In an archival inventory of discs stolen from the Belgian broadcaster NIR-INR during the German occupation (1940-1944), compiled in 1945, a salient detail can be observed: each of the roughly 2,700 missing recordings were referred to according to the German-language abbreviated classification assigned during the occupation, such as ‘Wo’ for Wort (spoken word) or ‘Ta’ for Tanz (dance music).1 Similarly, the logbook of archival recordings for the Belgian radio-in-exile service in London (1940-1944) listed its French- and Flemish-language recordings together, yet stored them separately according to similar main categories, for which the category ‘Divers’ was placed in storage boxes labelled ‘V’ as a shortcut for its English translation ‘Various.’2 Each example presented here points to how the organisation of recorded sound collections in radio – in this case, at the level of classification – was affected by the contexts of occupation and exile. These brief examples serve as a departure point for this article, which seeks to consider the ‘archival lives’ of radio’s recorded sound collections created in – and for – the Netherlands and Belgium, and the (trans)national dimensions to their historical creation and organisation, as well as ongoing conditions informing their treatment and re-use.

The paper focuses on early radio recorded sound collections. It will generate fewer insights into dynamic relations between both countries, but rather how – in each broadcasting context – the growing threat of war and German occupation was responded to, and subsequently affected the collections, along with the post-war process of reorganising disc (and also tape) collections, and contending with missing, destroyed and newly-added materials. The proposed lens will be used to the respective recorded sound collections in terms of international relations (primarily with National Socialist Germany), but also highlight certain trans(national) dimensions to this history, which will be explained further below. For this reason, the paper draws on archival research conducted in Germany, as well as the Netherlands and Belgium. Yet it is crucial to keep in mind that the proposed paper is forced to reckon with the legacy of ‘broken’ archives produced by fascism, war and occupation, also in combination with a rather weak tradition of print-based archiving of radio broadcasting in Belgium and the Netherlands.3 Nonetheless, the task of acknowledging the gaps and omissions in this historical record remains a crucial imperative for a critical reconstruction necessary for tracing the archival lives of radio and how radio came to be valued in Belgium and the Netherlands as a significant site of (national) history and heritage in the 1930s to 1950s. Accordingly, the present paper emphasises the necessary ‘piecing together’ from an uneven source base, which in this case has involved a diversity of sources spanning official reports, correspondence and memos, through to photos, sound recordings and oral history interviews.4

In terms of periodisation, this paper takes 1930 as its starting point, since it was at this time that the introduction of electrical recording and disc cutting facilities in European radio stations led to a rapid growth of recorded sound collections, largely consisting of radio programmes, musical performances and sound effects, along with commercial music recordings. The chosen time frame will be used to identify patterns in the establishment and growth of collections during the 1930s, the context of German occupation during the Second World War, and the post-war reconstruction of radio services and recorded sound collections, on disc and magnetic tape, and with a growing ‘archival consciousness’ around the historical significance of the Second World War-era radio recordings. The periodisation ends in the late 1950s, by which time magnetic tape had become the dominant archival format, the Dutch radio union’s joint archival services had appointed its first dedicated archival curator (in 1958), and the Belgian NIR-INR had formally split into separate broadcasters (in 1960).

The main questions considered in this article concerning the archival lives of early recorded sound collections in radio pertains to three key periods. Firstly, for the period 1929-1939, characterised by a growing investment in recorded sound, I ask how were the collections created? How were they valued, managed and used? And what kinds of international dynamics or entanglements can be observed? The second key period pertains to the outbreak of war in September 1939 through to the liberation of both countries in 1944/1945. While posing similar questions to the first period examined, this second part additionally asks what changes (or relocations) occurred with recorded sound collections, their management and use, and takes into account the effects of the experience of wartime occupation radio (1940-1944/45). The final and concluding section will investigate the re-building of these collections after varying degrees of looting and destruction to radio facilities in Brussels and Hilversum.5 Here I will evaluate the expanded post-war attention to historical archives that partly informed the management and re-use of recorded sound collections, and trace how various parts of the collections (in terms of content, origin, or technical format) were dealt with in the period roughly 1945-1960, with the establishment of ‘modern’ facilities to help meet the enormous demand for music and historical radio materials in post-war radio.

