For most people the term "early radio" is used pretty loosely...anything before the introduction of format radio in the fifties would qualify, and certainly anything involving drama, comedy or variety programming. But for those of us involved in the collecting and documenting of radio history, it is hardly appropriate to refer to, say , a reel of "Johnny Dollar" episodes from 1960 as being representative of "early radio." It would be more accurate to confine the use of this term to radio up to 1935.
The date 1935 was chosen for a specific reason. It was in that year that NBC, spurred by the introduction of the so-called "acetate" recording disc, established its radio recording division. For the first time, a radio network took it upon itself to record and archive its programming for the use of artists, advertisers, and network staff. CBS began making recordings on a more limited basis three years later.
But many radio recordings prior to 1935 do exist. Experimental recordings were made by various phonograph companies and research laboratories almost from the beginning of broadcasting in the early twenties, using the newly-developed electrical recording process and producing phonograph-record pressings from wax masters. Some of these recordings were commercially released, others were made for experimental purposes and remain largely unknown. The Victor Talking Machine Company, The Compo Company of Canada, the Thomas A. Edison Laboratories, and Western Electric were among the companies producing such recordings. Later, some recording companies branched into the radio-syndication business, and part of that work involved recording certain network programs by line check for later broadcast on stations not connected to network lines.
From the late twenties, private recording studios in major cities were recording radio broadcasts off the air on behalf of advertising agencies or performers, using a primitive instantaneous recording system. The process usually used bare aluminum discs of from six to twelve inches in diameter, a special blunt-tipped recording stylus, and a heavily weighted recording head. The modulation would be indented into the surface of the disc creating a recording of the broadcast. By 1932, several companies were providing this service in New York, among them the Speak-O-Phone Recording Studio at 201 West 49th Street in Manhattan. This company maintained branches in other major cities as well, including Chicago, Boston, and Los Angeles. Another large New York based company was Broadcast Producers, Incorporated, which maintained a studio at 220 West 42nd Street. And, in Chicago, the Universal Recording Laboratories began in 1931 to provide a regular airchecking service. Los Angeles was served by 1932 by Bert Gottschalk's Electro-Vox Recording Studio in Hollywood --a company finally closed in early 2000, after nearly seven decades in business. By 1932, dozens of these studios were in existence, and it is companies such as these that are responsible for most of the existing radio programs before 1935.
A home recording system was marketed by RCA beginning in late 1930. Instead of aluminum discs, the system used recording blanks made of a plastic material, either solid or bonded to a cardboard core, and unlike the smooth, ungrooved surface of the aluminum disc, the Victor blanks guided the tone arm along the surface of the disc by means of a narrow pre-groove. The wide, blunt tip of the special home recording needle spread this groove as it travelled along the disc, and embossed the modulations into the very top of that new, widened groove. The records had to be played back with the same wide needle, and playing them back today is very difficult -- a standard 78rpm stylus travels below the modulation, giving the impression of a weak recording. To play these discs properly, a stylus of at least 5 mils width is required. Home Recording was featured on several high-end radio consoles marketed by RCA from 1930 to 1932 under the Radiola, Victor Radio, and RCA Victor nameplates. Home Recording was also featured by General Electric and Westinghouse as a result of their crosslicensing agreements with RCA.
So, the technology was in place by 1930 for widespread recording of radio broadcasts. And, contrary to the mythology which has arisen over the years, recordings were commonly made. Many ad agencies insisted on full recordings of the programs they sponsored, for post-air critiques. Fred Allen, in his book Treadmill to Oblivion notes that the agency producing his first series, "The Linit Bath Club Revue" of 1932-33, would listen to recordings of each of his programs the day after they aired and offer blistering criticism of the performance. Doubtless this practice was the rule for many agencies and advertisers determined to get the best value for their entertainment dollar.
Artists also recorded and collected their own programs. In a 1933 column, New York Daily News radio columnist Ben Gross mentions that orchestra leader Al Goodman was the proud owner of a complete run of recordings from the "Ziegfeld Follies Of The Air" series broadcast from April to June of 1932 over CBS for Chrysler...and that Goodman was negotiating with the sponsor to possibly syndicate these recordings for local rebroadcasts. (At least two of these programs still exist.) Although nothing appears to have come of this deal, it does indicate that recordings were not at all rare in the early years of network radio.
So, where are they? If thousands of programs were recorded off the air before 1935, why do so few exist today? There are several possible explanations.
One is the inherent fragility of the aluminum recordings themselves. The soft metal grooves were easily gouged into an unplayable condition. The discs were intended to be played only with fibre or bamboo needles. A single pass with a common steel needle was enough to permanently destroy the recording. Many discs no doubt suffered this fate.
Another factor is the purpose for which the recordings were made. In most cases, artists and agencies didnÕt have the foresight of Al Goodman, or of Rudy Vallee, who began to keep a meticulously catalogued archive of his programs in mid-1932. Independently made broadcast recordings, for the most part, were made for purposes of immediate evaluation...and once they had been examined, they might be put aside and forgotten or even thrown away.
A third factor cropped up years later: the scrap drives of World War II. With aluminum a crucial war material, citizens were urged to turn in as much of it as they could for recycling. Many patriotic performers could see no reason to hold onto ten year old broadcasts when there was a war to be won, and no doubt hundreds of early programs were thus lost.
And a fourth factor is simply the fact that many OTR collectors today are unaware that the aluminum-disc system ever existed, let alone even more obscure formats such as celluloid or gelatin discs. Most books and articles written on the subject of radio-show collecting gloss over the technical aspects of the recordings, leaving the novice collector with the impression that the 16 inch lacquer-coated transcription was the only method of preserving shows until the introduction of tape in the late forties. Even some advanced collectors may share this belief. Thus, when they run across an old uncoated aluminum platter, they don't recognize it for what it is. Labeling information is often sparse on the discs, often no more than pencil scrawling on the bare metal...and if you don't know what they are, it's easy to pass them by. And, even if a collector does recognize the discs when they are found, they are easily damaged by incorrect playback equipment. Home recording discs made using the RCA system are even more challenging, since if played back with an incorrect stylus, they reveal no recording at all!
