this example is the wide gap between the appearance of an archive and its actual content. As a result, radio preservation efforts when made publicly accessible typically appear as an unmediated report of an ideally preserved past.

wqxr1Without some nod to the ruins of radio, cultural artifacts are represented in ways that gloss over the decisions that shape an archive’s contours. These decisions may be motivated by economics (as seen in the 1970s NYC fiscal crisis example) or by cultural values (as with the historical revisionism of the Radio Preservation Task Force) or by other fortunate circumstances (such as the mindful conservation of a family legacy as with the example of Nights in Latin America). But in all cases, radio preservation efforts stem from a lineage of integral decisions. Some of these decisions might be lost to the ages as well, but there is value in striving to represent this loss, however imperfect.

Just like there are often disguised decisions that shape an archive, decisions are made in the creation of all contemporary data sets. I frequently encounter students who are surprised when I encourage them to use resources other than Google Scholar to access scholarly literature. These students don’t yet know that Google is a filter not a portal to a limitless universe of information. Anecdotes such as this reflect why I think now is the time to call attention to the ruins of radio history. Common access points for radio’s past offer easily accessible and instantly recoverable historical artifacts. These interfaces deepen historical knowledge but also lend credence to notions of information as a means for social control.

The historical record is being deployed in new ways via aggregated data sets. Evgeny Morozov refers to “solutionism” as a mistaken belief in the ability of big data to solve social problems that range from health care to crime. To put such faith in aggregate data analysis ignores the fact that all data are imperfect reflections of the reality they represent. To embrace the gaps in the radio historical record works against current tendencies to believe in the essential unmediated status of data, whether these data pertain to non-network radio broadcasts or data directly connected to social issues. In short, a turn toward radio ruins serves a critical function in the fight against an ideology of information control.

Now you might be thinking that it’s fun to privilege the vibrant strands of radio history, and it’s a downer to acknowledge what’s lost, but it doesn’t have to be that way. The gems uncovered via the vital work of radio preservationists will sparkle even brighter if shown in context as the rare items that they are. In other words, a turn toward radio ruins doesn’t have to be just about loss but could help make what’s found appear all the more special. And in so doing helps embrace the particular against the aggregate.


You Ever Hear of a Girl Detective?: Negotiating Gender and Authority in Candy Matson Sat, 23 May 2015 14:00:43 +0000 The view from Telegraph Hill in San Francisco. Photo: Christoph Radtke

The view from Telegraph Hill in San Francisco, where the character of Candy Matson lived in Candy Matson, YUkon 2-8209. Photo: Christoph Radtke

Post by Catherine Martin, Boston University

I recently spent some time going through the American Radio Archive’s Monty Masters collection to gather information for my dissertation on women in radio and television crime dramas. As I reviewed scripts for Masters’ female PI series, Candy Matson, YUkon 2-8209, I was struck by the number of edits relating to place and street names: more than any other radio series I’ve encountered, Candy’s writers appear to have been dedicated to getting San Francisco’s geography right. Of course, this might have simply been a product of the series’ production environment. Candy Matson, which ran on NBC’s West Coast network from June 1949 to May 1951, was broadcast from San Francisco in a period when most West Coast radio production was consolidating in Los Angeles. The locally popular series frequently emphasizes its regional affiliations, with Candy (voiced by Natalie Parks Masters) traveling up and down the West Coast and solving crimes from Los Angeles to Puget Sound (where she almost dies in a sabotaged seaplane). At home in her city of San Francisco, she surveys the urban space from the bay window of her Telegraph Hill penthouse and zips between neighborhoods in her flashy convertible. However, it is more likely that such attention to urban detail was meant to establish and strengthen Candy’s precarious authority as a radio private eye who also happened to be a woman.

Howard Duff, who played private detective Sam Spade in The Radio Adventures of Sam Spade.

Howard Duff, who played private detective Sam Spade in The Radio Adventures of Sam Spade.