This paper takes its cue from recent debates in radio and media history, which have sought to de-emphasise the dominance of ‘national’ frameworks for making sense of broadcasting. An important strand of this recent scholarship has emphasised the ‘transnational,’ examining, for instance, relations between policymakers in the framework of the International Broadcast Union (IBU) and related organisations, or examining forms of cooperation between radio engineers or producers in making radio transmissions possible across national borders.6 In this vein, there has been an attention to how radio has been ‘entwined in networks and relationships beyond those framed by nations – and that even the national structures of radio were formed in transnational processes.’7 More recently, the notion of ‘entangled media histories’ has been proposed as a conceptual framework that helps the researcher to acknowledge how ‘people, things and events in the past were far more complex, intertwined or indeed entangled than he or she first anticipated.’8 This scholarship contends that attending to entanglements of media history can help problematise neat distinctions of national historiographies of media, yet it also acknowledges that making comparisons between national media histories remains fruitful in helping to sharpen or clarify particular aspects of those respective contexts.9

In choosing to take up a largely comparative focus on recorded sound collections of Belgium and the Netherlands, I acknowledge that there are certainly important commonalities, not least with the common experience of radio systems under German occupation, along with the establishment of a resistance radio service by the governments-in-exile – themselves in close contact – in London. Yet it is crucial to note several key differences between each of the broadcast contexts for these two relatively smaller, adjacent countries, which are geographically situated between Germany, France and Great Britain. Dutch radio, with commercial and international ambitions, was pioneered from 1919 on, yet the subsequent development of a non-commercial, public broadcast system in the mid-1920s divided airtime between four major broadcasters representing political and religious affiliations (liberal, socialist, Catholic, Protestant), and which, in 1947, came under the jurisdiction of the NRU national radio board.10 Belgium’s early radio had also developed with a diversity of amateur, commercial and public interests, but it was reorganised in 1930 with the BBC as its model for regulated public broadcasting, with multi-lingual services (French, Flemish and later German) managed by a national broadcasting institute (NIR-INR, 1930-1960). Such distinctions in radio organisation, audiences and outlook will serve in part to highlight certain national differences in the investment in recorded sound collections, the creation and use of sound recordings, and an overall ‘archive-mindedness’ across the period 1930-1960.

Establishing Recorded Sound Collections in Interwar Radio (1929-1939)

While the establishment of recorded sound collections, consisting of commercial music, sound libraries and ‘own recordings’ (pre-recordings and full programme recordings), largely took place in national broadcast contexts, it is constructive to consider their formation and development in a broadcast landscape that was also European and international. During various diplomatic crises during the 1930s, European countries and radio organisations not only expressed concern about Germany’s radio propaganda and military aggression, but also undertook action in the context of international organisations, such as the International Broadcast Union (IBU/UIR). In 1936, for instance, Belgium and the Netherlands were signatories of the International Convention for the Use of Broadcasting in the Cause of Peace, in the wake of Germany’s remilitarisation of the Saarland and Rhineland, which was followed by their annexation of Austria (1938) and Czech lands (1938-1939).11

Despite rising political tensions, the European members of the IBU continued to participate in international long-distance relay programmes and special events in an internationalist spirit. Recordings of a number of these programmes, featuring music from Belgium, the Netherlands and other members, were considered significant enough for inclusion in the RRG (Reichs-Rundfunk-Gesellschaft) sound archive in Berlin, which, at great cost, was significantly expanded in the context of the National Socialist regime from 1933 onwards.12 During this same period the IBU discussed (but did not achieve) its desire to organise an international ‘discothèque’ in Geneva, which helped to further facilitate the exchange of recordings (musical performances, recorded music and radio programmes). Given the prohibitive costs and copyright challenges such a centralised archive would entail, alternative plans were proposed for an international convention on ‘decentralised national collections, registrations and exchanged musical recordings’ for European music, which was not ratified or implemented prior to the war, although the IBU did encourage its national members to build their own recorded sound collections.13

