The Vanderbilt Television News Archive began recording the daily news broadcasts of the three national television networks on August 5th, 1968. This is the story of the Archive’s early history, as recalled by former Vanderbilt Library Director Frank Grisham, Archive founder Paul Simpson, and the Archive’s first administrator Jim Pilkington, and featuring several audio excerpts of news segments from the Archive’s video collection.
Russ Mason: [00:02] Hi, I’m Russ Mason, along with retired TV News Archive Director John Lynch. The focus of this episode is the early days of the Vanderbilt Television News Archive, and in a few minutes, we’ll be joined by Frank Grisham, who was director of the Vanderbilt Library from 1967 to 1982, and was directly involved in the formative events that got the Archive started at Vanderbilt.
Before we get to Frank, though, we’re going to hear from archive founder Paul Simpson and the Archive’s first administrator Jim Pilkington, by way of some decades old interviews with them.
But let’s begin by traveling back to August 5th, 1968, and listen to the introduction of the Archive’s very first recording.
Announcer: [00:53] The ABC evening news with Frank Reynolds. Tonight’s guest commentator at Convention City, Ralph Schoenstein. Now with today’s report from Miami Beach, here is Frank Reynolds.
Frank Reynolds: [01:05] Good evening. California’s Governor Ronald Reagan is now an open, avowed candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.
Russ: [01:12] And with that the Archive was off and running. Of course, arriving at the Archive’s initial day of operation on that Monday in early August required a considerable amount of discussion and preparation, and we have the good fortune to be able to hear now from some of those who got the Archive off the ground. So let’s listen first to Jim Pilkington’s recollection of how Paul Simpson decided to approach Vanderbilt with his idea for an archive of national news broadcasts.
Jim Pilkington: [01:39] The Archive began as the idea of a gentleman here in town by the name of Paul Simpson. In 1968 he had to go to New York for a meeting of the Metropolitan Insurance Company.
Paul, as a tourist, toured the news departments of the networks in the early months of 1968, and while he was touring, he asked one of them, “Where is your archive? How can one look at one of these broadcasts again?”
It developed that they were not being kept, and for good and sufficient reason they were not being kept. The tape that was being used at that time by the networks for airing was two-inch tape, which cost something like 300, 350 dollars an hour. They were reusing the tapes, so that while the material was taped and retained for several weeks, it was not retained permanently.
The idea bothered Paul. He came back and checked out to see if indeed that it was a fact that the material was not being kept anywhere. He checked with libraries, such as the Library of Congress thinking it might be there, and it was not.
He came up here and talked with Frank Grisham, who at that time was the assistant director of the Joint University Libraries, to see if Frank thought it was feasible and not totally crazy to think of having a library collection of video tapes of the news broadcasts.
It caught Frank’s imagination and ultimately the imagination of the Chancellor who referred the idea back to a faculty committee. The committee was interested, so it boiled down to the fact that Vanderbilt said, “You can do it under the auspices of Vanderbilt if it doesn’t cost us any money.”
And so Paul put up $4,000 of his own money for a trial project to tape the thirteen weeks of the presidential campaign of 1968, from the opening of the first convention until election night. That was going to be the definite beginning and ending time. It was a unit that could be taped. The events of that period were such, including perhaps prominent among them the Democratic convention of ‘68, that the importance of the collection was immediately obvious.
Russ: [03:58] Here’s NBC’s anchor team of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley on the opening night of the Democratic convention.
Chet Huntley: [04:03] It’s widely asserted that Democrats are pathologically more full of fight than Republicans. There is some evidence here in Chicago this evening that that is accurate, with the McCarthy, Humphrey, McGovern, and Maddox forces vying for the nomination and vehement quarrels going on in the platform, credentials, and rules committees. David.
David Brinkley: [04:25] The proceedings here tonight in Fort Democrat include the keynote speech, a speech by the man without whom the Democrats would have moved to Miami Beach, the mayor of Chicago, Richard Daley, and as Chet said, a fight over who gets a seat in the hall and who does not. The Democrats tried seriously and honestly to avoid fighting about that by making a rule on racial composition of delegations four years ago, but somehow it didn’t work and tonight they’re going to have the fight. We’ll be back to cover all of that and everything else that happens after this message from Gulf.
