Date: 28.03.2014Last updated: 28.03.2014 at 12.10

Category: Archive

Zillah Watson, Editor BBC R&D and producer for Letter from America Archive, describes digitising and restoring over 650 taped home recordings stored in a cellar, an attic and a fertiliser spreader.


When the BBC launched its on-line archive of Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America programmes in 2012, Paddy O’Connell, presenter of Radio 4’s Broadcasting House, asked if any listeners might have missing recordings of the programme from the 1970s and 80s. 

Unbelievably, two men, Roy Whittaker from Cornwall, and David Henderson from Warwickshire, came forward with over 600 programmes the BBC hadn’t saved. They’d recorded the 14 minute programmes week after week, and labelled the tapes with broadcast dates.  

Highlights from their recordings will be heard for the first time since they were broadcast, in “Letter from America: the 1970s” on Radio 4extra on Sunday 30th March. And all the archive programmes will soon be available here.  

There are already over 900 archive recordings and transcripts of Cooke’s broadcasts on The BBC partnered with Boston University’s Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Centre to create a unique linked archive – so you can see how Cooke crafted his scripts while listening to the programmes. But this is the story of how the most recently discovered lost recordings, taped by listeners, made it back on air.

Letters from America - David Henderson

David Henderson with his tape recorder

Digitisation by BBC Archives

The BBC Archives, Digitisation Group Sound Team, immediately began work digitising boxes of tapes. The earliest ones, from 1973-76, were on 8-track tapes.  They were transferred using David Henderson’s 8-track player ­-- the one he’d used to record them on back in the 1970s. That too required a little maintenance restoration work, and some of the tapes themselves had to be re-padded. It proved difficult to source new pads for the tapes, but pieces of draught excluder fitted nicely as replacements on the 8 track cartridges to enable playback.

The remaining recordings were on cassette tapes, but over the years many different types of tapes were used, resulting in varying audio quality.

Then in mid-March 2014, just a few days before the recording of “Letter from America: the 1970s”, David Henderson found 50 more 8-track recordings from the early 1970s in an old fertiliser spreader in his barn. Radio 4 sent a car to collect them that night, and the team got to work on them straight away.  

Restoring the Audio

The quality of recordings was very variable, and the audio files needed considerable work to bring the sound close to broadcast quality. With tapes that old, there were hissing sounds, and in some cases, very poor signal to noise ratios. There were also significant issues around varying signal qualities, programmes with beginnings or parts missing, shows played down the telephone line from New York with VHF and MW pitched squeals, interference transmitted through AM radio, tape wow and incorrect pitching and tape speeds. 

Dave Mayler and Jason Hall, from BBC Archives, quickly realised that a bespoke approach was needed. They have now restored most of the programmes from the 1970s, and the results are generally excellent, although sometimes you may still spot a hint of Radio 3 in the background, (a reminder of cross-channel interference). 

All of the editing and restoration was carried out using Sony’s Soundforge 10 using a selection of noise reduction, EQ and filter tools to tackle the cleaning. 

Fortunately the restoration team are enjoying listening to them too. “We never got bored with Cooke. Even if he was talking about a milkshake, just listening to his voice made it sound interesting,” says Jason Hall.  

Digitising Letters From America

Jason Hall, Presevation Operator in BBC Archives

How BBC R&D helped find programmes about momentous events

Meanwhile, picking highlights for broadcast from 280 sound files from the 1970s was always going to be a challenge. I started the old-fashioned way, reading as many library scripts as I could and selecting interesting ones that would resonate today. But matching these to the sound files by date was hit and miss and there were many gaps. 

My colleague Yves Raimond, at BBC R&D, then ran the unrestored audio files through a new system his team are developing called COMMA.  

COMMA creates metadata from large collections of audio files. It produces crude transcripts using speech recognition, automated tags and speaker segmentation. (This wasn’t needed for Letter from America, although it could be useful to identify starts and ends of programmes).

COMMA will transform the usability of large video and audio archives with limited metadata in the future. Its possibilities were demonstrated by an earlier version – the World Service Archive Prototype.   

COMMA enabled Yves to find a particular Letter from America programme for me - the interview Jimmy Carter did for Playboy Magazine in 1976. It also provided me with lists of programmes on certain topics or about particular people, such as programmes about Richard Nixon, or the 1973 Oil Crisis and its impact on the motor industry.  

And it could help confirm subjects that Alistair Cooke probably hadn’t written about – such as the hippie movement in 1970s California. (My reading of the scripts also suggested that wasn’t a subject he dwelled on). However, we won’t be able to confirm that until we can compare the results with accurate transcripts. 

It’s very early days for COMMA and there isn’t a user interface yet. But Letter from America was the first time it was put to the test editorially, and we proved it could help identify programmes about particular topics or people in a long list of sound files. “Letter from America: the 1970s”, could not have been made without it.  

Richard Nixon

COMMA was able to provide a list of programmes about Richard Nixon

Making the archive usable: Transcripts, titles descriptions and metadata

To make it usable and sustainable on, the Letter from America archive needs transcripts, programme titles, and programme descriptions. We had none of these for the recordings taped by listeners.  

The original broadcast transcripts of Letter from America, and often scripts too, are available at the BBC Written Archives at Caversham. I was keen to find out whether we could scan them and run them through Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software to make the text editable, so we could correct it as needed. We could then use these to write the titles and descriptions.

The first problem is that the scripts are held on microfiche and the quality is variable. Sometimes the text is barely readable by human eye, which would make it impossible to extract the text via OCR. 

Anolther problem is that radio transcripts and scripts were originally ordered according to the broadcast schedule, so each week of Radio 4 is on a separate a roll of microfiche. That would make finding and copying scripts for over 650 Letter from America broadcasts completely impracticable.

The Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Centre at Boston University, who hold Cooke’s private papers, have attempted to OCR scripts to make the Letter from America scripts they have digitised searchable, but with limited success.

Strange formatting on the scripts and crossed out words and paragraphs all lead to very poor results. They have used it to support search within Cooke’s original scripts, but it couldn’t be used beyond that.  

For now at least, transcription by humans remains the best way to ensure accurate transcripts with names and places are spelled correctly.  

So that is what we are continuing to do for the lost Letter from America recordings. Transcripts are produced by a specialist transcriber, and then titles and descriptions are written for the programmes. The work involved is time consuming and requires editorial specialists to deal with the range of political and historical subjects discussed by Cooke in Letter from America.  

This work is now underway for all 650 lost recordings (that includes the ones in the fertiliser trailer). And a team from Loftus Media will be making all the programmes available on, and as podcasts, over the next few months, for Radio 4 and Audio and Music Interactive.

Recovering the past for the future

Restoring radio archive, and preparing all the necessary meta-data, is painstaking, slow and exhausting work. It involves a series of complex processes and endless spreadsheets to manage them.  But once it’s completed, the possibilities for using the archive for research, or to make new programmes, are almost limitless.

Such archives give us a rare continuity of broadcast material – in this case almost 60 years  - as a precious resource for future journalists, researchers and historians. Audio gives a new dimension to archival material: an immediacy in, here, rediscovering forgotten stories from the 70s that helps us relive history as it happened.

Bringing it online allows the archive to be interrogated and used in ways that were never imagined when the broadcasts were first made.

But for me, nothing beats the excitement of re-broadcasting words on momentous events first heard 40 years ago, rescued from a fertiliser spreader.  

 Letter from America: the 1970s

Paddy O’Connell and guests including Alvin Hall, historian Dominic Sandbrook, Ann Treneman and Naomi Shragai rediscover the personalities and stories of Seventies America – from Nixon’s resignation and Muhammad Ali to Vietnam and women’s lib, through lost recordings of Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America. Produced by Zillah Watson. 

Radio 4extra on Sunday 30th March, 2014 

Nothing beats the excitement of re-broadcasting words on momentous events first heard 40 years ago, rescued from a fertiliser spreader. "

Zillah Watson

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