In line with such developments, an illustration of the investment in recorded sound collections can be found in the Belgian delegation’s participation in an exchange of discs between other European countries during the 1938 IBU meeting, which was hosted at the NIR-INR’s newly opened modernist ‘House of Radio’ in Brussels.14 This understanding of the recorded sound collections as a locus of cross-border exchange is further suggested by the Dutch and Belgian radio’s ordering of programme recordings from each other, but especially from the BBC and RRG, with ‘transcription discs’ being bought or rented, usually centred on special ‘newsworthy’ events or diplomatic visits (e.g. a visit of the Dutch Queen to Belgium).15 In a similar vein, we can observe how the prestige invested by national broadcasters in their recorded sound collections took shape in their international promotional activities during the late 1930s. In early 1939, for instance, all Dutch and Belgian broadcasters responded to a request from the Dutch radio journalist J.J.L. van Zuylen to supply photographic images for his radio encyclopaedia, with the majority of images submitted and included in the publication highlighting the use of new sound technologies and creation of recorded sound collections within new modern broadcast facilities, thereby putting them ‘on show’.16

We can observe a fledging archival awareness at public broadcasters in Belgium and the Netherlands.17 In the case of Belgium, the predominant context was the newly-reorganised public broadcast institute NIR-INR in Brussels.18 The initial emergence of the recorded sound collection occurred in tandem with the introduction of new sound recording devices, acoustical devices, experiments with new radio genres, and a strong emphasis on music programming, with the 1938 move into the new ‘House of Radio’ allowing for radio programme production to be located in the same facilities as the music library and recorded sound collections.19 In terms of the organisation of music recordings, in 1938, specialised staff from the ‘library, documentation, and translation’ department assisted with the task of producing an index card system for the recorded sound collection, which consisted of over 21,000 commercial music records [see Fig. 1].20 From the early 1930s, composer and music programmer Gaston Brenta served as head of recorded sound services, which supported the reportage department in making ‘own recordings’ for actuality programming, although prior to 1934 the NIR-INR had to outsource some recording tasks due to a lack of outdoor broadcast equipment.21 In addition to wax discs produced in-house during the 1930s, radio recordings were also made with lacquer discs, steel band (Blattnerphone) and magnetic tape (Magnetophone).22 These mainly consisted of field recordings or ‘raw material’ from which extracts were used for programme production, and were collected in a ‘disc archive’ that had almost 2,300 recordings by late 1938 and roughly 3,500 recordings by late 1939.23 Overall, few full recordings of entire programmes are believed to have been made during the 1930s, and no pre-war printed catalogues are available today; those few early programme recordings that are in the VRT archives today are mainly related to national cultural heritage, such as folkloric customs and events.24

Figure 1 

Photo depicting staff at work and behind them, rows of storage shelves for sound recordings in the NIR-INR recorded sound collection (discotheek), Brussels, Belgium. Dated as 1930s. Source: VRT Archive.

Radio broadcast services in the Netherlands during the 1930s were primarily monolingual and decentralised, with the four main broadcasters all concentrating their operations at studios in Hilversum.25 One other important difference is that there was a stronger continuity of staff working in recorded sound, library and archival roles in the Dutch broadcast system across the 1930s to 1950s, including the war and occupation period.26 At the VARA (Vereeniging van Arbeiders Radio Amateurs, or Association of Worker Radio Amateurs), the first production of ‘own recordings’ started in 1933, while a recorded sound librarian (discothecaris) was appointed in 1932, who was also responsible for preparing commercial recordings for special request programmes.27 The larger AVRO (Algemeene Vereniging ‘Radio Omroep’) station appointed a staff member to the recorded sound collection in 1934, who was responsible for the largest recorded sound collections and facilities of all broadcasters, and housed in the station’s new studio complex built 1934-1936 [see Fig. 2].28 While no pre-war catalogues are available for the recorded sound collections, the AVRO gramophone department published a series of articles in 1936 devoted to the growing importance of ‘own recordings’ for their programmes starting from 1933, and outlining the various disc formats (black wax, cellulose-covered aluminium and zinc, gelatine-covered glass) they had used for recordings and ‘still lie in our archive.’29 In this context, the author notes that the AVRO preserved the recordings in a ‘special cupboard’ for which the recordings were numbered, classified and stored horizontally.30 During the Dutch pre-mobilisation in 1939-1940, L.H. Waterbeek, an early-career sound technician, was given the official task by AVRO director Willem Vogt to reorganise the recorded sound library. As Waterbeek later recalled in an oral history interview, the AVRO ‘was the first [Dutch broadcaster] to have [their in-house sound collections] well organised. A flood of records then came in from the other broadcast organisations, and an extensive card system was created.’31 The AVRO clearly had a growing sense of being in possession of historically valuable original recordings, and the increasing growth of the recorded sound collection contributed towards introducing improved organisation with the aid of an index card system.

