Endangered collections, Cold War radio, metadata, indigenous/First Nations radio, public broadcasting and feminist broadcasts were a few of the topics broached at the second Radio Preservation Task Force conference in early November.
Radio Preservation Task Force programs.
Photos by Jennifer Waits
Under the theme “From Archive to Classroom,” the 2017 event brought together some 300 participants for in-depth discussions about preserving and utilizing audio archives.
With the 50th anniversary of the Public Broadcasting Act as a backdrop, the multi-day affair at the Library of Congress in Washington was augmented by off-site events at University of Maryland, NPR headquarters and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Among the attendees were scholars, collectors, archivists, radio practitioners and fans, all united by a shared passion for radio.
A project of the National Recording Preservation Board of the Library of Congress, the Radio Preservation Task Force was created in 2014 as part of an effort to identify, preserve and make greater use of radio archives. Since its creation, members of the task force have been working together to build tools to help researchers find radio archives and have also been collaborating on projects related to specific areas of interest and expertise, ranging from labor radio to civil rights radio to commercial radio to community radio.
As the conference theme suggests, the event also emphasized pragmatic uses for radio archives, with workshops focusing on ways to increase collaboration for education, including tips for doing public outreach and lesson plans related to radio collections.
The Radio Preservation Task Force’s Communication Director Christine Ehrick said, “There were a lot of folks from different disciplines, exchanging experiences, strategies, etc. The session was organized around the need to complete the circle [archive-research-classroom] and ways to encourage use of archival radio, especially in non-media studies [and non-university] classrooms.”
Radio Preservation Task Force Development Director Shawn VanCour observes Cold War session at Wilson Center.
A celebratory tone permeated the “NPR: Founders and Futures” discussion at NPR headquarters, as NPR’s first director of programming, Bill Siemering waxed nostalgic about the early days of the network.
NPR’s General Manager of Podcasts Neil Carruth interviewed Siemering about his radio past and shared audio clips of vintage NPR. Siemering explained the lofty goals of the National Public Radio Network, explaining that there was a desire to develop a mainstream radio service that was differentiated from commercial radio and educational radio. As an entirely new type of radio, Siemering relayed that the team developing NPR hoped that it would be an accessible, yet “aspirational” network, with a conversational, “more inviting” presentation style. In his reflection on the 50th anniversary of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, Siemering pointed out that they had to fight to get radio included in the legislation, as an earlier version of it focused on just public television.
Michele Hilmes speaks at Library of Congress as Susan Douglas looks on.
Siemering shared more tales during the American Archive of Public Broadcasting’s series of panel discussions, “Preserving Public Broadcasting at 50 Years,” on the second afternoon of the conference. It was standing room only for the public broadcasting celebrity-jammed early sessions featuring Cokie Roberts, Jim Lehrer, Dick Cavett, Judy Woodruff and more. Former FCC Commissioners Newton Minnow (1961–63, via video), Nicholas Johnson (1966–1973) and Ervin Duggan (1990–1993) shared historical tidbits, though with an emphasis on television.
On the “News and Public Affairs Talk Shows” panel, Radio Bilingue co-founder Hugo Morales talked about his work to bring more voices and languages to public radio. He found the English-language media landscape in the 1970s to be “limited,” so he worked to launch Radio Bilingue in 1980 as a Spanish language alternative. Today, it bills itself as “National Latino Public Radio Network,” reaching listeners across the United States.
The Madison Building at the Library of Congress.
PRESERVING ALL KINDS OF RADIO
While public broadcasting played a big role in the 2017 conference, presentations and workshops covered a broad range of topics and called for the preservation of all kinds of radio history.
During the “Gender and Sexuality” panel, Sarah Cunningham spoke about the hidden history of female radio station owners and delved into Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson’s purchase (and long-time ownership) of Austin, Texas, radio station KTBC(AM) in 1943. Flashing forward to the 21st century, John Nathan Anderson reported on contemporary pirate radio broadcasts as examples of “endangered collections” and shared that he is working on a project to facilitate the archiving of these fleeting transmissions.
