Broadcast Archives for Historical Research: Revisiting the Historical Method. (Critical Essay)

By Godfrey, Donald G. | Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, September 2002 | Go to article overview

Broadcast Archives for Historical Research: Revisiting the Historical Method. (Critical Essay)


Godfrey, Donald G., Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media


For almost a century, broadcast programming has reflected and recorded our society, our history, our culture, and even our personal lives. Radio, followed by television and the electronic media, has documented the transformations of our past. Recognizing the historical significance of the broadcast record, Congress mandated the establishment of a radio-television archive. (1) In the 1960s, with the onslaught of electronic newsgathering, news film archives grew in number and quality. Similarly, the interest in social history and popular culture has led to the growth of television and radio museums across the country (Godfrey, 1992; Hoffnar & Hoffnar, 1989; Murray, 1999). Thus, today's historical scholars have the opportunity to "go beyond the printed descriptions to the primary source material of our age" (Bensman, 1992, p. xviii).

Among the pioneering scholars recognizing a broadcast as an archival primary resource was Professor Milo Ryan. In February 1956, Ryan stumbled upon a stack of 16-inch electronic transcription radio discs from World War II. By the time he got them packed and back to the University of Washington, he had a total of 52 cases of aluminum and glass disks (Ryan, 1956/57). (2) They revealed an eyewitness history of World War II with more than 2,200 newscasts originating daily from March 1938 through April 1945. There were speeches by Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Adolf Hitler, and hundreds of interviews or talks by reporters and personalities from the war period. Ryan dutifully copied the contents to audiotape, catalogued them, and created a computerized search mechanism for easy access to the broadcast subjects and personalities (Ryan, 1963). He coined the phrase "phonoarchive" as he organized his find (Ryan, 1963). But, when it was all set, few scholars came to use the collection. Lamenting the lack of academic research years later, he wrote, "Here are the materials, where are the scholars?" (Ryan, 1970, np.).

The scholarly challenges that surround the use of broadcast programs as primary sources provide a partial explanation for the lack of scholarly interest in Ryan's archive. Researching broadcast history is like any other analysis: It has as its purpose the discovery of supportable truths. It includes description, analysis, interpretation, and evaluation. When the purpose of the research is history, the researcher is challenged to amass a body of evidence sufficient to support the facts and the researcher's historical interpretation of events. In the case of critical historiographies, the broadcast scholar's investigative efforts may warrant what could be a particularly novel or heretofore discounted point of view. These tasks become all the more daunting when one recognizes that there is considerable scholarly skepticism against using broadcast materials as the basis for strong historical arguments.

This article describes some of the methodological challenges that face historians who use broadcast archives and audio and visual collections. By articulating procedures for conducting research with historical programs, the author hopes to encourage scholars to make better use of the many treasures of broadcast history.

The Broadcast as a Suspect Primary Source

The value of the nation's broadcast archives to history is recognized by museums, but the record of history the programs contain is still questioned by scholars. Why? Because only a few scholarly researchers actually use them, and because many broadcast programs contain dubious historical information. Often broadcast programs convey dramatic stories that are anecdotal and lack depth. In addition, traditional historians lack sufficient technical and media-process knowledge to utilize mediated material as a primary source of evidence.

The roots of a broadcast program's questionable historic value date back to the beginnings of the industry and its purposes.

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