So, despite the fact that the recordings were made in significant
numbers, few have survived, and even fewer are in circulation. Exactly
how many? That's a difficult question to answer. What follows is
a listing of authentic radio recordings made thru the end of 1931 that
I either have in my personal collection, or that I know to exist. By "authentic"
I mean a recording made either by linecheck or aircheck of an actual radio
broadcast, and which can be confirmed to be authentic. Syndicated programs
are not included in this list -- although they may be mentioned
where historically noteworthy -- nor are commercially or privately released
phonograph records not made directly from actual broadcasts.
KNOWN RADIO RECORDINGS THRU 1931
(The following section draws heavily on the research of Dr. Michael Biel, professor of Radio/TV at Moorehead State University in Kentucky, and the pre-eminent authority on early broadcast transcriptions in the US. His 1977 doctoral dissertation "The Making and Use Of Recordings in Broadcasting Before 1936" remains the definitive work on the subject, and is highly recommended to anyone with a serious interest in the story behind the recordings we all enjoy. My thanks to Dr. Biel for his help in preparing this material.)
The earliest surviving recordings of a radio signal are segments of Morse code transmissions recorded off the air in late 1913 or 1914 by Charles Apgar, a New Jersey radio amateur who fitted the electrical element of a headphone to a home-made electrical recording head attatched to an ordinary Edison cylinder phonograph. This contrivance enabled Apgar to electrically record radio signals picked up by his receiver on wax cylinders. and he made several such transcriptions during 1913-1915 -- some of which led to the discovery of high-speed coded messages being transmitted by German spies thru the Telefunken wireless station at Sayville, Long Island.
Other recordings made by Apgar were more prosaic -- including examples of Morse code news bulletins transmitted by the New York Herald's wireless station WHB in Manhattan.
Apgar's original wax cylinders are lost -- but samples of his recordings
survive, courtesy of an uncoated aluminum aircheck of Apgar's appearance
on station WJZ in New York on December 27, 1934. Apgar was interviewed
by NBC announcer George Hicks, and highlighted his description of his experiments
by playing two of his cylinders into the microphone -- one containing a
sample of a New York Herald news transmission and the other an example
of one of the "spy" transmissions. Twelve-inch aluminum copy discs
of this program are owned by the Antique Wireless Association, and a tape
copy is owned by the Library of Congress.
No authenticated radio recordings are currently known to exist from this time period.
The Museum of Radio and Television in New York has listed a 1920 vice-presidential campaign speech on "Americanism" by Franklin D. Roosevelt as the supposedly-oldest broadcast in its collection, but this is incorrect. The recording cited by the museum is actually a commercial phonograph record released on the "Nation's Forum" label (N. F. #20, matrix number 49871) This recording was made in the New York studios of the Columbia Graphophone Company, and was not derived from a radio broadcast, nor was the record intended for broadcast use.
Also not authentic are the various recreations of KDKA's 1920 Election Night coverage. Several recreations were made over the years by KDKA or by Westinghouse to celebrate various anniversaries, as well as one supervised by Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly for Volume 3 of the "I Can Hear It Now" record series released by Columbia Records in 1950. The latter recording may actually be voiced by the man who announced the KDKA broadcast, but it nonetheless cannot be considered an authentic representation of what was actually heard that evening. The third volume of "I Can Hear It Now" has long been a source of confusion for unknowing collectors as well as documentary producers, who have often sampled its contents for the soundtracks of various film and television projects -- unaware of the fact that most of the material on the album was actually recorded in 1950.
Documentation exists of numerous recordings of broadcasts made by technicians working for the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company and the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1921-23, but none are known to survive. Periodic mentions of other experimental recordings in the US and abroad are found in the radio magazines of the day, but none of these examples have survived.
11/10/23--Armistice Day Speech by former President Woodrow Wilson. WEAF, New York-WCAP, Washington-WJAR, Providence. Recorded by Frank L. Capps, a prominent recording technician and experimenter. The specific techniques used to make this recording are shrouded in mystery, but the recording is believed to be electrical. The existing vinyl pressing of the recording was made by the Compo Company of Lachine, Quebec around 1940, and is in the possession of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library. Both sides of the disc contain the same material, but the dubs differ slightly. Audio quality of the recording leaves a great deal to be desired -- in part due to the technology used, and in part due to Wilson's ill health. His voice is weak and distant as he discusses the significance of Armistice Day, and stresses the need for international cooperation in the future. The recording runs just over three and a half minutes, and includes no announcements.
Several excerpts from 1923-24 New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra broadcasts over station WEAF were recorded as experiments by Bell Laboratories, and numerous examples survive. These are brief segments, and not complete programs. Some have recently been released on CD by the Philharmonic in a collection entitled "Historic Broadcasts: 1923-1987" with a five minute segment from a December 1923 broadcast being the earliest. There are no announcements on any of these music recordings.
4/23/24 -- Speech by King George V, delivered at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley Stadium. This British Broadcasting Company broadcast was recorded by the acoustic method -- a loudspeaker was placed before an old-fashioned recording horn -- by the Gramophone Company of London, and rush-processed into finished shellac records for a repeat broadcast in the evening. A substantial portion of the broadcast was recorded for possible commercial release on the HMV label, but only the KingÕs speech is currently confirmed to exist.
June, 1924--Speech by F. D. Roosevelt at the Democratic National Convention, Madison Square Garden, New York. Broadcast over a twelve station Bell System network headed by WEAF and WCAP. Recorded by "Advertising Record Company" This unusual celluloid disc recording is cut at the non-standard speed of 60 rpm -- and appears to have been a giveaway or promotional item. It is probable that this recording was made from the broadcast, but this cannot be positively confirmed. Another Advertising Record Company disc containing a 1924-vintage political speech by President Coolidge is known to exist, and this may be from a broadcast as well. It is unclear if the recordings are electrical or acoustic. In his remarks, Roosevelt announces the withdrawal of Alfred E. Smith from the race for the Presidential nomination. The second side of the recording includes announcements from the platform about the recovery of a missing diamond pin, and a short sequence of band music. No announcers are heard.