Russ: [05:01] Two nights later, Huntley and Brinkley were splitting their coverage between the convention and the clashes taking place between protesters and Mayor Daley’s police force in downtown Chicago. Here’s a short excerpt from reporter Jack Perkins’ description of NBC’s film footage.
[05:17] [crowd protests] Jack Perkins: [05:22] Police reinforcements moving down Balboa Street now. And police moving into the crowd at the corner of Balboa and Michigan. There are, now and then, there was another one, a bottle being thrown by the crowd. And the police clearing off the sidewalks in front of the Hilton, and the persistent chanting by the crowd, “the whole world is watching,” they say.
Russ: [05:41] 1968 was a truly extraordinary year overflowing with major news events, beginning with the Tet offensive in January in Vietnam, followed by President Lyndon Johnson’s announcement that he wouldn’t seek reelection. The assassinations of both Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the ongoing civil rights and anti-Vietnam War protests, and much, much more.
You can look all of it up if you’d like to refresh your memory, but what you can’t do is go back and watch the day-by-day national news coverage of that time period prior to August 5th that year, because until Vanderbilt began its thirteen-week experiment, nowhere was televised news being preserved in any systematic way. Paul Simpson tells us how he and Frank Grisham shared the responsibility for recording the news in those first few months.
Paul Simpson: [07:02] We set up in the rare book room up in the library, here on the table, we had three recorders set up, and that’s where we recorded the conventions, and for the first period of time. We didn’t have any money from anybody. I recorded the conventions along with the help of Frank Grisham.
Just as an aside, if you’ve never watched three video tape recorders at the same time, of all three networks on a convention, don’t. It’s not that exciting [laughs] a way to spend an evening.
I lost a lot of sleep because it didn’t get through until late and we had to get the tapes back. We had no staff, so we put every bit of money we had into tape. My reasoning was that if we taped it, we’d have it. Any evening that we didn’t tape the news, that news was gone. So we taped it and put it in the shelves, believing that sooner or later we would be able to do something in the way of making it really usable in the form of an index or an abstract to it.
Russ: [08:08] Last month, John Lynch and I sat down with Frank Grisham for an hour-long discussion about his involvement in the early days of the TV News Archive, for the Archive’s oral history project.
Let’s listen now to some excerpts from that conversation, beginning with my asking Frank to describe how Paul Simpson approached him with his idea for an archive of televised news broadcasts.
Russ: Jim Pilkington, whom we all remember was the archive’s first administrator, said that you were Paul Simpson’s initial contact with Vanderbilt. Do you remember it that way?
Frank Grisham: [08:43] Oh, yes I do quite well. Russ, it really hinged on my personal relationship with Paul Simpson which I gained through the downtown Rotary Club.
He was the district manager at Metropolitan Life, and I was a natural for him to pursue his dream of not only saving the news broadcasts, but to house them at Vanderbilt where he graduated. And that went on from 1967, most of 1967 we talked about it. We had lunch many times, we tried to figure out a way out to do it.
He wanted, and this is interesting I think, he didn’t want it recorded as JUL, Joint University Libraries, he wanted the Vanderbilt name on it. I can understand that. To give the reputation at Vanderbilt, add it to the Television News Archive was his goal. I was the director of the Joint University Libraries, which was an experiment of its own, that included Peabody and Scarritt.
If I did anything for Paul, it would have to be through all three institutions. I immediately, Russ, felt very strongly that the afternoon news programs from the networks ought to be retained, organized, publicized, and distributed in some format. I was committed to the concept, in addition to helping my friend Paul.
Russ: [11:12] Who else, besides the two of you, were involved in those discussions?
Frank: [11:19] The success of the Vanderbilt Television News Archive is equally credited to Bob McGaw and Jeff Carr, and I explain why in a minute, as it is to Paul’s idea. They really ran interference for us at Vanderbilt, because they were convinced of the value of the concept that Paul was promoting.
Russ: Who was Bob McGaw at that time?
