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Radio library

July 2004

The Internet is just a means of transferring information from one place to another; the clever bit is converting the information into numbers that can be easily shovelled around cyberspace.  Now that problem had been licked, however, all sorts of stuff can be converted, including recorded sound.  As a result, there is a growing movement to “digitise” historic recordings and store them in computers, and hence a big growth in the number of online sound archives.  They are well worth investigating.

First the bad news.  Like pictures, sound clips (as they are known) can be rather large.  A file that contains a forty second extract from a radio programme can be about five times the size of a page of text.  If, like me, you are still using a steam driven telephone connection (most of us are) and have so far spurned or been denied a broadband link, then downloading these recordings can be a slowish affair.

Then there is the question of software.  It’s early days in this business, and there has not yet emerged an industry standard form of recording; the sound clip you want to hear may be stored in one of several different formats, each requiring different software to play it, all of which may trip up from time to time.  The most popular are Windows Media Player (which you probably have already, even if you aren’t aware of it) QuickTime (which AppleMac users may already have) or Real Player (which the BBC favour).  Don’t panic – the sites you go to will usually advise you what is needed, and show you how to get free versions of them.

Let’s start with  This is a professional body within the radio industry, and in their Hall of Fame there are clips from all sorts of key figures in broadcasting history – Jack de Manio, Brian Redhead, Brian Johnston and Tommy Handley amongst them.

Click on the link next to a name, and you are taken to a biography page; at the bottom of that page are links to the sound clips they keep.  Click one of those, and up should pop whatever your computer thinks is the right bit of software; then sit and wait for a bit as it collects the data, and in due course you will be hearing Brian Johnston giggling or Jack de Manio getting the time wrong.

Or you can go to the British Library Sound Archive at (click on “Collections” then “Sound Archive” then “Listen”).  They have a selection of clips on their website to whet your appetite, like Princess Elizabeth’s broadcast to the other children of Britain during the war, or Tolstoy's only known musical composition.

Of course the magic of the Internet means that we can look anywhere in the world.  I recommend, which has many clips from American history – Trotsky speaking to students in 1938, and some of Richard Nixon’s greatest hits, for example.

The Imperial War Museum ( has a fine range of online exhibitions which they call “Oral history interviews” which aim to record personal reactions to war which may not otherwise be preserved.  Click on “Collections” then “Sound Archive”.  There are some fascinating interviews and recollections.

A little Google searching including the words “sound archive” can produce some gems. I found the full recordings of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre of the Air ( including the famous “War of the Worlds” play that apparently caused such panic in 1938, and a short conversation between Orson Welles and H.G. Wells about it all.  The full plays really can take a fair bit of downloading, but they make excellent listening, even 65 years later.