Meet the researchers saving radio news from oblivion

How many historical radio broadcasts have been lost to history?

Josh Shepperd, an assistant professor of media studies at Catholic University in Washington D.C., estimates that up to 90 percent of all radio broadcasts that aired between the mid-1920s and the mid-1980s were not saved.

Millions of hours of tape were trashed, not stored, not preserved, or lost as radio stations consolidated, changed hands, reorganized their spaces or shifted buildings.

Shepperd serves as the National Research Director for the Radio Preservation Task Force for the National Recording Preservation Board of the Library of Congress. Over the past two years, Shepperd and his colleagues have identified over 350,000 recordings that still exist from over 350 archives. They expect that number to grow substantially as more archives join the project.

Even if the number of existing radio broadcasts reaches well over a million, which Shepperd expects, time is of the essence to preserve existing radio recordings. Many broadcasts that exist in archives are not safe — they may be stored on a format that’s quickly deteriorating or require technology (like reel-to-reel machines) that are themselves quickly becoming obsolete.

Shepperd's goal is to figure out ways to save as much radio history as he can. He recently announced the that his task force was partnering with over a dozen academics and public media archives from across the United States with a common goal: to “map the history of public broadcasting in the U.S.”

Among the participants: NPR’s Research, Archives & Data Strategy team (RAD), the American Archive of Public Broadcasting (AAPB), the University of Maryland’s National Public Broadcasting Archives, and "Fresh Air’s" Archive. (Full disclosure: I used to work at both NPR and "Fresh Air.")

I reached out to Shepperd, along with scholar and historian Christine Ehrick of the University of Louisville, and Julie Rogers, a historian with NPR’s Research, Archives and Data Strategy team, to learn more about how investigating the history of public broadcasting could lead to greater access for these collections. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Kramer: You’re collaborating with scholars and public media professionals on a project that will map out the history of public broadcasting in the United States. Tell me a little bit about how this project got off the ground.

Shepperd: It’s important to understand some of the back history here. The Radio Preservation Task Force (RPTF) was created in 2014 and grew out of the Library of Congress National Recording Preservation Plan. The goal of the RPTF was to identify and save endangered collections, support people who work to preserve radio history and expand academic study on the cultural history of radio.

I was brought in as Research Director in 2014 (now full director), and my initial goal was to bring in talent — professors and academics who were interested in exploring radio history, using radio sound in their classrooms or research, and preserving radio broadcasts. Within two to three months of starting, we found 70 professors across the country who were interested. We’re now up to 180, and we’re projected to have 250 professors involved in the project by next November.

Radio turns out to be a great primary source material that picks up where paper trails lead off. That’s become an enthusiasm-creating factor especially for scholars in cultural studies, American history departments, and cultural historians. There’s a lot of unexamined history in these broadcasts.

But there’s also a sense of thinking about what hasn’t been preserved. Most radio material has already been destroyed. Some material exists, but it’s on mediums that deteriorate quickly and collections are under huge duress.

What I found early on is that there’s almost no incentive or public awareness of the situation at hand. The Public Media Research Project emerged as a way to help public media institutions articulate and have a forum to explain why the medium is important to preserve. We wanted them to work with scholars because scholars already work with these materials and can provide context for how the material can be used.

We’re hoping that these types of partnerships (we have several under construction) creates a virtuous feedback loop. More broadly, preservation provides new material for research and coursework, and access creates more demand for preservation. By making new cultural history available, more opportunities will emerge to interrogate current working assumptions.

It’s a timely moment to examine all possible resources toward paying respect to alterity histories previously rendered invisible.

One of the reasons certain experiences haven’t been discussed is due to previous oversight in mining of available artifacts. The more accessibility happens, the more (we hope) that public broadcasting chronicles of U.S. history will receive recognition from grant and private foundation funding, and be incorporated into research at universities.

Kramer: That’s really great — that public media professionals and scholars will be examining these collections together, and thinking about them together.

Rogers: It’s not just scholars approaching the material — we’re doing that too. This project will bring together people in different fields to build a greater understanding of the history of public media in America.

Kramer: How does understanding the larger context of public media history help with understanding the assets in the collection?

Rogers: It’s very important to understand the context of why these programs came about and when they came about and the environment in which they came out, because it helps explain how these programs were unique.

I’m thinking specifically of "All Things Considered," which started in 1971. Without understanding how commercial radio worked, you don’t have a good idea of how it was positioned and why the tone was so different.

Shepperd: We’re bringing together 16-20 scholars and (currently) eight archives who have written about public broadcasting in the United States to create a public history of public media. Allison Perlman, a distinguished historian at UC-Irvine who’s currently writing a history of public television, is our faculty director.

The history of public media studies currently doesn’t contain how public broadcasting overlaps with every other public system. For example, I’ve been working on the regulatory period between 1934 and 1952 and the ways in which institutions in the public sector worked with commercial system to created educational systems — I’m thinking of things like public schools, public parks, land grant settlements. I think that’s really crucial.

As Jack Mitchell wrote last week in our series at Current.org, in the early 20th century early broadcasters were quite influenced by the “Wisconsin Idea” — the idea that education extended beyond the walls of the university, and should be available to everyone in the state.

That concept really engendered an approach to media that has off and on been intertwined with and even influenced commercial media. We usually make a big distinction between public media and privately-held media, but in the buildup to NPR and PBS, there was a high level of exchange of research methods and talent between sectors.

Kramer: But noncommercial media has always been distinct in its primary dedication to strengthening democratic access, participation, and communication. What was it like in those days, and why is that important?