Figure 2 

AVRO’s studio complex in Hilversum, The Netherlands (top), the recorded sound collection (bottom left) and the announcer Guus Weitzel preparing a programme (bottom right). Source: J.J.L. van Zuylen, Encyclopaedie voor Radio-Luisteraars (Baarn: Schuyt, 1939), 16-17.

Impact of Wartime Occupation on Recorded Sound Collections (1940-1944/45)

Following Britain and France’s declaration of war on Germany in September 1939, broadcast organisations in both Belgium and the Netherlands expressed concerns about an imminent attack and during the subsequent period of the mobilisation, starting from May 9-10, 1940, a number of crucial developments can be observed. In the Netherlands, broadcasters received warnings to restrict criticism of Germany in their programming, while at The Hague offices of the Radio Board (Radioraad) an emergency studio had been established from autumn 1938 for the intended purpose of communicating to the Dutch population in the event of war with Germany. With the outbreak of war on May 10, 1940, personnel at the VARA started to burn archive materials fearing that German occupiers may get hold of materials documenting involvement in the Labour Wireless International organisation and anti-fascist campaigning within socialist radio clubs.32 At the AVRO, starting from May 1940 coveted historical speeches by Dutch royal family members were initially hidden under a lift, and once they were discovered there, a plan was developed for records ‘at risk’ of confiscation (and destruction) to be copied at night by a sound engineer and then taken out of the building for safekeeping by trusted broadcast personnel.33 This reflects a conscious effort to safeguard radio recordings with perceived national heritage or cultural value in the context of occupation, including both historical radio speeches and commercial music recordings. In the case of Belgium, the national radio network was used for military announcements during the mobilisation, and with the fall of Belgium’s defences in May 1940, NIR-INR staff helped to destroy their transmitters, while several radio reporters continued to broadcast to the Belgian population from improvised transmitters in northern France and, finally, in Paris, until its fall on June 14, 1940. Upon occupation, Belgium was placed under German military administration between May 1940 and September 1944, while the Netherlands was assigned a civilian governor by the German occupiers.

Prior to the occupation, Dutch military personnel had already destroyed the Hilversum transmission tower on May 13, 1940. When the surrender agreement was signed on May 15, propaganda troops who had advanced along with German military and been designated with the task of taking over central governance of Dutch radio arrived in Hilversum at the AVRO studios.34 Under the leadership of Karl Gunzer, the radio propaganda group arrived with the expectation of finding all stations destroyed, and had equipment for setting up a temporary transmitter.35 As part of these preparations, the group brought a collection of roughly 1,000 RRG discs, including pre-recorded Dutch language programmes, which had been prepared prior to the invasion, and would have been sufficient for two weeks of radio programming. Having initially established itself in the AVRO buildings, the group set up its own offices a week later, in a nearby Hilversum villa, and was subsequently renamed as the Rundfunkbetreuungsstelle (radio supervision unit). The head of the AVRO recorded sound collections, Bep van den Brink, noted that within the radio station, she mainly feared the Dutch National Socialist party representatives (Nationaal-Socialistische Beweging, or NSB) who came to inhabit station management positions, and sought to catch out staff members like herself for not following protocol. Leading a team of 23 staff members, Van den Brink was one of the few heads of department who was a young woman. Even though she was under suspicion for and eventually fired on the grounds of ‘insubordination’ in 1944, she later noted that she was likely tolerated until then because “radio broadcasting was dependent on commercial music discs and audio recordings” and she was an experienced employee who knew the ropes.36

