Making The Last Archive

The Last Archive is a history show. Our evidence is the evidence of history, the evidence of archives. Manuscripts, photographs, letters and diaries, government documents. Facebook posts, Youtube videos, DVDs. Oral histories. This stuff is known as the “historical record,” but of course it’s not a record, in the sense of an audio recording: It’s everything. We wrote our scripts from that historical record, the evidence of the past. In those scripts, we make arguments about history. The nation-state, social movements, cultural history, the history of politics and technology, science and medicine—and especially the history of knowledge. History. So, we wanted the show to sound like history, too. A real historical record.

Photograph of James Frye’s interrogation. Equity Case No. 40432; "Equity Case Files, 1863–1938," A1 Entry 69; Record Group 21, Records of District Courts of the United States; National Archives Building, Washington, DC.

Archival Tape

For us, turning the historical record into a podcast meant three things. First, we knew we wanted to use a lot of archival sound—vinyl records, shellac 78rpm records, cassette tapes, tapes of police interrogations, old movies—the kinds of things you’d expect to find in the last archive. When we researched our stories, we’d look for the best tape in archives all over the place, sometimes writing to archivists about items in their collections that hadn’t yet been digitized, asking if we could be the first to hear them. History sounds like archives. It’s the crackle of a record, the light warping of a tape that’s seen too much sun, the wearing of time. Those touches are like fins on a Cadillac in a movie about the ’50s—they’re how you know where you are in time. 

A reel of 35 mm footage of the Ivory Billed Woodpecker from our episode 9 trip to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

The Foolproof Players

For some stories we wanted to tell, though, there was no archival sound, either because the story happened before people figured out how to record sound—that didn’t happen until 1853 and it didn’t become common for decades—or else because the thing we’re talking about wasn’t recorded, or because it was recorded, but the recording has since disappeared. In those cases, if we were able to find historical documents that tell us what happened—like, say, the transcript of a Congressional hearing, a newspaper report, or the official proceedings of a trial—we hired an ensemble of actors, our Foolproof Players, to read that stuff, to perform it, while we recorded it. Then we “treated” the tape to make it sound as though it comes from that era. We’re not trying to trick anyone: You can look on the episode web pages to see where we got the stuff we used to make the re-creations.

Our Foolpoof Players, recording at the Bridge Sound & Stage, directed by producers Ben Naddaff-Hafrey and Sophie McKibben.

We wanted our Foolproof Players to perform these scenes in the style of a 1930s radio drama. We are obsessed with 1930s radio drama. So, we asked our actors to play two roles: a 1930s radio drama actor and the character played by that actor. Radio was one of the first dramatic media to come into people’s living rooms—radio actors were guests in people’s homes. Basically, they had to be super hokey, and also mannered in a certain way. We wanted to pay homage to Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre on the Air, his The Black Museum, the radio plays of Archibald MacLeish on Columbia Workshop (check out Air Raid andThe Fall of the City), and The Twilight Zone, especially.

Good radio drama requires good sound effects, though. And, true to the show, we found those in an archive.

Sound Effects

We read a lot about radio drama when making this show. Ok, we mainly listened to a lot of radio drama while making this show. But, right, we also did other research. We found a battered old copy of The Radio Handbook from 1941 in a dusty corner of a library. “You see, when the audience turns on the radio, they have nothing but their ears to create a mood or atmosphere for them,” the Handbook explains. “What they hear over the radio must be made to seem so real to them that it is more important to them than the things they see or smell or feel about them. Realistic sound effects do more to create an atmosphere of reality than any other single part of a production.”

Back then, that ‘atmosphere of reality’ had a lot of people worried. In 1938, when Orson Welles, our north star, made his infamous War of the Worlds broadcast, there was more panic about the idea that a radio play could trick a nation into thinking it was true than there was about the broadcast itself. That year, E. B. White wrote, “Sound ‘effects’ are taking the place once enjoyed by sound itself.” There might come a time “when the solid world becomes make-believe.”  If you listen to the whole of our first season, you’ll see we get around to wrestling with that problem, too.

Anyway, we knew one thing about old sound effects: We wanted to get our hands on the stuff. There was a note at the bottom of a page in that battered manual, right before a list of sound effects. “All records given may be obtained by addressing Gennett Records, Richmond, Indiana.” A man named Harry Gennett, Jr. made those effects in the Thirties. So we went digging, and found his daughter living in the midwest. In her house, she had a room filled with records—including hundreds of never-before-digitized sound effects on old, shellac 78rpm records.

The Sound of History

The Gennett family became part-owners of the Starr Piano Company in the late 1800s. The Starr Piano Company in Richmond, Indiana was one of the biggest piano manufacturers in early twentieth-century America. It used to be that if you wanted to listen to music, you had to know someone who could play it, or pay to go see it. Beginning about a hundred years ago, though, an increasing number of Americans were listening to music on phonographs at home. So, in 1915, Gennett Records was born.

