On June 6, 1959, 15 years after Allied troops landed at Normandy on D-Day during World War II, Seattle radio station KIRO presents D-Day Plus 15, featuring recordings from the KIRO-CBS Phonoarchive (later renamed the Milo Ryan Phonoarchive) at the University of Washington. The original newscasts by Edward R. Murrow's (1908-1965) team of reporters enable listeners to relive the rush of events as they unfolded 15 years earlier. Those broadcasts had been recorded by KIRO on acetate discs that then sat forgotten until unearthed in 1956 by University of Washington communications professor and founding KCTS-TV program director Milo Ryan (1907-1986).
A Stunning Discovery
In 1955 Milo Ryan was looking for wartime audio clips for a television series called Channels of Propaganda, which he was producing with Vernon McKenzie (1887-1963), a former propaganda advisor for the British government and retired UW professor. Ryan learned there was a cache of old acetate-disc recordings stored at KIRO radio's Vashon-Maury Island transmitter. The recordings were not labeled or indexed, so station authorities had no way to locate the specific material Ryan was seeking. With no use for the discs, they transferred 52 packing cases of them to the University of Washington.
As Ryan sorted through the recordings, he was amazed at the sheer volume, some 3,900 programs. But even more stunning was what those newscasts and features documented -- events leading up to World War II and throughout its long progression, including speeches by Adolf Hitler (1889-1945), Winston Churchill (1874-1965), Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945), and many others. Then, after contacting administrators at the Columbia Broadcasting System, Ryan received news that seemed unbelievable: The disc recordings he was sorting held the only complete set of CBS wartime broadcasts known to exist.
How Could That Be?
Since the mid-1920s, when CBS radio first went on the air, commercial radio had been inventing itself. In the beginning, when few households owned radios, stations filled the airwaves haphazardly with a mix of music, sermons, drama, public-service broadcasts, and advertisements -- most of it ephemeral. People swarmed to the amazing new technology that brought information and entertainment instantly into their living rooms, and by the beginning of World War II nearly every family in America owned a radio and spent three or four hours a day listening.
In the beginning, news announcements were generally gleaned from the same wire-service reports that fed newspapers and were simply read aloud on the air. But when Edward R. Murrow began broadcasting from London in the late 1930s, he developed his own unique style of live-news reporting. He and his "boys" -- a team of journalists that included William Shirer (1904-1993), Eric Sevareid (1912-1992), Paul White (1902-1955), and Thomas Grandin (1907-1977) -- made the events of the day feel immediate and personal. They didn't just read news off the wire, they told their listeners what it was like to be there.
Although the CBS reporters stationed in Europe were called Murrow's boys, they were not all male. Murrow -- who grew up in the small Skagit County farming town of Blanchard and graduated from Washington State University -- was known throughout his life for championing fairness and equality. And that included bucking CBS management -- which had a policy of no female reporters in the war zone -- to hire the company's first female correspondent, Mary Marvin Breckinridge (1905-2002).
During those years it was an "operating principle of the networks" that all programs sent out nationally be aired live by local affiliate stations (History in Sound ..., ix). But the three-hour time difference presented a problem on the West Coast, where few listeners were awake for morning broadcasts from New York. As events in Europe veered toward war, Seattle's KIRO, operated by the Queen City Broadcasting Company, decided it was imperative to record important programming for delayed broadcast at an hour when Northwest audiences would be listening.
But how to do that? Recording technology at the time was limited. The best option was capturing sound on acetate discs, which could not be erased or reused. As the war dragged on, those discs began piling up at KIRO and eventually were hauled off for storage at the station's Vashon Island transmitter.
Preserving the Record
After Ryan got involved and the discs were transferred to UW, the staggering historical importance of the collection became clear. Suddenly the university, KIRO, and CBS found themselves in uncharted territory over questions of copyright and use. CBS had initiated the broadcasts, in concert with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), but had not recorded them, so held nothing tangible to copyright. Technically, KIRO had acted outside "operating principles" in recording the shows for later broadcast, but could only be seen as heroic for preserving the newscasts. The university, as the recipient of the discs, was now holding a historic collection -- but also faced the vast and expensive job of sorting, cataloging, re-recording, archiving, maintaining, and managing the use of it into the future.
And over it all loomed the question of what would have become of the discs if Ryan hadn't stepped in. Would they have even survived? They were unmarked and unorganized, their quality was deteriorating, they took up a lot of space, and at some point station employees, not knowing their significance, might have simply discarded them.
As the parties worked through these issues, Ryan took on the urgent task of preserving and documenting the material. Over several years, he worked with UW students to transfer the fragile recordings to audiotape and catalog the collection. The project called for more than 450 miles of tape and the cost of materials alone reportedly was more than $12,000 -- a lot of money in late 1950s dollars. The CBS Foundation granted $10,000 to the project.