In Brussels, the NIR-INR was dissolved by the Germans forces in 1940, with two new radio services now operating under the auspices of Sender Brüssel (Radio Brussels) – with many of the same staff members – with broadcasts in French (Radio Bruxelles) and Flemish (Zender Brussel).37 In a similar manner to the invasion preparations for the Netherlands, roughly 570 RRG shellac records with musical performances were brought from Germany, located in the vaults and catalogue entries of the Flemish VRT archive today with the label ‘Deutscher Musik’ (German music). These recordings are mainly dated 1939-1940 and are understood to have been deposited at the NIR-INR buildings soon after the establishment of the military administration for the purposes of making musical programmes with German content.38 As such, new German-produced recordings were added to radio sound collections in German-occupied Europe, along with the ongoing recording of programmes produced by the occupied radio stations and added to the existing recorded sound collections.

The above developments are reflective of how national broadcast systems in occupied Europe were reframed as nodes within Germany’s extended ‘world radio’ network.39 In both Belgium and the Netherlands, a large number of recordings were made in the context of radio broadcast production under German occupation, with Magnetophone tape recording devices frequently used for production purposes, in addition to various disc formats. It remains difficult to easily pin down the exact number of recordings made within broadcasters under occupation, also in part due to the complicating institutional factor, in the Dutch case, of the new centralised structure of a national radio (Rijksradio–De Nederlandsche Omroep) from March 1941, which officially ended the independent status of the four large broadcasters in Hilversum.40 In Brussels, the CegeSoma research centre holds an extensive archival inventory of historical sound recordings remaining from the period of Sender Brüssel, consisting of roughly 1,200 French-language discs, roughly 1,800 Flemish-language discs, and 500 German-language discs, with both in-house disc labels and those for the Reichssender Stuttgart radio station.41 The use of ‘standard procedure’ for the registration of sound recordings in the radio station in Brussels is underscored by the use of a German-language form for controlling disc creation and documentation [see Fig. 3]. This means that not only were the two Belgian occupied stations predominantly using German sound recording technologies, but also the overall workflow for creating, documenting and classifying recordings had been reorganised in line with German guidelines and supervision.42

Figure 3 

German-language standard form used for registering radio sound recordings including reference to a system of disc numbers, dated August 10, 1940, for the Flemish-language broadcaster Zender Brussel during the German occupation, in Brussels, Belgium. Source: CegeSoma Brussels, file no. AA33 19/09/40.

Aside from the addition of German RRG recordings to existing recorded sound collections, it is crucial to attend to the context of confiscations and looting by the occupiers. While there was a broader context of radio-related confiscations, such as civilian radio receivers,43 for the specific case of radio sound collections, files held at the German Bundesarchiv can elicit some insight into the role of radio archivists in Berlin during the period 1941-1942. An internal memo from May 1941 explains that the SS unit leader Joseph Bosch was assigned the task, on behalf of the Propaganda Ministry, to ‘secure records that are politically and historically important for the Reichsschallarchiv (national sound archive)’ in cooperation with the German ‘propaganda departments’ in the Netherlands, Belgium, and France.44 Half a year later, in correspondence between Propaganda Ministry representative Dr Erich Mehne and the RRG radio sound archivist Konrad von Brauchitsch, it was noted that the RRG’s archival duties had grown substantially due to the recent ‘significant new tasks that have come about due to the acquisition of sound recordings from previously enemy broadcasters, for which there should be a larger amount included in the budget.’45 In a subsequent report as part of a ministerial briefing, in April 1942, Mehne offered a summary of the recent activities of the Reichsschallarchiv, which included an account of its mandate concerning ‘the acquisition of looted materials from the occupied territories.’46 The materials were summarised here as between 8,000 and 10,000 discs (Platten) and acetate discs (Folien) from France, 3,000 discs from Yugoslavia, 2,000 discs from Russia, a small amount from Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands.47

