Film and Media

Listening to the Past: Audio History

Robin Cutler Maw, March 1990

In an age of moving-image media, it is easy to overlook the unique way audio cassettes and/or radio programs can analyze historical issues, bring the past to life, and encourage us to use our imaginations and reflect on what we hear in a way that contrasts with the listening that accompanies viewing television and films.

This month's media news focuses on examples of audio tapes that can enhance commuting, classroom discussions, or conferences. These cassettes have been well-produced, often initially as radio programs, and they are less expensive and easier to use than other electronic media. They make excellent additions to library or history department collections. They use sounds and voices creatively, and their formats include interviews with contemporary scholars and public officials, dramatic renditions of historical events, recordings of oral history, and period music.

In 1984 historian Richard K. Lieberman, Director of the Fiorello H. LaGuardia Archives at LaGuardia Community College, City University of New York, conceived of a project that combines all these formats. This spring his seven-part series, "The Dreamer and the Doer: The Life and Work of Fiorello LaGuardia," will air on National Public Radio. LaGuardia served as New York City's ninety-ninth mayor from 1934 to 1945. His life is examined in these thirty-minute tapes in the context of the experiences of other national figures such as President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Governor Herbert Lehman, and Commissioner Robert Moses. As Lieberman notes, LaGuardia has been called the first modern mayor because of his grasp of the potential of the electronic media, his vision of an expanded role for municipal government, his active and powerful lifestyle, and his efforts to break old patterns of organized corruption in city politics.

LaGuardia's story, spanning the years between 1883 and 1947, is an ideal one to analyze on radio. It draws on unusual oral sources and explores themes which take listeners beyond the story of one man's career. The producers used more than one hundred hours of oral history interviews with friends, associates, and contemporaries of the mayor. You also hear excerpts from LaGuardia's Sunday talks to New Yorkers aired on WNYC between 1942 and 1945; oral history from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park; lively music of the 1930s and 1940s; readings from period newspapers; and dramatic recreations of events such as rent and labor strikes.

I recently met with Lieberman and learned his views about the series and radio history. On the goals of the series he said: "One of its missions is to correct myths about LaGuardia. These myths stem from the fact that he read the comics like `Dick Tracy' over the radio in 1945 during a newspaper delivery strike. People saw him as a warm, good-natured, god-like individual and a model mayor. We do not want to do a diatribe against LaGuardia but we want to adjust the popular memory and bring out more of the complexities in his personality. In each show we try to reveal both the positive and negative aspects of his character."

Lieberman also made some insightful comments on the production of the series. He said that throughout the production there was a debate between the scholars and the producers about what comes first—history or sound bites. Do you find the sound bites and then write the scripts or do you do your research, talk to experts, and then look for sound bites which fit in with what you are trying to say? The LaGuardia programs ended up combining both processes. As Lieberman observes, "LaGuardia was our first media politician in New York. By the 1930s there was a radio in just about every home. The history of what was on the radio is the history of public relations. The historians' task is to make sure the sound bites you hear from the past reflect the truest story. If the sound bites dictate what will be in the script, that often makes better radio. But since a historian was the project director, we debated this issue continually. The result is that the shows are not equally good radio but we hope they are good history. My three favorites are the programs on relief or efforts to help the poor, on LaGuardia's relationship with labor unions, and on aviation."

Though well worth the trouble of producing, Lieberman found the administrative work involved much greater than he assumed and in hindsight would have brought in more of the production people earlier in the scripting phase—particularly those responsible for the music.

Clifton Hood at The LaGuardia Archives is now working on a curriculum packet and editing the shows for elementary school children in New York, who are required to study local history. But the series is designed for a wide general audience and students of all ages. It deals with the social, political, economic, and cultural history of New York as well as issues related to national history, and the episodes can be used for discussions about urban life, public administration, American studies, economic history, and political science. In addition to Lieberman's favorites noted above, program topics include LaGuardia's efforts to fight corrupt politicians, his expansion of the city's public health system, improvements in the city's physical plant including projects such as the Triboro Bridge and Grand Central Parkway, and LaGuardia's fall from power during World War II.

The series is scripted by Dick Worth, produced by Tom Vitale, and funded largely by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Key advisors included Peter Marcuse, Kenneth Jackson, and Josh Freeman, Columbia University; Roy Rosenzweig, George Mason University; Thomas Kessner, CUNY; Deborah Gardner, The Encyclopedia of New York Project; Barbara Blumberg, Pace University; and Mark Naison, Fordham University. The narrator is Tony Lo Bianco.

For more information about obtaining cassettes contact: Richard K. Lieberman, Director, Fiorello H. LaGuardia Archives, LaGuardia Community College, City University of New York, 31-10 Thomson Ave., Long Island City, NY 11101; 718/482-5065.