Although radio broadcasters in Europe had been assembling collections or ‘libraries’ of commercial recordings for use in music programming since the early 1920s, it is not until the end of the decade that we see them express a growing interest in systematically recording broadcast audio and building up their own sound archives. Writing of the new Haus des Rundfunks (Broadcasting House) in Berlin in 1930, one journalist hoped to see the German Broadcasting Corporation (Reichs-Rundfunk-Gesellschaft or RRG) fill its stores with recordings, arguing that ‘There is space enough in the new building. Space for discs and space for new ideas’.1 The first steps towards radio archiving in Germany had already been taken at the Berlin Funk-Stunde station where radio play pioneer Hans Flesch had made one of the first significant, intentional uses of the term ‘archive’ in radio by establishing a ‘radio play archive’ (Hörspielarchiv), reflecting his strong belief in the new creative potential in using recorded sound for radio production.2 The RRG, also in Berlin, had started making disc recordings in May 1929, with the first item being an event commemorating the foundational stone of the new Haus des Rundfunks building.3 Following the unveiling of the broadcast building in early 1931, the radio archive was relocated in a purpose-built space, and now acted as a joint in-house service for collecting recordings of the Funk-Stunde local station, the national station, and the RRG. From this period onwards, the RRG initiated and led a radio archival service, insofar as it compiled a central catalogue of important recordings at all German stations, with a system of numbering recordings intended for internal organisation and to facilitate loans between the stations.4 These holdings not only included radio plays, speeches, lectures, musical performances, and sport reportage, but also a sound effects collection.5 Later political events would see RRG recordings and archival practices spread across the European continent in the context of wartime military occupations.

The German radio system was further centralised under new radio laws from July 1932 onwards and, starting from 1933, the so-called ‘reorganised’ radio system under National Socialism emphasised the RRG radio archive’s role at the centre of that system whereby it facilitated disc exchanges between broadcasters, monitored the issuing of matrix and catalogue numbers, and published the catalogues themselves.6 Writing in 1938, a prolific author of radio technical books described the increasingly large collection of radio recordings held by the RRG archive, noting that ‘the whole world wishes to be able to share in these treasures’.7 There was indeed international enthusiasm for the idea; for some years newspapers and the radio press across Europe had already demonstrated a keen interest in the RRG’s creation of a collection of recordings that could help facilitate the production of new programmes, as well as for collecting ‘the sounds of the past’ comprising recordings of ‘the most interesting moments’ of radio transmission.8 When the International Broadcasting Union (IBU) held a meeting hosted by the RRG in 1936, delegates were treated to a tour of the purpose-built archive. Such efforts are evidence of the prestige of the RRG’s sound archive, put on display and commented upon by representatives of European broadcasters who took photos of the impressive wall-length cabinets and modern recording technology.9

This example serves as a reminder of the circulation, across and beyond Europe, of the nascent idea of the national radio archive, and an interest in the RRG’s expanding archive under National Socialist direction, in the years shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War. This context sets the scene for the present special issue, which draws connections between radio broadcasting, archival sound collections, and European history, thereby seeking to intervene in the field of media history that has rarely sought to treat this historical phenomenon. Some key questions that the present issue takes as its departure point include: How were archival collections established in radio broadcasting from around 1930 onwards? And how were particular historical processes or events significant in the life cycles of radio archival materials? How have particular institutional frameworks, technologies or social actors, such as archivists, impacted radio archival collections? With this special issue, we seek to facilitate a joint response to such questions and spark an interdisciplinary conversation with scholars and practitioners invested in theoretically-informed, connective histories about radio archives.

This volume – and the workshop that preceded it – situates itself at the intersection of media history, radio studies, and critical archival studies, drawing on the work of both archival professionals and academics working in the fields of history and media studies.10 It responds to a growing interest in studying the significance of audio-visual archiving and preservation practices.11 While this scholarly attention to media archival histories has generated a growing body of literature, it has thus far mainly been focused on film, photography and television.12 In the meantime, a growing number of publications have started to consider radio preservation as a domain of critical interest. However, the majority of these contributions are positioned in terms of studying the present state of radio archival collections, or how they might be used for the purposes of the present or future projects.13 In radio research, an interest in writing histories of archival collections and archivist practices is a relatively recent phenomenon, with much of the work concentrated on the post-war era.14 The emerging field of critical archival studies has been formative in shifting analytical attention to the social forces and power relations underpinning archival institutions and their policies, archivist practices and the collections themselves.15 Working in this vein, the contributors to this special issue approach European radio archives (in the words of Alexander Badenoch in this volume) as subject rather than source, examining how European radio archives themselves were formed, preserved, and used in a period dominated by war, occupation and reconstruction.