Since the above correspondence ends by 1943, it remains difficult to ascertain the exact further developments in the confiscation and looting of recorded sound items from Belgium and the Netherlands as well as elsewhere in occupied Europe. However, the total size of recorded sound materials sent to Germany would suggest that the confiscated materials were most likely a combination of broadcasters’ ‘own recordings’ (music and spoken word content, such as speeches) and commercial music recordings. Since Mehne also pointed to a ‘backlog’ of work caused by the influx of discs, requiring the processing of the ‘loot materials’, and evaluation of their propaganda qualities,48 the available evidence would suggest that the radio archivists mainly focused on trying to process the high numbers of recordings created in the context of war reportage and an expanded German Reich Radio (Grossdeutscher Rundfunk), with looted recordings less of a priority.49 As a result, the confiscated materials were probably not processed or appraised by the archive, nor re-used in German radio at this time, and their survival after the war is not known.50 It seems likely that the ‘own recordings’ with spoken word content were most likely seized as having potential content of political relevance, whereas commercial music recordings that were seized may have been destroyed, although it appears that some banned popular music recordings were used as part of English-language propaganda programming directed towards British listeners.51

Post-war Organisation of Recorded Sound Collections (1945-1960)

The chaos of the immediate post-war situation meant that in both cases examined here there were delays and complications in resuming regular radio services, which also affected efforts to restore respective recorded sound collections. In terms of formal interactions, the Treaty of Brussels (signed by Britain, France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg and ratified in 1948) was a key development in sparking discussions about collaborative broadcasting between the BBC and the ‘Benelux’ countries, with the BBC establishing its own ‘Western Union’ committee.52 Alongside this, the introduction of the UNESCO constitution in 1945 was also a key development, in particular its strong commitment to addressing wartime damage to cultural collections in Europe, and in directly supporting the formation of the International Association of Music Libraries (IAML) during 1949-1951.53 However, while Belgian and Dutch representatives were highly active in IAML and its ‘radio libraries’ division, there is little evidence of intensive cooperation or frequent disc exchanges between Belgium and the Netherlands, who were mainly engaged in a unilateral relationship in receiving relays or transcription discs from the BBC, in an expanded continuation of the more informal pre-war system.54 It is nonetheless instructive to examine how each country contended with the organisation of their collections in the wake of the occupation and end to the war.

In the Dutch case, Hilversum had been liberated by British forces on May 7, 1945, who found many of the station buildings plundered and emptied of their technical equipment. Later reports noted that only 20,000 sound recordings remained in the Hilversum radio buildings, some of which had been hidden by staff during the course of the war, and others permanently lost due to the confiscations noted above.55 Following the liberation in Hilversum, there was an initial predominance of the representatives of the Herrijzend Nederland station, which had broadcast from the liberated south in 1944-45 on the orders of the Dutch government-in-exile. Their intention to institute a single, centralised national radio was ultimately thwarted, as the pre-war broadcasters managed to gain support for a new model of a federated organisation for broadcasters instituted as a national radio union (National Radio Unie or NRU) in 1947, which included the AVRO, NCRV, KRO and VARA, and international services of Radio Nederland Worldwide (Wereldomroep). While the precedent for a ‘national broadcaster’ had already been established with the German-occupied radio from 1941, in the NRU model, technical services were centralised, yet each broadcaster retained its status as a separate institution, with their own fee-paying members and revenue from programme magazines.

In terms of the recorded sound collections, several historical accounts described the ‘chaos’ of the transition period of 1944-1947, with Herrijzend Nederland in charge of the recorded sound collections for radio production until usual services resumed. In the ensuing period, former sound collection head Bep van den Brink was initially enlisted to help reorganise the collections in May 1945, before being rehired as the head of the AVRO recorded sound collection (discotheek) in 1946 to 1947; she later described a continuation of the wartime system of index cards that were stored in books, and were also used to created lists to share with the Buma association for music authors and publishers.56 The subsequent head J. Bonda, along with 20 female colleagues, worked together on the recorded sound collections, which rapidly grew to a total of 100,000 discs by 1950, and were classified according to title, composer and performer, along with descriptions and notation of recording times.57 In 1947, all the broadcasters had agreed to loan their materials to the centralised recorded sound collection (NRU-Discotheek) that was managed within the AVRO building complex. In re-assembling the collections, the ‘radio heritage’ of the war also comprised the ‘Radio Oranje’ broadcasts from London and Radio Herrijzend Nederland (broadcasting from Eindhoven from September 1944), along with Allied-controlled radio broadcasts from Luxembourg and Belgium.58 The recordings were housed in cramped rooms and cellars of the AVRO studio buildings, among other dispersed locations.59 Compared with Belgium, the Netherlands was initially slower to introduce magnetic tape recording (with the Magnetophone), having made a stronger investment in producing disc-based ‘own recordings’ of music and spoken word programmes.60

