TV’s Lost & Found: Preserving Television Audio

Audio recordings of otherwise missing or lost television programs dating back to the late 1930s are valuable resources worthy of preservation. The Library of Congress maintains a sizable collection of audio recordings of television programs broadcast on experimental station W2XBS and its commercial successor WNBT in New York City between 1937 and 1964. Learn more about the earliest surviving audio recordings of television programs, including several commercial programs broadcast on July 1st, 1941 — the first day of commercial television in the United States.

Introduction

Television is both a visual and aural medium, one that combines sight and sound. Both are required when watching television. If you get rid of the visual element, you’re basically listening to radio. If you take away the audio element, you’re watching a silent movie. Ideally, television programs are preserved with both audio and video but a surprising amount of television history survives only in audio form. Listening to these audio recordings is not the same as watching the programs but it can offer important insight into television programs that are otherwise missing or lost.

However, as is the case with television preservation in general, it’s hard to know how much television audio exists. Information is often sketchy and much of the audio known to survive isn’t easily accessible. There are some exceptions. The BBC’s Doctor Who is one of the most famous TV shows with missing episodes but off-air audio recordings made by fans exist for all 97 missing episodes. Likewise, a single episode of Dark Shadows from February 1971 exists only as an off-air audio recording. The missing episode was reconstructed in 1993 for home video.

Some audio recordings of “lost” TV shows have been uploaded to YouTube, including nine minutes of audio from an otherwise lost December 1951 episode of What’s My Line?, audio from the live Super Bowl I post-game press conference on January 15th, 1967, and NBC’s three-hour broadcast of Game 1 of the 1975 American League Championship Series from October 4th, 1975.

Take a look (or a listen):

There are likely other examples of “lost” television audio available on YouTube and elsewhere.

Television Audio from the 1920s?

Audio recording predates television by decades. Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville’s patented his phonoautograph, which was used to record sound but not play it back, in 1857! Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877, allowing sound to be recorded and played back for the first time. Experiments with early electrical recording using a microphone date back to the early 1900s.

Talkies, or motion pictures featuring sound-on-film, debuted in 1923. The release of The Jazz Singer in October 1927 marked the beginning of the end for silent films.

Early experimental television broadcasts started in the United States in 1923. General Electric’s experimental television station W2XCW began broadcasting in January 1928. It is therefore theoretically possible that audio recordings were made of these first television broadcasts, using a variety of methods. However, no evidence exists that any such audio recordings were made or that they survive today.

Surviving Television Audio from the 1930s

The earliest surviving television audio may be a June 17th, 1937 program called “Television at the World’s Fair” simulcast on radio over the NBC Blue Network and experimental NBC television station W2XBS in New York City. It’s part of the NBC Radio Collection at the Library of Congress, which contains 150,000 lacquer transcription discs. NBC donated the collection to the Library of Congress in 1978. Many of the recordings have been transferred to polyester tape for preservation purposes. Approximately 90% of the collection is searchable through the Library’s SONIC database, maintained by the Recorded Sound Section.

Also part of the NBC Radio Collection is an audio recording of a half-hour W2XBS television program featuring Gertrude Lawrence, Paul McGrath, and Nancy Coleman performing scenes from the play Susan and God, broadcast on June 7th, 1938. It was the first time a Broadway play was televised, although it was broadcast from a studio and not a Broadway theater. The Paley Center for Media also has an audio recording of this program in its collection.

Finally, the NBC Radio Collection features 15 minutes of audio from a televised ball held at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel on December 15th, 1939. [Note: Television listings published in The New York Times state the television ball aired on December 14th, 1939.]

The 1940s: NBC’s 1st Day with Commercials & More

Hundreds of audio recordings of television programs broadcast by RCA/NBC’s experimental New York City television station W2XBS and its commercial successor WNBT between 1940 and 1964 are also part of the NBC Radio Collection.

