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NBC Resources Held by the Recorded Sound Section

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The Recordings

The Library's NBC Collection contains 150,000 sixteen-inch lacquer discs which date from the early days of the network to the 1980's. While the bulk of the NBC broadcasts at the Library were recorded following the network's establishment of its Electrical Transcription Service in 1935, the collections also contain a large number (nearly 200) of scarce earlier recordings, most of which were recorded by NBC's parent company, RCA. These early discs were recorded with cumbersome equipment that yielded shorter and noisier recordings than those that could be produced after the invention of the lacquer disc in 1934. Equipped with the new recording equipment, NBC started recording many of its own programs, sporadically at first and with increasing frequency as the decade proceeded. From 1935 to 1939, the number of annually recorded programs, retained in the NBC archive, jumps from 661 to 3007. The majority of these recordings are of programs originating from New York. NBC's Chicago and Hollywood bureaus maintained their own recording archives which were never incorporated within the network's primary, New York-based archive, now in the Library.

In general, the more important or prestigious the sustaining program, the greater the chance it would be preserved, as there are many recordings from the 1930s of opera, symphony, historic news broadcasts, and public affairs programs. The range of recorded commercial programs from this period is more puzzling and seemingly random. For some shows, such as Fred Allen's Town Hall Tonight, the inventory of recorded programs is nearly complete, while for others, no less popular, it is scant. Engineers at NBC appear to have recorded a far greater number of programs than were ultimately saved, but the company's precise selection criteria remain unknown. Nonetheless, NBC appears to have saved programs chiefly for legal purposes, for reference in the production of future shows, and, especially during the years of World War II, to preserve recordings of historic events.

Following Pearl Harbor, the number of recorded programs in the archive soars, with Hollywood and Chicago programs now commensurate with their actual numbers. Peaking in 1944, the inventory for that year lists nearly 9,000 programs—many, of course, news broadcasts. In addition to documenting the course of events, the wartime recordings provide vivid testimony of NBC's dedication to the war effort and compelling evidence of how Americans coped with the crisis. Naturally, humor was an important outlet, much of it at the expense of the enemy—the Japanese, far more commonly an object of ridicule than America's European foes.

Since receiving the NBC recordings in 1978, engineers in the Library's Recording Laboratory have been engaged in re-recording the fragile lacquer discs onto more durable polyester tape. So far, all discs through 1952 have been re-recorded. The remainder, which date to 1971, are still in the process of being preserved. In a parallel effort, Library catalogers, initially funded by a grant from the MacArthur Foundation, have created a comprehensive computerized inventory of the programs preserved on tape.

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Locating NBC Radio recordings in the collections of the Library of Congress

Most of the NBC Radio recordings in the collections of the Library of Congress have been cataloged in the Recorded Sound Section's SONIC catalog of broadcast and master recordings, and this is where researchers should begin searching for NBC material. There are, however, other sources for NBC recordings at the Library, many of which pre-date the donation of the NBC Radio Collection in 1978. Even among the NBC donation, broadcasts made after 1955 are being selectively preserved and hence have not been entered into SONIC. Information about these recordings is listed in a database available in Recorded Sound Reference Center, and interested researchers may call the Center at (202) 707-7833 to determine their availability. Over 2000 NBC broadcasts are also listed in the Library of Congress online catalog which may be searched on the web. The NBC recordings in the LC online catalog include items donated to the Library of Congress by private collectors, performing artists, recording studios, broadcasts purchased from NBC before the Library acquired the NBC collection, and performances released on commercial record labels or rebroadcast by the US government.