In terms of other legacies of the German occupation, as late as 1955, the NRU-Discotheek was reported to be keeping their fragile sound recordings, such as the extremely flammable Philips-Miller tapes made in the 1930s, in a nearby bunker that the former German commander for Hilversum had commissioned for his private use [see Fig. 4]. The rationale given was that the bunker was an ideally climate-controlled environment, and relieved the library from their space constraints in the AVRO building.61 The rapid growth of the collections and high demand for music and spoken word recordings in radio production contributed to preparations with architects, starting from 1952, for a dedicated recorded sound collections building as part of nascent plans for a purpose-built complex in Hilversum, which was inspired by ‘Radio City’ buildings in New York and Los Angeles.62 While post-war articles started to refer to the existence of a ‘historic archive’ (Historisch Archief), mainly consisting of recordings of spoken-word programmes, the first dedicated curator was appointed only in 1958: former journalist and radio maker Paul de Waart, who declared his intention for proper documentation and organisation of recordings according to a concept of a ‘sound archive’ (Geluidsarchief), set in contrast to a previous radio production ethos of a lending library.63

Figure 4 

The former German bunker used by the Dutch national radio union soud archive to keep historical tape recordings cool (image top-right), along with images of the recorded sound collections (NRU-Discotheek) located in the AVRO building, Hilversum, The Netherlands. Source: K.S. “Oude hoorspelen zitten in een Duitse bunker.” Radiobode 25 no. 42 (June 1955): 5.

Similar to the Netherlands, the resumption of radio services until a new mandate for radio in September 1945 were difficult in Belgium due to tensions between the BRNO organisation (largely made up of representatives endorsed by or sent from London), pre-war NIR-INR broadcasters, and some 500 staff members who had remained working during the occupation.64 As noted in the opening to this essay, both the archival catalogues for programmes created in London and the music and sound library inventories in Brussels showed the influence of English and German-language classification terms for the recordings. Even though some damage to disc and tape materials was in evidence at the Brussels studios of NIR-INR in September 1944 [see Fig. 5], spoken-word recordings made in French, Flemish and German between 1940-1944 were subsequently requisitioned as evidence for the General Prosecutor formally investigating wartime radio collaboration in 1945-46.65 In NIR-INR’s archival documentation we can find evidence of a heightened sense of the recorded sound collections as a site of valuable heritage. An annual report covering the period 1944-46 noted the high number of recordings lost during the occupation, and that extremely scarce resources led to US and British donations in order to allow gramophone music programmes to be made.66 In this context, the NIR-INR commissioned an archives survey in 1945 to account for which recorded sound materials had been confiscated or destroyed during the period.67

Figure 5 

Damage at studio facilities at the NIR-INR building in Brussels, Belgium, including deliberately scratched and broken discs and unreeled tapes, ca. September 1944. Source: VRT Archive.

Soon after this, in 1946, a ‘Permanent Committee’ for the recorded sound collections was established, led by sound engineer Georges Gourski (later head of technical services for Belgian radio), and highly invested in establishing best practices for preserving ‘own recordings’ of spoken word and musical programming.68 In terms of re-assembling different parts of Belgium’s ‘wartime radio’ for the historical collection, the recorded sound collection department sourced the recordings from the Radio Belgique/Radio België services in London that had been documented in handwritten logbooks, as well as some limited documentation for Belgian-language services from Léopoldville (then Belgian Congo) and New York (Belgian Information Center).69 This also included broadcasts made by Jan van Overloop, who joined Allied forces in Luxembourg between 1944-45 to create programmes addressing Belgian prisoners and slave labourers in Germany, which is today still prioritised as an important ‘milestone’ in Belgium’s radio history.70 In 1952, the Permanent Committee reported that recordings of music as well as programmes made with temporary transmitters in northern France in May-June 1940 had been brought back from Paris by then NIR-INR director Jan Boon, for which an inventory shows more than 50 recordings listed, with a number of these put aside in a separate archival box ‘HIST 820-849’ that indicates their privileged status as ‘historical’ within the larger collection [Fig. 6].71 In general, the archival documentation emphasises the strong uptake of tape recordings in programme production from the late 1940s, with some archival materials in the radio collections from the late 1940s being selected for archival preservation by being re-recorded from disc onto tape.72 Moreover, catalogues for the late 1940s show a huge influx of commercial music recordings (from the US, UK and elsewhere in Europe), along with off-air recordings of BBC transmissions and high-quality transcription discs.73

Figure 6 

Archival list of the records (May-June 1940) that NIR-INR director Jan Boon brought back from France to the broadcast house in Brussels, Belgium. Source: National Archives of the Belgische Radio en Televisie (BRT), Inventory I 503, file no. 90.


The previous section has examined the immediate and long-term effects of military conflict and occupation on collections that were partly damaged, looted or dispersed, and how the awareness of the Second World War as ‘historical’ also fuelled subsequent attempts to recompile partly dispersed recorded sound materials from multiple radio services in a European and international framework. Indeed, the final examples discussed above underscore how the conditions of post-war restoration and centralisation of recorded sound collections, in combination with a growth in size and increased demand for re-use in radio programmes, contributed to more institutional attention to the historic significance of radio recordings, and the perceived need for dedicated spaces for recorded sound collections, as evidenced by new purpose-built facilities planned for Hilversum in the early 1950s (although not in operation until 1968).74

As such, this article has sought to trace the growing ‘archive-mindedness’ among radio broadcasters across the 1930s to 1950s, during which time recorded sound collections grew substantially in size and scope, and came to include ‘own recordings’ of music, spoken word, and sound effects, fuelled by new types of programming increasingly reliant on recorded sound content such as actuality reportage and radio plays. The analysis has largely been comparative in assessing how Belgian and Dutch broadcasters respectively created, managed and used these growing collections, and how they were situated within new, purpose-built radio facilities from around 1930 onwards. This effort to establish international comparison was extended to the question of the common experience in Belgium and the Netherlands of German military occupation. This attention has uncovered how, upon arrival, German occupiers added new materials to broadcasters’ recorded sound collections, while also confiscating recordings, and instituting new systems for the management of recorded sound collections. The legacy of broadcasts directed to Belgian and Dutch listeners from London and other locations between 1940 and 1945 add further sources of recorded sound heritage from the Second World War in both countries. The comparison of the two cases also casts light on the key differences; whereas in Hilversum the four main broadcasters created separate recorded sound collections that were ultimately combined at the AVRO building, the once unified recorded sound collection in Brussels served two (and later three) language-based services, which, in turn, were formally split into three separate divisions in 1960, with the music library and recorded sound collections managed as part of unit for joint services to the two new broadcasters, along with a decision to start with a new archival numbering.75 While the presence of a growing ‘archive awareness’ has been largely treated in national comparison, it should be necessarily contextualised in line with international developments in the post-war era, such as UNESCO cultural heritage funding, best practices in professional organisations like IAML, and by a growing commercial market supplying new archival storage and preservation products.76

The account presented here is the result of a process of piecing together insights from an uneven source base, in part due to the rapid institutional changes and various forms of damage to archival artefacts and documentation during and after the Second World War, and in part due to a weak track record in both countries in developing and maintaining a strong mandate for print-based documentation of radio broadcasting. This paper has explicitly sought to craft a narrative that re-inserts the significance of recorded sound collections into the existing treatment of early Belgian and Dutch radio, across the interwar, war and post-war periods, while also pointing to the gaps and incomplete documentation that scholars must contend with when seeking to trace the archival lives of radio, and the process by which radio came to be understood as a significant site of history and shared heritage.