In 1963, Ryan published History in Sound: A Descriptive Listing of the KIRO-CBS Collection of Broadcasts of the World War II Years and After, in the Phonoarchive of the University of Washington, with forewords by CBS Chairman William S. Paley and KIRO President Saul Hass. Paley wrote, "We are glad that our Seattle affiliate, Station KIRO, had the foresight to preserve these historic broadcasts; that the University of Washington is transcribing and preserving them, and that Professor Ryan has had the initiative and enormous energy to catalogue these 3,900 programs" (History in Sound ..., vi).
History in Sound
The scope of the collection Ryan lays out in his book is stunning. The archive features newscasts marking every weekday from the German invasion of Poland on September 7, 1939, through April 2, 1945, after Allied forces had entered Germany. Special coverage includes reporting on the Normandy invasion in June 1944, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the American bombing of Japan, and the death of President Roosevelt, among many other topics. Also included are 21 speeches by Winston Churchill, 51 talks by President Roosevelt, and the voices of General Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969), John F. Kennedy (1917-1963), Albert Einstein (1879-1955), and Hitler.
Mary Marvin Breckenridge, reporting for Murrow, brought a unique perspective to wartime coverage, contributing some 50 broadcasts from seven countries, including a fascinating segment on how select young German women were sequestered and trained to become Nazi brides.
One of Murrow's most shocking reports came on April 15, 1945, when he was driven through Germany to see the Buchenwald concentration camp as the Allied forces took charge. As he entered a barrack, "men crowded around, tried to lift me to their shoulders: they were too weak. Many of them could not get out of bed. I was told that this building had once stabled 80 horses. There were 1,200 men in it, five to a bunk. The stink was beyond all description" (Phonoarchive).
Prisoners Murrow encountered that day included the former mayor of Prague, a professor from the Sorbonne, doctors from Vienna, and hundreds of children with ribs showing through their thin shirts. Some clung to his hands but didn't speak. He saw several hundred gaunt, naked corpses, "stacked like cordwood," some shot through the head (Phonoarchive). Murrow described the contents of his report as "rather mild," and concluded, "I have reported what I saw and heard, but only part of it; for most of it I have no words" (Phonoarchive).
Murrow's style of intense, vivid, live news reports changed the meaning of broadcast journalism, and the Phonoarchive, with Ryan's catalog History in Sound, offered for the first time an indexed library of those historic broadcasts. A review of the book noted that "news broadcasts can be treated as sound histories that can command as much respect as the story of a newspaper reporter," and "radio news can now be documented as a significant and consequential historical resource" (Fellows, 26).
After publication of the catalog, Ryan continued to search out and add new material to the collection until his retirement in 1970. At that point, UW communications professor and former radio broadcaster Donald Godfrey (b. 1944) took over as curator of the Phonoarchive and continued working with the networks -- CBS, NBC, ABC -- and with Hollywood, providing various clips they needed for documentary, news, and movie productions.
Milo Ryan's Legacy
Godfrey later said that one of the most important things he did during his tenure was to rename the archive after his mentor, the man who had discovered and preserved it. In 1972 the collection became known as the Milo Ryan Phonoarchive. But changes at the School of Communications made the future of the Phonoarchive uncertain, Godfrey later recalled. Without support for the archive from other faculty in the department, Godfrey feared for its future. He arranged to transfer management of the collection to Instructional Media Services, directed by Leon "Bill" Hevly (1930-2004), a former student of Ryan's. Climate-controlled storage for the original discs was not available, so Godfrey decided to donate them to the Northwest regional office of the National Archives, while retaining a full set of the audiotapes for UW. A set of the tapes was also given to the National Archives in Washington, D. C., and Godfrey kept a copy for himself. In 1981 he left UW for a position at the University of Arizona and later donated his tapes to Brigham Young University.
Just as the first radio broadcast using audio from the Phonoarchive had commemorated the 15th anniversary of D-day, it was fitting that in 1984 former Murrow colleague Bill Shadel turned to the archive again to glean material for the CBS broadcast D-Day Plus Forty Years. The Milo Ryan Phonoarchive continued to provide audio for researchers and historical documentaries and films. In 1988, for example, excerpts were used in the PBS American Experience special "Not So Wild a Dream," based on the memoir of former "Murrow boy" Eric Sevareid.
In 2010 John Vallier, head of Distributed Media at the UW Libraries, assumed responsibility for the Phonoarchive. Mindful of the significance of the collection and the fragility of the aging tapes, Vallier worked to digitize the collection and to make the recordings more easily available to scholars and the public.