Candy Matson is not the only radio detective series concerned with emphasizing the detective’s intimate knowledge of the city. I’ve previously argued that The Adventures of Sam Spade (1946-1951, ABC/CBS/NBC) used Sam’s knowledge of San Francisco to assert his authority to interpret the urban space for increasingly suburban post-war radio audiences [1]. His conversational style of narration encourages audiences to see the city through his eyes, and his attention to detail asserts the intimacy of his urban knowledge and contributes to the urban atmosphere that pervades radio private eye series. Candy also navigates the city with ease, driving herself from place to place in a convertible, like a true Californian. From her penthouse on Telegraph Hill, she heads down the hill to visit her friend and sidekick Rembrandt Watson, downtown to call on Inspector Ray Mallard at San Francisco’s Hall of Justice, or across any of the city’s numerous bridges to explore the broader Bay Area. Significantly, Candy maintains a sense of control and power by insisting on driving herself, commenting that “I feel much better when I’m driving,” especially when traveling with strange men on cases because “there are a lot of forward passes that fall incomplete when a lady is driving” [2]. Candy even drives when she travels with trusted male friends like Watson or Mallard, showing off her knowledge of shortcuts, scenic routes, and obscure swimming holes along the Sacramento River, and cementing her claims to the special knowledge about people and places that makes the private eye an urban expert.

Candy’s claims to this urban (and suburban) expertise are especially important given her position as a female private eye in post-World War II America. As scholars like Jessica Weiss (2000) and Wini Breines (1992) have pointed out, postwar popular culture was filled with mixed messages about women’s roles and abilities, simultaneously promising them that they enjoyed equality with men and pushing them to find ultimate fulfillment in the more traditionally feminine roles of wife and mother. While she was not the first lady detective on radio, Candy is certainly among the most hardboiled, a genre more typically associated with working class male detectives and readers. Creator Monty Masters originally wrote the role of Candy for himself, but cast his wife, Natalie Masters, when his mother-in-law suggested making the detective female. While the character remained daring and take-charge as a woman, the writers also worked to emphasize Candy’s femininity. Jack French (2002) reports that Masters changed the original audition script to emphasize a romance between Candy and Mallard, which continues throughout the series and culminates in their engagement and Candy’s retirement in the final episode, “Candy’s Last Case.” In addition to the romance that ties her safely to one man – unlike her male counterparts, who often enjoy multiple flirtations per episode – the announcer’s opening narrations emphasize Candy’s femininity and even undercut her independence, especially in early episodes. One such introduction goes:

“Like a little whodunit without too much gore? This is for you then. And here’s another thingwe’ve got a gal for a detectivenot a guy with all muscle and no brain. She’s cute, too. Oh, and I’ll let you in on a little secret. She thinks she solves all the cases she works on. But she doesn’t—not quite. There happens to be a guy named Inspector Ray Mallard who pulls our gal out of tight spots.” [3]

Others emphasize her blonde hair and compare her curves and “scenic effects” to Highway 101 [4]. Candy also frequently emphasizes her love for shopping.

Natalie Parks Masters, who played the female private investigator Candy Matson.

Natalie Parks Masters, who played the female private investigator Candy Matson.

These contradictory emphases on Candy’s detective abilities and feminine appearance and dependence highlight her difficult position as a female PI who must struggle to be taken seriously, both by her clients and radio audiences at home. While she ultimately avoids the fate of so many female investigators on film, whom Philippa Gates (2011) argues went from enjoying progressive representations in the 1930s to becoming figures “of parody, passivity, or – by the 1950s – questionable sanity,” Candy has to continually prove that she is both a competent investigator and a normal woman – that she can still maintain feminine graces while taking on jobs that occasionally result in her getting knocked unconscious by a gunsel. The end result is unique and intriguing: a private eye program that presents ugly urban crimes without the seemingly requisite world-weary narrator. But despite this lack of the customary hardboiled gravitas, Candy continually resists categorization as a lightweight. She may be a former model, but she knows her city better than anyone and she insists on maintaining the power to navigate it. While she never managed to attract a commercial sponsor or make it to NBC’s national network, her popularity with West Coast audiences indicates that more than a few people were interested in stories about women working in atypical professions.

[1] Catherine Martin, “Re-Imagining the City: Contained Criminality in The Radio Adventures of Sam Spade.” Delivered at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference, Boston, MA, March 25, 2012.

[2] Candy Matson, YUkon 2-8209, July 21, 1949

[3] Candy Matson, YUkon 2-8209, July 14, 1949.

[4] Candy Matson, YUkon 2-8209, August 4, 1949.