Frank: Bob McGaw was secretary of the university. I don’t know that they have that position now, but he was jack-of-all-trades. Anybody wanted anything done around here, he knew how to get it done. But, he liked the concept, he thought we ought to do this. And Jeff was the legal mind that kept us out of trouble.
Frank: He was a sharp man, who really we owe a lot to.
Russ: Oh yeah, I know we do. So were there other factions, though, at Vanderbilt that were more skeptical about this project that you had to convince?
Frank: [12:44] If we’re speaking of the provost and other leadership on campus, they were as skeptical as Chancellor Heard was. Chancellor Heard, as this tape said, “Sure, this is an idea that Paul has worth pursuing, but it must not cost us any money.”
Frank: [13:18] I remember sitting in his office when he told me that. That means, Frank, you and Paul…Paul wasn’t with me when I talked to the chancellor at first. But Chancellor Heard said, “There’s too much need on this campus right now for us to divert monies to this purpose.” The idea wasn’t proven. What Paul was saying, and what I was saying and supporting, wasn’t believed by everyone. Wasn’t the way they were thinking, that this period, Russ, and the 1960s. The ’60s were wild, late ’60s. I mean, gee, [laughs] I looked at my own personal…I keep a log.
[14:20] Back then, Tom Hayden and the Chicago Seven, if you remember that. Paul wondered if we should get all that news, special news breaks, and all. And then, the moon landing. Let’s see…
Russ: [14:43] We did not record the moon landing. We’ve got, of course, coverage of it from the evening news.
Frank: [14:51] The Vietnam War was fought in the living room.
Russ: [14:59] Okay wait, wasn’t Frank talking about what it took to persuade Chancellor Heard to let him go ahead with a pilot project to record the news when he suddenly begins listing all the news events from the late ’60s? Well, yes, he was, but actually it makes sense for him to do that because the two – Vanderbilt’s real financial concerns and the archive’s mission to capture the major news events as they occur – are intertwined, as they have been throughout the life of the archive.
[15:26] We’ll get Frank back to describing the nuts and bolts of what it took to get the archive started in a minute, but as he points out, it was noted at the time that the Vietnam War was our nation’s first living room, or television war. And, of course, the archive’s collection contains the three national network’s daily coverage of the war from the day we began recording to the war’s conclusion in 1975, coverage which has since been viewed by researchers as well as those who were either relatives or combatants themselves. Here’s Jim Pilkington’s recollection of one researcher’s experience when she came to spend a week at the archive back in 1977.
Jim: [16:08] We had a young woman down from Vassar last summer, and she was going to do, in a week, television’s coverage of the Vietnam War. We don’t have all of television’s coverage of the Vietnam War. She finally narrowed it down to the reporting on the Cambodia incursion, during the month of May, 1970. It took her seven days to do it, and we almost missed the plane getting her back to New York [laughs] on the Saturday following the day she started to study. So the user should expect it to take a lot of time and not bite off a great, big subject unless he expects to have a lot of time to put in on it.
Russ: [16:50] Here’s Frank Grisham’s own recollection of someone who made use of the Archive in the ’70s.
Frank: [16:55] I never will forget that woman, and you probably heard of this, who came here because someone told her, that her son, who was killed in the Vietnam War, was photographed lying on the ground. She came here and we provided the tape for her, or let her view it, and it was her son. She wanted to verify the circumstances, and that’s an incidental use that stuck in my mind.
Russ: [17:35] And then sometimes, it takes decades for a particular broadcast segment to become useful or significant to someone. As you’ll recall, Frank, Jim, and Paul all mentioned that the ‘68 political conventions were among the Archive’s first recordings, and how polarized the nation was in the late ’60s. ABC’s coverage of the GOP convention included debate segments between the conservative, William F Buckley and liberal, Gore Vidal. The story of which was recently recalled in the 2015 documentary, “Best of Enemies.” Buckley and Vidal each promoted their own versions of what had happened in the ensuing years, but it wasn’t until Buckley announced his retirement from his long running PBS program, “Firing Line,” that researchers for ABC’s “Nightline” broadcast contacted us looking for the Buckley Vidal debate segments that were missing from their own archive.
