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Sunday, August 1, 2010

Video Killed the Radio Star...But Radio Still Lives in the Archives

Miss Peebles and Mother St. Paul's, 1949
Miss Peebles and Mother St. Paul's, 1949
National Museum of American History-Archives Center
Like many people in the Washington, D.C. metro area, I had to “rough” it last week, going several days without electricity. Now as a historian, this inevitably brought to mind how people lived prior to electricity and the modern amenities of AC, my favorite television show and most importantly the ability to take a hot shower and dry my hair. I have found some interesting ways to cope – my favorite was hopping in the car to cool down and listen to the radio.

It always amazes me how much I really do enjoy the radio and the stories that are broadcast over the air. It brought to mind an age where the radio ruled and families spent their nights gathered around the set listening to their programs.

Young Austin Clark
Young Austin H. Clark, 1910
 Smithsonian Institution Archives

This inspired me to learn more about the Smithsonian’s own radio history and the programs that it produced. Starting in 1923, the Smithsonian began its broadcasting career on October 19th with a series of talks about the Smithsonian and its branches. The success of this series led to a Smithsonian scientific series hosted by Austin H. Clark, a curator of echinoderms. Clark began his first broadcast on April 9, 1924 with “The Giants of the Animal World” and continued this for over four years.

One of the most popular radio programs in the Smithsonian’s history was “The World is Yours” broadcasts. During the Great Depression, the Smithsonian in collaboration with the Works Progress Administration and the U.S. Office of Education developed a program that debuted on June 7, 1936. The weekly show lasted a half-hour and presented scientific, historical, artistic and cultural dramatic stories. Smithsonian staff prepared the scripts for the show, while out-of-work actors and musicians were hired by the WPA to perform in the broadcast. Programs were introduced by Tom Hoier, better known as the “Old Timer,” and often featured Smithsonian curators. For example, in one program Theodore T. Belote, curator of history, helped “Old Timer” understand the history behind the Smithsonian’s coin collection. Another week, listeners traveled to Chile for mineral specimens and China for birds.

The World is Yours Supplement
"The World Is Yours" Supplement, 1947
Smithsonian Institution Archives
The Office of Education also issued a supplement to go along with the radio show program for that week that had additional explanatory material. The show went out to thousands of listeners each week, but was ended in the 1940s when air time turned its attention to the World War 2 effort. The Smithsonian continued its participation in the airwaves with other programs in the 1960s and 1980s.

It just so happens that almost thirty years ago this week on August 1, 1981, MTV debuted its first music video which just so happens to be yes, that’s right, “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles. Although the golden age of the radio might be over, the materials left behind can be found in archives around the world. Martha Rosen, NMNH Librarian and “The World is Yours” guru, recently pointed out that the Smithsonian’s various archives house many of the gems of the radio era. To learn more about this topic, head over to the Collections Search Center and tune in to programs of the past.

Courtney Esposito, Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives


  1. Creative and compelling as always. Keep up the good work!

  2. Though the technology may have shifted away from radio waves, in some ways I would argue that the golden age of recorded audio broadcasting has just begun--look at how many podcasts are produced by Smithsonian museums alone! Radio has gone to the internet, and along the way has become exceedingly democratic. As long as the power is on, we always have something new to listen to. Interesting blog post--thanks for sharing. And I recommend those hand-crank emergency radios, for your next storm.

  3. Sara, thanks for the comment, I hadn't thought of it that way. I am not much of a podcaster myself but do occasionally listen while on long trips. I absolutely agree with your statement. The one thing that is different about the new "radio" is that it allows people more freedom to listen when and where they want to. So for the individual who is not a huge fan of the morning, they can now listen to their morning show at a more convenient time. For the archives podcast have become a way to invite people in, behind the scenes very similar to the way the old radio shows use to. Great point and thanks for reading!

  4. A lot of people are interested in old radio programs because of nostalgia, but for some it's more personal. Several years ago, I was contacted by a woman who had found a handful of the supplements that Courtney mentioned in her parents' attic. She couldn't bring herself to throw them away and we gladly accepted them. She knew her father had been part of the Civilian Conservation Corps and had some involvement in radio. I was able to find an Educational Radio Program progress report from 1937 in our collections that included descriptions of the various radio projects and how various organizations, including the CCC, were involved. Although it didn't provide specific information about her father, she was able to put that portion of his life into a bigger context.

  5. Thanks for sharing Jennifer. Martha Rosen had mentioned how attached she is to the old radio programs, which inspired her research into the Smithsonian's Radio History. She has found a lot of informatioan and documents both in SIA and other archives. At some point she will be sending her findings to us, and hopefully we can look into them further!