Highlights include the following:

  • A minstrel show featuring NBC pages and guides (January 24, 1940))
  • A televised Easter sermon by Dr. Henry McCrea Cavert of the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America (March 24, 1940)
  • A special program celebrating a year of television, hosted by NBC Vice-President in Charge of Television Alfred H. Morton, with guests Hildegarde, Gertrude Berg, Ray Bergen, and others. The program also featured scenes from the 1939 Walt Disney short film The Ugly Duckling (May 1, 1940)
  • News coverage of the 1940 Republican National Convention (June 24-28, 1940)
  • Five different television programs aired on WNBT in New York City on the first day of commercial television in the United States (July 1, 1941)
  • The NBC Television Opera Workshop’s production of scenes from Act III of Verdi’s opera La Traviata (August 21, 1941)
  • An air raid warden program (January 5, 1942)
  • A test program broadcast from the Empire State Building (December 1, 1943)
  • News coverage of the 1944 Republican National Convention (June 27-29, 1944)
  • News coverage of the 1944 Democratic National Convention (July 19-20, 1944)
  • A television travelogue featuring Italy and Egypt (August 28, 1944)
  • A sports program about baseball featuring Bill Stern, Frank Frisch, Hank Borowy, and others (February 10, 1945)
  • A televised tour of the Gimbels Department Store (April 24, 1945)
  • Coverage of a homecoming parade held in Washington, D.C. in honor of Admiral Chester Nimitz (October 9, 1945)
  • The first television broadcast over AT&T’s coaxial cable linking Washington, D.C. and New York City (February 12, 1946)
  • A National Celebrities Golf Tournament with Omar Bradley, Robert Taft, Fred Waring, Dizzy Dean, others (May 16, 1948)
  • News coverage of the 1948 Republican National Convention (June 19-23, 1948)

One of the largest and most important portions of the collection are audio recordings from 33 episodes of WNBT’s pioneering variety show Hour Glass broadcast between May 1946 and March 1947.

There are also audio recordings from roughly 80 episodes of the instructional art program You Are an Artist from 1947 and 1948 with host Jon Gnagy. And there are recordings from more than 70 episodes of Texaco Star Theater with by Milton Berle, broadcast between September 1948 and April 1952.

The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson

Only a few dozen episodes survive from the first 10 years of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (1962-1972). Carson’s debut episode, broadcast on October 1st, 1962, is considered lost. The Paley Center for Media has in its collection 57 minutes of audio from that episode. The first three minutes are available on YouTube:

The Library of Congress has nearly 700 edited episodes of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in audio form, cut down from the original 90-minute NBC broadcasts by the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service (AFRTS) between 1963 and 1970. There are 10 hour-long AFRTS audio recordings from September and October 1963. The rest of the recordings run just 30 minutes. The earliest of these is from April 1964.

Archival Television Audio, Inc.

The largest collection of television audio is maintained by Archival Television Audio, Inc. It has more than 15,000 recordings in its collection dating back to 1946, running some 20,000 hours. The core collection was personally recorded by the company’s founder-owner, Phil Gries starting in the late 1950s.

I’ve referenced Archival Television Audio here at Television Obscurities a number of times over the years. The ATA collection includes audio from the Mickey Cohen episode of The Mike Wallace Interview, broadcast in May 1957; audio from numerous episodes of The Jackie Gleason Show, the 1961 follow-up to You’re in the Picture; and audio from the premiere episode of ABC’s short-lived game show 100 Grand as well as a portion of the third episode, both originally broadcast in 1963.

Television Audio at Television Obscurities

I have a very small collection of 1/4 inch reel-to-reel audio tapes containing off-air recordings of television programs from the 1960s and 1970s. You can read more about these recordings in the following posts:

I’ve digitized many of these audio tapes and shared some of the audio at my blog.

Here are some examples:

I also have a handful of audio cassette tapes that I used to record audio from television shows in the mid-to-late-1990s but haven’t digitized them yet.

The Importance of Television Audio

Audio recordings of television programs are not substitutes for film or video recordings. Listening to audio of a television program is not ideal for researchers, historians, or the general public. But for programs that are missing or no longer exist, an audio recording is the next best thing. It isn’t possible to watch some of the earliest television commercials broadcast in the United States but because audio recordings survive, these commercials–and many early television programs–are not lost completely.


Published July 1, 2021
Revised July 1, 2021