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The History Files

Finding Aid

1967 files containing tens of thousands of documents comprise what NBC called its "history files." Consisting primarily of business papers, the files also include the reminiscences of early employees, printed memorabilia (such as anniversary programs), network histories, audience mail, statistics, charts, and maps. Most of the materials date from the mid-1920s through the late 1940s, when network radio was starting its decline as a result of television. Documents in the files relating to the newer medium, though less extensive, are still numerous. To facilitate access to this information, the Library created a detailed online finding aid which describes the most important contents of each file. Also listed in the inventory are hundreds of miscellaneous publications (many relating to advertising and to television) and the speech files of NBC executives—those of Sylvester ("Pat") Weaver, creator of the Today and Tonight shows, handsomely bound. The history files present an excellent overview of how the network operated and, more specifically, how it juggled the difficult role of servant to many masters—sponsors, performers, and affiliates, as well as the government, special interest groups, and listening public.

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The Log Books

The log books of WEAF (renamed WNBC in 1946) and WJZ list the daily programs and the call letters of all stations which received those programs. As the number of affiliates rose, the combinations and permutations of networking became rather complicated. Thus, beginning with 1930 volume, the logs are no longer titled "Daily Programs," but rather, more descriptively, "Corrected Traffic Sheets." The pre-NBC logs of WJZ and its sister station WJY also contain critical commentary by the station announcers. Some of the NBC logs also provide supplementary information of a more objective nature, such as the musical contents of a program, the name of a guest artist, or the interruption of a scheduled program due to a news bulletin. Information of this type is usually found on the verso of the pages. The dates of the log books in the collection follow:

  • The WEAF/WNBC logs: 1922-1955.
  • The WJZ logs: 1923 (the year RCA assumed control of the station) - 1941 (when the Blue Network was divorced from NBC).
  • The WJY logs: 1923-1926 (the station's final year of operation).

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The Master Books

In addition to log books, NBC donated microfilmed copies of the station master books which contain paper documentation of the programs produced at WEAF, WNBC and WJZ. This documentation consists of program scripts, ad copy, news copy, and the master music sheets, which list the musical contents of the programs.

"A Master Book is the official written record of everything broadcast for the entire broadcast day from one station" (NBC Central Files Manual, 1938). NBC donated a total of 2,530 reels of microfilmed master books (including the Chicago and Hollywood scripts) to the Library, comprising the largest radio script collection in America. The Master Books are inventoried below:

  • The WEAF/WNBC master books: 1922-1984.
  • The WJZ master books: 1927 (when the station began broadcasting as the flagship station of the Blue Network) - 1941 (when the Blue Network was divorced from NBC).
  • The Chicago scripts: May, 1944-March 18, 1954.
  • The Hollywood scripts: August, 1943-December, 1953.
  • The International Network master books: August, 1936-September, 1948.

[Note: The documentation for programs which aired over WEAF or WJZ, but which were produced elsewhere, are not included in their master books, but rather, presumably, in the master books of the stations where those programs originated.]

Many network programs were produced at NBC's regional studios in Chicago, San Francisco, and Hollywood. A limited number of program scripts from the Chicago and Hollywood master books are included in the NBC Collection dating from the war years.

Also included in the collection are the microfilmed master books of NBC's International Network (sometimes called the White Network), composed of several short wave stations whose broadcasts in six different languages were primarily intended for overseas listeners.

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The Index Cards

Posterity owes an enormous debt to the scores of anonymous NBC employees who, between the years 1930 and 1960, compiled a comprehensive index card catalog of network programs, performers, and guests. It is the logical place to begin searching the collection for information in any one of these three areas. The catalog is composed of four major indexes: one for all commercial programs and another all sustaining programs from 1930 to 1960; and two biographical indexes, comprising all "radio artists" (entertainment professionals) and "radio personalities" (basically everyone else, from authors and athletes to labor leaders and Presidents) who appeared over the network during that thirty-year period.

The inspiration for the catalog probably came from AT&T, which kept summary records of WEAF's commercial programs on index cards. Some of these cards are still extant and incorporated within NBC's commercial program index. NBC not only enlarged upon the scope of its predecessor's idea, but carried it through with much greater attention to detail. Typically, the NBC program cards contain a brief description of the show and also note its starting and ending dates, network affiliation (Red or Blue), hours of broadcast, advertising agency and agent (in the case of commercial programs), as well as the names of the stars, host, announcer, and orchestra.

