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Community Broadcaster: Clock Ticks on Radio Music Libraries

Digitization should not be undertaken lightly

Music libraries are at once the most beguiling and confounding creatures in community radio. They house, in some cases, decades of history. They are a wonderful vault of out-of-print and rare jazz, rock, blues, world and local music. Community radio music libraries are a music nerd’s dream come true.

Yet, as with the march of time, the clock is ticking on community radio’s remarkable music collections.

Automation has changed big commercial stations as well as community radio. From proprietary software to open source tools like Paravel Systems Rivendell, radio is turning to digital to address many issues. These resources do not rely on CD players for music, but rather digital files to drop in liners, station identification, music and other programming into one’s rotation. A number of community stations choose automation for a variety of reasons, making digital more attractive and accessible than it has ever been before.

In addition to automation’s digital demands, the reality is inexpensive, reliable CD players are getting harder to come by. Over the last 20 years, digital music has surged while CD purchases have waned. More and more Americans are streaming music while fewer are purchasing compact discs. There’s plenty of other data to demonstrate CDs are less popular, and even automakers are eliminating CD players from new cars. As consumer tastes go, so go manufacturers. While there’s still a big audience of CD buyers, more stations tell me finding affordable studio-grade CD players is getting harder. You almost have to wonder what the CD player market will be in 10 years, and if community radio will be priced out of it.

While players are aging, so too are compact discs themselves. Deterioration through wear and temperature are just a few of the threats to what are, for many community radio stations, the only copies of precious, one of a kind music and interviews. The Association of Recorded Sound Collections notes, “The immense volume of digital audio on the internet, the ephemeral nature of online resources, and the effort and expense required to preserve audio create a situation in which losses of our audio legacy could become catastrophic.”

Finally, there’s the generational shift. While longtime volunteer community radio hosts may like their stacks of CDs and records, stations say younger DJs are more often asking for an auxiliary cable to plug their iPads into the control room board. As years go by, it’s conceivable now more than in years past that we’ll see a generation that isn’t familiar with CD players, wants to use them or finds them essential studio gear.

At the recent Community Media Conference, the National Federation of Community Broadcasters convened a first-of-its-kind working group to address the matter of community radio stations seeking to convert their physical music libraries to digital formats. As you might guess, this effort is a big undertaking. For decades-old community radio stations, there may be 20,000 CDs or more in their respective buildings. NFCB launched this discussion to begin the work to create standards, best practices, metadata guidance and to help community radio leaders get their heads around what can be an involved and expensive initiative. While NFCB expects to give direct help to member stations on this subject, community radio as a whole will get tips on file formats, software and data structures.

Although community radio is contending with the topics I mentioned, perhaps the primary problem is knowing where to begin. When you’re faced with thousands of compact discs, zeroing in on one’s initial tasks can be daunting. As with any big project, I recommend parceling your work. Set monthly goals and a process that is easy to do and explainable to the volunteer base community radio depends on. Simplicity is the name of the game, if you can do it.

Moreover, library conversions require a commitment from everyone. People who want the sensation of CDs are perfectly good, but if you are converting a station to digital, it requires help from everyone. Such is a more complicated conversation on station culture. No one answer fits for all.

For a community radio station to convert its existing physical music library to digital requires a few legal and practical considerations. Most of all, though, stations are working against time. Our history and future depend on action.