Teaching Radio History to Help Save It?: Listening, Radio Preservation, and the History Classroom

Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier
Teaching with Primary Sources Vol 4(3)
Christine Ehrick
University of Louisville

An essay entitled “Private Passion, Public Neglect: The Cultural Status of Radio, written in 2000, lamented the neglect of radio as a subject of academic study and the “inaccessibility of radio archives,” in this case in Britain (Lewis 2000, 164; see also Hilmes 2014). These two issues, of course, are not disconnected: scholarly and archival neglect can be a self-reinforcing circle. Since then, radio studies has become an increasingly vibrant area of scholarly inquiry, and more and more archival radio is being catalogued, preserved, and made available to scholars and the public at large.  Recent undertakings such as the Library of Congress’s Radio Preservation Task Force and the British Library’s Save our Sounds Initiative are evidence that radio is finally receiving sustained attention from archivists and preservationists, committed to saving what remains of especially radio’s recorded past. But even with this new attention, the preservation of radio’s past remains in a precarious state. Preservation initiatives are often poorly-funded, and surviving archival radio is under constant threat from what has been described as “the two-headed monster of physical degradation and technological obsolescence” (DeAnna 2016, 4).

Sustained commitment to radio preservation is dependent on a general perception of archival radio as a valuable part of national, regional, or local historical patrimony. Using these materials in the classroom is one way scholars can help foster this perception. Teaching radio’s history and incorporating archival audio into the classroom underscores radio’s historical significance, raises awareness about the contingent nature of the archive, and focuses attention on “sonic epistemologies” and how listening might enrich our understandings of the past (Cobussen et al. 2013; see also Harris 2015). In my own experience, using archival radio in the history classroom gives students a different way to engage with the past (usually at no added cost), helps them better understand the place of aurality and sound as categories of historical analysis, and enhances their appreciation of the importance of digital history and preservation.

Radio and Sound in the Classroom

As a scholar interested in sound, listening, and the human voice, I have incorporated listening assignments (historical podcasts, primary materials) in many of my history classes for several years now. But where I have done the most work with sound in the classroom has been my History of Radio course, an advanced undergraduate/graduate class. In recent years I have sought to combine the use (and, hopefully, appreciation) of old time radio, discussions about sound archives and radio preservation with the creation of sound media, and interaction with Louisville’s local radio landscape. Each time around, there is more archival radio available at no cost to students via various open access sites.

Students typically have little background in or understanding of radio history. The first task, therefore, is to get them to recognize the communicative power of the medium. Thus we begin, not at radio’s beginnings, but by listening to what is perhaps the most famous example of old time radio: Orson Welles’s 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast. This is a piece of radio history that many students know about but have never actually listened to, and it tends to immediately dispel notions that old radio was “boring.” I have also had students explore the London Sound Survey’s mapped collection of BBC “actuality recordings,” on-location audio capturing the everyday sounds of London from the 1920s to the 1950s. This engaging interactive website helps students think about sound as a category of historical analysis generally, as well as the role of radio in the preservation of sounded history.  With this, we are then ready to roll back to radio’s early days armed with a greater appreciation of sound and radio in twentieth-century history.

In general, with a bit of guidance, student response to both listening to and eventually producing sound-based media exceeded my expectations. Students are initially unsure about how to listen, what to listen for, if and how they should take notes on these “listening assignments.”  To both encourage students to listen carefully and reflect upon the assigned audio — and to give me a better sense of how they were engaging with the material — they were assigned short blog-type responses to some of the assigned radio listening.  I was impressed with how quickly students developed what Jonathan Sterne calls “audile technique,” particularly regarding human voices (Sterne 2003). While some students continued to focus on the content (message) of the audio, others became quite attentive to the voices and sounds they were hearing, describing the contours and emotional impact of what they heard in detailed and evocative ways. Listening to charismatic and controversial radio preachers like Aimee Semple McPherson and Father Charles Coughlin, for example, one can hardly fail to recognize the power of the human voice and the radio medium itself.

