Major new online archive of Alistair Cooke’s Letters From America to mark BBC Radio’s 90th birthday

I can see Alistair, as I listen afresh, telling his stories and drawing in listeners with his easy authority and knowledge of history, his reporting skills and his passion for America."Gwyneth Williams, Controller, Radio 4
Date: 12.10.2012     Last updated: 18.03.2014 at 17.59
Category: Factual
On the eve of the US presidential election and in the month that BBC Radio celebrates its 90th birthday, the BBC is launching a new online archive of over 900 of Alistair Cooke’s Letters From America, originally broadcast between 1946 and 2004.

From 1 November, after an extensive and painstaking programme of digitisation, people will be able to download 920 episodes of one of the world’s longest running speech radio programmes from the Radio 4 website. The archive extends as far back as the 1940s and covers many of the most significant events in recent United States history up to Cooke’s death in 2004.

Tim Davie, Director, BBC Audio & Music, says: “It’s fitting that we are launching this archive as we celebrate BBC Radio's 90th birthday. It’s an immensely rich collection of programmes, which takes listeners back to the early days of BBC Radio through one of its most distinctive voices – Alistair Cooke.

“It is excellent news that we now have the technology to offer audiences the chance to hear the passion and dedication of the original broadcasts which continue to inspire programme makers to this day.”

Gwyneth Williams, Controller, Radio 4 adds: “Alistair Cooke – his very name invokes the art of writing for radio. His unmistakeable voice on Radio 4 every week for over 50 years with Letter From America defined an era. I am hugely excited about this extraordinary archive. We can all now explore and listen to 920 of the letters. I can see Alistair, as I listen afresh, telling his stories and drawing in listeners with his easy authority and knowledge of history, his reporting skills and his passion for America.

“There are so many letters to choose from – for instance the one he broadcast having been a witness to Bobby Kennedy’s assassination, from his position in the pantry next to the ballroom; the shots, he said, sounded “like someone dropping a rack of trays”. And did you know that George Romney, Mitt Romney’s father and Governor of Michigan, led a national poll for President in 1968, ahead of Reagan and Johnson? Alistair tells the story of why he lost.

“I am proud that Radio 4 can now use the treasure of our rich archive to bring this period of American history to life through its most celebrated chronicler.”

Born in Blackpool in 1908, Cooke’s fascination with America began in the early 1930s when he studied at Yale and Harvard as a Commonwealth Scholar. His love of cinema led him to spend a summer in Hollywood, where he befriended Charlie Chaplin, and soon after he convinced the BBC to take him on as its film critic.

His first American Letter (as it was originally called) was broadcast on 24 March 1946. The series finally came to an end 58 years – and 2,869 instalments – later in March 2004. The programmes provide a fascinating social, cultural and political history of American life, brought to a British audience by Alistair Cooke.

They cover many momentous events in 20th century American history, but their true power lies in the memorable anecdotes of American life and lives, related by Cooke in his inimitable and uniquely conversational style.

Zillah Watson, producer of the Cooke archive, says: “Rediscovering these vital broadcasts has been a riveting journey through recent American history. From the golden age of ‘50s America, to the disillusionment of the Bush years via JFK, civil rights and Watergate, this is an astonishing record of the great years of the American century. And now they will all be available at the click of a mouse, crisply digitised from the original tapes and supported by transcripts for reference.”

The 920 episodes of this collection represent the entire archive held by the BBC.

To accompany the archive, Radio 4 and BBC World Service will broadcast In Alastair Cooke’s Footsteps, a four-part series presented by Alvin Hall in which he travels across America to find out whether Cooke’s letters are still relevant today. He tests Cooke’s insights and observations on subjects as diverse as desegregation, jazz, isolationism and immigration. And Hall discovers that Alistair Cooke remains as fresh and insightful as he was when he wrote and spoke over all those years about an America he loved and understood so well.

BBC Four will also offer viewers another chance to see The Unseen Alistair Cooke, first broadcast in 2008 to mark the centenary of Cooke's birth. Offering a revealing portrait of one of the most celebrated broadcasters of the 20th century, the documentary includes extraordinary 8mm home movies shot by Cooke from 1933 onwards and interviews with his family and close friends.

Notes to Editors

The Alistair Cooke archive is being launched as part of a range of events and programmes to mark BBC Radio’s 90th birthday. Highlights include: Radio Reunited, an unprecedented global simulcast across the BBC’s radio networks – including every UK station (local, network and national) and many World Service outlets – curated by Damon Albarn; The Listeners’ Archive, a major initiative to recover the lost gems of the broadcasting archive by calling an ‘amnesty’ on recorded media, beginning on October 11th; 90 x 90, a series of 90-second miniatures that celebrate, calibrate and curate the diversity of radio in its widest form, each episode representing one year of the 90; and a range of programming across various network.

BBC Radio is increasing the access to its archive online so listeners can discover a bigger Radio 4. The Letter from America archive adds to more than 16,000 programmes already available on the Radio 4 website, including every edition of In Our Time, 250 recordings of the Reith Lectures going back to 1948 and the Desert Island Discs archive.