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Digital Stewardship in a Radio Archive: An NDSR Project Update

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The following is a guest post by Mary Kidd, National Digital Stewardship Resident at New York Public Radio’s (NYPR) archive.  She participates in the NDSR-NYC cohort.

: Mary Kidd standing next to one of many equipment rack in the WNYC archive.  Photo Credit: Benjamin Houtman
Mary Kidd standing next to one of many equipment rack in the WNYC archive. Photo Credit: Benjamin Houtman

My outlook on preservation issues surrounding radio archives has been deeply influenced by my work as a National Digital Stewardship Resident (NDSR) at New York Public Radio’s (NYPR) archive. Here, I have been tasked with writing a Digital Preservation Roadmap (PDF). This report will include a few things:

  • A detailed overview of the current state of digital production throughout the various stations.
  • A network-wide analysis of NYPR’s digital holdings to quantify the number and size of their digital assets, and track the rate of growth for both.
  • Transcriptions of dozens of interviews across various departments to paint a holistic narrative of what systems NYPR staff are using, what file formats they are outputting, and how these files make their way to long-term storage.

One of the first details revealed to me throughout the staff interviews I have conducted so far is that NYPR’s definition of what makes radio includes both traditional “terrestrial” notions of radio (a tower beaming waves at transistors) as well as the “new” digital formats. By digital formats, I am referring to WAV and MP3 files, live and on-demand streaming audio and video, on-the-go podcasts, and social media posts. For example, some producers are using social media platforms like Twitter to extend “on air” conversations past strictly allotted time slots. By employing various digital formats, NYPR is providing its listenership more avenues to reach and engage a larger, more diverse audience. The archive, in turn, will have to develop new ways to address the fact that digital assets are often interconnected with other assets, rather than standalone audio objects.

One of many Andrea Bernstein “Hillary” cassette tapes dated January 10, 2000. Credit: Mary Kidd
One of many Andrea Bernstein “Hillary” cassette tapes dated January 10, 2000. Credit: Mary Kidd

Another idea I gleaned from my interviews is that reports or stories bolstered with material from the radio archive creates great news. This idea is embodied by a recently broadcast WNYC newscast, The Tale of the Tape: Hillary Clinton’s Gay Marriage Evolution by reporter Andrea Bernstein. Her report provides snippets found throughout her extensive collection of recordings documenting Hillary Clinton’s political career. Bernstein and NYPR’s Head Archivist Andy Lanset worked closely together to mine the archive’s PBCore-backed database, CAVAFY, as well as the actual physical archives for items, including the aforementioned cassette tape, to put together a comprehensive timeline of Clinton’s public remarks on marriage rights. This story, mentioned to me by different producers on three separate interviews, demonstrates how archives are not just safekeepers of the past, but informants of the present. Ultimately, my NDSR report will suggest ways that the archive can continue to inspire its producers and staff and work alongside the stations’ output, rather than behind it.

Newsflash: Radio Preservation Studies is Here

The evolving identity of radio is influencing the development of a new and emerging field sometimes referred to as “radio preservation studies”. As media scholar Carolyn Birdsall observes in her recent article in FLOW, Can We Invent a Field Called ‘Radio Preservation Studies’?”, when “…the history of sound recording in radio has been acknowledged, it is either not connected to the archive or only discussed in relation to specific program formats.”  An important step in developing radio preservation studies, especially in terms of the archive, is to distinguish radio archives from traditional sound archives. In some ways, this makes sense because on the surface, a radio archive does look a whole lot like a sound archive: a room full of discs, tapes and playback equipment.

One of many transfer stations at the WNYC radio archive.  Credit: Mary Kidd
One of many transfer stations at the WNYC radio archive. Credit: Mary Kidd

However, radio has its own distinct sound and modes of production. For instance, a DJ playing out a selection of jazz songs on air sounds completely different from an individual turning out the same tracks on their record player in their living room. As Birdsall explains further:

“Recordings held in broadcast archives today are closely linked to the production context and the needs of program makers, yet they are disconnected from the original domestic context in which broadcast sound was received.”

In this sense, radio archives require their own distinct set of archival best practices, especially those that contextualize broadcast recordings. As of today, these practices are yet to be developed and documented, but they will likely be distinguished from traditional sound preservation recommendations.

Radio Preservation Task Force

In light of the developing field of radio preservation studies, scholars, archivists and larger organizations have begun to come together to form a distinct community that focuses on securing the legacy of radio. The most significant of these efforts is the Radio Preservation Task Force (RPTF) initiative, which is part of the National Recording Preservation Board (NRPB) of the Library of Congress. Over the past few months the RPTF has accomplished several important tasks, including aggregating participating archives, developing metadata on extant materials, promoting scholarly and research efforts within the field and allocating resources for endangered collections. The first RPTF conference, to be held in February 2016, will bring together scholars, archivists, librarians and other stakeholders in radio and media archives large and small. Most importantly, this conference will communicate and raise the visibility for the emerging field of radio preservation studies.

Striking a balance between the archival priorities and the expectations of producers is quite possibly one of the greatest challenges for an archive embedded in a media station. In July 2014 for The Signal, Hannah Sommers, at the time a Library Program Manager at NPR, wrote an enlightening guest post on media taxonomy. She described how a production environment can specifically benefit by putting robust metadata taxonomies in place:

“We also understand taxonomy as a preservation tactic. Our industry is evolving more quickly than the systems used to report the news itself, and is shedding library departments even faster. Each digital story that “knows what it’s about” from the tags it carries is a story more likely to be remembered because its tags connected it to an interested audience in the first place. It is a story that is inoculated against digital invisibility. It has a better chance of being accounted for, rediscovered and reused. It is a story that has a better chance of being part of a group of stories. It is a story that has a much better chance of persisting.”

My hope for the upcoming RPTF conference is to gain perspective on how other radio archives prioritize their efforts while embedded in a live production environment. NYPR’s archive, which has traditionally worked to preserve their vast analog legacy of mostly reel-to-reel tapes and discs, is seeking a more central role in how the stations handle, store, repurpose and provide access to their digital assets. On the surface, the production environment is driven by the complete opposite of what drives the archive: producers focus on the present, and archivists focus on the past. Through collaboration, archives and producers can work together with a dynamic sort of harmony that feeds off of what makes each so different. This will work in large part by means of rich and discoverable metadata.

Radio preservation studies presents a new angle on sound archives, and demonstrates the potential of radio-delivered information to give us better insight into how cultures have evolved and communicated. As one of the first NDSR residents to work at a radio archive, I look forward to contributing to this important and growing field.

In the final report which will be the culmination of my NDSR residency, I hope to propose a robust practical solution for how NYPR can leverage their archives, whereby producers and archivists can work together as dynamic collaborators to create and deliver rich, in-depth and sophisticated content to current reporting, storytelling and other shows. This will likely include suggesting ways for the archive to automate descriptive metadata tagging, and employing technologies allowing for deeper discovery of transcripts, such as speech-to-text recognition software.

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