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Monday, November 21, 2011

Radio Days: Moe Asch Before Folkways

Radio Laboratories business card
The Moses and Frances Asch Collection is a treasure trove of materials and information about the Folkways label, its albums and artists, and the man who made it all possible. A researcher could spend years in the Production Files series alone, learning how iconic albums like Music of the Ituri Forest and Woody Guthrie’s Struggle were conceptualized, recorded, and produced.  As archive interns, we have the opportunity to examine these interesting artifacts up close, and we’ve come across more than just tax forms and royalty statements: World War II ration books, a 1950s photographers’ light meter, and a military document  from 1811 are just a few of our more unusual finds.

As someone who has been up to the elbows in Asch material for almost three months, I’m not ashamed to admit that I have a favorite part of the collection. But it isn’t the Production Files series with its beautiful artwork, or even the Correspondence series with its letters from artists, managers, and fans from all over the world. No, my favorite part is the early Biographical series, which chronicles the personal and pre-Folkways life of Moe Asch. Though it can be overshadowed by the accomplishments of his later years, the story of Moe Asch the young radio pioneer is one that deserves to be told as well. Before Folkways, Moe Asch was bringing sound to the masses in a different way, over P.A. systems and radio sets. The documents and other materials found in the Asch Biographical series give insight into the nascent field of radio technology, life in Depression-era New York City, and the early career of the man who would be Moe.

Before he was recording the world of sound, Moe Asch was immersed in the world of radio electronics.  He worked as lab engineer in charge of repairs at Walthal’s Electric Company in Manhattan for five years.  During and after his time there, Moe was an avid scholar and innovator in the field of electronic science. In 1929, he documented “equipment for aerial installation” that he himself had invented; three years later he wrote to a potential client as an inventor offering his product for sale. He also submitted articles on equipment and technique to trade publications like Radio Engineering and Radio Retailing in the early ‘30s. 

Letter to Virgil Graham from Moses Asch, regarding radio receivers in automobiles, undated

Moe became known throughout the community as a skilled radio man who was up-to-date with the latest technology, a reputation that led to some surprising interactions. In an undated letter from the 1930s, he warns a colleague about those who might want to exploit his knowledge for nefarious purposes: “… the police department in New York officially opened its Police Radio network, and I’ve been approached by bootleggers and (so called) gangsters to install radio receivers in their automobiles for reception of these signals.”

Throughout the Great Depression, Moe remained active in the field, attending conferences and joining several professional organizations. He was a member of the Institute of Radio Engineers and the United Electrical and Radio Workers of the World, and became secretary of the Brooklyn chapter of the Institute of Radio Service Men. In 1936, he served as the chairman of the Standards Committee and the head of the Educational Committee for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

It was during this time that Moe and his partner, Harry Mearns, started their own business that focused on radio and public address system repair, rentals, and installation. Radio Laboratories did business with individuals, theaters, professional organizations, and political groups all over New York City as well as in neighboring states.  Although the partnership ended in 1940, the electronics expertise and client contacts Moe gained during the Radio Labs years would serve him well when he entered the realm of commercial recording.

The Biographical series of the Moses and Frances Asch Collection provides a glimpse into an era of exciting technological innovations and the life of an enterprising young businessman in the midst of a tumultuous period in American history. For this and other reasons (who can resist the charm of vintage ads singing the praises of newly-minted FM radio?), this series ranks as one of the most fascinating parts of the Archives.  Anyone looking to examine the life of Moe Asch before Folkways would do well to start here.

- Aja Bain, Intern, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections

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