Many program cards also include a complete rundown of every broadcast, where cast changes, guest performers, and sometimes even plot summaries are recorded. Notable facts, such as a cast member's final appearance, are often underlined in red. Carleton Morse's dramatic serial, One Man's Family, which ran over NBC for twenty-seven years, is described on forty-six, two-sided cards, some of which contain detailed genealogies of the fictional Barbour family.

The catalog is not only of interest to radio historians, but to specialists in almost any field of American history from 1930 to 1960, particularly World War II. In 1938 NBC created an index of all news and public affairs broadcasts relating to the "European War." Renamed the "World War II" index after Pearl Harbor, it comprises nearly 2,000 cards. Several hundred more cards are included in a separate "War Effort" index, which lists all programs broadcast from service bases, radio plays based on the war, programs which sold war bonds, and those in which war related topics (victory gardens, for example) were incorporated into their program scripts or ad copy. NBC's careful documentation of the war years extends to the radio personality index where the speeches of important political figures, such as Churchill and Roosevelt, are not only summarized but frequently annotated with interesting details. For instance, Churchill's immortal, first speech as Prime Minister ("…I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat…") was originally heard only by members of Parliament on May 13, 1940 and re-delivered for the purpose of broadcasting over the BBC two-and-a-half-years later.

A disconcerting feature of the index card catalog is that "Negro radio artists" (but not personalities) were filed separately. The fact that NBC failed to "integrate" its artist index at some point after 1960, when revelations of the network's segregated filing system would have caused embarrassment, may reflect a desire to preserve the historic integrity of the index. But a more likely explanation is that by then most network executives were so focused on television they had little reason to consult the index card catalog. Indeed, few were probably aware of its existence.

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The Press Releases

The press releases in the NBC Collection date from January 1924 through December 1989. (The 1940 and 1941 volumes were not included in the donation and are presumably lost.) The pre-network press releases were produced by WEAF, while still under AT&T ownership. That WEAF regularly issued detailed press releases at such an early date is evidence of that station's greater wealth and sophistication in comparison to most, if not all other, early radio stations in America.

Far more legible than the microfilmed master books, the press releases are an invaluable resource for aiding in the reconstruction of early, unrecorded programs. They are also useful as a supplement to the card catalog. For example, a researcher wishing to obtain biographical information about an unfamiliar actor listed on one of the program cards could consult the press releases issued shortly before the date of his performance. In addition to releases on the programs and performers, there are many relating to the network's announcers, writers, musicians, corporate staff, affiliates, and to NBC's technical achievements, particularly its early experiments in television broadcasting.

Not to be overlooked is that the press releases are simply a good read, providing tidbits of the stars and a vivid picture of day-to-day life at network headquarters. They describe: New York in the grips of a storm, as engineers rush to a top floor of Radio City to record howling gale-force winds for their sound effects library; studio audiences of the NBC Symphony being handed programs of soft, porous paper so that the musicians would not be distracted by the rustling of turning pages; and in those days when all performances were live, a weary Jack Benny deciding to move his program to Hollywood partly to avoid repeating his show late at night for the benefit of West Coast audiences. As explained in a press release on that subject, "It's all over by supper time out there."

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NBC Daily News 1940-1941

The Recorded Sound Reference Center holds volumes for 1941 and 1942 of the NBC publication NBC Daily News Reports. Researchers may request these volumes in the Recorded Sound Reference Center.

Additional Resources

Listed below is an inventory of all materials in the NBC Collection which are not covered by this article.

  • Approximately 1300 reels and 340 cassettes of selected radio news broadcasts from 1961 through 1985. These include presidential news conferences and speeches, as well as coverage of important events, such as the first moon landing.
  • Transcriptions of Meet the Press, 1954-1984, on microfiche.
  • NBC Television Log Books, May 1949-November 1988.
  • NBC Television Master Books, 1936-1991, on microfilm.
  • NBC Television Kinescopes, approximately 18,000 programs, from 1948-1977.
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  September 17, 2015
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