[18:30] Let’s listen to Ted Koppel, playing that missing segment for William F. Buckley on the December 14th, 1999, Nightline.
Koppel: [18:38] To borrow from country and western, Buckley was conservative when conservative wasn’t cool. He took on liberal adversaries of all stripes, perhaps most memorably in this famous exchange with Gore Vidal during ABC’s coverage of the 1968 Democratic Convention.
Gore Vidal: [18:55] People in the United States happen to believe that the United States policy is wrong in Vietnam, and the Viet Cong are correct in wanting to organize their country in their own way politically. This happens to be pretty much the opinion of Western Europe and many other parts of the world. If it is a novelty in Chicago, that is too bad, but I assume that to the point of the American democracy is you can express any point of view you want…
William F Buckley: [19:26] Some people were pro-Nazi…
Vidal: [19:26] Shut up a minute.
Buckley: [19:30] No, I won’t. Some people were pro-Nazi, and the answer is that they were well treated by people who ostracize them. And I’m for ostracizing people who egg on other people to shoot American Marines and American soldiers. I know you don’t care…
Vidal: [19:03] As far as I’m concerned, the only crypto Nazi that I can think of is yourself. Failing that, I’ll only say that if we can’t have… [19:48] [crosstalk]
Buckley: [19:48] Now listen you…stop calling me a crypto Nazi or I’ll sock you in your God damned face and you’ll stay plastered…
Buckley: [19:51] I didn’t know that existed.
Koppel: [19:52] Oh, it does, it does.
Koppel: [19:56] Uncharacteristically harsh both of you, weren’t you?
Buckley: [19:59] Yeah, Gore Vidal brings out the best in me.
[20:01] [background music]
Russ: [20:01] Frank Grisham retired 24 years ago at age 65. He grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, and attended Birmingham Southern College, where, after working the night shift for a couple of years in a steel mill while attending classes during the day, he found a job shelving books at Birmingham Southern’s library, which he says is where he first began to fall in love with libraries.
[20:27] His plan, however, was to become a minister, and after receiving Master’s Degrees from Vanderbilt Divinity School and Peabody Library School, he served churches in Alabama before returning to Nashville in 1958 as Director of the Vanderbilt Divinity School Library, eventually becoming Associate Director and then Director of what was then known as the Joint University Libraries.
[20:53] Concurrently, Frank also served as Vice Chairman of Nashville’s school board during the difficult transition to an integrated public school system.
[21:04] As we resume our conversation, I’ve got another question for him about Paul Simpson.
Russ: So, because of Chancellor Heard’s attitude about not diverting any funds, that pretty much left it up to Paul Simpson to raise any money?
Frank: [21:19] That’s right. Paul had this strange idea that I had my finger on JUL money that I would divert openly to this project. [laughs] I would like to have done that. It would have been great, but we were really starving for funding support.
So I said to Paul before we even started this. Paul and I had many discussions before we initiated this project. He was a businessman with a lot of expectations. He was trying to be a businessman in an academic setting.
He felt like this university was rich enough to just turn loose of…they just weren’t convinced, Frank and Paul had not convinced the chancellor that this was a worthy effort.
Paul was a man with a purpose. He was a stickler for detail. He and I had thousands of telephone conversations, and meetings, and all, and communicated. We were good friends now, I’m not saying…but he would get under my skin, bless his heart. He’s deceased, and I can talk about him. But he would get under my skin with wanting to do things that he felt that I had the money to do. There I was starving, trying to plead with the chancellor and the two presidents for just basic support for the library.
Russ: [23:22] Did Paul ever meet with the chancellor himself?
Frank: [23:25] No. He’s met him socially one time and commented, I remember that, but he didn’t meet with the chancellor. Maybe, the chancellor didn’t meet with him is the way it is.
