Suddenly we heard a Tereng! tereng! teng! teng! We looked round, and now found the reason why the postilion had not been able to sound his horn: his tunes were frozen up in the horn, and came out now by thawing, plain enough, and much to the credit of the driver. —The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, 1865
At the BBC Archive Centre in Perivale, London, the proverbial “weight of the past” becomes literal for researchers of sound history. Housed in a massive, unattractive hangar-like building in an industrial park to the northwest of London, the archives suit their environment, one which speaks of practical and solid shapes far more than the lyrical, dainty ivory tower. And by weight, I mean by serious, and sometimes dangerous, poundage: the very first machine created to record off of radio, invented around 1930, was a steel pedestal with bus wheel-sized reels on either side. Audio Coordinator of the BBC Archives, John Dell, explained that not only was this machine laborious to load, but it used magnetic steel tape as its recording surface, which could come free from the reels and lacerate incautious operators as it unspooled and bunched.
The weight of these objects, however, is also metaphoric. The earliest recording in my personal audio drama library, sourced off the invaluable Archive.org, is a 1933 episode of Front Page Drama, a dramatized version of an American Weekly Hearst publication. The past stands monumentally huge if this type of machine, the Marconi-Stille Wire Recorder, was the apparatus that allowed those 15 minutes of 1933 to be captured and, eventually, fed into my 2015 headphones as an MP3.
I listen to much of my audio drama, whether old and crackling like Front Page Drama, or new and podcast-y, while commuting, usually on the London Underground. The episode of Front Page Drama in question I heard during a marathon session when I knew very little could or would interrupt me: on an twelve-hour transatlantic plane ride. I quite like the audio-visual play between listening to audio drama that is new to me versus the familiar but never identical sights of the commute; as Primus Luta remarked in 2012, it’s rare for us to engage our full attention on the aural medium.
While listening to Front Page Drama and episodes of Lum and Abner on that flight, I had to wonder how I was prioritizing my listening time. Who had recorded these episodes from the 1930s? Who had later taken the trouble to digitize them and upload them to Archive.org? Why, for example, were these particular recordings freely available yet I couldn’t find an MP3 anywhere of texts I wanted to share more widely, such as Don Haworth’s On a Summer’s Day in a Garden (1975) or Angela Carter’s Come Unto These Yellow Sands (1978)? Both of these recordings are in the BBC back catalogue; I know, because the BBC supplied them to me—but only the basis of a visit to the archive.
Archive.org is bountiful and accessible, the Perivale archives much more exclusive, but both seem to lack curation. The only hope for accessing things like Haworth or Carter outside the British Library’s Sound and Moving Image Archives is that someday a rogue MP3 or BitTorrent will show up online. The archive does seem, in Neil Verma’s words, then, “transformed before dispersing in space, plucked from the air and mineralized like fossils” (Theater of the Mind, 227); like Primus Luta’s weighty but playful experiment, Schrödinger’s Cassette, which suspended music in concrete to be risked, or remain aurally untouched forever. This seems too often to be the impossible choice.
The BBC archive storage is eclectic and generally arranged for access by BBC staff rather than for researchers. The BBC Written Archives at Caversham are restricted to academics, and likewise, the speed of gaining access to sound files from Perivale is predicated on the amount of time BBC staff have to devote to it—naturally, the BBC’s own departments have priority, such as BBC Radio 4 Extra, the archival digital radio station, whose backlog of requests for digitised material from the Perivale archive apparently covers 20 pages. The sound collections consist of commercial recordings on shellac (90 RPM records) and vinyl (78 RPMs) as well as impressively dinner-plate sized compilation transcriptions which require a special turn-table on which to play and digitize them. The BBC Sheet Music archive is in Perivale, as well, with original handwritten scores filling shelves.
The second half of the British and Irish Sound Archives conference 2015 afforded a privileged glimpse of the archive storage and technical facilities housed on site. Most of my fellow attendees were archivists of one sort or another, asking detailed questions about transcription devices, fidelity, and storage. Having recently completed my PhD from Swansea University in English in radio drama, I had made countless requests to this very facility through the British Library’s Sound and Moving Image request service; now I, at long last, hoped to see where my digitised sound files were coming from. However, we weren’t shown any recordings made on tape cassette or CD but instead Betamax audio-only. Unseen, too, were the data banks holding all the digitised content, but what myself and my fellow archivists had mainly come to see were the tangible objects making this content possible.
In the physical copies of the Radio Times of the 1940s and ‘50s, also housed at the British Library at St Pancras (and now available, like all of the Radio Times up to 2009, on BBC Genome), there can be found a little asterisk in the listings for drama, which signifies that the drama was broadcast from a recording, rather than live. The later recording machines of the ‘30s through ‘50s, upon which these recordings would have been made, did not decrease appreciably in size, though perhaps in weight. “If I were to drop this,” Dell told us as he carefully handled a dark blue celluloid tube, about the size and circumference of a toilet paper roll, “it would bounce. I’m not going to drop it,” he added. Then the magic began: via a custom-made device, we heard a few bars of a music hall song from circa 1900. The recording was surprisingly clear. It was agonizing when Dell turned it off after only a few seconds.
There is something incredibly seductive about old recordings. In “The Recording that Never Wanted to Be Heard and Other Stories of Sonification,” from The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies, Jonathan Sterne and Mitchell Akiyama question the desire for “sonification” of ever-older recordings, especially when such desires manifest in the creation of a digital sound file in 2008 for “the world’s oldest recording,” a phonoautogram from 1860, which was nevertheless never intended to be played back—the phonoautograph was intended as a device to make the aural visual (555). Radio drama writer Mike Walker really summed up the seduction of old recordings for me in his 2013 BBC Radio 4 ghost story The Edison Cylinders, with a character who is seduced as a scholar and as a participant in a time-traveling mystery by old recordings: a sound engineer in need of money, she agrees to digitize what seem like boring diary entries from a British imperialist, only to be intrigued by his Victorian domain beyond her rather empty modern existence. Unfortunately for her, these particular recordings are reaching beyond the grave to try to kill her.
Although they do reach out from the grave, most early sound recordings aren’t out to kill you. They do however, present common and vexing issues of authenticity. By this, I mean specifically the provenance of the recording—is the recording of who or what it says it is? On the first day of the conference, Dell regaled us with tales of two cylinder recordings surfacing in the mid-twentieth century, of William Gladstone giving a speech. The words of the speech were identical, but the voices were completely different. Who was the real Gladstone? How could you authenticate the voice of a dead person? Dell further deepened the mystery by telling us the tale of two boxes of wax cylinder recordings in the Perivale archive, whose provenance is torturously (and tantalizingly) unclear. We glimpsed these mysterious, yellow-cream-colored cylinders, somewhat wider and fatter than the celluloid tubes, in situ, but were they original Edison cylinders from the 1880s? The piercing desire to believe these cylinders might contain the voices of Gladstone, the future Edward VIII, or even Henry Irving, are potentially “perils of over-optimism,” as Dell puts it.
All the archivists at this event referred to the serendipity of discovering surprises on recordings. Simon Elmes, whose official title reads “Radio Documentarist, Creative Consultant, and Former Creative Director, BBC Radio Documentaries,” made this manifest as he discussed a subject treated in his documentary from 2005, Ambridge in the Decade of Love. The Archers—an exceptionally long-running BBC radio soap which conjures up visions of rural Englishness and persists among a very dedicated, though mostly older, fan base—like much radio drama and emblematic of gendered attitude toward radio soaps, was not recorded in its first few decades.
Likewise, anyone researching radio drama before the 1930s is playing a game of roulette; whether any scripts survive will depend entirely on the literary reputation of the author who may have had enough clout to publish them in book form. Even in the case of Lance Sieveking, the acknowledged creative aesthete behind early BBC radio drama, we lack concrete evidence of his most important work, The End of Savoy Hill (1932). And The Truth About Father Christmas (1923), the first original drama written specifically for British radio? Forget about it—it was made for children’s radio.
To return to The Archers, though daily 15-minute scripts were being churned out by Ted Kavanagh from the first years of the 1950s, the broadcasts themselves went missing into the ether (after all, no one suspected the show would still be going after sixty years). Transcription discs, meant for an overseas market, were found in a box in the BBC Archives, giving a reasonably complete overview of The Archers during the 1950s and ‘60s. Elmes was ebullient about this discovery.
While I got the general sense that the other archivists at the conference were amused but indifferent toward this particular trove, to me it was inspiring. I believe the future of audio drama will rely more and more on serials, so the rediscovery of these Archers episodes epitomizes to me the past, present, and future of audio drama in that it speaks of audience involvement and even audience interaction or co-production, which seems key for audio drama going forward, and the aspect of serialization which has vastly overtaken the single drama on television if not on radio.
Nevertheless, even if pursuit of these aural rainbows is a foolish one, such desire also enables scholarship. The hope of finding “originals” inspired me personally to discover the birth of what can conceivably called audio drama. Having researched audio drama from the first known broadcast dramas in English (the adaptations: 2LO London’s Five Birds in a Cage in 1922, WGY Schenectady’s The Wolf in 1922, British Broadcasting Company’s Twelfth Night in 1923; original drama: WLW Cincinnati’s When Love Awakens in 1923, British Broadcasting Company’s Danger in 1924), I was astounded to learn that listeners from World War I might have enjoyed short, dramatized stories on the celluloid tubes (according to Tim Crook, the first audio drama of this nature is a war drama from 1917). While archives such as the Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project of the University of California at Santa Barbara care for these recordings in the same way they do for musical and speech recordings, there is a significant lack of scholarship on them.
If commentary on specific pre-radio audio drama is scarce, it is heartening to read dissections of the performative aspects of “actuality,” such as Brian Hanrahan’s anatomy of Gas Shell Bombardment, 1918. Wonderfully, in discussing the “staging” of this war-time recording, Hanrahan brings in traditions from theatre and silent film in addition to the phonograph. Professor David Hendy has persuasively argued that some of the organizing tenets behind the British Broadcasting Corporation, whose management was by and large made up of ex-soldiers, was predicated on a desire for silence and calm, ordered, managed sound after the cacophony of war. Perhaps “cylinder” drama, then, is not really of its time and properly belongs to earlier, or later, cultural milieux.
The ephemera of the medium presents a recurring problem in radio drama studies, a weighty feeling of doom. With the future of the BBC’s existence currently perilous, one wonders what the consequences will be for archives like those housed at Perivale. If the internal function of the archives (for the BBC to make use during Radio 4 Extra broadcasts, for example) disappears, will the archives be opened to wider use? Or will material without commercial potential simply be discarded? Who would make the decision as to what was commercially viable and how would they make such decisions?
And the problem with the medium seemingly begins with wax cylinders. A beautiful, lyrical story from Baron Munchausen—alias Rudolph Erich Raspe, a German author who created a fictional travel writer and chronic teller of tall tales based on a real nobleman infamous for his boasting—cited by many of those fascinated with sound recordings is worth repeating here: the Baron is traveling in Russia in a snowy landscape and desires the postilion to blow his horn to alert other travellers that their sleigh will be coming around the bend. Unfortunately, the cold makes the horn incapable of any audible sound. Disappointed, they make their way to an inn. Diedre Loughridge and Thomas Patteson cite the “Frozen Horn” from their online Museum of Imaginary Instruments: “After we arrived at the end inn, my postilion and I refreshed ourselves: he hung his horn on a peg near the kitchen fire; I sat on the other side.” Warmed by the fire, the horn now begins to play its reserved tunes.
With a little leap of the imagination, it’s not difficult to see the parallels with the reality of sound recording limitation. The wax cylinders could only be played a few times before the sound degrades completely. Tin cylinders are not much better. This is the reason why the two Gladstone voices could be both “real” and “fake.” Celluloid is more durable, yet witness the reluctance of Dell to play one for longer than a few seconds, for preservation reasons.
Sound recordings are only as good as the medium on which they are recorded, a fact that surprisingly holds true even today. We were told by our BBC hosts that discs of shellac, vinyl, and acetate whose contents have already been digitised will not be discarded—digital recordings are ultimately taken from these physical originals.
In the future, we might invent means of reproduction and playback which could provide more fidelity to the original event lifted from the physical recording, in which case it will be the MP3s that will be redundant. There’s something both very modern and very old-fashioned about this. Once at a dinner party, I launched full-force into my postdoctoral rant about the eventual possible degradation of the MP3 as a recording format, that it was not infallible as we had been led to believe. I was surprised that I was wholly believed; furthermore, the older people participating in the conversation rued the disappearance of their CDs, tape cassettes and, vitally, their LPs, for the oft-cited reasons (which Primus Luta distills as the pricelessness of old recordings to one’s personal history, and the “fuller” sound ans weighty materiality, one resonating with one’s emotional past).
I admit, before I came to the UK and experienced the never-perfect but always interesting presence of BBC Radio, I treated radio as a background medium. I suppose recorded sound had always interested me, and I had had a strong relationship with local, classical music radio (Classical KHFM Albuquerque). However, I could not have predicted ten years ago that I would become a passionate proponent of audio drama and sound studies more generally. I’m almost embarrassed now at my excessive love of audio drama; I make almost no distinctions between “high” art like Samuel Beckett and Tom Stoppard and fan fiction radio serials like Snape’s Diaries as produced by Misfits Audio: I listen to almost anything.
And, truly, the future of audio drama is only assured if people keep listening. The digitisation and availability of cylinder recordings makes study of them more accessible, so the way is paved for further studies of the earliest audio drama. It is imperative that researchers continue to request sound recordings from the BBC, even if they have to use the relatively inconvenient system currently available.
There are signs that things are improving and that more people than ever before want to access such materials. As Josh Shepperd puts it brilliantly, “Sound trails continue where paper trails end.” As Director of the Radio Preservation Task Force at the Library of Congress, his efforts have underlined the fact that often it is the local and the rural whose radio or audio history vanishes more quickly than the national or the metropolitan. This would historically be the case with the BBC as well, which for a long time privileged London sound above regionalism (and, some would argue, still does). Since 2015, the British Library (and the Heritage Lottery Fund) have invested significantly in the Save Our Sounds campaign, positing that within 15 years, worldwide sound recordings must be digitized before recordings degrade or we no longer have the means to play the material.
Out of curiosity, I downloaded the more than 600-page listing, the Directory of UK Sound Collections, assembled rather hastily through the Save Our Sounds project in 20 weeks, and comprising more than 3,000 collections and more than 1.9 million objects. This document makes for fascinating and eclectic reading, ranging as it does between a Sound Map of the English town of Harrogate to the archives of the Dog Rose Trust, which mainly provides recorded tours of English cathedrals for those who are blind. Undoubtedly, there are wodges of local or forgotten drama in these archives, too. The linking up of these archives and making them more widely accessible suggests how important sustained, collective effort is to unfreezing radio’s archival post-horn, delivering more of its unique tunes.
Featured Image: “The Route to Open Data” at BBC Perivale, Image by Flickr User Hatter! (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Leslie McMurtry has a PhD in English (radio drama) and an MA in Creative and Media Writing from Swansea University. Her work on audio drama has been published in The Journal of Popular Culture, The Journal of American Studies in Turkey, and Rádio-Leituras. Her radio drama The Mesmerist was produced by Camino Real Productions in 2010, and she writes about audio drama at It’s Great to Be a Radio Maniac.
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Radio Preservation Task Force Conference Information
Friday: Library of Congress, Washington, DC 9-5pm
Saturday: University of Maryland- College Park, 9-5pm
Schedule at: www.radiopreservation.org,
RPTF Federal Page (associate list linked at the left tab): https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-recording-preservation-plan/about-this-program/radio-preservation-task-force/
This conference is free and open to those in the academic/archival/curatorial/preservation community who would like to attend.
