(The following is a guest post by Gene DeAnna, head of the recorded sound section in the Library’s Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division.)
I’m often asked what sound recordings are most at risk of being lost before we are able to preserve them. The fact is, the two-headed monster of physical degradation and technological obsolescence can make virtually any recording a challenge to preserve. But there are two analog formats, lacquer discs (also called “acetates” or “instantaneous discs”) and magnetic tape (in a multitude of sizes and formats) that standout as particularly vulnerable and challenging to archivists. This is especially true given their long and widespread use for both commercial and non-commercial audio recording. What is more, with very few exceptions our entire recorded radio legacy, spanning from the early 1930s into the 1990s, was recorded on one of these fragile mediums. Consider also that from 1940-1945 the World War II aluminum embargo resulted in the adoption by radio stations of glass-based lacquer discs, perhaps the most fragile audio medium of all.
This week, the Radio Preservation Task Force of the Library of Congress National Recording Preservation Board convenes a two day conference, “Saving America’s Radio Heritage: Radio Preservation, Access and Education.” The conference will feature scholars, media professionals and audiovisual archivists discussing the cultural and historical significance of radio, the challenges to preserving and providing increased public access and awareness, and the strategies we’ll need to meet all these challenges.
The United States Congress mandated the preservation of broadcast recordings 40 years ago in the 1976 revision of the copyright law, which included the instruction to the Library of Congress to create the American Television and Radio Archives (ATRA) to “preserve a permanent record of the television and radio programs, which are the heritage of the people of the United States.” Since then, under the aegis of ATRA, the Library has acquired, cataloged and preserved tens of thousands of radio broadcasts. Major collections at the Library include the NBC Radio Collection, WOR (Mutual) Collection, Office of War Information (OWI), Voice of America (VOA), the vast Armed Forces Radio and Television Collection (AFRTS) and the National Public Radio Collection.
At the Packard Campus for Audiovisual Conservation, the digital preservation of radio recordings is an ongoing priority of the Recorded Sound Section. To maximize productivity we employ two modes of digital preservation that are determined by the format, playback characteristics and the audio content of the recording. A high throughput parallel transfer mode is used for tapes with predictable and low fidelity content (e.g, spoken word), like professionally recorded cassettes and radio broadcasts on reels.
Just to gauge what a typical day’s radio preservation work might cover, I took a walk through the Audio Preservation Unit, stopping in each sound studio to see what radio recordings were being digitized. Even my high expectations were exceeded:
In the A2 high-throughput studio where up to eight cassettes can be transferred in parallel, the syndicated interview and call-in radio show “Sports Byline” was in process. I saw programs from 2003 featuring basketball legend Kareem Abdul Jabbar and the late Baseball Hall of Famer, Kirby Puckett being preserved.
Next door in a parallel transfer studio for reel-to-reel tape digitization, several reels of the Studs Terkel radio show were running, including a 1970 program on the life of the great French cabaret singer Edith Piaf. Under a cooperative agreement with the Chicago History Museum, the Library of Congress is preserving the entire Studs Terkel Collection, covering over 20 years of his WFMT Chicago radio show. WFMT has launched a website, the Studs Terkel Radio Archive, where the public can listen to many of the programs preserved at the Packard Campus.
In an A1 “expert transfer” studio for recordings from the American Folklife Center, I was surprised and excited to find a lacquer disc from the Alan Lomax Collection of a BBC radio program of Argentine folk music from the late 1930s on the turntable. What a great representation of the breadth and richness of recorded radio!
In the next studio, a master tape of the classical music program “Adventures in Sound” was rolling and the dazzling sound of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” poured from the room as I opened the soundproof doors. “Adventures in Sound” featured high quality recordings on FM stereo broadcasts for classical music connoisseurs in the 1970s. It is easy to forget how good radio could sound even 40 years ago.
Finally, in a parallel transfer studio with seven tape decks running concurrently, 10-inch reel tapes from the vast NBC Radio Collection were being digitized. Here I found a 1960 Oscar Hammerstein Memorial program running next to a 1946 broadcast of a speech by President Harry Truman. Three reels of miscellaneous news and information programs from the late 1940s were followed by reels holding “Portia Faces Life” and “Backstage Wife” episodes, both classic radio “soaps” from 1941. So here were exemplars of music history, political history and popular culture being preserved for posterity in a single pass of parallel digitization.
These tapes and tens of thousands others were recorded from original NBC lacquer discs by Library of Congress engineers, in what could be the longest ongoing audio preservation project ever. The original NBC Collection arrived at the Library in 1978 in the form of 170,000 16-inch lacquer discs dating from 1933-1960s, including 40,000 wartime glass-based records. In all, about 42,000 hours of airtime is captured in these thin layers of cellulose lacquer, and for decades our engineers transferred them, one 15-minute disc side at-a-time, to tape.
In conjunction with a decades-long cataloging effort, the project brought this remarkable broadcast collection to the public’s ear for the first time since the programs were broadcast into the ether, and it made our current digitization effort possible as well. In what is our 38th year of preserving NBC radio, the tapes are themselves being reformatted to archival standard, high-resolution broadcast wave files, which are archived in the Packard Campus digital repository. The original lacquer discs, considered the master source recordings, are shelved under ideal storage conditions in the Packard Campus’ underground vaults.
Radio broadcasts – and the NBC Collection in particular – continue to be our most publicly requested audio materials. Files from the digital archive are played “on demand” by listeners in the Recorded Sound Research Center in the Library’s Madison Building in Washington, D.C.
Forty years ago Congress declared broadcasts to be an important part of our national legacy and mandated they be preserved for future generations. The Library of Congress continues to play a significant role in that effort, and this week’s conference provides an important opportunity to expand awareness of our recorded radio legacy and develop preservation and access strategies for the 21st century.