Archivists know at least part of what has to be done, but that doesn’t make this task easy. In what the Library of Congress is billing the largest digital humanities and history initiative in the discipline of film and media, the Radio Preservation Project seeks to identify, catalogue, and preserve a gargantuan—and, for now, disparate—collection of noncommercial radio recordings in the United States. Ultimately, the plan is to create a massive searchable database of sound that anyone can use to hear the past. Some of those moments are historic in the traditional sense, in that they’re audio records of significant events: The 1936 Olympics in Berlin, believed to be the most widely recorded global event in the years leading up to World War II, for example, and a St. Louis radio station’s coverage of the first post-prohibition case of Budweiser leaving the factory (so it could be delivered to the White House).
But just as important is the identification and preservation of bits of radio that may, at first blush, seem ordinary. Mundane, even. “Radio was really primarily a history of public forums, interviews, discussions, and local histories—a lot of civil rights history, LGBT history, and feminism history,” Shepperd told me. “It was a way to communicate with [niche] communities, and it did not always leave paper trails. You had to be in a certain place at a certain time.”
Radio’s inherent ephemerality—especially long before the days of websites and podcasts—is part of the problem: Much of it wasn’t recorded in the first place. (That doesn’t mean audio produced in the Internet Age is safe from annihilation, however.)“Very little of it was saved, or it was lost,” Shepperd told me. Entire cultural narratives—radio history among indigenous communities, for example—have been nearly wiped out. The Radio Preservation Project will aim to find and save as much as possible of what remains.
Much of what’s already been lost will never be known to us. But scholars do have a wish list of radio that they’d like to find: Like tape from the Pittsburgh station KDKA, which aired presidential election returns in 1920—it represents one of the most prominent early news broadcasts—or audio from the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, one of the most significant court cases in American history and the first live radio broadcast of a criminal trial.
It seems unlikely that such tape will be found—recording equipment was still experimental in the 1920s—but discovering forgotten audio certainly isn’t, if you’ll excuse the pun, unheard of. One of my professors in graduate school once discovered a long-lost recording of the journalist Edward R. Murrow describing, in 1954, what it was like to fly into the eye of Hurricane Edna. It’s a lovely piece of tape.
In 2005, the sportswriter Gary Pomerantz went looking for people who had witnessed Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game. “At the outset of my research, I knew of one person at Chamberlain’s 100-point game: the Big Dipper himself,” he wrote. “Eventually, I interviewed 15 Knicks and Warriors players. I found the referee Pete D’Ambrosio, joking at 83, ‘You probably thought I was already dead, didn’t you?’” Pomerantz also tracked down Bill Campbell, the Philadelphia Warriors broadcaster who can be heard on the tape from that epic 1962 game, elated at what Chamberlain had achieved. Campbell was a man with a booming voice, “deep, full, and so smooth one listener was convinced he gargled with Turtle Wax,” Pomerantz wrote in his book, Wilt, 1962: The Night of 100 Points and the Dawn of a New Era.