For the sake of clarity, it is worth taking a moment to examine the terminology, localisation and periodisation of this volume’s theme: Historical Traces of European Radio Archives, 1930-1960. The term ‘historical traces’ is used to acknowledge the fact that the histories of European radio archives are often disrupted and incomplete, and researchers must track the traces across multiple different media and sources. Dealing with archival ‘gaps’ is a challenge common to much if not most archival research, but there are specific aspects of radio history in this period that further exacerbate this issue.16 As several contributors touch on, archives within broadcasting organisations often start off as working repositories of recordings for re-use in programme making, with the possibilities of long-term retention of historically important material often a secondary consideration. While all archives have to address the issues of selection and storage – what to keep, for how long, and in what form – the financial and logistical restraints imposed will be constrained by the priorities of the organisation. In the words of the BBC’s Head of Recording Services in the late 1970s,

All of us who are in charge of broadcasting sound archives face an increasing dilemma. Our collections have been built up entirely for broadcasting purposes. Selectors and others decide to keep those things which they feel will be used in the future for programmes. That is what the money is allocated for. We have no budget for any other purposes whatsoever.17

Questions of materiality also come into play here as audio-visual holdings can be expensive to manufacture, fragile to handle, and expensive to store, all of which increases the cost of archiving them.18 In contrast to documentary holdings, the reusability of components used to make lacquer discs and – to an even greater extent – magnetic tape, means that researchers have to consider not only the question of materials lost through damage, but also those intentionally broken down for reuse. As several papers in this issue show, wider political events also impact on radio archives, and the experiences of war and occupation resulted in their widespread creation, destruction, and displacement.

The periodisation of this volume – 1930–1960 – acknowledges the significant impact the Second World War had on radio archives in Europe, but also seeks to place it in its context. 1930 is taken as the starting point as this is when we start to see the formalisation of archival practice at radio institutions, notably at the RRG which takes a central position in the work of the TRACE project.19 However, we do not propose this as the very starting point of recorded sound collections, acknowledging that collecting commercial recordings had been a key feature of early radio in the preceding decade.20 It is also important to acknowledge that the idea of capturing and storing the ephemeral sounds of radio broadcasting has precedents at least 30 years earlier. At the very start of the twentieth century, we find the first state-endorsed phonogram archives appearing in Vienna, Berlin, Zurich, St Petersburg and other European contexts. These archives largely stored scientific collections of language and music recordings from around the world, along with ‘voice portraits’ of public figures.21

It might be expected that the impact of war on radio archives would be largely destructive, and it is true that bomb damage, looting and appropriation of materials did wreak havoc on some collections, but there were also creative impulses at work. The National Socialists put much emphasis on documenting their party and reign, resulting in the creation of extensive recorded sound collections, and – as Vincent Kuitenbrouwer’s paper shows – the exile movements created in opposition to German aggression made use of broadcasting, producing their own archives in the process. The early post-war period also saw an increased demand for re-use of recordings in radio programmes (often examining the turbulent war period), the growth of professional networks devoted to sound archiving in the Europe, and in some national contexts, the growth of documentation and information services (or centres) for radio collections.22

Our periodisation is bracketed at 1960 since it is during the 1950s that magnetic tape took over from discs as the main format in both radio production and sound archiving.23 Magnetic tape, as several contributors point out, offered more ease and flexibility in recording. In some cases, this kickstarted the preservation of older formats like shellac that were copied onto reel-to-reel tapes, creating a historical layering of archival recordings and their provenance across technical carriers.24 In other cases, material shortages often led to the frequent re-recording on tape, meaning that programmes recorded on tape were often not kept for posterity, marking a sea change in radio archival practice, as Pekka Salosaari’s contribution to this issue demonstrates. However, several contributions in this issue go beyond 1960 in order to emphasise certain continuities or breaks in the use of particular recorded sound formats, archival policies or institutional arrangements.

While this issue limits its scope to Europe, this is done with full acknowledgement of the risks of a Eurocentric approach which overlooks the diversity of media historical research on broadcasting beyond the continent.25 However, historians have reminded us that radio broadcasting in Europe was a socio-political and infrastructural project with a diverse range of organisations and approaches interacting in a small geographical area.26 Europe serves as an instructive framework to consider certain common factors (or historical developments) affecting the contents, size and form of radio archives between 1930-1960, such as diplomatic crises, the Second World War, occupation and post-war political/regime change. In national radio archival collections, we can find recordings of international broadcast activities, such as from co-productions and European programme exchanges, and evidence of the translocation of recordings across and beyond the European context. At the same time, as the contributions gathered here show, there are important differences in broadcast contexts across Europe, and in archival policy, economic resources, staffing and technological facilities, all of which are crucial factors for the growth and fate of radio archives. While papers in this issue are concerned with – in alphabetical order – Belgium, Finland, Germany, Great Britain, the Netherlands, and the Switzerland-based IBU, there are inevitably other interesting cases to be explored within and beyond Europe.