Ehrick: I just finished teaching a "History of Radio" course, which focused on radio broadcasting in the United States. Even though radio was commercial at its outset, there was a notion that the airwaves were a public good, and there were public service responsibilities that broadcasters had to fulfill.

At the end of semester, we talked about how that has evaporated and a lot of that ethos has gone away. And it does shed light on the linkages between public broadcasting and broadcasting itself, and the idea of public education, the public good which has eroded in favor of a private property based, individualistic model.

Knowing that it wasn’t always the case begs us to examine this history and remind the younger generation that it wasn’t always this way and it doesn’t always have to be this way. So it does intersect with larger political questions.

[caption id="attachment_442535" align="aligncenter" width="1600"]There are hundreds of thousands of stories in the NPR archives, containing millions of words. NPR aggregated the most-used words from NPR story titles over the past five decades. (Image courtesy NPR) There are hundreds of thousands of stories in the NPR archives, containing millions of words. NPR aggregated the most-used words from NPR story titles over the past five decades. (Image courtesy NPR)[/caption]

Kramer: Thinking about the archive in a different way must also present a different way of looking at the material within that archive.

Rogers: I think that’s true. The way that NPR has typically used the audio archive has been to go back and find good tape — to find someone’s voice, to see how we covered an event. This project reconceptualizes why the archive is important. We can think of the archive itself as an important cultural collection for American history, not just as fragments of tape.

We’re just starting to explore and experiment with thinking about the archive in that way. NPR RAD recently launched a refactored API-first database that makes it much easier to export information and metadata. My team looked at the most-used words from NPR story titles over the past five decades. In the ‘70s, the top words were things like ‘peace’, ‘women’, and ‘Watergate.’ In the ‘80s, it was ‘Reagan,’ ‘budget,’ and ‘baseball.’ Digital humanities scholars could use this type of data to interrogate and learn from the archives.

Kramer: I imagine the collection is also really useful for students.

Ehrick: Looking at my own experience with my radio class, it was really encouraging for students to use the archival material that’s out there. For example, I have a graduate student studying sonic representations of Asian-Americans in golden age radio, mostly portrayed by white actors deploying crude vocal stereotypes.

She was able to find a lot of great audio online: the obvious examples like The Shadow of Fu Manchu, but also radio programs like Superman where a stereotypically Asian character was featured in a single episode. It's very innovative work. Having the audio and being able to hear how it changed over time (or not) opens the door for all sorts of new scholarship.

I really enjoy getting my students to pay attention to human voices and what they sound like. Once they’re tuned into it, they’re very good at thinking about how people spoke and the way they sounded and the importance of that — which again calls our attention to the need to preserve the audio itself. The transcript doesn’t give us full experience. As Josh said, there’s a feedback loop between preservation and access, and when we have access, we want more material.

Kramer: There’s a lot of material out there, I imagine. Do we have any sense of how much has been digitized, how much was lost, and how much remains to be digitized?

Rogers: It all depends on your definition of “digitized.” Twenty years ago, NPR made a huge effort to transfer archival audio from an analog to a digital format, CD-R discs, which was the preservation standard at the time. We’re now working to transfer those CD-Rs to WAV preservation master files. So it’s an ongoing battle.

Shepperd How much has been lost is pretty hard to quantify. We believe that at least 75 percent of all radio history that was taped is now gone. And that number is probably over 90 percent. It’s a catastrophic loss of cultural history. Educational and public media may have slightly better archival numbers because if programming came out of federally-funded sources or a university, there may have been more of a mandate to have a records trail.

Rogers: Public media archives may be in a relatively better state, because educational and noncommercial stations thought of their material as a public good. From almost the very beginning, NPR felt the need to share their archives with the public.

In 1976, NPR became one of the first broadcasters to make its archives publicly available through partnerships with the Library of Congress and the National Archives. Today the public can access NPR’s News & Information audio archives, as well as a large collection of documents and photographs, at the University of Maryland Libraries Special Collections.

KramerI’ve worked at a number of public radio stations and few, if any, have the resources to fully archive their work the way NPR does, so they might not realize if they have tape that might be historical in nature, or useful to historians. What can they do?

Rogers: One thing that we recommend is to try to make it as easy as possible to integrate archival work with production workflows. Reporters are working in seconds, not weeks. Right now, we don’t have workflows that can be shared across the system — but imagine if they could…

Shepperd: It’s not just public media history we’re thinking about — it’s being able to experience historical events through sound through what’s contained within their collections. There will be a lot of opportunities as transcription software gets better to have both the sound and searchable documents available. The stations have recorded voices that you wouldn’t hear on a national scale.

How have you seen smaller stations manage their archives with limited resources?

Ehrick: We have an ongoing partnership with Louisville Public Media. They have had archival material that had been sitting around without the resources to digitize it. This past summer they moved to a new location and they gave all of their archival material to our university.

It was split between department of music, which received the classical collection, and the University Archives, which received everything else. That’s one path for stations — partnering with a university or archival partner and handing it off for digitization and preservation. They’re in the very early stages of that collaboration — both the music school archives and the main archives are trying to proceed quickly to digitize and make the collection available because the schools have the resources to do that.

Kramer: Do you know how the station plans to use that content once it’s digitized?

Ehrick: They are planning to use some of this older material and put it back on the air so it’s creating new streams of content for them. They’ll be able to rebroadcast the material whenever they’d like. The classical station WUOL plans to re-broadcast the first 90 minutes of the station's initial 1976 sign-on later this year, for example.

  • Profile picture for user Melody Kramer

    Melody Kramer

    Mel leads audience growth and development for the Wikimedia Foundation and frequently works with journalism organizations on projects related to audience development, engagement, and analytics.

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