9/12/24--National Defense Test Day Broadcast. WEAF-WCAP network of eighteen stations. Linecheck recorded by Western Electric. A ninety-minute program aired to demonstrate how radio could respond to national emergencies thru the interconnection of stations in various cities. Speeches by Secretary of War Weeks, General Pershing, General Saltzman of the Signal Corps, and General J. F. Carty of AT&T. This broadcast marked the first major demonstration of multiple remote cut-ins on a single program, with engineers in fourteen cities responding on cue, followed by two-way conversations between General Pershing and generals representing each of the Army Corps areas. Most of the program was recorded and pressings of the discs were presented to General Pershing. Sets of the discs are also held by the Library Of Congress and the National Archives. Audio quality of the recording is excellent, but two of the sides recorded were damaged during processing and do not survive.
Recordings exist of several selections and a speech by Walter Damrosch from a performance by the Associated Glee Clubs Of America on 3/31/25 at the Metropolitan Opera House. Four selections were commercially released on the Columbia label (50013-D and 384-D). This concert was broadcast by WEAF, but it has never been positively determined if the recordings were made from that broadcast by air or by line, or if the recording was made from a seperate microphone in the Opera House itself. While these recordings were made from an event that was broadcast, there is no way to know for sure if they are actual recordings of the broadcast.
1/15/25--"Victor Hour" excerpts. WEAF network. Recorded by Victor Talking Machine Company. Musical sequences only. Not in my collection but known to exist.
3/4/25--Inauguration Speech by President Coolidge. Broadcast over WEAF-WCAP network. Line check recorded by Western Electric. The recording includes the Oath Of Office, administered by Chief Justice William Howard Taft and the inaugual address itself. Preceding the Oath, the voice of announcer Graham McNamee can be recognized proclaiming "We are ready." This is the earliest known recording of McNamee's voice. The speech is incomplete, since only one 78rpm disc recording machine was used, and parts of the speech are missed between the sides recorded. A total of twenty-four minutes of the speech have been preserved. The audio quality of the recording is excellent, certainly on a par with other early electrical recordings, and disc noise is slight. Since this is a line check and not a recording made "off the air" itÕs difficult to say how well the audio represents what a typical radio listener would have picked up at home. Part of this recording -- omitting the Oath -- is included on a boxed collection of Presidential speeches released by Rhino Records in 1997.
3/14/25-- International Rebroadcast from London. WJZ aircheck, recorder unknown. The first relay of an overseas signal survives in a series of test pressings of undocumented origin, formerly owned by Dr. Albert Goldsmith of RCA., and now held by the University of Maryland's Library of American Broadcasting. Ten sides were recorded, most likely by placing a radio horn speaker next to a microphone. This hypothesis would explain the hollow, metallic tone of the recording. Much of the thirty-seven minute recording is unintelligible, due partly to the poor recording quality, but also due to the poor quality of the shortwave reception. There are frequent crashes of static punctuating a fairly constant roar of atmospheric noise. However, there are short passages of recognizable dance music from London, with "Alabamy Bound" one of the selections heard most distinctly, along with brief phrases from the BBC announcer. Much more clearly, announcer Milton Cross of WJZ can be recognized toward the end of the sequence, breaking in to explain what is happening, and to deliver a station identification. Interestingly, newspaper accounts from the broadcastÕs relay point in Belfast, Maine indicate that the BBC material was heard very clearly by listeners there, who picked up the signal directly from the RCA relay station. This would indicate that perhaps much of the interference was encountered on WJZ's end of the relay circuit. Although this is a very difficult recording to understand, it is nonetheless an invaluable window into the past. It preserves, as perhaps no other early recording does, the sound of a broadcast as it actually sounded to a listener in 1925. For that reason it stands as a true historical treasure.
7/31/25-- WEAF Broadcast Excerpts. Experimental airchecks recorded by Western Electric. Selections by Billy Jones and Ernie Hare and by blind pianist Edwin Searle. A female announcer -- possibly Rosaline Greene -- is heard on the Searle recording. The Searle recording is cut at 33 1/3 rpm -- the earliest surviving recording at this speed. Metal parts exist in the Lucent Technologies corporate archives -- which holds the Western Electric files -- and vinyl test pressings exist in the A. F. R. Lawrence Collection at the Library Of Congress.
8/9/25--Hymns from the American Presbyterian Church of Montreal church service, as broadcast by a Montreal station, likely CKAC. Recorded by Herbert Berliner for commercial release on the Apex Radia-Tone label, #25000. Musical selections only, no announcements. Not in my collection but known to exist.
10/19/25 -- Speech by Hon. W. L. MacKenzie-King. A short campaign talk by King from the Montreal Forum. Another Canadian broadcast recorded by Berliner for Apex Radia-Tone, probably airchecked from station CKAC, Montreal. King's rather tedious election speech is suddenly disrupted when an opposition political operative switches out the lights, and confusion reigns. Live radio at its best! Only one turntable was available for the recording, and the two sides contain non-continuous sections of the speech. Recording quality is rather thin, with the sound limited by the quality of the microphone used.
A number of "Sam and Henry" recordings are in collectorÕs circulation with 1926 dates. These are not recordings of the WGN broadcasts, but commercial discs released on the Victor label and widely distributed. They are not radio recordings, and are not representative of the actual nature of the Sam and Henry series. The Victor discs featured vaudeville style comedy routines, whereas the series itself was a continuing serial which did not emphasize such comic patter.
Also, no authentic recordings exist of the inaugural NBC broadcast of 11/15/26. Some sequences were recreated for a tenth anniversary special in 1936, including a speech by NBC president Merlin Ayelsworth, and these excerpts have been muddying the waters ever since. It might seem odd that no recording was made, given the early WEAF recordings noted above...but keep in mind that AT&T was no longer involved with the station and saw no need to document its activities any further. RCA, the new owner, had yet to purchase Victor Talking Machine, and thus did not possess recording facilities of its own.