Over the course of teaching History of Radio I became involved in the Radio Preservation Task Force, a federal project affiliated with the Library of Congress and dedicated to identifying, preservation and accessibility of archival radio in the United States. Inspired by the Task Force’s aims, the class has visited the University of Louisville Archives, which among other things holds a collection of transcription discs from a local radio station (discs that are now, happily, in the process of being digitized). We also met with a librarian at the University’s Music Library, which had recently accepted a large donation of audio materials from WUOL, a Louisville classical music radio station affiliated with the Public Media Partnership. While not directly related to the class material, these visits call student attention to the important work of librarians and archivists in preserving local archival radio, and to some of the technical and financial challenges involved in those efforts. In addition to visiting sound libraries and archives, I have also sought to engage the discussion of radio’s past with its present and future via guest lectures from local people in the radio business.

One of the ways that “radio” has evolved in the digital age, of course, is via the podcast, digital audio files that may or may not also be radio programs that can be downloaded and consumed on demand and in a variety of listening contexts. I have had students record and edit a short podcast based on some aspect of their radio history term paper topic. The intended audience for these podcasts was their fellow students and the general public; students listened to and commented on each other’s work, and they were given the option of having their podcasts “aired” (online only and then subsequently online and over the air) on WXOX/ARTxFM, a low power FM station in Louisville (see also Gautam et al. 2015). The overall quality and creativity of the final products exceeded my expectations. Students assumed the role of cooking show host or radio sportscaster, and they adopted “DJ voices” and recruited friends and roommates as participants. I encouraged students to use archival audio in their podcasts, and the students heard, for example, “yellowface” stereotypes of Dr. Fu Manchu, or examples of controversial narcocorridos [drug ballads], banned from the Mexican airwaves but available on Spanish-language radio in the U.S. This assignment, in other words, helps students to connect with radio preservation, radio history, the contemporary radio scene in Louisville, and their fellow students.

“Pairing the thrill of old-time radio with the accessible broadcast media technology available today,” writes Roxanne Farwick Owens, “presents interesting and unique teaching possibilities” (67). My own experience confirms this, as well as the important relationship between radio pedagogy and radio preservation. There are of course limits and potential problems with such a listening-based pedagogical approach: this could be a particularly unfriendly environment for students with hearing impairment, or for students for whom English is not a first language, for example.  But with all of the caveats, for those of us interested in and committed to bridging the gaps between classroom and archive, radio history and radio preservation, and between listening to and producing sound media, a history classroom built around archival radio and podcast production brings past and present together in ways that resonate.

Works Cited

Cobussen, Marcel, Holgar Schulze, and Vincent Meelberg. 2013. “Editorial: Towards  New Sonic Epistemologies.” Journal of Sonic Studies 4.1 (May).

DeAnna, Gene. 2016. “Parallel Digital Transfer.” Library of Congress Magazine 5.4       (July/August): 4.

Ehrick, Christine. 2016. “Radio Archives and Preservation in Latin America: A Preliminary Overview.” Journal of Radio and Audio Media 2: 381-388.

Farwick Owens, Roxanne. 2013. “Old-Time Broadcasts for a New-Time Podcast.”        English Journal 102.6:66-70.

Gautam, Aishwarya A., Janet H. Morford, and Sarah Joy Yockey. 2015. “On the Air:       The Pedagogy of Student-Produced Radio Documentaries.” Oral History    Review 2:311-351.

Harris, Anna. 2015. “Sharing Sound: Teaching, Learning, and Researching Sonic                  Skills.” Sound Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 1.1: 98-117.

Hilmes, Michele. 2014. “The Lost Critical History of Radio.” Australian Journalism       Review 36.2 (December): 11-22.

Lewis, Peter M. 2000. “Private Passion, Public Neglect: The Cultural Status of Radio.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 32.2: 160-67.

Sterne, Jonathan. 2003. The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction.        Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Resource Links

The British Broadcasting Company Archive: http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/

Internet Archive, Old Time Radio: https://archive.org/details/oldtimeradio

Old Time Radio Fan: http://www.otrfan.com/

Old Time Radio Network: http://www.otr.net/

Old Radio World:   http://www.oldradioworld.com/

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