The final term to be addressed is that of ‘radio archives’, and the diversity of materials discussed in this issue are testament to the broad definition we have chosen to use. At its narrowest, the term ‘radio archive’ refers only to the recorded sound collections held by broadcasting institutions, whether these be early wax cylinders, shellac records, magnetic tape, or newer re-recordings. We adopt a broader approach which acknowledges the importance of the context in which such collections are held and preserved. For us, the radio archive thus also includes the paper documentation that surrounds such collections in their organisational context – from catalogues and index cards to department budgets, programme scripts and archival practice guidelines. Moreover, we look beyond active broadcasting organisations, following collections that move from radio stations into national archives and other institutions. In some contexts, we may find clear separation between a ‘music library’ and the ‘sound archive’, whereas in others we find a single organisational unit responsible for commercial music, the sound effects library, raw material, full programme recordings and the historic archive. Terminology differs between institutions and across the period of our study, but this is perhaps not the most productive place for debates about whether we’re dealing with an archive, library, collection or repository.27 For us, the material of the radio archive incorporates the work of any department within organisations operating in the field of broadcasting which engage in the key functions of an archive, namely, the acquisition, creation or documentation of recorded sound collections and/or radio programmes; selection and appraisal of such materials (in determining whether they have permanent archival value); their preservation; provision of access or facilitation of their re-use; and the management of copyright and legal deposit provisions.28

Tracing the disrupted histories of such diverse archival collections across this tumultuous period of European history poses multiple challenges, some of which are explored by Erica Harrison in the opening paper to this special issue. Focusing on the journey of one recorded sound collection from its origins in Weimar Germany through multiple institutions before, during, and after the Second World War, Harrison shows how the archival value of any given object is determined by the context of the collection, the institution, and the specific country within which it is being assessed, as well as highlighting the significant and ongoing influence of accompanying documentation such as catalogues. Working with and around some of the problems of these archival ‘gaps’, Harrison demonstrates how researchers often need to access a variety of sources to reconstruct the journey of sound collections displaced by war.

Vincent Kuitenbrouwer also explores the impact of the Second World War on the creation and preservation of radio archives by examining the history and archival remnants of Radio Oranje, the wartime radio programme broadcast by the Dutch government-in-exile from London. With both paper and sound recordings surviving, as well as a wealth of contemporaneous press material that has now been digitised, the article discusses how the digital humanities can support new approaches to understanding and contextualising media archives, while highlighting that such work often still requires a hybrid approach due to the diversity of sources required to build up a rounded picture. In his exploration of the public memory of Radio Oranje, Kuitenbrouwer further highlights how the objects which survive can come to dominate understandings of the archive which preserves them, whether or not they are representative of the work of their original creators.

Carolyn Birdsall takes a wider perspective by comparing the development of recorded sound collections in Belgian and Dutch radio. The impact of the Second World War is also significant in this article, but is primarily adopted as a frame to make sense of how each country (and its respective broadcasting systems) underwent German occupation, and the resulting effects of this experience on their radio archives. In this analysis, the war is understood as significantly affecting the mindset of those radio employees looking to reorganise and rebuild collections after the war, although this case also highlights the challenges of reconstructing this history from an uneven source base due to missing documentation.

Pekka Salosaari offers an institutional insight into the birth, growth, and preservation of recorded sound collections in the archives of Finland’s national broadcaster Yleisradio Oy. In his analysis of the development of the archive from the 1930s to the present day, Salosaari examines radio production and archive administration to reveal not only the major technology-driven trends in archiving but also many of the ‘little things’ that have both enabled and inhibited the long-term preservation of sound recordings at the broadcaster.

In the final article of the special issue, Alexander Badenoch also focuses on a specific institutional archive, in this case that of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). The archive of the EBU is currently inaccessible to outside users and Badenoch explores what the ‘silencing’ of this major international broadcasting organisation’s archive means for researchers, potentially creating further ‘gaps’ that future researchers will have to grapple with. Placing the archive within its institutional context, he discusses some of the issues surrounding the role and function of the archive. Badenoch furthermore highlights how an informal network of researchers are working around this problem of inaccessibility by sharing their notes and photographs from previous trips.

With this special issue we take a first step towards establishing a field of enquiry devoted to archival histories of radio broadcasting. We demonstrate the importance of subjecting radio archives and their historical collections to close analysis, as a means to better understand and contextualise the significance of the recorded sound archive and its documentation practices within the history of radio. However, we also show how radio archival collections can be a productive site for understanding the impact of particular socio-political forces and historical events on and within radio broadcasting. The various contributions, moreover, establish critical archival histories of radio by drawing attention to the particular influence of certain individuals or a given institutional setting, without ignoring particular contingencies produced by available technological, national and economic means. We nevertheless believe that more work remains to be done; more contextualised histories of radio archival collections need to be pursued, in particular when it pertains to archival practices across the globe over the past century. It is our hope that this issue begins a conversation that will continue in the years to come.