Syracuse University Magazine


A Solid Gold Radio Show Hits the Air

From above the Arctic Circle in Alaska to deep in the heart of Texas, from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor to the San Francisco Bay, radio stations and digital audio services are offering listeners an earful of Orange with Sound Beat, a radio series produced by the Syracuse University Library (SUL). Each 90-second episode highlights a recording from SUL’s Belfer Audio Archive, one of the world’s great sound repositories. Consisting of more than a half million recordings made between 1890 and 1970, the collection spans a wide variety of musical and spoken-word genres with recordings ranging from wax cylinders invented by Thomas Edison to 78-rpm records and reel-to-reel tape. Sound Beat host Brett Barry ’97 introduces the program and provides listeners with information about the episode’s featured recording and the personalities who made it.  “We’re giving people access to music and other sound experiences that you cannot hear anywhere else,” producer Jim O’Connor says. “The show acts as a gateway into hidden corners of the past.”  

Sound Beat hit the air on March 1, offering listeners a taste of Paganini, a violinist so dexterous that some fans thought he made a pact with the devil while forensic historians believe he suffered from a connective tissue disorder that elongated his fingers. “Paganini could play three octaves across four strings,” Barry tells listeners. “Ask your local fiddler; that’s all but impossible.” In other early episodes, poet Carl Sandburg sings while accompanying himself on guitar; Cousin Emmy, “the first hillbilly to own a Cadillac,” plays clawhammer banjo; and the comedy team of George Burns and Gracie Allen performs a vaudeville routine. Ella Fitzgerald, Phil Rizzuto, Igor Stravinksy, and Woody Guthrie joined them in the unlikely parade of talent heard on the first dozen episodes. Some three months after Sound Beat’s premiere, distribution had grown from 41 to 63 outlets, with more carriers set to join the network.

Offered free to public broadcasting stations and Internet audio outlets, Sound Beat got off the ground with a gift from George W. Hamilton ’53, G’54, an international broadcaster who began in radio as a WAER disc jockey. Once airborne, Sound Beat quickly gained formal recognition from the National Endowment for the Arts, which awarded the series a $15,000 “Arts on Radio and Television” grant in May, citing it for educating listeners about “the role of arts and history in the American cultural experience.” Barry, who has worked on other short-form radio programs, including the long-running Pulse of the Planet series, is impressed by what Sound Beat has accomplished in a brief period. “This is engaging radio,” he says. “Jim O’Connor, who writes most of the episodes, is doing a great job. There’s absolutely no fluff and the show is funny without being corny. It’s not easy to deliver a satisfying slice of history in a 90-second capsule, but this show does it on a daily basis.”

Accompanied by audio engineer Bob Hodge and librarian Mary Laverty, O’Connor makes regular expeditions into the deepest recesses of the Belfer holdings in search of material for Sound Beat. The trio has yet to come up empty and O’Connor sees little chance of that happening. “The Belfer collection makes producing the show a labor of love,” he says. SUL Dean Suzanne Thorin believes Sound Beat is increasing the visibility of the library and the University as it shares the wonders of Belfer with an international audience. “The program reaches out to researchers and scholars who may be interested in using Belfer materials in their teaching and research,” she says. “For other listeners, these well-crafted episodes are just plain fun.” —David Marc

Listen to Sound Beat

Listen to Sound Beat anywhere on the planet. Options include participating local public radio stations; WAER-FM (M-F, 3:30 p.m. Eastern), streaming live on the web; and Sound, which contains a complete archive of episodes.