On Feb. 26 and 27, the Radio Preservation Task Force (RPTF) of the National Recording Preservation Board (NRPB) will hold the first national digital humanities media history conference at the Library of Congress on Friday and the University of Maryland on Saturday. The schedule can be found here. Eminent sound historian Michele Hilmes (Wisconsin) directs the conference program with Christopher Sterling (GWU), Chair of the National Recording Preservation Board. Distinguished historian of British broadcasting Paddy Scannell (Michigan) commences the conference as academic keynote. I write this update as national research director for the project.
The RPTF is tasked with preserving local, noncommercial, and otherwise unprocessed recordings stored at local radio stations, libraries, archives, and garages, and identifying strategies to process and facilitate engagement with these materials. Scholars, curators, sound preservationists, and archivists from more than 100 universities, museums and libraries will converge on Capitol Hill to discuss steps toward preserving radio’s aural history, including the many historical events captured by nontheatrical broadcasts such as news, town hall meetings, public forums, sporting events, and community outreach programs.
The conference is a culmination of roughly 18 months of initial work (largely built out of service labor by academic media historians), and contributes a new dimension to the emergent discipline of sound studies with its focus on the history of mass media storytelling, sound art, and for the first time, the nontheatrical sounds of radio history. Participants have been confirmed from NPR, the Smithsonian, Pacifica, the Library of Congress, and multiple academic research groups. National presses, blogs, and magazines will also be present to cover the RPTF. Our conference Twitter hashtag is #RPTF. Presenters will discuss the common goal of how to best assess, protect, preserve, and implement current and future findings, with reference to conventional history work, museum curation, classroom pedagogy, and material preservation actions. Tours for scholars and archivists began yesterday at NPR and the Library of Congress’s Packard Campus.
— Jennifer Waits (@SpinningIndie) February 25, 2016
The RPTF was formed thanks to a mandate by sound preservation pioneer and former NRPB Chair Sam Brylawski, practitioner keynote for the conference. The mandate was issued to identify what, where, and how many recordings might still be extant from radio history. Our early findings have been both compelling and disappointing. Over the RPTF’s first two aggregation cycles, the consortium turned up 350,000 recordings spread over roughly 350 participating archives. We expect that number to reach well over one million after our next search cycle, and for our affiliate archive list to increase to over 1000 with the inclusion of radio stations. Enormous numbers to be sure.
— nprchives (@nprchives) February 26, 2016
However, if one conducts a thought experiment about how many recordings might have aired between the mid-1920s and the mid-1980s, the number seems meager at best. I’m terrible at math, but if one begins with a low-ball assumption (very low for some markets) that there have been 25 stations per median market, producing daily content between 1925 and 1985, it’s not hyperbole to speculate that our findings, while not total or comprehensive, reveal that only a fraction of content has survived. Most materials have been incinerated or trashed thanks to “consolidation” of the media market after the Telecommunications Act of 1996. As stations changed hands, moved sites, and reorganized spaces, station archives were the first to go. Protecting and storing records, DATs, reel-to-reels, and internal documents, simply haven’t made sense for bottom lines. It’s safe to anecdotally contend that we’ve certainly already lost over 75% of radio history, and perhaps as high as 90%.
— NPR RAD (@npr_rad) February 25, 2016
Why is this important? The short answer is that radio has held a unique and important position in U.S. cultural history. Radio has been a media industry that developed a mature art form through storytelling and entertainment, while acting as a communications technology that has been utilized for community building and public discourse. After print media, the history of radio provides an unmatched reflection of the historical development, experience, and reception of cultural and political events. And as I’ve written previously at FlowTV, radio sometimes contains the only remaining historical expression of specific moments and social movements.