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American Idols: ‘Roxy,’ Major Bowes, and Early Radio Stardom Tue, 14 Apr 2015 12:00:55 +0000 Major Bowes Amateur Magazine - March 1936

Major Bowes Amateur Magazine – March 1936

Post by Ross Melnick

American Idol is now in its fourteenth season on Fox; America’s Got Talent will start its tenth season next month on NBC; and The Voice has launched its eighth season of catapulting amateur talent on the same network. There is, it seems, still plenty of money in the “amateur hour” game. A large segment of the audience for these shows wasn’t born when Star Search (1983-1995) went off the air and their parents and grandparents have only a fading memory of the venerable Amateur Hour program on radio and television from 1934 to 1970. (Yes, thirty-six years.) But before American Idol and other contemporary amateur talent shows rose to prominence, and even before Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts (1946-1958) and The Gong Show (1976-1980), the Amateur Hour was appointment radio listening as “Major” Edward Bowes and, later, Ted Mack paraded a gaggle of singers, impressionists, musicians, comedians, and other performers before a microphone and launched the careers of Frank Sinatra, Gladys Knight, and many others.

Major Bowes’ radio career, though, like his amateurs’ chance of winning, was partly luck.

Some history is in order. In 1908, Samuel ‘Roxy’ Rothafel, a 25-year-old former Marine and traveling salesman, took a position as a bartender in a rough and tumble saloon at the Freedman House in the small coal mining town of Forest City, Pennsylvania. While tending bar, he asked and received permission to turn the Freedman House’s large storage area into a back alley entertainment center. The Family Theatre opened on December 21, 1908 with roller-skating while vaudeville launched three days later on Christmas Eve. Film ultimately proved most popular and the Family Theatre became a highly successful nickelodeon in 1909. From there, Roxy converted the 3,000-seat Alhambra Theatre in Milwaukee into the nation’s largest movie house in 1911 and performed the same trick for the 1,700-seat Lyric in Minneapolis. His growing reputation encouraged the owners of the Regent Theatre in New York City to acquire his services in 1913 and, for the next five years, Roxy opened or managed every important movie house along New York’s Great White Way—the Strand, Knickerbocker, Rialto, and Rivoli theaters. By 1918, he had become the country’s most lauded motion picture exhibitor (and a documentary filmmaker).

The city’s largest movie house was not opened by Roxy, however, but by owner Messmore Kendall and Managing Director “Major” Edward Bowes. The 5,300-seat Capitol Theatre opened on October 24, 1919, and quickly struggled creatively and financially. Needing an infusion of capital, Samuel Goldwyn and other investors purchased a controlling interest and installed Roxy as Director of Presentations. (Bowes was given a raise but less responsibility.) Over the next two years, the Capitol became the country’s most celebrated movie house and a launching pad for German (Passion, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) and documentary (Nanook of the North) films.

In 1922, the Capitol also became a key site for radio broadcasting when AT&T approached Roxy about the possibility of transmitting the live performances from the Capitol Theatre over its new toll broadcasting station, WEAF. On November 19, 1922, the Capitol orchestra’s performance of Richard Strauss’s ‘Ein Heldenleben’ was sent out over the ether. Roxy introduced all of his musicians, dancers, singers, and other performers over the air and struck a chord with audiences with his informal style. The broadcast—radio’s pioneering variety show—became a fixture on WEAF known as “Roxy and His Gang.” Roxy’s folksy introduction, “Hello Everybody!,” and his warm signoff, “Good Night, Pleasant Dreams, and God Bless You,” were hallmarks. Roxy and His Gang toured the east coast over the next several years, building up his own brand name and that of the program. The Capitol Theatre subsequently became a tourist destination like Disneyland through ABC in the 1950s.

Roxy at the NBC Microphone

Roxy at the NBC Microphone

In July 1925, Roxy announced that he would be leaving the Capitol to open his eponymous Roxy Theatre that would be even larger (5,920 seats) and with new broadcasting studios outfitted for his Gang and organist Lew White. The Capitol Theatre broadcasts on Sunday nights did not end, however. Major Bowes, who took over management of the Capitol upon Roxy’s exit, launched his own “Capitol Theatre Family” program for WEAF, then the flagship station of the NBC Red network. It would be the start of two decades of Bowes broadcasting.

When the Roxy Theatre opened on March 11, 1927, Rothafel launched a new “Roxy and His Gang” weekly show on NBC Blue. NBC now had the two leading exhibitors in New York on Sunday and Monday nights. From 1927 to 1931, Roxy and Bowes kept up their weekly addresses to local and national audiences, becoming celebrities in their own right. Roxy’s weekly radio shows also continued after he took over the new Radio City Music Hall and the RKO Roxy Theatre projects in 1931. (They opened on December 27 and December 29, 1932, respectively.) Roxy was disillusioned with the micromanagement of both cinemas, however, and he abruptly quit both in January 1934. His departure from Radio City also meant the end of his time with NBC.

