Old radio broadcasts come back to life in mid-Missouri

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Task force works to preserve America’s oral history

By Matt Horn, Natalie Edelstein, Trevor Hook and Abby Ivory-Ganja

Bob Priddy wants you to imagine life in mid-Missouri in 1920. You live on a farm, with your nearest neighbors several miles down the road. You work all day, and when you’re not working your downtime is filled with sewing, or playing the piano, or reading. The only world you really know is the acreage you occupy.

“Then one day, you go to town and you come home with a little box with a battery in it. And you put it on the dining room table. You turn it on –– and there are headphones. You put on the headphones. Then you have to very carefully twirl these dials and all of a sudden, in your headphones you're hearing music. It's a dance band in New Orleans. Or it's somebody singing in New York. And you're hearing these things at the same time that people in New York or New Orleans are hearing them,” Priddy explained, swelling with pride. “For the first time in your life, you can hear the voice of the president. Your life has been changed irrevocably. You’re no longer alone. There are friends in the room any time of day.”

Bob Priddy loves radio, so much in fact, that he has devoted over 50 years of his life to it. He believes nothing captures the history of America better than radio.

 Radio may have been the first broadcast medium, but it’s also the most forgotten. According to Josh Shepperd, assistant professor of media studies at the Catholic University of America, approximately 75 percent of radio broadcasts were not properly archived. In an effort to preserve radio’s place in history, the Library of Congress established the Radio Preservation Task force in 2014.

 Hear some of the broadcasts that have been recovered  here . 

Hear some of the broadcasts that have been recovered here

For the task force, it’s not just about cultural preservation. Radio was home to public debates and forums, and played an especially important part in informing local communities across the country.

Christine Ehrick, communications director for the task force, understands the necessity of preserving the voices and narratives that television, and print media, sometimes missed.

“I think radio provides such a wide range of the human experience as a historical artifact, in terms of what kinds of radio stations and what kinds of voices that we can hear on the radio,” Ehrick said. “I think we have an opportunity to collect, preserve and capture a much more diverse range of voices from our past than we can find in television.”

The task force is also focusing a large portion of their resources on education and research. According to the Library of Congress the task force hopes to “act as a clearing-house to encourage and expand academic study on the cultural history of radio through the location of grants, the creation of research caucuses, and development of metadata on extant materials.”

The task force is also going beyond preservation. Not only is it supporting archival efforts, but also funding research for academics to study radio’s historical impact. Working with scholars and historians from across the country, they have assembled a team of dedicated professionals to create an original approach for attacking one of the largest archival efforts in the U.S.

“For me, it has kind of opened up this whole new world of stuff that I was never really involved in, these questions of preservation and archives,” Ehrick said.

And while preserving broadcasts is the main motivator for the members of the task force, there are certainly other benefits to the work they are doing.

"Radio was the beginning. So to me, this project says radio has been important, radio still is important and radio is going to be important. I'm happy to see my professional life still recognized for its importance," Priddy said.

Although the task force has made great progress, there’s still a long way to go.

“The hope is, also, to have the radio preservation task force become a part of a larger international network of radio and sound archives so that we can share resources and ideas,” Ehrick said.

The task force will continue to develop an online inventory of American radio archival collections.