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The National Broadcasting Company at the Library of Congress

A guide to researching the radio and television broadcasts of the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) in the collections of the Library of Congress.

Introduction

"This is your invitation to go on a special kind of tour—a tour for which no one can buy a ticket. But you—because you've been chosen as an employee of the National Broadcasting Company—are invited to go on this exclusive trip—a behind the scenes tour of a great national radio network. ... The National Broadcasting Company is big, and learning about it is something like learning geography. But a geography text-book takes you through space alone, while this book will take you on a journey through time—radio time—to show you horizons no geography hints at."
NBC and You employee handbook, August 1945, p. 5

The National Broadcasting Company was formed in 1926 when the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) purchased radio station WEAF in New York from the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T), taking over that station's programming as well as that of several other independent radio stations. On November 15, 1926, at a gala event in the grand ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City, NBC began broadcasting over its newly formed network:

"A thousand guests turned out in evening clothes for the inaugural broadcast of the National Broadcasting Company. Twenty-five stations in twenty-one cities, most of them charter affiliates, carried the New York program, which reached as far west as Kansas City. And what a show it was!" (The Golden Years of Broadcasting, 29).

The goals of the company were to increase the quantity and quality of radio programs in the United States, to achieve a greater distribution of national programs and events, and to create a "democracy of the air." The company set forth with lofty ideals about the social responsibility of radio, described in a 1939 publication titled Broadcasting in the Public Interest: "Every intellectual and economic stratum of society is represented in the radio audience. ... Radio must weigh carefully what it carries over the air, for it must serve them all to good purpose" (19).

In early 1927, NBC split its radio broadcasting into two main networks: the Red Network with WEAF as flagship, and the Blue Network with WJZ in New York as the flagship station. A public Advisory Council of twelve members “chosen as representative of various shades of public opinion” was established soon after to assist the company in maintaining the faith of the public through its conduct, policies, and programming. An Orange Network on the West Coast quickly followed, as well as a Gold Network, but Orange and Gold affiliate stations were ultimately brought under the existing Red and Blue headings as the reach of those stations expanded westward. By 1939, NBC was providing approximately 16 hours of daily programming to 171 stations around the country.

Harris & Ewing. William B. Bankhead at NBC microphone. [1935]. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

NBC's Blue Network operated in continual competition to the Red Network, which was seen as the more popular, more commercial side of NBC. The Blue Network, which programmed classical music, regional content, and public service programs to maintain the cultural "prestige" of the company had problems maintaining listeners, sponsors, and ratings, despite the formation of the NBC Symphony under the baton of Arturo Toscanini in 1937 for classical music broadcasts. Breakout hits on the Blue Network were generally moved over to the Red, often at the request of sponsors looking to capitalize on the popularity of that network.

In 1941, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released a report based on a years-long investigation of NBC and its major competitor, CBS, which stated that the FCC would not issue licenses to network organizations that operated more than one network. The regulations put forth in the report meant to limit the size of radio companies in order to break up monopolies in the industry. NBC was eventually forced to sell the Blue Network, which ultimately became the American Broadcasting Company (ABC).

Television came to NBC in 1939 when the company began to operate its first television station, W2XBS (later WNBT) in New York. NBC's TV station was the first to be granted a commercial license by the FCC in 1941 (at which point it became WNBT). By 1945, NBC averaged 12 hours of television programming over five evenings per week. By 1948, there were 47 stations in the NBC TV network. In 1966, determined to be at the forefront of the development of television, NBC became the first network to air all of its programs in color.

A 1945 NBC employee handbook, excited about the future presented by television, proclaims:

"The policy of the National Broadcasting Company has always been, and will continue to be, to foster and encourage any developments in the broadcasting field which promises better service to the public. In respect to television, it is the policy of NBC to make the utmost contribution toward the earliest possible development of television as a national service and industry. … NBC will continue its activities in the field of television with vigor and confidence, and with absolute faith in the vital significance of sight-and-sound broadcasting to the American public. Television promises to be the greatest medium of mass communications yet evolved, with unparalleled opportunities for services of entertainment and education. We will successfully meet the challenge and the opportunity which television presents to the initiative and courage of the American enterprise." (NBC and You, 94)

NBC Radio Collection

The NBC Radio Collection, given to the Library in September 1978, documents NBC broadcasting from its early days through the "advent and domination of television." The collection preserves programs from 1933 to 1970 and contains approximately 150,000 radio transcription discs consisting of over 80,000 hours of programming. "Included are 7,500 to 8,000 hours of war-related broadcasts from the World War II period; more than three hundred Metropolitan Opera broadcasts; most of the concerts and rehearsals of the NBC Symphony Orchestra; many recordings from the Salzburg Music Festival; speeches broadcast by presidents and national political figures; comedy and variety programs featuring Fred Allen, Amos and Andy, Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, Eddie Cantor, Bob Hope, Will Rogers, and other leading entertainers; and detailed news coverage of such events as the national political conventions (1936-48), the 1939 World's Fair, the Olympic Games (1936, 1940 previews, 1948, 1952), and the founding of the United Nations." Also available in the Recorded Sound Research Center are manuscript materials that illuminate the history of the National Broadcasting Company and provide detailed radio program and scheduling information in the form of master books and log books, press releases, and descriptive cards. (Description from Special Collections in the Library of Congress [1980], p. 246).

NBC Television Collection

The NBC Television Collection, acquired in July 1986, consists of 18,000 television programs broadcast, preserved and mostly produced by NBC. With programs dating from the beginning of network television in the United States (1948) through 1977, the NBC Television Collection includes not only performances by major actors, comedians, and musical talents, but also numerous events featuring significant individuals in public affairs. Presidents Eisenhower through Nixon are covered fully, as well as the national political conventions and elections of that period. It also includes programs from the late 1940s and early 1950s, and genres such as sports, game shows, children's programs and daytime television. Detailed television program and scheduling information is available in the Moving Image Research Center as well, as the Moving Image Section also holds master books, log books, press releases, and program information that complement and inform the television broadcast recordings.

Further Reading

The following books link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog.