Preserving the Airwaves

Mahala Ruddell Utah State Historical Records Advisory Board

Each spring, the Utah State Historical Records Advisory Board (USHRAB) seeks applications from Utah’s non-profit, local, and state government institutions for grant funds of up to $7,500 to support records preservation and access. The Board’s grant program is funded by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission at the National Archives, whose mission is to promote the preservation and use of America’s documentary heritage essential to understanding our democracy, history, and culture.

In September 2019, Utah State University was awarded a grant of $4,270 to digitize audio recordings from the local Cache Valley radio station, KVNU. The sound recordings originated during some of the earliest days of KVNU, Cache Valley’s first radio station. According to USU’s  Manuscript Curator, Clint Pumphrey, it is likely that these are the earliest recordings of local radio programming and the only remaining recordings of their time from this era. 

“They reflect Cache Valley’s culture and society during the 1950s, recalling how residents experienced politics, sports, art, and commerce,” reported Pumphrey, who teamed up with Special Collections Graduate Fellow Alyson Griggs to prepare the grant application.

Included on the discs are commercials, political speeches, talk shows, sporting events, and more. The recordings also paint a picture of the religious landscape of Cache Valley in the 1950s, including not just traditional renditions of Mormon pioneer songs, but also recordings from the Reverend Willis Rosenthal of St. John’s Episocopal Church, one of Cache Valley’s first non-LDS churches.

Image of two men in radio studio looking at equipment
KVNU founder, Herschel, and his son, Reed, in the KVNU studio control room, 1948. (Utah State University, Merrill-Cazier Library, Special Collections & Archives, Bullen Family Photographs, P0018, Box 8, Folder 21)

KVNU branded itself as “The Voice of Northern Utah.” It was founded by Herschel Bullon and his son, Reed Bullon, who served as the station’s first general manager. Because the station originally could not afford to subscribe to a network and could not simply broadcast phonograph records due to Federal Communications Commission regulations, KVNU instead filled the airwaves with local talent, including musicians and singers, local advertisements, and local productions. Local talent remains an important part of KVNU’s programming today, with such offerings as For the People, Trading Post, Garden Guide, and Senior Moments.

USU utilized its USHRAB grant to contract the services of a company capable of preserving the fragile, lacquer-coated sound discs dating from 1943 to 1959. As Pumphrey described to the Board in 2019, “On many of the lacquer discs, the lacquer is beginning to delaminate from the metal base and flake off; digitization will allow us to capture what audio remains before the discs delaminate further.”

USU’s grant-funded project wrapped up last summer, in June 2020. The KVNU Audio Recordings Digital Collection contains around 100 sound recordings and is browsable on USU’s digital archives.

Listen to Senator Arthur Watkins in 1950 discussing an anti-communism bill (the McCarran Internal Security Act) and government settlement payments to the Ute tribe, among other topics:
“I want to express my deep and sincere appreciation to the radio stations in Utah who have been carrying this report as a public service.”

Feast your ears upon Utah State Agricultural College [USU] students performing Verdi’s Il Trovatore, recorded in February 1948:
Parts 1 and 3, Parts 5 and 7, Parts 9 and 11, Parts 10 and 12

And browse commercials like this one for S. E. Needham’s Jewelers:
“Alice, what a gorgeous diamond, does this mean you and Ted are going–”
“That’s right Helen, wedding bells next month.”

To find out more about the USHRAB’s grant program and apply for funding, visit our website. Applications for 2021-2022 records preservation projects are accepted until May 10, 2021.

The USHRAB’s grant program is funded by a State Board Programming Grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission at the National Archives. The USHRAB assists public and private non-profits, as well as non-Federal government entities throughout the State of Utah in the preservation and use of historical records.

Text adapted from USU’s 2019 application for grant funding from the USHRAB, the KVNU Audio Recordings Collection finding aid, and additional contributions by Clint Pumphrey.