Spanish, multilingual and Caribbean radio scholars also pointed out the importance of broadcasts from Latin America and beyond, to both listeners and historians.
Ehrick, a scholar of Latin American broadcasting, shared that, “Christine Hernandez from Tulane University spoke about a large collection of Cuban American radionovelas, and efforts to try and get some of these materials back on the air. And we heard about another Haitian [American] collection, the sound archives of ‘L’Heure Haitienne’ [“Haitian Hour”], a New York-based Haitian American program on the air from 1969–2002, the archives of which currently reside in a storage shed on Long Island. These archives are very much in need of a preservation and archival home, and the hope was that RPTF might be able to help.”
Neil Carruth and Bill Siemering on stage at NPR.
DIGGING INTO THE COLD WAR
The conference provided an opportunity to highlight a new project of the task force: The Cold War Communication Project. A series of three forums worked to bring together Cold War radio scholars, journalists and archivists for focused conversations about the role of radio during the Cold War. International in scale, the project already has the support of around two dozen researchers along with numerous partner archives and institutions.
Panelists touched on the work of Voice of America, Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe, elaborating on both the mission of each broadcaster and on reception by governments and local audiences overseas during the Cold War.
Ross Johnson outlined the original intent of Voice of America as an official United States government station, compared with Radio Free Europe, which he described as a decentralized station organized by overseas broadcasters (yet still under the auspices of a U.S. agency). He added that western Cold War broadcasts overseas worked to “keep alive a hope of a better future” and strived to “encourage peaceful change.”
In describing Radio Free Europe and Radio Free Liberty’s role in U.S. “influence operations” during the Cold War overseas, he said that it was essential that the radio stations provide credible content from local editorial staffs. These stations were and are long-term projects that helped to reinforce democratic ideals within the culture. Johnson added, “You cannot create democratic movements from outside.”
PRESENT AND NOT-SO-DISTANT PAST
Preservationists are scrambling to digitize older recordings, as it is a race against time to save audio before tapes and reels deteriorate. But even recent audio is endangered, particularly with “born digital” recordings and podcasts that may never have been preserved on tape or backed up on a hard drive.
Andrew Bottomley has been studying the early days of online audio, including audio blogs, and has found it challenging to locate archived recordings. He acknowledged that some of these posts were akin to home recordings and have been largely lost in the digital detritus of numerous failed private start-ups. While some material may still be in the archives of company founders, much audio material from the 1990s is likely gone forever.
Jim Lehrer (behind podium), Cokie Roberts, Dick Cavett, Sharon Percy Rockefeller, Hugo Morales and Judy Woodruff on a panel at the Library of Congress.
In a plenary session on the final day of the conference, radio scholars Susan Douglas and Michele Hilmes shed light on both the importance of radio studies, but also of interdisciplinary conferences.
Douglas pointed out that there aren’t enough conferences that bring together scholars, archivists and practitioners. She also spoke against “presentism” in academia, arguing that “media history is being minimized” today.
Hilmes articulated her desire for new terminology to describe the work of audio scholars, saying that she’s pushing for the term “sound work,” adding that radio scholars should strive to broaden the relevance of their field.
Both agreed that it’s an exciting time for both radio and radio scholarship.
Reflecting on the conference, Radio Preservation Task Force National Director Josh Shepperd said that he’s most proud of the “increased collaboration between the scholarly, archival, federal, tech and museum sectors for the common goal of preserving cultural history.”
Shepperd added that he’s particularly thrilled to see “increased emphasis on searching for and preserving archives that house alterity [diverse] experiences. It’s well overdue. Sound is a great place to start for this.”
Jennifer Waits is co-founder of Radio Survivor and co-chairs the College, Community & Educational Radio Caucus on the Library of Congress’ Radio Preservation Task Force. A long-time college radio DJ herself, she hosts a weekly show at KFJC(FM) in Los Altos Hills, Calif.