Thursday, June 11, 2015

Anticipating the podcast, 1964

OUR TECHNICAL SERVICES DEPARTMENT is going to be moving to new quarters soon, and the array and volume of weird stuff coming out of storage is a joy for the Lone Arranger to behold.

Delivered along with a bunch of beautifully crafted stamping machines, tacking irons, electric erasers and a dozen IBM Selectric typewriter balls was a 1960s aqua-and-white Amfile Platter-Pak(tm) for toting "phonograph records" for girls on the go. (Its size and weight reminds us of why we love our iPhones.)

The tote at first appeared to be full of nothing more than a couple dozen crumbling cardboard dividers labeled with titles on various religious subjects. We were just about to toss it on the recycling heap when something told us to dig around. Holy moly! It's a good thing we checked, because buried among the dividers were 10 actual LPs.

The Conference-a-Month Club sent out more than
500,000 LPs and tapes in the 1960s.
With a little research, we've decided this is quite a find.  For one thing, we could only find one library in the U.S. or Europe that holds even a single LP from this series, let alone 10. A university archives somewhere reports having two. There were originally hundreds.

The LPs are a remnant of the Conference-of-the-Month Club, the brainchild of a media-savvy Carmelite priest named Ronald F. Gray. Among his other accomplishments, he had hosted a popular radio show in the 1950s dramatizing episodes from the life of Blessed Matt Talbot, an Irish saint-to-be who overcame alcoholism and is an inspiration to millions.

Father Gray attended the Second Vatican Council starting in 1962 and apparently hit on the idea of marketing and distributing hour-long talks -- conferences -- on topics that would be of interest to women religious. Religious life was in for major changes as a result of Vatican II, so he had a ready market. 

Many of the conferences were recorded in Rome while Vatican II (which ran through 1965) was going on; Gray had access to many of the church luminaries assembled for the Council, so he brought them into the studio to talk about everything from biblical theology to the future of celibacy. 

According to an online obituary for Father Gray in 2003 and some old newspaper clippings, during CMC's run in the 1960s, more than 4,000 religious communities in the English-speaking world subscribed to the monthly LPs or tapes, and over its lifetime more than half a million recordings were sent out on 400-plus topics. It strikes us that he was anticipating the podcast by about 50 years, but his numbers dwarf even the most popular podcast today. 

Our own CSJs apparently made the collection available to Sisters at the Mount or down the hill at the House of Studies, because there are the remains of library check-out slips on some of the LP sleeves. The records document a time of profound change in both the Catholic Church and the lives of women religious, and they're in pristine condition. Given their apparent rarity we're happy to hang on to them for future generations.