by Robert K. Schoon, Communications Specialist, Office of the Vice President for Information Technology, Indiana University
At 16, he conned his way onstage in Ireland by pretending to be a cigar-smoking Theater Guild actor on vacation. He debuted on Broadway at 19, and co-founded his own experimental theater company soon after, which he then took to radio. There he adapted one sci-fi story into a startlingly realistic newscast-style performance as a Halloween prank—terrifying tens of thousands in his audience and launching a national media scandal along with his popular profile.
By the time he was 25, Orson Welles was a prodigious performer and producer in all media except film. One year later, he would release his first feature-length movie, “Citizen Kane,” which is widely considered the greatest film of all time.
While his films still grace movie shelves and streaming queues, one side of his career has remained mostly the province of scholars and enthusiasts. Only piecemeal selections of his radio work are widely available, much of it only in low-quality audio.
IU Libraries’ Lilly Library safeguards one of the largest troves of recordings from Welles’s radio career. Now, with a $25,000 grant from the National Recording Preservation Foundation and the expertise of IU’s nationally recognized Media Digitization and Preservation Initiative (MDPI), the original sounds of Orson Welles at the apex of radio and his career will once again find an audience.
In announcing its grant to the IU-led project, “Orson Welles on the Air,” National Recording Preservation Foundation Executive Director Gerald Seligman said, “That there were so many extant scripts and vulnerable recordings immediately piqued our interest. That they were housed in Indiana’s venerable Lilly Library gave us great confidence that such an important collection was in the right restorative hands.”
From Garage to Archives
In the late 1970s, longtime Welles associate Richard Wilson wanted a good home for his collection from Welles’s radio career, which filled his garage in California. The Lilly Library happily obliged, acquiring box after box of production materials and scripts, along with hundreds of lacquer audio discs of Welles’s broadcasts.
The collection spans Welles’s first foray into broadcast, “First Person Singular,” through later incarnations like “Mercury Theater on the Air” and “The Campbell Playhouse.” It also includes his wartime works, like the audio documentary on Pan-Americanism, “Hello Americans.”
“These discs would have been recorded at the time of the performance,” Erika Dowell, project director for the Lilly Library’s “Orson Welles on the Air” project, explained. “They are recordings that are closest to the source material.”
Recorded live to disc on a lathe, the discs are invaluable, but actually hearing the collection used to be cumbersome. Lacking facilities dedicated to audio scholarship, Lilly’s librarians had to determine the logistics of listening on a case-by-case basis.
MDPI was created to streamline digitization of such collections, making it possible to publicly share treasures like Welles’s radio shows, but also freeing scholars from logistical barriers to their research. Once digitized, the audio is preserved independent of the original, fragile medium, so those physical artifacts needn’t be handled to listen.
In the case of the Welles collection, this is especially important. Once World War II began, rationing dictated that the aluminum base for lacquer-coated discs be changed to glass—all the more fragile.
From Disc to Digital
Thankfully, MDPI experts went through the often-painstaking process of handling the discs so that listeners won’t have to.
“It felt kind of like Indiana Jones grabbing the statue,” laughed Dan Figurelli, audio preservation engineer at MDPI, in describing his technique. “Putting it on the turntable—and then once you do the digitizing, flipping it to the other side—any sort of physical handling, you want to be so gentle with it.”
Careful handling is just one aspect of MDPI’s meticulous process. In the Welles collection, each show was recorded on 78rpm discs with only about five minutes per side, 10 to 12 sides per program. When they arrive, AV specialist Jonathan Richardson groups them, cleans them, and dries the lacquer on a turntable specially designed with a small vacuum. He then studies the grooves under a microscope to recommend a stylus size.
The discs are transferred to the audio studio, where Figurelli or fellow audio preservation engineer Melissa Widzinski measures the distance from the spindle (which fits the disc center hole) to the first inner groove and the outer groove of each record, using that ratio to determine the best placement of the tone arm, which holds the stylus.
This minimizes tracking error even before the disc is on the turntable—a Technics SP15 vintage direct-drive player that can accommodate any standard record speed or size.
Next, they run a test playback with the recommended stylus. If the grooves are particularly worn down, they can select one of some two dozen custom styli, which range in sizes far beyond those used in consumer record players.
“We’re using our critical listening skills to evaluate signal-to-noise ratio, best dynamic range, and to make sure that it sounds the fullest that it can,” explained Widzinski.
The turntable plays through a Timestep preamplifier, made by UK vintage electronics specialist Dave Cawley. The preamplifier allows the simultaneous capture of two different sets of files: the unaltered (or preservation) audio, and a high-quality equalized file.
To say the least, this isn’t a studio setup you’d find at Best Buy.
Once the recordings are digitized, the files go through a quality control check and an automated post-processing system that creates the MP4s that will eventually be available for the public to stream.
Rebroadcasting Welles to the World
The result is that Welles’s radio shows will be available at higher quality and with more straightforward accessibility than ever before.
“MDPI is a wonderful godsend to us,” said Dowell. “It makes it so much easier to have access to this stuff. Go back, say, 10 years. If people wanted to hear these recordings, what they listened to was a cassette, that was made from an open-reel tape, that was made from a lacquer disc back at the time we got the collection.”
MPDI has finished digitizing the over 300 discs that make up the Welles collection. Now the Lilly Library is scanning the associated scripts, correspondence, and other documentation.
The ultimate goal is to make it all available in one multimedia experience online. When the “Orson Welles on the Air” site is finished, readers will be able to listen to the shows and page through their scripts at the same time. It’ll be an enlightening experience: hearing Welles’s genius the way it would have sounded live on the air, while getting a behind-the-scenes peek at his often extemporaneous process.
“People can compare what Orson’s script looked like to what made it onto the air,” said Dowell. “In some of the scripts, you can see what’s clearly evidence of dramatic, probably last-minute changes as he cuts down narration here or adds something there. You can imagine him coming in a couple hours before broadcast, reading it through, and whipping through with all kinds of last-minute changes.”
Most importantly, thanks to advocacy from the Library of Congress Radio Preservation Task Force and funding from the National Recording Preservation Foundation, “Orson Welles on the Air” will restore the radio legacy of one of the most influential media figures of the 20th century: reintroducing the lesser-known Welles to the world.
“This is an exciting contribution to the legacy of American radio,” Seligman said. “Orson Welles was a major creative force, responsible for some of the era’s most acclaimed innovations. He virtually invented narrative radio. The National Recording Preservation Foundation exists to find treasures such as these, and we are thrilled to find a credible partner at IU with the capacity and expertise to make them available to everyone.”
“We’ve gotten to experience this,” said Figurelli, an enthusiastic member of an audience of two (so far) that has heard these high-quality recordings. “It’s incredibly satisfying to know that other people will be able to experience it as well.”
Listen to an excerpt from “Dracula” from The Mercury Theatre on the Air. Originally recorded July 11, 1938. Digitized from lacquer disc at Indiana University’s Media Digitization and Preservation Initiative.