Years' International Broadcast excerpts. WJZ linecheck recorded by Victor
Talking Machine Company. Musical sequences and some announcements, including
a lengthy sequence relayed by shortwave from London. Performers include
John McCormack and Lucrezia Bori. Portions of this program were originally
recorded on twelve 12 inch 78rpm sides, but several are lost. In addition,
it is evident from listening to the recording that the recording apparatus
was stopped occasionally within the broadcast itself. The full broadcast,
according to newspaper schedules, ran for several hours. The quality
of this thirty-three minute recording is far superior to the 1925 international
broadcast, with the stateside material being on a par with any electrical
recording of the day, and the shortwave material, originating at station
5XX, Daventry, while still affected by the reception quality, is
distinct and enjoyable. There are cut-ins by WRC, Washington, where
the Marine Band performs a number, as well as spoken passages by
Calvin Childs of the Victor Company, by WJZ announcer Milton Cross, and
by an unidentified announcer with a New York accent who delivers the station
ID about halfway thru the program.. The discs are now owned by the
Library of American Broadcasting.
Again, the waters are muddied by many recreations purporting to be of broadcasts from 1927. The oft-heard Lowell Thomas and George Hicks sequence reporting on the Lindbergh flight is from the "I Can Hear It Now" record released in 1950. The commonly -circulated sequence of Graham MacNamee describing the Dempsey-Tunney "long count" fight appears to be from the 1936 NBC Tenth Anniversary Broadcast, but a small Wisconsin recording company did release a set of 78rpm records containing an authentic aircheck of this broadcast. This extremely rare series of recordings is described below. Recordings claiming to be of Babe RuthÕs 60th home run in September of 1927 are entirely spurious. That game was not broadcast. Regular-season broadcasts of Yankee games did not begin until 1939.
6/20/27--Lindbergh Return Ceremonies. NBC Red and Blue Networks. Recorded by Victor Talking Machine Company. These recordings are undoubtedly the most common pre-1930 radio sequences, having been commercially released by Victor as three twelve inch and one ten inch 78 rpm records. The twelve inch discs include the speech by President Coolidge presenting Lindbergh with the Congressional Air Medal, and brief remarks in response by Lindbergh, and Lindbergh's speech to the National Press Club. The ten inch disc is a compendium of other material aired that day, including Graham McNamee's breathless description as the aviator comes down the gangplank from his voyage home. Many thousands of copies of these discs were sold, and many survive. However, Victor recorded considerably more material than was released, about ninety minutes all together, a total of twenty one matrices. The unreleased material includes a lenghty description of the Lindbergh procession by John B. Daniel and Milton Cross, as well as additional commentary by McNamee and Phillips Carlin. Vinyl pressings of the complete matricies are held by the National Archives and the Library of Congress.
7/1/27 -- Sequences from the Canadian Confederation Diamond Jubilee Broadcast. CNR aircheck recorded by the Compo Corporation for commercial release on the Apex Records label. Ten excerpts from this lengthy broadcast inaugurating coast-to-coast network service for the CNR Radio Division. Announcements are included in both French and English, including another speech by King. This time, the lights stay on. The Canadian arm of Victor also recorded portions of this program, but brought recording apparatus directly to the site rather than making a recording of the broadcast. The Victor sides are reportedly of better quality than the Apex recordings, but technically, they are not radio recordings.
8/12/27 -- Fiftieth Anniversary of the Phonograph. WOR, Newark NJ aircheck recorded by the Edison Laboratories. Probably the earliest example of an experimental 30rpm "Rayediphonic" recording, this ninety-minute recording preserves luncheon ceremonies saluting Thomas A. Edison's invention of the phonograph. Charles Edison represents his father during the ceremonies. The luncheon is followed by a musical program from the Essex County Country Club featuring Dave Kaplan's Melodists playing approximately fifty minutes of dance music. Louis A. Witten announces from the luncheon, and John B. Gambling announces the musical program. Numerous station IDs are heard. The recording is notably crude, and appears to have been made by the simple process of placing a microphone in front of a horn speaker.
9/22/27 -- Dempsey/Tunney Fight. NBC Red/Blue aircheck recorded by
"New York Recording Laboratories" of Port Washington, Wisconsin. The most
memorable sports broadcast of the Twenties survives on a series of 10-inch
78rpm pressings released on the obscure Paramount label. No relation to
the film company of the same name, Paramount was a small, Wisconsin-based
operation notorious among collectors today for the indifferent quality
of its recording work, even as it recorded material by artists who are
now very much in demand. Despite its pretentious name, the company did
not own its own recording studio until 1929, and up to that date depended
on facilities rented from other companies, mostly in the Chicago area.
The recordings of the NBC broadcast by Graham MacNamee of the Dempsey-Tunney
fight are among the rarest to be released by this company. Ten sides were
cut, with each round taking up a single matrix. The sound quality
is hollow and distant, leading to the conclusion that the recording was
made by simply placing a microphone before a radio tuned to a station carrying
the broadcast, most likely one of NBCÕs Chicago outlets. The recording
is not continuous, since the between-rounds commentary by MacNamee and
co-announcer Phillips Carlin were not included. The recordings of each
round begin and end abruptly, suggesting that only one recording machine
was used to cut the masters. A tape dub of rounds 7 and 8 is in my collection,
but only one complete set of these discs is currently known to exist. It
is held by a private collector who has thus far not released a full tape.
A series of phonograph records released on the Sears-Roebuck "Silvertone" label purports to feature a broadcast of the "WLS Showboat" program, but it is a studio recording intended to give the feel of the show, and is not an actual broadcast.
