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Uplifting Voices

Since 2009, John Erling has recorded and preserved oral histories with his project, Voices of Oklahoma.

John Erling started the Voices of Oklahoma project after interviewing notable Oklahoma philanthropists Walt Helmerich and Henry Zarrow. Photos courtesy John Erling

If you grew up in Tulsa and are old enough to have listened to the radio on your commute, you probably remember John Erling, a local radio personality on KRMG. Among his many contributions to the city’s culture and community over the years, perhaps his most enduring legacy is Voices of Oklahoma, an oral history of the state curated in partnership with the Oklahoma Historical Society. 

Voices of Oklahoma got its start in 2009, when Erling decided to record some of the fascinating stories he heard during his frequent lunches with Oklahoma philanthropist Walt Helmerich. After that, Erling conducted an interview with another prolific Oklahoman, Henry Zarrow. With some later donations from the Zarrow and Helmerich foundations, Erling was able to create the Voices of Oklahoma website. 

In a recent podcast on the 14th anniversary of the project’s founding, Erling discussed the origins of the archive. 

“Let me just say: I am not a historian. I never majored in history. History was not interesting to me way back in my younger days,” he says. “And so, I was not trained for what I am doing in any fashion. But I always enjoyed interviewing people. This website is unique in that it’s dedicated to oral history. There are many institutions that do oral history – Oklahoma State University, OU and others will record, but it’s probably mainly for research and it’s not as readily available to the general public.”

That’s what makes Voices of Oklahoma such a treasure. It’s robust enough that any historian could scan the archives of over 200 stories to conduct research, but it’s arranged in a simple, accessible way so that anyone who is interested in the state’s rich history can find what they’re looking for quickly and easily. 

John Erling started the Voices of Oklahoma project after interviewing notable Oklahoma philanthropists Walt Helmerich and Henry Zarrow. Photos courtesy John Erling

Voices of Oklahoma is also available as a podcast on the typical platforms like Spotify and Apple Music. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a notable Oklahoman who wasn’t represented in some fashion on the site – ranging from former U.S. Poet Laureate and artist Joy Harjo to entrepreneur and philanthropist Bill Lobeck and business magnate T. Boone Pickens. The most recent interview as of this writing was with American minister Carlton Pearson. 

On the podcast from April of 2023, John Erling discussed other innovations and collaborations that have helped Voices of Oklahoma reach a wider audience.

“We’ve developed a learning center on the website where you dive deeper into Oklahoma history,” he says. “And we have certain topics – Holocaust survivors, philanthropy, lessons from entrepreneurs and business leaders, artists of Oklahoma, sit-ins during the Civil Rights Movement – and we write deeper about that than maybe came out in the interview, and then the stories that we’ve interviewed, those storytellers are laced into that in the learning center. A far more sophisticated presentation than I ever thought was going to be possible when I started this in 2009…. [and] we’ve entered into a partnership with the Oklahoma History Society. They’ve been very helpful by suggesting interviews … and promoting our interviews to their enormous following.” 

You can find Voices of Oklahoma on its website: voicesofoklahoma.com, or via its podcasts on multiple streaming platforms. You can learn more about the Oklahoma Historical Society and donate to their mission at okhistory.org.