This They Believed
Choreographer Martha Graham believed that much as a dancer learns through practice, we all must practice living. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt wasn’t sure if there was an afterlife, but in this life, she said, you need to accept “whatever comes, and the only important thing is that you meet it with courage and with the best that you have to give.”
You can hear these and other personal philosophies of the famous and just regular folks, thanks to a Tufts restoration project that has digitized and posted online nearly 800 episodes of Edward R. Murrow’s 1950s radio classic This I Believe.
The intimate essays were taken from some 200 reel-to-reel audio tapes that came to Tufts soon after Murrow’s death in 1965. His widow gave them and a treasure trove of other Murrow artifacts to the Fletcher School in conjunction with the establishment of Tufts’ Edward R. Murrow Center for Public Diplomacy.
Murrow had a purpose in creating the five-minute CBS Radio Network program, which aired from 1951 to 1955. World War II was a fresh memory, the Cold War was under way, and U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy had launched his anti-communist crusade. Murrow, already a celebrated journalist, saw uncertainty, fear and cynicism spreading among the American people. He described his own beliefs as being “in a state of flux.”
“It has become more difficult than ever to distinguish black from white, good from evil, right from wrong,” he said in introducing the inaugural episode of the program.
And so Murrow invited people from all walks of life—celebrities and homemakers, politicians and students—to record the truths they espoused for the daily radio show that was distributed for free to radio stations across America. In asking people to take part, Murrow described the exercise as “a statement of your private beliefs, your personal rule of life, your independently arrived at sense of values—all in three and a half minutes.” By 1955, when This I Believe went off the air, the mini-creeds had been broadcast on 196 local radio stations to 39 million listeners.
Many of the essayists, including Sylvester Long, a Kansas businessman, found strength in religion. “I believe in God as the prime source of all life and energy,” he said. “I believe every man is a place where God shines through. This alone makes man important.”
Some spoke of other kinds of faith. Author Robert Heinlein said he believed in his neighbors: “You can knock on any door in our town, say ‘I’m hungry,’ and you’ll be fed.” Composer Leonard Bernstein said the same, if more ornately: “I believe in people. I feel, love, need and respect people above all else, including the arts, natural scenery, organized piety or nationalistic superstructures. One human figure on the slope of a mountain can make the whole mountain disappear for me.”
Reel to Digital
Moving the essays from decaying tapes to an online home was a multi-year project. Thankfully, unlike Murrow’s many broadcasts for CBS, copyright wasn’t much of an issue. Because This I Believe was conceived as a non-commercial service for the people (no advertising was allowed, and each contributor received exactly $1 for his or her thoughts), it was easy to get permission to make the material available online, says Anne Sauer, director of Tufts Digital Collections and Archives and university archivist at Tufts.
The physical barriers were trickier. To start with, Sauer and her team didn’t even know which of the essays were on the 200 reels in the archive.
“They were identified on the boxes with This I Believe, and with these long alphanumeric strings that clearly meant something, but no other information,” says Sauer. “We didn’t know what we had. You wouldn’t know until you played them, and we couldn’t play them because they were falling apart.”
Reel-to-reel tapes are inherently fragile; over time, the magnetic coating that stores the data starts to separate and flake from the underlying tape. To add to the challenge, the reels were the original edits, so there were many points where the tape had been cut and spliced together.
“All those splices had disintegrated,” says Sauer. “It leaves a residue behind. Getting them to the point where they could be played took some expertise. At each edit point, someone had to carefully remove the residue and re-splice the tape together without damaging the actual data layer. It was very time consuming."
It took Iron Mountain, a data and information management company that donated its services, six months to complete that part of the job. A grant from Save America’s Treasures, a now-defunct program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, helped cover the other costs involved, including paying four graduate students to listen to the hundreds of essays.
Sarah Funke Donovan, who was pursuing her master’s of library science at Simmons College at the time, listened to almost all of them at least once, and some several times. She has her favorites. As a lover of classical music, she took special note of Leonard Bernstein’s essay, as well as that of Dimitri Mitropoulos, conductor of the New York Philharmonic, who talked about setting up mobile blood drive clinics during the war.
“I found it very humanizing,” Donovan says. “It was very interesting to me to hear how humble he seemed in his essay when he was such a world-famous conductor at that point.”
A Visceral Connection
The graduate students transcribed the essays if no transcript existed, synchronized the audio to the transcripts, wrote summaries and identified themes—such as “war experiences” or “women in public life”—by which to categorize the essays.
“It’s really hard to browse through a large set of audio files,” says Sauer, pointing out that you can’t scan through them like you would thumbnails of images. Using the categories as a guide, visitors to the website can gravitate toward entertainers, scientists or world leaders. Listeners can choose to hear from Martha Graham, whose voice is as refined and graceful as her dances, or from Helen Keller, who, as Murrow said, “speaks in the voice she has learned to use but cannot hear.”
Sauer says it is hearing the “intangible artifact” of each voice that makes the past more real.
“It’s a very visceral connection,” she says. “That’s an important part of what archives do. We work to make sure that the information is preserved, but we also recognize that a record of the past may be more than experiencing the information that is in it.”
Perhaps the greatest reward for the time that went into the project came in the form of a phone call Sauer received a few months after the essays went online. “You have a recording of my father,” the caller said. “And I haven’t heard his voice in decades.”
The gentleman said he knew that his father, a manufacturer named Reginald Orcutt, had been on This I Believe, but he didn’t think the recordings had survived.
“He was so touched to hear his father’s voice again and be able to play it for his children and his grandchildren,” Sauer says. “It may not change the course of world history, but archives can have a big impact on individual people sometimes.”
To learn more, and hear the restored programs, visit the This I Believe website.
Julie Flaherty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.