The widely-distributed "Amos 'n' Andy" sequence in which the two discuss the upcoming election is from a Victor record ( Victor 21608), one of several to be released by the team over the next two years, and is not a radio broadcast. Ironically, it is this phonograph record most often used by NBC to represent this series in various retrospective programs, since only a handful of actual broadcasts survive from the program's serial era. Syndication discs of "Amos 'n' Andy" began to be recorded and distributed by WMAQ, Chicago in the spring of 1928, but these were not off-air recordings of a live broadcast. Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll would record the shows ahead of the scheduled air date, allowing time for pressing and distribution. The shows were approximately nine minutes long, with each episode recorded on a single twelve inch 78rpm record. Each episode included a bit of redundant dialogue at the end of the first side to ease the transition between sides. Those stations with dual turntables would most likely have been sent two copies of each disc, allowing a smooth blending of the sides. Opening and closing announcements were done live by each subscribing station, and no commercials were included. Each set of discs was to be returned to WMAQ after being broadcast, and the discs were presumably destroyed on their return. So it is that only a very few of these episodes seem to survive. Most of those that do date from mid-1929. This was the first series to be distributed in such a manner, and the project was extremely successful. "Amos 'n' Andy" achieved national renown long before they began their network run, and the success of their "chainless chain" would have significant influence on the industry the following year. For a detailed discussion of this historically-essential series see "Amos 'n' Andy in Person."
??/??/28--"Roxy's Gang" NBC Blue Network. WJZ aircheck recorded by the Edison Company. An experimental recording made using the 30-rpm vertical-cut "Rayediphonic" system -- a special long-playing adaptation of the Edison Diamond Disc that held thirty minutes per side. This program was discovered by Dr. Biel in the archives of the Edison Historic Site in New Jersey. Edison , Henry Ford, and Harvey Firestone appear on this special broadcast commemorating the 1928 Chicago Radio Show, a popular trade exposition.
10/20/28 -- Edison Special Congressional Medal Presentation. NBC Red Network. WJZ aircheck recorded by the Edison Company. A speech by President Coolidge is followed by a ceremony in which Edison's original phonograph is returned to him after many years in England. Excerpts of this program were dubbed to a special cylinder recording, intended as a premium for Edison dealers.
Following on the success of the syndicated "Amos 'n' Andy" other companies began prerecording shows for distribution to individual stations, and most programs dated 1929 currently in collectors' circulation that I have encountered are syndications and not authentic broadcast recordings.
Chicago was the center of syndication activity, with the National Radio Advertising Company being one of the largest operations, producing shows for such clients as the Meadows Manufacturing Company, Maytag, and Brunswick-Balke-Collender. N-R-A-C shows were usually recorded at the Brunswick Record studios and released on specially-pressed Brunswick 78rpm discs. Columbia Records had a similar relationship with some of the other syndicated program producers. By late 1929 or very early 1930, Columbia also began releasing syndicated radio product on 16 inch pressings at 331/3 rpm, taking advantage of technology developed for the Vitaphone talking-picture process.
One 1929 disc that has caused a lot of confusion among collectors is the "Don Lee New YearÕs Party" recording. This recording was a specially-prepared Brunswick disc featuring various KHJ performers distributed by Don Lee to his employees as a holiday gift in December 1929. It is not an actual broadcast.
There are however at least five authentic broadcast recordings extant from 1929. They include:
1/12/29-- Cascade Tunnel Dedicatory Program. NBC Blue network linecheck, recorded by the Victor Talking Machine Company. The Great Northern Railroad sponsored this hour long program, celebrating the opening of its tunnel in the Cascade Mountains of Washington State. Graham McNamee reports from Berne, Washington as the first train goes thru, and there are speeches by President-Elect Hoover and assorted other dignitaries. Back in New York, Phillips Carlin is studio announcer for musical entertainment by George Olsen and his Music, along with cut-ins from San Francisco by Madame Ernestine Schumann-Heink. The broadcast was recorded in two formats -- 16 inch masters at 33 1/3 rpm, and 12 inch 78rpm masters. The 16-inch masters preserved the entire program, but it is possible that portions were edited from the 12 inch recordings. Pressings of the discs for this program may have been distributed by Great Northern as a keepsake of this historic event to employees and clients, and very few sets are known to exist.
2/11/29--Thomas Edison Birthday Tribute. NBC Blue Network. WJZ aircheck recorded by the Edison Company. Another recording unearthed by Dr. Biel at the Edison Site. According to radio listings of the day, this was an hour-long tribute to Edison on his 88th birthday intended as the first in a series of Edison-sponsored programs. The climax of the program was a short talk by the inventor himself. Approximately forty minutes of the program were recorded on two "Rayediphonic" discs, but an electronic failure in the recording amplifier made it impossible to record the entire program.
10/11/29 -- Foreign Relations Club Dinner. NBC Red and Blue networks. The earliest radio recording in the Brander Matthews Dramatic Library Collection at Columbia University is a half hour collection of uncoated-aluminum-disc excerpts from this broadcast, including speeches by John W. Davies, Elihu Root, and Ramsey MacDonald.
10/21/29--LightÕs Golden Jubilee Celebration. NBC Blue network. WJZ aircheck recorded by the Edison Company on "Rayediphonic" discs. The fiftieth anniversary of the invention of the light bulb is observed in this special program from Dearborn. Michigan. An array of luminaries including President Hoover pay tribute to Edison and his invention. Edison himself also speaks, and participates in a re-enactment of the first lighting of the electric lamp. Albert Einstien speaks by shortwave from Berlin, but reception is extremely poor. The recording includes the earliest surviving version of the NBC chimes -- a five note progression very much unlike the standard G-E-C. The complete one-hour program was recorded, but a tape copy is in circulation via the National Archives which has been edited to approximately 32 minutes.
11/13/29 -- Remarks by Eleanor Roosevelt at the annual Seven Colleges Dinner in New York. WOR, Newark aircheck, recorded at Coumbia University. Excerpts from this broadcast include a speech by Mrs. Roosevelt --then First Lady of New York State-- on the importance of education for girls. I have not examined the recording, but it is most likely an instantaneous aluminum disc, one of the earliest surviving examples of this format. The disc is held by Columbia as part of its Brander Matthews Dramatic Library collection, and a tape reference copy is held by the Library of Congress.
Syndicated shows become even more popular, with many companies now in the field, many with names designed to simulate those of the real networks. They include Continental Broadcasting, World Broadcasting, Radio Digest Bureau Of Broadcasting and others. Again, virtually all circulating programs dated 1930 are from syndication discs. Several circulating "Amos 'n' Andy" sequences dated 1930 are, again, from commercially-released Victor records, and are not broadcasts.
RCA Victor's Home Recording system was introduced in October 1930 -- and broadcast recordings made on this system have been found dating very close to that introduction. These first home recordings were made on 6-inch diameter blanks with a maximum running time at 78rpm of about ninety seconds. Larger size Victor blanks were introduced by 1932, as were machines capable of recording at 33 1/3 rm as well as 78.
1/21/30 -- Speech by King George V at the opening of the Five Power Naval Conference in London. BBC linecheck recorded by the Gramophone Company of London for commercial release on the HMV label. This is a fairly common disc, one of a series issued by HMV of important speeches by the King. Many of these are broadcast recordings. In addition to this recording, there is a lengthy series of discs from this Conference in the Brander Matthews Library collection at Columbia.
3/18/30 -- "Der Lindbergflug" ("Lindbergh's Flight) -- Berlin Radio, recorded by Berlin Radio. This program is a musical drama by Berthold Brecht and Kurt Weill, based on the trans-Atlantic flight of Col. Charles Lindbergh. The broadcast was recorded on wax masters by the RRG for later relay to Radio Paris and the BBC, where translations were overlaid in French and English. The original 18-minute German language broadcast is the surviving version, and is believed to be the earliest surviving broadcast from Continental Europe.
3/19/30 and 3/26/30 -- Coca Cola Program. NBC Red network airchecks. These two complete half-hour broadcasts feature announcer Graham McNamee, Leonard Joy and his Coca Cola Top Notchers Orchestra, and sportswriter Grantland Rice with interviews of leading athletes of the day. The 3/19 program -- the series premiere -- is an aircheck of WEAF in New York, and the 3/26 program an aircheck of WEEI, Boston. The 3/19/30 recording was made by the Radio-victor Corporation of America on 12" 78rpm wax masters, and survives as special shellac pressings. The 3/26/30 program was recorded on Speak-O-Phone uncoated aluminum blanks, possibly by the Speak-O-Phone studio in Boston. It is evident that only one recording machine was used to record this latter broadcast, as there are gaps between sides. The 3/26 program includes the only known recording of the seven-note Red Network version of the NBC chimes.
8/4/30--Talk By Colonel Lindbergh. CBS and NBC networks. CBS aircheck recorded by "Electro Broadcasters Corportation and distributed on 2 10" 78rpm records. This is the earliest CBS recording in my collection, a ten minute speech by Lindbergh on the future of aviation. It was the aviatorÕs first formal radio address, and he sounds decidedly nervous. Plans called for this program to be relayed to a worldwide audience by short wave, and Lindbergh actually gave the speech twice--the first time was shortwaved to the BBC in London, but weather conditions over the Atlantic prevented it from getting through. The second broadcast, the one recorded, was intended for stateside listeners.
11/1/30 -- Chicago Civic Opera Company Broadcast Excerpts. WLS, Chicago airchecks recorded on Victor Home Recording Discs. Two double-sided discs running about six minutes total, containing fragments from Act II: Prelude of "Tannhauser." Lotte Lehman, Hans Hermann Nissen, and Paul Althouse are heard in this poor-quality earliest surviving aircheck of a U.S. opera broadcast. No announcers are heard.
11/30/30, 12/22/30, 12/29/30 -- Empire Builders. NBC Blue network, airchecks of KYW Chicago. Recorder unknown, but probably Universal Recording Laboratories. Part of a series of recordings of programs from this pioneering dramatic series discovered in the mid-1980s in the corporate archives of the Great Northern Railroad. This program, sponsored by the Great Northern, was a dramatic anthology focusing on the tales of passengers on the Empire Builder, Great Northern's crack train on the Chicago-to-Seattle run. It was one of the first straight dramatic programs on the NBC schedule, and these programs provide an important window into the birth of network radio drama. The casts include such well-known performers as Don Ameche and Bernadine Flynn, and the production values are excellent, putting the lie to the assumption that all early drama was primitive. Additional shows survive from 1/5/31, 1/12/31, 1/19/31, 1/26/31, 2/2/31, and 2/16/31.
12/7/30 -- Atwater Kent Hour Excerpts. NBC Red network, WEAF New York
airchecks recorded on a Victor Home Recording Disc.
One 6-inch double-sided disc containing ninety-second fragments of Rosa Ponselle's performance of selections from "Schwanensang" and "Carmen." No announcers are heard.
A major addition to the syndication roster is the Transcription Company of America, or "Transco" which begins a series of simulated "band remote" broadcasts featuring leading west coast orchestras like Gus Arnheim, Tom Coakley, Anson Weeks, and Phil Harris. These shows were extremely popular, and were some of the best-recorded syndicated material on the market. They make for very enjoyable listening, and do capture what an actual live remote of the period sounded like, even to the point of using announcer Tom Jeffries, a popular West Coast personality, to narrate many of the broadcasts,which purport to come from such night spots as the Peacock Court of the Mark Hopkins Hotel, or the Cocoanut Grove of the Ambassador Hotel. However, despite all that, these programs were actually recorded in the Transco studio, and are not live broadcasts. Also extant from this era is a live recording of Gus Arnheim's orchestra and vocalist Bing Crosby -- which appears to have been made at the Grove by syndication entrepreneur C. P. MacGregor for use as a demonstration disc. It is probably not a broadcast recording.
Also popular in syndication are an assortment of canned comedy-serial programs trying to ride the coattails of the "Amos 'n' Andy" craze. Samples of many such series survive.
1/7/31 --On With The Show! Don Lee Network, KHJ Los Angeles aircheck. Recorded by Speak-O-Phone Studios. Approximately 43 minutes of a full-hour broadcast, with two discs missing. Recorded on 12" blanks with a single recording machine, this program represents a rare but historicially important local series, heard on the west coast during 1930-31 featuring adaptations of popular stage and film presentations. Represented here is the series' adapation of an operetta, "Ermanee," with commercials for Fidelity Savings and Loan. The recording is missing sides 1, 2, 5, and 6 of 12 sides total. Also extant is a single ten-inch disc representing approximately five minutes of the "On With The Show!" adaptation of the 1929 film "Sunny Side Up," an excerpt which includes a KHJ station identification.
