MITH is pleased to announce an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities 2017 Humanities Collections and Reference Resources program for Unlocking the Airwaves: Revitalizing an Early Public and Educational Radio Collection. Unlocking the Airwaves, directed by Stephanie Sapienza with Co-PI Eric Hoyt, is a multi-institutional collaboration between MITH, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the Wisconsin Historical Society, University Libraries at the University of Maryland, with collaborative support from the American Archive of Public Broadcasting at WGBH/Library of Congress, and the Radio Preservation Task Force.

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) is an independent federal agency created in 1965. It is one of the largest funders of humanities programs in the United States. The Endowment awards grants to top-rated proposals examined by panels of independent, external reviewers.These grants are highly competitive and involve a rigorous peer-review process to ensure that the projects represent the highest level of humanities quality and public engagement.

The $217,000 grant will fund the creation of a comprehensive online collection of early educational public radio content from the National Association of Educational Broadcasters (NAEB). The forerunner of CPB and its arms, NPR and PBS, the NAEB served as the primary organizer, developer, and distributor for noncommercial broadcast production and analysis between 1925 and 1981. These broadcasts, mostly stemming from university and public school-run radio stations, provide an in-depth look at the engagements and events of American history, as they were broadcast to and received by the general public in the twentieth century. According to the project’s Lead Advisor, Josh Shepperd of Catholic University and Director of the Radio Preservation Task Force,

“The National Association of Educational Broadcasters recordings provide valuable context into cultural, political, and less-studied, educational discourses going back to the New Deal, and associated documents help media scholars to trace the origin of script development, audience research, and genres that we associate with both public media and cable television - science, travel, food, history, and journalism programming.”

The NAEB systematically preserved its history across over a hundred boxes of documents and 5,000 reels of tape, but the organization split its archive, depositing its papers in Wisconsin and the recordings in Maryland. Archival audiovisual media has been collected and maintained separately from other kinds of (primarily textual) archival sources, and these ‘split’ collections mean that researchers must often discover and manually reunite audiovisual collections and their related materials if they want to understand a broadcast not just as an audiovisual object, but as a medium that relays information within a set of historical contexts (time, place, related events, etc.). Unlocking the Airwaves will reunite the split NAEB collections, develop an open and comprehensive web portal for them, and tell the story of early educational and public broadcasting.

By coordinating the expertise of archivists, humanities researchers, and digital humanists, Unlocking the Airwaves will deliver enhanced access to important, mostly hidden, archival audiovisual materials by linking split hybrid paper/audiovisual collections together, and providing a search engine for the linked collections, enabling users to simultaneously search both the documents and sounds of the NAEB. The resulting resource will finally realize the potential of the collections of the NAEB for exploration and study by educators, scholars, journalists, documentarians, genealogists, and the broader public.