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

Thursday 18 October 2012, 13:27

Paul Murphy Paul Murphy Senior Producer, A&Mi

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Alistair Cooke 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 1.

    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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    Comment number 2.

    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.


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    Comment number 3.

    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 4.

    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 5.

    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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