On June 7, 1936, the Smithsonian launched its first radio program, “The World is Yours.” This series of weekly 30 minute programs aired on the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) network and was a joint project of the Smithsonian and the United States Department of the Interior Office of Education. “The World Is Yours” was presented by the Educational Radio Project and funded by the Works Progress Administration, using out-of-work actors and musicians to present the programs. The scripts were written in consultation with Smithsonian staff. Over almost six years, the programs would cover virtually every aspect of the Smithsonian’s collections and research.
The inaugural episode of “The World is Yours” dramatized the founding of the Smithsonian and the histories of several iconic objects in the Arts and Industries Building. The episode ended with an appearance by Secretary Charles G. Abbot describing the scope of the Smithsonian and welcoming the audience “to listen in again next week.” Subsequent episodes typically focused on a single defined topic, featuring 3-5 dramatic vignettes illustrating various aspects of the concept. Episode 24, titled “Color and Life,” aired on November 22, 1936, and was the first to feature the Oldtimer announcer who became the audience’s guide to “the wonders of that unique establishment – the Smithsonian Institution – dedicated to the increase and diffusion of knowledge” for the remainder of the series.
The programs encouraged additional self-education through follow-up reading and discussion. During most of the series, supplementary materials were produced to provide additional information on the topics covered. The format of the materials changed over time, ranging from two-page fact sheets to full booklet narratives, but typically included a recommended reading list. These supplementary materials were much in demand. T. L. D. Kinton from Toronto wrote to the program in the fall of 1936, “Permit me to congratulate you on the excellent broadcast… It is a splendid programme. As a teacher and as one interested in your work, I shall be most grateful if you will send me the outline mentioned…” J. Bellman in Brooklyn, wrote “We received your supplementary material this week, and naturally our enjoyment of your Sunday broadcast was doubled” and went on to note that his coworkers did not have time to run over to the Museum of Natural History in New York during the workday, so the series had opened doors to a new world.
The series received an incredible amount of mail, over half a million letters in the first four years. Those letters not only requested supplementary materials, but an unprecedented percentage expressed support for the programs. Miss Janet F. Dawson of Akron, Ohio, wrote “Your Radio Program is indeed educational and most inspiring – long may it continue” while Elizabeth M. Palmer of Bradenton, Florida, wished “more broadcasts could follow your line.” These letters were also informative to the staff who used the number of letters after each program to determine what the audience wanted to hear about. The number of letters was also used to estimate a weekly listening audience of several million.
“The World is Yours” was one of the most successful educational radio programs of the time. This was often attributed to its dramatization of topics, making it more accessible and interesting to its audience. In addition, it was never intended as a program to be used in the classroom, but focused on a general audience. As Webster P. True, Chief of the Smithsonian Institution Editorial Division, noted in an address to the Southern Conference on Audio-visual Education, “…this is not a classroom or direct instruction program – we think of it rather as collateral listening.”
The series was not without its problems, though. A weekly program required a significant amount of staff time for consulting, reviewing, and approving scripts. True had full responsibility for managing the entire process, but assistance was regularly needed from subject specialists on the Smithsonian staff. Also, some staff had misgivings about the commitment of the Educational Radio Project scriptwriters to producing a high-quality factual program. In February 1939, Frank A. Taylor, a curator in the Division of Engineering, complained that the Educational Radio Project was “an ambitious organization jealous of government radio projects in general and more inclined to further its own advancement than to give us the courteous, skillful and solicitous service to which our responsibility for the accuracy of the broadcasts entitles us.” Taylor requested to be relieved from participating in the project. Secretary Abbot responded by assuring Taylor that experts in the field of educational radio “unanimously agree that ‘The World is Yours’ is among the best and most successful of all educational programs” and urged that staff “lend their most hearty cooperation to Mr. True in his efforts to improve and make the program more successful in the future.” Abbot also stated that he regarded the program “as one of the important agencies of the Institution in the ‘diffusion’ of knowledge’” and a “successful means of carrying out the wishes of our founder, James Smithson.”
The final episode of "The World is Yours" was presented on May 10, 1942. The Oldtimer introduced the episode by explaining that it was "strangely fitting" that the topic of the last episode was Russia and the Soviet Union. "If we can shed a little light in all the darkness - bring a little fact into the mess of opinion, controversy, blind hate and incredible misinformation that has been built up like a stone wall around this New Russia - then, I say, we truly will have hit another milestone in… man's never-ending quest for knowledge."
As the episode wrapped, the Oldtimer began the final words of the series:
"Oldtimer: And now - a very short word of farewell. This broadcast marks the end of a long series - for 'The World is Yours' has come to you week after week for over five years. To the many friends we have made in this time, we say au revoir. When you come to Washington - we'll be waiting to greet you at the Smithsonian Institution. If you can't do that - why drop us a line. We'll be mighty glad to hear from you. So - once again - we say - we hope we have given you many enjoyable hours in this, a short stopover in man's never-ending quest for knowledge.
"Bob: So-long, Oldtimer - and good luck!"
- "The World is Yours" Records, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- SI Had Early Role in Saving Broadcast Channels for Public, The Torch, Smithsonian Institution, January 1976
- Broadcasting Live from the Sun..., The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives