BBC RADIO BLOG

Do you have any of the lost editions of Letter from America?

Senior Producer, A&Mi

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Alistair Cooke, presenter of Letter from America, in 1946

(Ed's update 31/10/12: The Letter from America archive is now live and you can find it here - PM)

This November the BBC will be launching an online collection of 920 episodes of Letter from America, the weekly 15 minute programme written and presented by journalist and broadcaster Alistair Cooke. You’ll able to listen online or download these to play whenever you want.

Letter from America ran from 24 March 1946 to 20 February 2004 making it the longest-running speech radio programme in history. There were 2,869 episodes of Letter from America broadcast but there are huge gaps in the archive. In the early days the script was saved rather than a tape of the programme. The Letter from America covering the assassination of J F Kennedy is saved but, for example, the Bay of Pigs is missing.

Paddy O'Connell and the Broadcasting House team would love to hear from any listeners who recorded editions of Letter from America during the 1940s, '50s and '60s. If you were an avid listener who preserved one of these programmes do get in touch with the BH team via the form on the website.

(NB: In the 1990s many of the earlier historic episodes were re-recorded for commercial release - for this project BH are only looking for recordings made at the time of the original broadcast.)

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  • Comment number 9. Posted by Tim

    on 12 Nov 2012 15:30

    It would be good if the BBC could have a cd disc of the earliest Toytown shows to buy if you have them of course ,best, Tim.

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  • Comment number 8. Posted by Tim

    on 11 Nov 2012 14:27

    Nick ,yes the programme is called Dear Adolph it was on Radio 4 on Archive Hour a few weeks ago ,hope this helps ,best from ,Tim.

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  • Comment number 7. Posted by Nick Salt

    on 25 Oct 2012 20:01

    Helen, thanks for your comments. It seems that producer Zillah Watson is going to look into my mother's American programmes (see above), so maybe she will find something interesting hidden in the sound archives?
    If you look up 'Olive Shapley' in the online 'BBC Archive' you will find her programme 'We Have Been Evacuated', made in Manchester in 1939, which gives you some idea of her approach & style (with a surprisingly plummy BBC accent for a young woman from Peckham!) .
    I couldn't find the recent 'A letter to Adolf' programme that you mention. Can you give me more information & leads? I assume it was on BBC Radio 4.
    Also, in his autobiography Alistair Cooke mentions that he was later grateful to my parents for not being able to immediately vacate his appartment when he wanted it back, because he had to go and temporarily rent another, and eventually married his new landlord's wife, with whom he spent the rest of his life!

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  • Comment number 6. Posted by Zillah Watson

    on 24 Oct 2012 16:02

    Thanks for letting me know about this. With 925 programmes to put up, there were bound to be a few errors. But if people let us know we'll correct them as soon as we can. In this case the transcripts wre correct, but the audio wasn't. We've just replaced the audio.
    Zillah (producer for Letter for America archive)

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  • Comment number 5. Posted by Zillah Watson

    on 24 Oct 2012 15:59

    Hi Nick
    Thanks for your comment. I'm pretty busy trying to get the Alistiar Cooke archive ready but as soon as I can I will follow up on your suggestion and get back to you.
    Zillah (Producer for Letter for America Archive)

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  • Comment number 4. Posted by martingrey

    on 23 Oct 2012 20:09

    I have a 1968 Penguin paperback covering a selection of broadcasts from 1951-1968. I don't believe it contains Bay of Pigs though. Are you interested?

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  • Comment number 3. Posted by Helen

    on 22 Oct 2012 08:03

    Thank you for that Nick Salt, hope your mum enjoyed what it then turned into.I would be fascinated to be able to listen to one of her broadcasts. Very interesting.
    I expect you also listened to the recent programme on 'A letter to Adolf' (or something like that), about the weekly programme with a message from the US to the Nazis. It explained a little about the broadcasting background in New York at that time, which your mum was such an active part of. Fascinating stuff.

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  • Comment number 2. Posted by ~8e89d8d89d4888878c7dbb63af042eb80dfedb02

    on 20 Oct 2012 15:51

    Thank you very much for all the recently added Letters from America. I've been listening to them with increasing joy and wonderment ... and now the BUT

    two of the talks I wanted to hear don't match the transcript and appear to be duplicates of other talks

    1989-11-10 - 1989 local elections and the defeat of propostions S and P

    1993-02-26 - James Baker and Clinton's deficit

    Good luck with turning up those missing episodes.

    Norman

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  • Comment number 1. Posted by Nick Salt

    on 19 Oct 2012 14:37

    On 8 May 1942 my mother, Olive Shapley, who was working for the BBC in New York, broadcast her first 'Fortnightly Newsletter' for 'Children's Hour' back in London. She described it as..................."a scene-setter called 'Letter from America'. Four years later its grownup namesake would begin its career quietly in the capable hands of Alistair Cooke, and the rest, as they say, is history".
    In her autobiography 'Broadcasting A Life' (Scarlet Press) she goes on to describe her first 'Letter from America' in some detail, and how one of her jobs in New York ........"is to act as a sort of special correpondent for you - for the 'Children's Hour'". She broadcast over 38 newsletters in all, ending with the death of President Roosevelt in April 1945.
    At the time my father John Salt was the deputy to the BBC North America Director, and my parents were in fact living in Alistair Cooke's apartment on 5th Ave., while he was on a long tour around the country as the BBC's special correspondent.
    I wonder if any of Olive's many imaginative & groundbreaking wartime broadcasts from New York still exist in the BBC Sound Archives? (How can that be checked?) They would make fascinating listening today, and included original BBC recordings of people she met such as Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Josh White, Burl Ives, Pete Seeger, Paul Robeson, Eleanor Roosevelt & many others..................and mostly for 'Children's Hour'! What a lot of valuable aural history must have been wiped & lost during those early years.

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