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When Radio Believers Met on the Hill

Scholars, archivists strategize at first Radio Preservation Task Force Conference

Radio World continues our coverage of activities of the Radio Preservation Task Force. Last issue, Josh Shepperd and Christopher H. Sterling wrote broadly about its recent work to date. Here’s a report about its first conference from Jennifer Waits, a Radio World contributor who is co-chair of the task force’s College, Community and Educational Radio Caucus.

The crowd for the first-day keynote address overflowed its room at the Library of Congress.
Photo by Jennifer Waits Radio scholars, archivists and practitioners congregated in the Washington area for the first Radio Preservation Task Force conference. Stemming from the Library of Congress National Recording Preservation Plan, the Task Force was created in 2014.

The conference, “Saving America’s Radio Heritage: Radio Preservation, Access and Education,” had a day of sessions and keynotes at the Library of Congress, followed by a second full day at University of Maryland. Drawing around 300 attendees from 100 academic and cultural institutions, the event was a unique opportunity for radio history enthusiasts to convene and strategize about how to ensure that radio’s rich legacy is preserved.

Keynotes, panels, workshops and caucuses worked to not only reveal hidden radio histories, but also to bring together interested parties for future collaborations and preservation efforts.

Day One began with a keynote by Paddy Scannell from University of Michigan. He opined that everyone in the room had the love of radio in common and he argued that the passion we share for radio is related to what he calls radio’s “sincerity effect.” Listeners have the impression that people on the radio are speaking directly to them in a one-to-one conversation, in contrast to public speakers who are perceived as speaking to a crowd. He explained the importance of radio’s “live” qualities, adding that there’s an impermanence to radio that adds to its appeal.

Following the keynote, attendees chose among concurrent sessions in the morning and afternoon. Among the choices were presentations about a world-famous radio preacher, NPR history, African-American radio in Chicago, early LGBT programs and efforts to save college radio history, to name a few.

The day concluded with a keynote by Sam Brylawski, co-author of the Library of Congress National Recording Preservation Board study on audio preservation, who is now at University of California, Santa Barbara. His talk, “Unchain Broadcasting Before It’s Lost Forever: Collaboration for Preservation,” was a fitting recap of the day.

He spoke of the challenges of preserving recorded sound, explaining that some of the prior methods like copying to tape resulted in inferior copies that at times deteriorated “faster than the original.” Today, with digitization, there’s an opportunity to make copies that are easier to share; but he acknowledged that big digitization projects require the proper infrastructure.

Brylawski pointed out that radio is in dire need of preservation, stating that, “we saw it was slipping through the cracks” and “that there was no national plan.” He argued that often there are limited copies of radio productions and guessed that much material was dumped when radio stations were sold or consolidated, particularly after the 1996 Telecommunications Act. Citing collectors and dumpster-diving “retired engineers” as heroic figures, he argued that a lot of preservation “has been done by collectors.”

Brylawski seemed optimistic about the state of radio, saying that radio is “maybe bigger than ever in our history.” What he would like to see change, however, is access to radio archives.

He said that the Task Force is working to catalog radio collections, but said one challenge is that copyright can impede preservation and scholarship when legal agreements prohibit duplication. He stated that it was his fantasy that there could be a Creative Commons License or a “sound scholarship” program in order to help “free up” archives and make them available to more people.

College radio participants and enthusiasts chat during the closing reception at University of Maryland. From left, Tyler Maxin of WNYU(FM), Elizabeth Hansen of College Radio Archive, Jerome Glick of WITR(FM) and Sarah Settineri of WHCS Hunter College Radio.
Photo by Jennifer WaitsDEFINE THE TASK
Day Two of the conference, held at the University of Maryland’s Hornbake Library not far up the road from the capital, was focused on strategizing to preserve specific archives.

In an opening plenary, Brylawski characterized the day by asking, “What is the work that has to be done?” before leading into a panel discussion with representatives from four major archives: American Archive of Public Broadcasting, Pacifica Radio Archives, WNYC/WQXR/New York Public Radio and NPR.

While each archive is working to preserve radio, panelists acknowledged challenges. Since public radio archives are often housed at individual stations, the American Archive of Public Broadcasting is working to provide a “portal of discovery” in order to help “solve the separate silos syndrome,” said Alan Gevinson, project director at the Library of Congress.

The day continued with workshops and caucuses, with participants taking a closer look at specific topic areas, including digital archives, local archives, gender/feminist/LGBT radio, bilingual radio and more. Caucuses are charged with coming up with strategies for finding and preserving radio collections in some of these topic areas.

The final plenary, “The Job Still to Be Done,” included discussion about challenges and opportunities for the task force.

The Library of Congress’ Gene DeAnna said there are many hidden collections and that it’s tough to figure out how to centralize materials. DeAnna and others emphasized a need for archives and institutions to work together.

The National Museum of American History’s Robert Horton said that there is an “incredible premium now on collaboration,” emphasizing that “we have to share resources.” Touching on the difficulty in acquiring funds for preservation projects, he said demonstrating “impact” often is what drives funding decisions. Additionally, he said, many funders are interested in the number of potential users. The Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage is already focused on “users” and its main goal is to ensure that its materials are made available to many people, according to curator and senior archivist Jeff Place. In part, that’s why the Smithsonian regularly releases books and CDs related to its collections. 

Several people participating in the event remarked to Radio World observers that they wished commercial radio organizations had taken a higher profile here.

But as the conference concluded and busses traveled back to Washington from College Park, enthusiasm was palpable. Attendees talked about how special the event was and spoke optimistically about future conferences, although none have been booked.

Josh Shepperd, the national research director of the Radio Preservation Task Force, said the event had exceeded his expectations. “When C-Span starting taping the first keynote on day 1, while NPR and CBS were airing pieces, with a big overflow crowd at the Library of Congress, I really got the feeling like this project — and its spirit of collaboration and goals of combining traditional methods with digital innovation — is arriving at the right moment.”

The author is co-founder of Radio Survivor and a music DJ at Foothill College station KFJC(FM). She’s passionate about the history of college radio, with which she’s been involved since 1986.