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The School of the Sky Returns

Indiana School of the Sky Brochure

Cover of a School of the Sky brochure, 1947. University Archives.

“I imagine you’ve heard of old-time radio drama before—The Shadow, The War of the Worlds, that sort of thing.  But did you know that, back during the Golden Age of Radio, radio dramas were being created right here at Indiana University—with students as the scriptwriters and performers?”

That’s how I introduced my global sound media class to a listening exercise earlier this semester.  We’d been talking about sound recording and reproduction in general terms, and I wanted to play an example of this kind of technology being used to create a fictional scene.  There are plenty of examples I could have used, but I don’t think anything else would have hit quite as close to home as what I had in store that day: a radio drama produced by Indiana University as part of a long-ago project called the Indiana School of the Sky.

Indiana School of the Sky Schedule

Weekly schedules for the School of the Sky, 1947-1951 (click to view larger)

For several years starting in 1947, the School of the Sky supplied thousands of classrooms in Indiana and adjoining states with a fifteen-minute educational radio program every day of the school week, usually in dramatic form.  Each episode first aired live at 2:15 PM on a few stations including WSUA in Bloomington and was then rebroadcast in other places from recordings seven days later.  The first season was geared exclusively towards Grades 4-8, but later seasons added high-school programming to the mix, and adults reportedly began tuning in too, including patients in veterans’ hospitals and parents eager to follow what their children were learning in school.  “Nothing the university had done in almost a century and a half of existence had served so well its third objective of rendering public service,” claims historian Thomas D. Clark.

Indiana School of the Sky Performance

Performing the School of the Sky. University Archives.

The specific program I played for my class had originally aired live on October 26, 1949, as Great Days of Science episode five: “Moslems Keep Science Alive,” a clever dramatization of the arrival by camel train of a shipment of Byzantine manuscripts in Baghdad.  The script had been written by a student named Fred Brewer, who—after a stint as British editor of Mad Magazine—eventually returned to IUB to teach for many years in telecommunications.  The performers were also IUB students, recruited mostly from the Department of Speech, although any and all students who were “interested in sound, dialects, and imitations” had been invited to audition.  I projected Brewer’s script onscreen so that my students could read along as their forebears brought to life the typewritten dialog and directions such as “BAGHDAD STREET SOUNDS 800 A.D., DOG YAPS, CAMEL BELLS, BIZ UNDER.”  Afterwards, we had a nice discussion about the program’s use of music, the production of sound effects, the voice acting, and so forth—and all along, my students seemed to relish the fact that we weren’t analyzing just any old piece of radio drama, but a program they themselves might have participated in if they’d happened to be attending IU back in 1949.

Just a couple years ago, this recording wouldn’t have been available for me or anyone else to use in teaching or research.  Nobody even knew it existed.  Of the hundreds of School of the Sky broadcasts originally recorded, fewer than a dozen were known at that time to survive anywhere in the world, and “Moslems Keep Science Alive” wasn’t among them.  Moreover, the seven episodes in circulation among old-time radio enthusiasts were of poor sound quality—copies of copies of copies.  Listening to them wasn’t a very enchanting experience.

Indiana School of the Sky Discs

Lacquer discs in the attic of Franklin Hall, July 2009. Photograph by Mike Lee.

But in July 2009, the IU Media Preservation Survey team responded to a fortunate tip from a maintenance inspector for the Office of Risk Management who had spotted a cache of disc recordings seemingly abandoned in the attic of Franklin Hall, an unoccupied space choked with dust and grit and accessible only by ladder.  When we investigated, we found two precariously stacked piles of lacquer transcription discs of historic IU material including a possibly complete run of the first three seasons of the School of the Sky—perhaps four hundred individual episodes.  Lacquer discs in general are at critical risk of degradation—their recorded lacquer surfaces can flake off without warning, making them unplayable—but remarkably these looked to be in pretty good shape despite their years of neglect.  We moved them to a safer environment as quickly as possible, and the few sample episodes digitized so far all sound terrific.  “Moslems Keep Science Alive” is a prime example. Listen to this episode by clicking below!

Additionally, CLICK HERE for a full-text PDF of Fred Brewer’s script for “Moslems Keep Science Alive,” Indiana University Department of Radio, 1949. And, finally, here is a brief video of a news report on the discovery of the Franklin Hall lacquers.

The Franklin Hall lacquers are atypical among IU Bloomington media collections for having fallen between the cracks so completely, but they still provide a vivid illustration of both the kind of loss the Media Preservation Initiative aims to prevent and the kind of opportunity it aims to provide.  Although “Moslems Keep Science Alive” has now been expertly digitized, much work remains to be done to preserve the School of the Sky as a whole if Indiana University is to avoid losing this significant piece of its audio heritage to degradation and obsolescence.  But such preservation work doesn’t just help fulfill the custodial responsibility we have to important audiovisual materials in our care.  It also creates new opportunities by enabling IU faculty and students to do things with those materials they couldn’t otherwise have done—sometimes maybe even things they wouldn’t otherwise have thought of doing.

Thanks to the Media Preservation Initiative, a group of IU Bloomington students in the year 2012 got the chance to listen critically to a group of IU Bloomington students in the year 1949 trying to simulate the soundscape of medieval Baghdad.  How cool is that?

// Patrick Feaster

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