— Jennifer Waits (@SpinningIndie) February 25, 2016
As the task force has progressed since late 2014, it’s become conspicuously apparent to our consortium that a core goal of cultural research – increasing the visibility of marginalized histories – is well served by exhuming and studying the artifacts of radio history. By increasing the nontheatrical radio archive in particular, we increase and build continuity lines for histories that simply haven’t been told due to lack of primary sources. It’s very much a nuts and bolts, trial and error process. A lot of the project will culminate around a sprawling big data interface in 2017 – a collaboration between the RPTF, ARSC, and Indiana University. This potentially makes the RPTF the largest digital humanities project in Film and Media. And we plan for the interface to feature syllabi, lesson plans for all educational ages, and recordings that fall under the domain of “fair use.”
To make invisible histories audible turns out to consist of quite a few steps, and a careful study of the conditions necessary to conduct preservation work, which requires an understanding of the regulatory, historical, and organizational precedents and restrictions by which materials can be shared. In this way, the RPTF also represents an emergent research path for media and sound studies – dedication to the study and implementation of logistics for social recognition. Actively studying the contemporary political economy of how hidden information might come to be circulated, and devising strategies to protect and circulate voices for the first time, makes a strong contribution to social justice work.
— Monica De La Torre (@digitalxicanafm) February 26, 2016
There’s still much to learn about these processes, and that’s the purpose of the conference. We’re putting together experts in multiple spheres for the first time to begin a conversation about how a national infrastructure might be organized to address the mechanics that comprise the ethics we associate with the study of sound history. Participants will present historical research, while panels and workshops discuss everything from material sound preservation methods, to educational approaches to teaching sound in film and media classrooms, to contemporary curatorial methods regarding presentation of media art.
[Ed note: SO! Ed. in Chief J. Stoever will be speaking in as part of a Radio Pedagogy Workshop this afternoon at 1:30 (along with Special Ed. Neil Verma and SO! writers Amanda Keeler and Kathy Battles; other SO! fam in the house include Inés Casillas, Monica de la Torre, Alex Russo, Shawn VanCour, Suzanne Smith, Alejandra Bronfman, Christine Ehrick, Bill Kirkpatrick, Josh Sheppherd and Andrew Bottomley. It’s an SO! fam reunion over here!]
Among projects commencing immediately after the conference, the RPTF will be applying for preservation and curation grants with our partners at multiple universities, as well as with Pacifica Radio Archives, considered by many to be the great collection of postwar local and community radio history in the U.S. Since there are so many recordings to process, the RPTF has organized eight content-based caucuses in which faculty experts will be working with archivists to unite split collections, and determine which recordings are most in need of research and circulation. Caucuses will meet for the first time at the conference, as horizontally organized research units that will act as grant-writing bodies. The results of their preservation actions will be linked or shared at the RPTF big data site. Here is a list of the caucus chairs and their themes:
- Kathleen Battles, Oakland University – LGBT Radio
- Mary Beth Haralovich, University of Arizona – Gender and Feminist Radio
- Laura Schnitker, University of Maryland and Jennifer Waits, Radio Survivor – College, Community, and Educational Radio
- Sonja Williams, Howard University – African American and Civil Rights Radio
- Jon Nathan Anderson, CUNY-Brooklyn – Labor Radio
- Michael Stamm, Michigan State – Radio Journalism
- Inés Casillas, UC-Santa Barbara – Spanish Language and Bilingual Radio
- David Jenemann, University of Vermont – Sports Radio
In collaboration with the National Recording Preservation Foundation, the RPTF has already distributed its first grant: to the Lily Library at Indiana University to digitally process, preserve, and distribute the complete Orson Welles radio broadcasts. This will be the first time these recordings — which are all now in the public domain — have been made available in completion. We expect to build a special website with these materials sometime in 2017.
— Jane Gilvin (@jg88354) February 26, 2016
Josh Shepperd is Assistant Professor of Media Studies at Catholic University in Washington D.C. He teaches courses related to critical, conceptual, and methodological approaches to media studies. He is also actively involved in digital humanities media preservation, and currently serve as the National Research Director of the Radio Preservation Task Force for theNational Recording Preservation Board of the Library of Congress.
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