Bowes, by contrast, was still in a decade-long groove at the Capitol Theatre (and on its radio show) and headed Loew’s’ radio group and its flagship station WHN. On April 4, 1934, Bowes launched the Amateur Hour with Major Edward Bowes on WHN on Tuesday nights from 8:00 to 9:00pm. Launched during the Depression after sound, economics, and double features had decimated vaudeville, Bowes booked the best (free) talent he could find and let the audience decide the results based on their phone calls through AT&T. Votes were then tabulated during the show by six harried WHN operators and results were provided by the end of the program. Part of Bowes’ ingenuity was cultivating emotional back-stories for each contestant. During the Depression, a tear jerking narrative wasn’t hard to find and played beautifully every time.

Bowes’ amateur talent show was picked up by NBC in 1935, paired with a major sponsor, and renamed the Chase & Sanborn Amateurs with Major Bowes. Bowes also used the popularity of the broadcasts to create traveling troupes of Amateur Hour winners and filmed other performers for a series of short films released through RKO.

Roxy, meanwhile, returned to radio in September 1934 for CBS. The show and Roxy were tired, though, and the reviews and market share weren’t as expected. His radio contract ended in September 1935 and, for the first time in thirteen years, Roxy was off the air. He was set for a comeback at the old Roxy Theatre for Paramount and for a new radio show at NBC when he died in his sleep on January 13, 1936 at age 53.

Bowes, by contrast, was very much alive and then had the number one radio show in the country. Radio Guide estimated that the Amateur Hour, with its broadcasts, tours, licensed merchandise, and films, was generating almost two million dollars per year. Bowes moved to CBS in 1936 where he remained the highest paid and highest rated broadcaster through the end of the decade.

Wartime restrictions on telephone usage and a growing ennui with the format lessened the show’s impact during the 1940s and Bowes retired from radio in April 1945. His longtime assistant, Ted Mack, took over the microphone and also created a new television program in 1948 (radio broadcasts continued for several more years as well). The Original Amateur Hour debuted on the DuMont TV network and would appear variously on ABC, CBS, and NBC from 1948 until 1970 when it finally went off the air.

Roxy and Bowes

Roxy and Bowes

Today, Roxy and Bowes are largely forgotten but their impact on variety shows (Roxy) and amateur talent contest shows (Bowes) remains. Two questions still linger then: Would Bowes have ever appeared on radio if Roxy had not left the Capitol in 1925? Without Bowes, when would the amateur talent show have first reached radio listeners/television viewers?

For more information on Samuel ‘Roxy’ Rothafel, please see American Showman: Samuel ‘Roxy’ Rothafel and the Birth of the Entertainment Industry (Columbia University Press, 2012). For more information on Major Bowes and the Amateur Hour, please see “Reality Radio: Remediating the Radio Contest Genre in Major Bowes’ Amateur Hour Films.” Film History 23:3 (Fall 2011): 331 – 347.


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Edgar Dale, Educational Radio, and Sensory Learning Mon, 16 Mar 2015 14:00:15 +0000 Post by Brian Gregory, Pace University

Dale_Cone of ExperienceMuch research on educational technology reforms in the twentieth century has placed emphasis on the idea that their inception and implementation has often been accompanied by a feverish excitement that sooner or later subsides. What is left, some of this research has argued, has been an all-too-common story of misuse and misguided aspirations. [1]

There have been many such reforms attempted in education since the end of the nineteenth century that have elicited widespread excitement about the potential for new forms of learning. Many of these reforms were backed by progressive educators in the early twentieth century. Edgar Dale, a professor at Ohio State University and a researcher at the university’s Bureau of Educational Research, identified himself as part of the progressive education movement. His instructional philosophy can be understood through a pyramid-like structure that he called the “Cone of Experience” (pictured right) in which he classified and detailed his beliefs about sensory and experiential learning.

