Inside the Broadcasting Archives at UMCP, a Kinescope Heaven
by Jim Baxter, Faculty Voice
WHEN YOU ENTER the Broadcasting Archives on the College Park campus, four striking murals on the far side of the room catch your eye. They represent the progress of broadcasting from its beginnings through 1945, when the paintings were commissioned by Broadcasting magazine.
Standing by the reference desk and looking around, you see vintage microphones, radios and televisions – some part of the permanent collection, and some on loan from the Radio and Television Museum in Bowie. Look up and you’ll see a statue of Nipper, once the proud icon of RCA Records, atop a bookshelf.
Not immediately visible, but on site, are an assortment of fascinating odds and ends: an original set of NBC chimes from the late 1920′s, a baton used by Arturo Toscanini to conduct the NBC Symphony Orchestra, a life size bust of Jimmy Durante, and a giant costume head of Michigan J. Frog, the mascot of the WB network.
The archive is actually two collections – the National Public Broadcasting Archives (NPBA) and the Library of American Broadcasting (LAB) – housed together on the third floor of Hornbake Library. Douglas Gomery, professor emeritus at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, describes the collection as one of top five research collections for the study of radio and television in the United States.
NPBA is a cooperative effort: the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Public Broadcasting System and National Public Radio, along with the Academy for Educational Development, joined forces with the University of Maryland to preserve the history of public broadcasting. NPBA, which opened in 1990, collects and maintains textual records of major individuals and institutions, and a selected audio and video program record from national production and support centers.
Karen E. King, acting curator of NPBA, encourages faculty to take advantage of the facility. “It’s not just listening to a show or seeing a show but learning how it’s put together and who thought of it,” King – who earned her MLS and an M.A. in History from Maryland – said. “We have a lot of background material on NPR and PBS shows and people can find out how things are done.”
LAB was founded in 1972 as the Broadcast Pioneers Library. Originally housed at the headquarters of the National Association of Broadcasters in Washington, D.C., it became part of the University of Maryland Libraries in 1994. That collection includes audio and video recordings, books, pamphlets, periodicals, personal papers, oral histories, photographs, scripts and ephemera devoted exclusively to the history of broadcasting. Tucked in with all this is the “Art Gliner Center for Humor Studies” collection – appropriately, since humor plays such an important part in the history of radio and television programming.
“Our collection is very wide ranging,” Michael Henry said. Henry is the Reference Specialist at LAB, and is currently working on his MLS at Maryland. “Almost anything you might want relating to radio or television broadcasting, journalism, humor studies, even women’s studies,” he said. “And for broadcasting, not just programming but management, regulation, advertising, the business of broadcasting. We have material going back to the dawn of broadcasting. And to some degree film, there’s so much crossover. Students have a wide range of subject matters, formats and time frames to work with.”
Chuck Howell, curator at LAB, pointed out the size of the collection: more than 3000 linear feet of manuscripts and personal papers, including those of radio and television giant Arthur Godfrey, pioneering woman network executive Helen Sioussat, broadcast journalist Howard K. Smith, radio soap opera writer Sandra Michael, and many others. Howell, who holds an M.A. in Radio, Television and Film from Maryland, added that there are more than 7,000 books, over 300 periodical titles, more than 7,000 audiotapes (including 1,100 oral histories, interviews and speeches), 9,000 recorded discs and a growing collection of video and film material available to the researcher.
Scripts housed at LAB number more than 5,000. Radio: A Broadcast Novelty is the oldest item in the collection, dating from 1926. Others include early Amos & Andy scripts from 1929, the radio shows of Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Jack Benny and Bob Hope, an almost complete run of the television classic Your Show of Shows, and a large number of soap opera scripts from both radio and television. There are even pamphlets, ranging from 1920s vintage Bell Laboratories radio engineering bulletins to promotional materials, advertising circulars and internal studies generated by the broadcast networks – over 7000 of them.
The paper material is the most accessible. Non-print media can be more problematic, but LAB makes every effort to make such materials available to the researcher. “A book, a magazine, a photograph you don’t need special equipment to access,” Henry added. “But kinescopes, some older audio and video formats, these do require special handing.”
This speaks to the budget cuts that have affected every aspect of the University’s operations. Many projects at the Broadcasting Archives have been put on hold, waiting for a better day. “We have ambitions to get our audio and video preservation arm back up and running,” Howell said. “That whole effort has been on a back burner since the bottom dropped out of the economy.”
Still, being housed at the University is a boon to the combined archives because of the space and partial budgetary support. There are also funds to pay for interns from the College of Information Studies. “We’ve been very fortunate in our student hires,” Howell added. “That helps a lot when you’re running an operation pretty close to the bone.”
Despite cutbacks, the archives is planning one big event of interest – an exhibit devoted to Norman Corwin, regarded as an “auteur of the airwaves” during the heyday of network radio. His first original work, The Plot to Overthrow Christmas, became a holiday perennial. In 1941, Corwin wrote and directed a special all-network program to mark the 150th anniversary of the Bill of Rights. Broadcast barely a week after the attack on Pearl Harbor, We Hold These Truths was the highest-rated program in radio’s short history. Corwin later wrote a special broadcast to celebrate the defeat of Hitler. The result was an acknowledged masterpiece, On a Note of Triumph.
Though the main focus of the exhibit will on Corwin’s CBS years (1938 – 1947), his later accomplishments as an author, writer for the stage and screens (both big and small), and his ongoing work will also be on display. At 99, Corwin has just published his new book Norman Corwin’s One World Flight: The Lost Journal of Radio’s Greatest Writer. Dr. Michael Keith of Boston College and Dr. Mary Ann Watson of Eastern Michigan University edited the book, but the text is pure Corwin, taken from his own notes of a 1946 round-the-world adventure. On May 23, 2010 a reception will be held in conjunction with the exhibit to honor Mr. Corwin on the occasion of his 100th birthday.
The exhibit is free and will be open through July on the first floor of UMCP’s Hornbake Library. The Broadcast Archives are open from 10a.m. to 5p.m. Monday-Friday.
 Gomery served on the committee that put the Broadcasting Archives in place, and considers the Archives the proudest achievement of his 25-year career at Maryland. Indeed he donated his collection of 5,000 books to the Library as he retired in 2005, and today holds the title of Resident Scholar at the archives.