Through the Airwaves: The Indiana School of the Sky

We all enjoy our podcasts, niche radio shows, and morning news during the drive to work or school, but the history of radio has a far reaching past beyond our modern version of it. For much of the twentieth century, radio was the entertainment and news medium of choice — not television, and radio has a particularly interesting history here at IU!

Class listening to School of the Sky, Archives image no. P0050223

The Indiana School of the Sky radio program of the Indiana University Department of Radio and Television began broadcasting educational radio programs in 1947 and continued through the early 1960s. The program reached schools throughout Indiana and nearby states and led to new course offerings at IU. IU students performed in the radio programs originally intended for children ages 4-8 which aired for 15 minutes during each school day.

Eventually the program’s popularity called for further programming for high-school students, and later adults tuned in as well.  Topics in every subject from history and music to current events and news were covered during the various episodes of the program.

The School of the Sky series discussed possible careers for students, music and literature, how to find a job, dating and growing up, and current events.  In many ways the program’s subjects seemed to help students learn both educational topics and how to be a part of society.  Other episodes focused on the news and events of the time that were likely difficult for students to understand.

To explain the Cold War and Communism to audiences in 1962, as part of the “How It Happened” series the School of the sky performed a skit about West Germany. From the view of an airplane and from the ground, the actors describe West Berlin as an “island surrounded by Communism.”  The narrator and the characters in the show provide listeners with the history and problematic results of World War II.  Students learned, through the vivid description of the show’s script, the differences between East and West Berlin, Check Point Charlie, and the Berlin Wall.  The picture the program paints shows the effects of Communism and the grim reality in Berlin on the other side of the Wall.  On the ground in West Berlin, the narrator explains that East Berliners have a very different life than West Berliners and the listeners in the United States:

President Wells speaking for the opening of the School of the Sky, Archives image no. P0048605

“The Communists, in fear of having everybody run away to freedom, have built a wall to stop them.  This wall is the ugliest thing I have ever seen.  It is also a very sad thing to see, because behind it are people who want freedom, want to live like you and me, but the wall holds them in.  If they try to get over the wall, the Communists shoot them.  Many young students have died trying to get over into West Berlin.”

The Indiana School of the Sky, 1961-1962, How It Happened Series, Volume 3 of 3. Program #10, Aprill 11, 1962, George Strimel, Jr. Page 96.

The program effectively brought a faraway place and the conflict of the Berlin Wall and Cold War home to the listeners in Indiana.

The students here at IU were the radio show’s writers, performers, and producers. The Indiana School of the Sky eventually reached thousands of classrooms and children while also providing college students with invaluable radio experience.

Oscar winners in “School of the Sky”, Archives image no. P0052037

The bound volumes containing the scripts of the program and the teaching manuals found in the IU Archives’ Indiana School of the Sky records offer enlightening insight into the stage management, acting, and preparation that was necessary for each episode.

In 2009, the Media Digitization and Preservation Initiative (MDPI) at IU found numerous lacquer discs containing recordings of The School of the Sky. These are now digitized and available online through Media Collections Online.

Missed it by that much – The Folklore Institute Ventriloquism Project

The archive of an unfunded project is a strange thing to behold. It recounts a set of best-laid plans that never quite came to fruition. Proposals and correspondence describe the viability of an enterprise, and organizers explain themselves with eloquently written prose and carefully curated documentation. In the present, we review these files knowing the inevitable outcome. Although many people worked hard trying to bring their idea to life, it did not succeed in the way it was envisioned.

A case in point here is the Ventriloquism Project, a proposed collaboration of the Indiana University Folklore Institute and Radio and Television Services. For much of 1988, a small but committed core of researchers sought funding for a documentary that would have explored the contemporary practice of ventriloquism in the United States.

In the end, the project was not of interest to the many sources who received an appeal for funding. The Folk Arts Media sector of the National Endowment for the Arts said no. The Walt Disney Company’s educational films division said no. Jim Henson said no through a personal assistant, who explained that ventriloquism is not the same thing as puppetry (or in this case, Muppetry), which forms the basis of “Jim’s interest and experience.”

Ventriloquism ad
A page in the 1984-85 catalog from One Way Street, a Colorado-based puppetry and ventriloquism resource center

Notwithstanding, those who supported the Ventriloquism Project—folklorists Gail Matthews, Inta Carpenter, and Sandra Dolby, as well as filmmakers John Bishop and John Winninger—produced a significant body of work in their attempts to acquire funding. University Archives and Records Management makes this material available now. The archive of the Ventriloquism Project comprises a rich review of ventriloquial art in the United States in the twentieth century. The files included here could serve as a springboard for anyone researching ventriloquism, whether for a documentary, journalistic article, or academic publication.

At issue in many of these papers is the nature of ventriloquism as a folk art. Researchers argued that its decline in popularity in the early twentieth century marked a transition from popular culture to folklore. Their interpretation of this process is nicely summarized in a proposal to the NEA. They write: “The lay person may think that ventriloquism died out with the arrival of television, when in fact, it merely faded from popular media visibility. Over the years, ventriloquists have constituted a small but solid and growing community of interest.”

The archive’s ephemera provide extensive evidence of this community as it existed in the late 1980s. Gathered materials include advertising literature from Vent Haven, a ventriloquism museum in Kentucky; and correspondence with One Way Street, a puppetry and ventriloquism resource center in Colorado. Additional pamphlets, letters, and business cards from a variety of sources suggest the breadth of the proposed project. Had it gone forward, film crews would have captured footage in Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, South Carolina, and elsewhere.

The documentary was not meant to be, however, and the Ventriloquism Project was shelved until further notice. That notice is now, as it were. The preparatory work that researchers did has been made public after a dark age of about 25 years. Interested parties are invited to view this archive, which, even though it was not funded, provides a valuable resource for aficionados of ventriloquism.

To view this material, and to access the finding aid that indexes it, visit http://libraries.iub.edu/archives, or call (812) 855-1127.