Gennett Records made a lot more than sound effects. It’s been called the “cradle of recorded jazz,” and was one of the first labels to record and release American roots music. Gennett cut Louis Armstrong’s first recording; the company recorded Gene Autry, King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, Jelly Roll Morton, Bix Beideckerbe, Duke Ellington, Hoagy Carmichael, Ernest Stoneman, and Uncle Dave Macon. In 1923, Gennett Records tracked the first openly interracial recording, listing the black and white artists’ names on the label at a time when black and white artists weren’t allowed to play together in public (Jelly Roll Morton and the New Orleans Rhythm Kings). In 1927, Gennett also made one of the earliest interracial country recordings, a record by Taylor’s Kentucky Boys. 

This was pragmatic, and good business—not a political stance. The label had a somewhat mercenary approach to business, which led them to a range of clientele, both good and bad. The company had studios in Richmond and New York where anyone could pay to make their own records for their own labels. Outside of Chicago, the Richmond studio was the only studio of its kind in the middle of the country. At the time, the KKK was prevalent across Indiana, and Richmond had its own chapter, some of whom worked at Starr-Gennett. Klansmen would pay to use the company’s equipment to cut records for their own labels up until 1927. The Gennett family weren’t members of the KKK: They were Italian Catholics at a time when the Klan was violently anti-immigrant. 

In the early Thirties, Harry Gennett, Jr. got interested in building his family’s new sound effects label.  He’d been working in Hollywood as a sound man for films, but he came back to make sound effects for the family. The sound effects label was meant to help theaters make silent films more engaging for audiences increasingly used to talkies. Eventually, Gennett made sound effects for radio dramas, too. In Indiana, he’d work in a woodshed to make foley effects. Then, he began chasing a deeper realism. His small team started to travel, collecting field recordings with bulky, fragile machines. In 1930, Gennett and his team created “the first ‘portable’ recording unit designed to obtain sound effects from life and in isolated locations.” He traveled all over, collecting sounds for his archive.

The sound effects team and their portable recording laboratory.

He slept in zoos overnight to capture animal sounds; he set the studio on fire (by accident) while recording the sound of flames; he tracked Lobo wolves howling late at night; he recorded shotguns firing and slowed them down so they’d sound like thunder. 

Harry Gennett Jr. recording airplane sounds in 1933.
Recording the Burlington Zephyr in Illinois.

Old sound effects are ephemeral; they don’t often outlive the productions they’re used in. But we got lucky twice. For The Last Archive, we used some of the sounds Harry Gennett, Jr. recorded on his trips, but we also used a lot of sounds from early sound effects people working in Hollywood in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. A sound man named Craig Smith found those, stashed in a university library, while he was working on an experimental Western. They were headed for the trash, but Smith digitized them and put them on the Internet for anyone to use. They’d been tracked on 35mm Optical Tape, which means they were imprinted on film by light — first a vibration, then a flicker, now a clutch of 1s and 0s.

Gennett Records fell apart in the 1930s, but Harry Gennett, Jr. kept making sound effects. Eventually, he ran a mail order service shipping sound effects records out from his home. Slowly, the orders dried up. But his daughter held onto the recordings, and, for The Last Archive, took them to Sweetwater Sound in Indiana to have them digitized. They’re sounds nobody has heard for decades—small slices of a world long gone.

Harry Gennett, Jr. cutting wood for an effect.

Who We Are

Jill Lepore (Host) is the Kemper Professor of American History at Harvard and a staff writer at The New Yorker. Her many books include THESE TRUTHS: A HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES and, due out in September, IF THEN: HOW THE SIMULMATICS CORPORATION INVENTED THE FUTURE

Sophie McKibben (Managing Producer) comes to Pushkin from FRONTLINE PBS where she was the Series Producer of The FRONTLINE Dispatch, a podcast she helped start. Previously, Sophie taught documentary storytelling at the Transom Story Workshop in Woods Hole. Sophie has reported and produced for Rhode Island Public Radio, StoryCorps, and North Country Public Radio. An Adirondacker, Sophie is happiest out in the woods.

Ben Naddaff-Hafrey (Lead Producer) came to podcasting from writing and video production. Previously, he was a video producer and writer at NPR & NPR Music, and the founding music editor at Mic. He has written for Aeon and Pacific Standard among other publications. In college, he studied American history & literature and wrote his thesis on 1930s radio drama & social psychology. He makes music in his free time with his band, Rookin

The Foolproof Players are Barlow Adamson, Daniel Berger-Jones, John Kuntz, Becca A. Lewis, Maurice Emmanuel Parent, and Jesse Hinson.

Our music is composed by Jon Evans & Matthias Bossi of Stellwagen Symphonette.

Our Editor is Julia Barton, and our Executive Producer is Mia Lobel. Jason Gambrell & Martín H. Gonzalez are our engineers. Fact checking by Amy Gaines. 

Contact us at [email protected]