Honoring the History of Music Radio
Jana Lynn French - 3/11/2016
From music radio broadcasts in the early years all the way to 2014’s institutional award for Afropop Worldwide, Peabody has ensured that music of the past stays alive. In 1941, the Peabody Board of Jurors recognized the one of its first radio musical programs — Mutual Broadcasting System and Alfred Wallenstein for outstanding entertainment in music.
Throughout the rest of the 20th century, the board continued to recognize significant musical achievements on from American Popular Song with Alec Wilder and Friends to the more colloquial musical explorations like the blues series, King Biscuit Time.
Starting in the early 2000s, the Peabody Board of Jurors continue to recognize music on the radio, but with a different take. Rather than recognizing the music itself, the Peabody Board began to honor radio documentaries that looked back on American music, giving us a sense of history through the songs.
Memphis was the subject of two separate winners. The first, 2004’s Let the Good Times Roll, played hits from the 1960s and placed them alongside interviews with the artists, their friends, and the DJs who played them.
It spent an episode telling the story of the historic Stax Records — a small label that gave birth to some of the most popular R&B and soul acts of the day, such as Otis Redding and Booker T and the MG’s. The series also described how Stax transcended the racial barriers of the time through its recording studio.
Let the Good Times Roll also placed music in historical context, describing the events that inspired songs and performances, such as the episode where Al Bell talks about recording a song, “Send Peace and Harmony Home,” after finding out that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot.
Boasting a similar format, the 2007 winner Whole Lotta Shakin’ explores Rockabilly artists that have inspired other musicians. An episode focusing on Johnny Cash revealed the inspiration for his most famous songs and how growing up in rural Arkansas affected his music. It also discussed some of the political statements hidden in Cash’s performances.
Afropop Worldwide serves a similar function but in a unique way. The weekly radio series examines the music and culture of Africa and its diaspora, which don’t get a lot of U.S. pop-culture attention or can be misrepresented. Where other shows rely heavily on history, Afropop acts as more of a sample of a style of music with history as the tasting notes. Listeners can hear a full song from a particular genre while learning its cultural importance. The format examines the deep intertwinement of music and culture.
An episode about the Tsapiky style of music in Madagascar discusses its presence at burial procedures since the 1980s, introducing the average American listener to a genre and practice not prevalent in American pop culture.
Other episodes in the series discuss obscure ways in which pop culture differs around the continent. One episode, “The Money Show,” explains how skyrocketing rates of cell phone subscriptions across Africa led artists to find their big breakthrough in ringback tones. Exploring the extensive backlog of this institutional Peabody Award-winner’s website will provide hours of listening enjoyment.
Since 1940, the Peabody Awards have been recognizing music radio shows and preserving music legacies, both nationally and internationally. Our archives act as a holding ground for 75 years of musical stories that matter and are waiting to be heard again.