2/4 and 6/31-Wendell Hall, The Pineapple Picador. NBC Blue network, WTMJ Milwaukee aircheck, recorded by Universal Recording Laboratories of Chicago. One of radioÕs most beloved early personalities sings for Libby's Pineapple. Jean Paul King announces. The original discs were from Hall's personal collection, and turned up in an antique store in the 1970s. The original tape dub was poorly done, and some circulating copies cut off the WTMJ station ID at the start of the 2/4 program. A more professional transfer has since been made, and reveals the comparatively high quality of the original recording.
??/??/31---Mary Hale Martin Household Program--NBC Blue network. WBZ-WBZA aircheck recorded by Speak-O-Phone Studios. Sponsored by Libby's. A program of household hints. Not in my collection but known to exist.
3/6/31--The March Of Time. CBS network. Recorder unknown. The first broadcast of this popular series, which grew out of a syndicated 1930 program, "NewsActing."
3/15/31 -- Excerpt of "Sunkist Musical Cocktail" program. CBS network. Recorded by Hollywood Film Laboratories.This brief recording features an interview of film star Norma Shearer by columnist Louella Parsons, and was offered by Sunkist Growers, the sponsor, as a giveaway premium. The disc is a 6-inch 78rpm "Flexo" pressing -- a flexible plastic disc which enjoyed a brief vogue in the early thirties. The disc is a violent pink color, with a photo of Shearer on the reverse. Not in my collection but known to exist
5/13/31 -- WENR "Weiner Derby" NBC aircheck recorded by Universal Laboratories of Chicago. A fifteen minute program originating at NBCÕs Blue network affiliate in Chicago. The program has nothing to do with frankfurters -- it's a program about horse racing. "Weiner" was the common nickname for the radio station, a phonetic reading of its call letters. Not in my collection but known to exist.
June, 1931--Various WMAQ excerpts. Recorder unknown, possibly home recordings. This is a fascinating collection of excerpts from the collection of Jim "Fibber McGee" Jordan, which first appeared in circulation a few years ago. Most of the material comes from Jim and Marian JordanÕs "Smack Outs" program, and includes some very pleasant vocal harmonies from the couple, as well as short bits of dialogue featuring Jim as "Uncle Luke" and Marian as herself and as "Teeny," a character who would return on "Fibber McGee and Molly" a few years later. Even more interesting than these rare clips, however, is what follows: random snatches of other WMAQ programming of the day. There's a short bit of a tenor solo, a local commercial for the California Fur Company, a bit of news with the announcer reading directly from the paper, and identifying the page on which each item appears, and finally the earliest "DJ" sequence IÕve ever found, with an announcer introducing "Clarinet Marmalade" by Phil NapoleonÕs Orchestra "from a phono-graph rec-ord," in exactly the manner specified by Federal Radio Commission rules of the era.
6/29/31 -- Packard Hour excerpts. NBC Blue network, WJZ, New York aircheck recorded on a Victor Home Recording disc. One six inch double-faced disc containing ninety-second fragments of Geraldine Farrar's performance of selections from "Carmen." An announcer is heard introducing the second selection on the disc.
9/2/31--Fifteen Minutes With Bing Crosby. CBS network. KHJ aircheck, recorded by the RCA Victor Company, Hollywood. This show was recorded in two formats -- two disconnected selections on 12 inch 78rpm matrices. as well as the full 15 minute program on a 16 inch 33 1/3 matrix. The recordings were made at the instance of NBC -- which apparently wanted to monitor this rising young Crosby fellow. Only the partial version is known to exist, and the sound is such that it's reasonable to conclude that the recording was made by placing an open microphone before a high-quality radio.It includes a KHJ station ID and Leroy Jewelers timecheck, followed by Harry Von Zell's opening announcement and Bing's performance of "Just One More Chance. Bing concludes the show with "I'm Through With Love."
10/18/31--Address by President Hoover on the Unemployment Crisis. NBC linecheck recorded by RCA Victor Company on 12-inch 33 1/3 rpm "program transcription" disc as well as 12-inch 78pm masters. Hoover speaks for ten minutes in an attempt to spur confidence in the Depression-ridden economy. The 33 1/3 rpm version of this recording takes advantage of VictorÕs new proto-LP system, released to the public earlier in the year, but the recording itself was not commercially released until 1996, when it was included in the Library Of Congress Presidential Speeches collection mentioned earlier. The recording has a hollow sound, but benefits from the absence of disc "joins" and surface noise is nearly nonexistant. There is no opening announcement, but the 33 1/3 rpm version includes a brief tag at the end, with an announcer intoning portentiously "The President Of The United States Has Spoken!" The speech itself reveals Hoover as a speaker trying his best to adjust to the new intimacy of the radio-talk format...but still quite mannered in his delivery and pompous in his style. The Presidential speech was a segment of a longer program featuring various guest artists.
10/18/31-- Talk by Will Rogers on the Unemployment Crisis. NBC linecheck recorded by RCA Victor Company in 12-inch 78rpm masters. Rogers discusses the economic situation and the need for unemployment relief. Another segment of the program which included the Hoover speech listed above. This recording has appeared on numerous tape and LP collections of Rogers' broadcasts -- and comes across as a particularly trenchant critique of the dark side of capitalism -- it's undoubtedly the most bitter of Rogers' surviving broadcasts.
11/7/31--The Cremo Singer. CBS network, WABC aircheck. Recorder unknown. The earliest complete Bing Crosby broadcast known to exist, featuring Bing and Carl Fenton's Orchestra. There are other Cremo Singer excerpts in circulation from this period, some with WABC station ID, including two segments of the 12/5/31 broadcast.
12/14/31--Friendly Five Footnotes. This is a recording likely to raise questions for the novice collector. First of all, copies now in circulation come from Columbia syndication pressings, made for the Judson Radio Program Corporation, which at first glance would place this series outside the scope of this article. But, there was such a series aired over the CBS network during the 1931-32 season, and this recording and others which survive from the series match the description of the program as given in published schedules, even though the dates on the shows now in circulation do not match the actual airdates for the CBS series. CBS stalwart David Ross is the announcer, and CBS house conductor Freddie Rich leads the orchestra . The question is, was this recording made off the air or by line or was this a studio recording made for concurrent syndication with the network run? Matrix numbers for the pressings point to the latter conclusion -- with the most likely explanation being that the programs were recorded in two marathon sessions in September 1931. Thus, we have recordings which were not made from an actual broadcast -- but which probably do duplicate a live network broadcast, and which were actually used for broadcasting
Such an arrangement, known as "extension spotting" allowed a sponsor to "extend" the network over which their program aired by placing transcriptions on stations not linked to the network by line. This practice appears to have begun early in 1931, with the "Tastyeast Jesters" series being the first known to have been distributed in this manner, and a number of other network programs from the period have been preserved in this form. One is the "Our Daily Food" series for A & P done in 1930-31 for NBC, and from which at least four shows are known to survive from pressings. A 1931 "Natural Bridge Revue" show in my collection featuring the vocal team of "Nat" and "Bridget" also seems to be from such an "extension" pressing, as the content jibes with a series by this name which ran on the Blue network during the 1930-31 season. There are probably other such shows extant that have yet to have had their source correctly identified, and this is a major reason why those who hold the discs of such programs need to accurately document label and matrix information.
1932 is the first year for which a significant number of shows seem to exist. The most widely circulated would have to be Jack Benny's first show for Canada Dry, a WJZ aircheck from Jack's personal collection. ItÕs very representative of early-30s variety programming, and the disc transfer was very well done, giving the show a pleasing audio quality, even accounting for the typical aluminum disc surface noise. Unfortunately, no other 1932 shows from this series seem to have survived.
Jack's great rival Fred Allen is also represented by a surviving show that is widely known, the 12/25/32 Linit Bath Club Revue. As mentioned earlier in this article, the entire Linit series is known to have been recorded..and interestingly, the NBC Biography In Sound profiling Allen in 1956 uses a clip from a Linit show which is not now known to exist.
An important run of shows from later in the year is a series of Ed Wynn's Fire Chief programs, which survive on aluminum disc airchecks of WEAF, recordings made for Wynn and which are now owned by Pacific Pioneer Broadcasters. Most catalogues incorrectly date the first show in this run as 1/18/32, but my research has proven that the correct date has to be 11/8/32, a case of a misplaced slash mark generating a longstanding error. For the record, the Fire Chief broadcasts began on April 26th. In addition, the 11/22/32 show from this series was transferred to tape with the discs badly out of sequence. I have recut the dub in my collection to the correct order.
Rudy Vallee began his archive of radio recordings around the middle of this year, using the services of the E. H. Strong Recording Studio in Jackson Heights, New York. The only 1932 program to have made it into circulation so far is the 7/14/32 program featuring Olsen and Johnson. This is an interesting show, as it is representative of the programÕs format just before Vallee began a whole-hearted commitment to the variety format for which he is best remembered. Commercials were not recorded, evidence of ValleeÕs legendary parsimoniousness. Why waste money on recording blanks for commercials? We thus miss out on the delightful "Eat Yeast Or Die" health talks of the estimable Dr. R. E. Lee. This archive has since passed to the Thousand Oaks Public Library in California.
There are numerous other programs known to survive from 1932, and a
very great deal of material is known to survive from 1933 and 1934. During
1934, the Pyral Company of France and the Presto Corporation in the
US, working independently, introduced an improved instantaneous disc
which coated an aluminum base plate with a lacquer composed primarily of
cellulose nitrate (usually misidentified as "acetate." ) Though highly
flammable in its raw state and chemically unstable, this coating proved
much more durable and easy to use than the uncoated discs, and was an instant
success when introduced in the US late in the year. The two technologies
existed side by side for several years, and uncoated aluminum recordings
can be found dating as late as the early forties...but it was the lacquer
disc that was adopted by the networks as their preservation medium of choice.
This article should not be taken as a final, conclusive list of what
survives from radio's earliest days. New material is being found all the
time, and any such list must be subject to frequent correction. But I do
hope that this article will spur interest in finding and preserving --
and most importantly -- documenting these rarest of rare radio recordings.
If you have verifiable airchecks of such early programs in your collection,
or if you can provide more specific information on the original discs of
any pre-1935 broadcasts in circulation, please let me know. I'm interested
in trading for any pre-1935 material that I donÕt have, and in further
documenting whatever else may be out there.
Allen, Fred: Treadmill To Oblivion. Little, Brown & Co. 1954
Banning, William Peck: Commercial Broadcasting Pioneer--The WEAF Experiment. Harvard University Press, 1946
Biel, Dr. Michael: " The Making and Use of Recordings in Broadcasting before 1936." 1977 Northwestern University doctoral dissertation. Available thru University Microfilms Incorporated Dissertation Service.
Biel, Dr. Michael : "What Is The Oldest Aircheck" Posting to online discussion group firstname.lastname@example.org
Biel, Dr. Michael: E-mail exchange with the author, 10/30/97
Ely, Melvin Patrick: The Adventures Of Amos ŌnÕ Andy. Free Press, 1991
McCroskey, Don: Audio Recording in Broadcasting. SPERDVAC Radiogram, May 1987.
Sloat, Warren: 1929--America Before The Crash. Macmillan, 1979
Vallee, Rudy: My Time Is Your Time. Ivan Obelensky,
Thanks to all those people and institutions who have provided recordings and documentation of recordings, including the National Archives, The Library Of American Broadcasting, the Library of Congress, Michael Biel, Karl Pearson, J. David Goldin, Michael Dolan, William Shaman, Thomas Hood, David Siegel, David Lewis, Donna Halper, Mike Csontos, Ron Hutchinson and the Vitaphone Project, and David Dixon.
Text copyright by Elizabeth McLeod