Frank: [23:37] Let me say upfront here. I need to say this to the recording and for you two. Paul was a dear friend. We owe him a lot. I disagreed openly with him about his motivation. Why was he so interested in it? Paul was a conservative Republican. Sitting here today he would say, “Frank, you’re all wrong, I want to preserve the afternoon news programs because of their influence on the American mind.” I agree with that. That’s my motivation. Not that I felt, because I was a Democrat. He and I locked horns on this. I felt we needed to, as a library, preserve what is influencing the American mind. That’s what I tried to sell.
[24:59] But when I needed money, I would run to Paul. Paul knew how to raise money. He had his own money. That initial $4,000, wasn’t it, that he put up for us to buy tapes. Paul put a lot of his own personal money in here, but his contact with fellow conservative Republicans was where we got our initial support, and for which we should be thankful.
Russ: [25:40] So then once it was decided that there was going to be at least a thirteen week pilot project, what do you remember about what it took to get the Archive up and running?
Frank: [25:52] The first recording that I did was the Democratic Convention, not the Republican Convention. We started with the protest on the streets. All you could see was the turmoil surrounding the Democratic Convention.
[26:12] In that thirteen weeks and far beyond that, I did the recording myself. I did a lot of it. A lot of the quality that you found in that early period, you can blame on me. We were up in the, what I call, the art library then. I had people in circulation operating the machines. I had people fill in when I couldn’t do it. I had the space.
[26:56] The only thing we got out of Paul was the cost of the tapes at first. [laughs] It was the other stuff, a person like Ron Moulton. How are you going to support him? We needed Ron in the worst way because we were falling on our face with the day to day recording. I am trying to remember the name of the company that loaned us, from which we bought our tapes, that loaned us the equipment. Do either of you know that…
John Lynch: [27:48] Nicholson’s Hi Fi.
Frank: [27:49] That’s it, Nicholson Hi Fi. We owe those people. If the machine would malfunction, I’d call them. They’d send somebody up here to repair it or to tell me what I was doing wrong.
Russ: [28:02] Most of the time that was Ron?
Frank: [28:07] Yeah, well, I thought we got Ron through them, didn’t we?
John: [28:13] Yeah.
Frank: [28:13] Ron was attracted to this through our contacts with Nicholson.
Russ: [28:18] Ron must have been that repair guy that showed up when you needed him at first and then little by little…
Frank: [28:26] He fell in love with it. He had to like what he was doing to put up with the indefinite nature of his employment and year to year and that kind of thing.
[28:39] Anyway, I appreciate being asked. I don’t know who was responsible for bringing me into it, but I appreciate being asked to comment, because it’s meant a lot to me personally, this project. I’ve got a great appreciation for those of you who have struggled through the years to live with limited resources. There’s so much we’re doing in this world that is less important than retaining for…so that we don’t repeat ourselves.
Russ: [29:18] Well, thank you so much, Frank. This has been terrific.
Frank: [29:21] It’s been a pleasure. I don’t have much of an opportunity to reflect in my daily life, but I really live on memories that mean so much to me, and my career.
Russ: [29:42] Well, we’re glad you could share them with us.
John: [29:45] The other thing is we’d heard so much from Paul about the beginning, and I always wanted you to know, because I knew Paul… [laughs] …and because I knew Paul, I knew there was another story. [laughs] .
Frank: [30:11] You were right about that.
[30:13] [background music]
Russ: [30:13] And that concludes this episode on the early years of the Vanderbilt Television News Archive, as remembered by Frank Grisham, Jim Pilkington, and Paul Simpson. That Paul saw his idea as something that belonged at an academic institution like Vanderbilt, rather than as, say, a resource to be utilized only by some political think tank, has meant that the Archive’s collection has been available to anyone for any purpose now for nearly 50 years.
[30:33] We’re grateful to Paul for having had that vision for his idea, and grateful as well for the support we’ve received from both inside and outside the Vanderbilt community over the years from advocates, like Frank Grisham, Jeff Carr, Bob McGaw, and John Siegenthaler, Sr, to name just a few among the many we could list.
[30:53] You can subscribe to our monthly “News Knowledge” podcasts through iTunes and follow or interact with us on both our Twitter and Facebook pages.
[31:03] I’m Russ Mason, and on behalf of all of us at the Vanderbilt Television News Archive, we thank you for listening.