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Arts & Culture

The (Digital) Sound of History

Newly Digitized Radio News Broadcasts Turn Up Volume on Mid-century America

By Liam Farrell

Collage of images from late 1950s and 1960s

University Libraries has made new digital recordings from its Westinghouse Broadcasting Company archive. The almost 600 tapes from the late 1950s and 1960s are from a Washington, D.C.-based news bureau and chronicle issues such as the space race, civil rights movement and Vietnam War.

James Meredith photo by AP Photo, file; reel photo by iStock; Ann Corrick photo courtesy of University of Maryland Special Collections; astronaut photo courtesy of NASA; collage by Stephanie S. Cordle

From the space race and the civil rights movement to the Vietnam War, audio accounts of landmark accomplishments and struggles of the mid-20th century are now available to scholars and the public through a new University Libraries audio archive—and it won’t take Indiana Jones-style digging to find them.

Nearly 600 tapes from the late 1950s and 1960s have been newly digitized and made available in an online archive at the University of Maryland, ranging from short interviews of newsmakers and collections of daily stories to longer reviews of and debates on events. They were produced by the Westinghouse Broadcasting Company, a division of the Westinghouse Electric Corporation that launched a Washington, D.C.-based radio news bureau in 1957 and provided syndicated material to stations across the country like the Associated Press did for print newspapers. More than 2,000 of its tapes reaching into the early 1980s were brought to UMD in 1994.

“It’s such a rich collection for a time in global history when there were a lot of changes, a lot of upheaval,” said Laura Schnitker, curator for Mass Media and Culture, adding that University Libraries hopes to continue digitizing more of the Westinghouse tapes.

The chronological effort has so far taken about five years, and Jim Baxter, a coordinator in Special Collections and University Archives, listened to each tape to properly document its contents. Here are some highlights:

James Meredith stays at Ole Miss
The first African American admitted to the University of Mississippi, James Meredith was a civil rights pioneer whose efforts to get an equal education in the segregated South spurred fierce opposition and the intervention of the federal government. At the 9:30 mark in this collection of January 1963 recordings, he announces his intention to return for a second semester, to great applause and cheers.

The “Mona Lisa” comes to America
One of the most famous paintings in history was once on display just miles from College Park, when the French government and the Louvre lent Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” to the National Gallery of Art from December 1962 to March 1963. This recording captures a ceremony with President John F. Kennedy and Andre Malraux, French minister of culture.

Ruby murders Oswald
The assassination of President John F. Kennedy was followed by an aftershock two days later on Nov. 24, 1963, when television and radio reporters recorded nightclub owner Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald while in police custody.

Rock around the Iron Curtain
In a dated and now-humorous show, Westinghouse looked at the 1960s rock music scene in the then-Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. Featuring commentary on how the tunes are “melting down that curtain with American rhythms,” it is, to quote Baxter, “very much a period piece.”

Pioneering female journalist
History was made the behind the microphone as well: The Westinghouse recordings include the work of Ann Corrick, an assistant bureau chief for the outlet who later became the first woman to serve as treasurer and president of the Radio and TV Correspondents Association. She is the subject of this 1961 interview.

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