Dale placed learning through direct experience at the bottom of the pyramid. Moving vertically up the figure, illustrated a shift in learning as it began to occur less through immediate experience, more through mediated means, and also became more conceptual and abstract. At the bottom of the cone, direct sensory learning provided students with rich experiences that included field trips, bird watching, fishing trips, and other types of worldly excursions. Next, came models and mockups of real experiences, such as miniature versions of airplanes, ships, and landscape scenes. These had educational value because they provided students with opportunities for scrutiny and analysis of structures, processes, and systems that could not be recreated through lecture and textbooks. Dramatic participation was the next up the pyramidal diagram. School plays were an example of this in which students either participated as actors or watched as spectators. Next came demonstrations enacted by the teacher, then field trips to cultural centers, and museum exhibitions, all of which had students function more as viewer than participant. Near the top of the cone was instruction that employed educational technologies including radio, film, newspapers, and phonograph records. [2]  To Dale, instruction with technology did not occur on a “direct sensory level”, but he saw this type of learning as important and necessary because it allowed students to encounter and examine the intellectual and emotional elements that were interwoven into many carefully devised media programs.

Dale spent much of his corpus examining the use of motion pictures in education, but in a large number of his writings he argued for the value of learning through all the senses, including the ears. [3]  Dale was also involved with the the Ohio School of the Air educational radio program at Ohio State University. In the 1935 inaugural issue of The News Letter, he argued for more research into the aural nature of radio programming. [4]

WillKingTextbookA nameless author, affiliated with the Ohio School of the Air, wrote a paper called “Will King Textbook Be Dethroned,” which illustrated Dale’s ideas about auditory education. In the paper, the author proclaimed that radio “become[s] a new sort of textbook – aural instead of visual.” [5]  The author illustrated this point in a cartoon (pictured left) that depicts a textbook, aptly named “King Textbook,” perched on a throne.

Educational radio was often characterized as a medium that encouraged passive listening and learning. The criticism was that students who listened to programs on the radio tended to sit lifeless in their seats while a radio instructor came through the ether into their classrooms to play music and authoritatively tell them what to think and feel. At a 1932 conference, Edgar Dale struck back at these sorts of characterizations with the argument that there was no such thing as passive listening and that listening should be seen as an activity in itself.

In the 1940s, numerous research studies investigated the efficacy of sensory learning. In a meta-analysis on audio-visual education, written in 1945, one author looked at learning with radio versus learning without radio and studies that compared learning that involved visuals with learning without them. [6]  The writer concluded that these studies “were inconclusive” and did not provide “definite proof” on the efficacy of auditory or visual learning through their respective technologies. Another group of researchers three years earlier had commented on studies that compared aural to visual learning, most notably one study by Paul Lazarsfeld from the Office of Radio Research at Columbia University called Radio and the Printed Page, in which he stated that “for every study which shows that the ear is more receptive, another study can be quoted which attributes the same advantage to the eye.” [7]  Lazarsfeld had concluded, according to the researchers, that what was most important was how well people concentrated on the medium at hand and their present context.

More recently, studies have shown that there has been “no scientific evidence backing up the idea” that teaching should be augmented for various learning styles even though “an entire industry has sprouted” up to support it. [8]  Other contemporary research has shown that learning is more effectual when it is varied and integrates various styles than when it targets only one mode of communication and one style of learning. [9]  What is important, as Dale argued, is that in order for sensory learning, involving educational technologies, to be useful, educators must have an explicit understanding about the types of lessons that make these technologies educational, how to use them in productive ways, and have clearly defined objectives that will result in effective educational experiences for students.


[1] David B. Tyack and Larry Cuban, Tinkering toward Utopia : A Century of Public School Reform (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995) 111

[2] Edgar Dale, “Coming to Our Senses,” The News Letter 5, no. 1 (November 1939).

[3] Audio-Visual Methods in Teaching (New York: The Dryden Press, 1946) 48

[4] Edgar Dale and I. Keith Tyler, “Foreward, the Radio,” The News Letter 1, no. 1 (November 1935).

[5] OSU Ohio School of the Air (RG 8d6), Box 1. Ohio Teaches School By Radio, n.d.

[6] Arthur C. Stenius, “Auditory and Visual Education,” Review of Educational Research 15, no. 3 (1945): 246.

[7] Seerley Reid and Daniel Day, “Chapter Vi: Radio and Records in Education,” Review Of Educational Research 12, no. 3 (June 1942): 313.

[8] Patti Neighmond, “Think You’re an Auditory or Visual Learner? Scientists Say It’s Unlikely,”

[9] Richard E. Mayer, “A Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning,” in Multimedia Learning (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).