American radio broadcasting came of age during World War II, when networks brought live speeches by political leaders and live analysis of rapidly-developing events into living rooms from coast to coast. Recordings of radio news programs from that deadly, years-long conflict from the late 1930s to 1945 offer a priceless window into that tumultuous time.
FROM THE EDITOR
I am an ardent believer in efforts to save America’s radio heritage, including the work now being done by the Radio Preservation Task Force (http://radiopreservation.org). In cooperation with RPTF, Radio World here begins a series of occasional guest commentaries by or about those involved in the effort. Feliks Banel is a faculty member at the University of Washington Department of Communication in Seattle and a host and producer for KIRO Radio.
— Paul McLane
For one particular network, the fact that recordings of reports by Edward R. Murrow and other talented correspondents exist at all is something of a happy mishap.
An expert speaking this winter at the first Radio Preservation Task Force Conference at the Library of Congress in Washington described how one of the most important tools for understanding World War II is available to researchers only because of an “accident” at KIRO Radio in Seattle more than 70 years ago.
During his keynote address, longtime archivist and librarian Sam Brylawski spoke of KIRO’s role in saving a priceless audio record of American history.
Brylawski told the audience of more than 200 radio history scholars from around the United States and Canada that a case of “accidental preservation” resulted in creation of a nearly complete archive of CBS news broadcasts during World War II.
Recordings of CBS network programs were recorded and stored at the KIRO transmitter site on Vashon Island, across Puget Sound from Seattle.
Photos by Feliks Banel “KIRO is the station in Seattle that cut lacquer discs to timeshift,” Byrlawski said, explaining how the scheduling of live broadcasts of CBS Radio’s news coverage was aimed for the Eastern time zone, not convenient for West Coast audiences.
KIRO, Brylawski said, made recordings of network news programs on giant, 16-inch diameter discs, and then played back highlights a few hours later at times that were more convenient to Seattle-area listeners.
“As a result, those lacquer discs are the closest thing to a complete record of CBS World War II news that we have,” Brylawski said. And they were saved “only because the station, probably against its [network affiliation] agreement with [CBS chairman] William Paley, was timeshifting.”
The full story of how the recordings were saved is long and a little complicated. The original 16-inch discs were recorded off the network feed from CBS in New York at the old KIRO studios in the basement of the Cobb Building at Fourth Avenue and University Street in downtown Seattle.
After later playback, rather than throw them away, for some reason, KIRO staff moved the discs, perhaps gradually or in small batches, to the KIRO transmitter site on Vashon Island. Vashon is in Puget Sound, a few miles southwest of Seattle.
That’s where University of Washington Professor Milo Ryan “discovered” them in the 1950s, along with help from former KIRO Station Manager Loren Stone. Ryan had been searching for recordings of Winston Churchill’s World War II speeches for a class that he was teaching about propaganda. Stone invited him to visit Vashon, and that’s where Ryan realized the value of what KIRO had saved — beyond a few Churchill speeches for his class.
The recordings were catalogued for a book published by the University of Washington Press in the early 1960s.MILO RYAN PHONOARCHIVE
The scope and scale of Ryan’s efforts quickly grew, and he began what was to become one of the first intentional efforts to preserve, catalog and make accessible a large collection of archival audio.
In 1957, the collection of discs was moved to the University of Washington northeast of downtown Seattle. Professor Ryan secured funding from CBS and led the effort to make copies on reel-to-reel tape and to create a catalog. Engineers from the UW’s public TV station KCTS and public radio station KUOW, when both were still on campus, assisted with technical aspects of making the tapes.
In the catalog written by Milo Ryan and published by University of Washington Press in 1963, Ryan noted that if reusable recording tape had been available to KIRO during World War II, the archive might not exist today. Engineers, Ryan said, may have simply erased and reused the same tape every day. Because 16-inch discs could only be recorded on once, re-use wasn’t an option.
Eventually, the discs were moved from the UW to a National Archives and Records Administration regional warehouse a few miles from campus, and ultimately moved to NARA’s archival facility in College Park, Md., in 2002 or 2003. The tapes that Ryan made originally remain at the University of Washington Library, where they’re still accessible to researchers in-person and where they are gradually being made available online (listen to SoundCloud files at http://tinyurl.com/phonoarchive).
At the National Archives (www.archives.gov/research/guides/catalog-film-sound-video.html) locationin Maryland, Dan Rooney is the NARA employee who oversees what’s known as the “Milo Ryan Phonoarchive.” On a morning in late February, he donned a white glove, and displayed a box full of original 16-inch KIRO discs.
The second disc Rooney carefully removed from the acid-free archival box was labeled, in pencil, “Richland B’cast, Atomic Bomb, 8/6/45.” This would’ve been just hours after the world learned of the existence of America’s atomic bomb. It is also when Seattle residents learned, perhaps by listening to KIRO, about the massive secret federal project at what was called the Hanford Engineering Works in eastern Washington.
KIRO recorded this broadcast from Richland, Wash., home of the Hanford project, the day after the atomic attack on Hiroshima. In terms of the historical significance, Rooney said, one of the most significant things about the Milo Ryan Phonoarchive is that it is a kind of ay-by-day accounting during the World War II period. “Bombings in London, on the ground reporting going on, there’s [Edward R.] Murrow broadcasts in there, prominent journalists.”
Brylawski minces no words in his assessment of the value of the Milo Ryan Phonoarchive. “It’s an extraordinarily important document for American radio history,” Brylawski said, “or, I should say, journalism history and American history.”
While reluctant to speak ill of visual artifacts, Brylawski believes archival audio such as the KIRO recordings can be powerful tools for understanding the past.
“At this conference, a lot of people have spoken of the importance of actually hearing a voice from the past,” Brylawski said in February, “and how much more effective [sound] is, in terms of understanding the person and the times, than a photograph.”
He said KIRO deserves recognition for what the station did during World War II, even it was unintentional. “KIRO should get a gold star for ‘inadvertent archiving,’” Brylawsi said. “That wasn’t their intention, but thank God they did it.”