A new game puts the public into public radio archives

The Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, which created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and later led to the creation of both PBS and NPR, also recognized the importance of archiving public broadcasting material in the United States. It stipulated that CPB should:

...Establish and maintain, or contribute to, a library and archives of noncommercial educational and cultural radio and television programs and related materials and develop public awareness of, and disseminate information about, public telecommunications services by various means, including the publication of a journal.”

Fifty years later — as public broadcasting both celebrates the Act and sees a political fight over its future on the horizon — a new game has launched that not only develops public awareness of public broadcasting archives, but actually deepens the public’s relationship with material in the archive.

The game, called Fix It, was launched by the American Archive of Public Broadcasting, a collaboration between the Library of Congress and the WGBH Educational Foundation. It asks the public for help in identifying and correcting errors in public media transcripts — which improves both the searchability and accessibility of archival material from the collection.

Related: Meet the researchers saving radio news from oblivion

The idea of people contributing to public media beyond pledging money is something that I’ve written a lot about. What I love about this particular game is that players also receive something in return for helping improve the transcripts: They’re given exclusive access to historic content and long-lost interviews, so they get access to material that no one else has.

And engaging listeners in this way is likely to lead to improvements beyond transcript corrections. Volunteers who worked remotely with the Smithsonian Transcription Center on a similar project saved the Smithsonian tens of thousands of dollars, and were more likely to visit the Smithsonian and say that they had a deeper relationship with the Institution.

Earlier this year, I spoke with Karen Cariani, the senior director of the WGBH Media Library and Archives, Alan Gevinson, the Library of Congress project director for the AAPB, and Casey Davis, the AAPB project manager, in a wide-ranging conversation that touched on the importance of preserving public media archives and how the public can get involved in these efforts. Highlights from our conversation are below.

I love, love, love the idea of the public helping out with correcting public media transcripts. How do you see the public’s role in this project?

Cariani: [Fix It helps] correct transcripts created by the PopUp Archive’s speech-to-text automated tool, and we’re hoping the public will help us fix them. Further than that, we want to unturn more stones in terms of collections that need to be preserved that we might not know about.

Gevinson: This really is an untapped resource for historians and other scholars. TV and radio coverage of last 60-70 years, both locally and nationally, talking about how events affected local areas. It’s an untapped resource for how various communities reacted or led various initiatives — we really are hoping to get scholars interested in this material [through the public’s help].

That brings me to a question that I’ve been thinking about since working on the Fresh Air archival project. Does preservation of these archives lead to greater public access, or does greater public access then lead to preservation?

Cariani: It’s a little bit of both. If somebody wants something that hasn’t been preserved, then that will spur the notion of access, but preserving something then allows access of it. We’ve seen both happen. We’ve seen bare minimum catalog records spark someone’s interest so they will spark a larger preservation project.

Gevinson: If we do hear from somebody that they would like access, then we will make that access a priority. As far as the Library of Congress is concerned, we have the policy here with recorded sound, that any time anybody wants to listen to something that is not digitized, we do take the time to preserve it. The more we preserve, the more we make discoverable — and then that drives further interest.

Do local stations or podcasts have quick access to this material that’s been digitized and archived? I’m thinking about things like putting together obituaries under deadline, where reporters and producers need to gather tape in a short period of time — you have so many voices in the collection that would be lovely to hear again.

Cariani: They would have to come to us and we would direct them to the copyright owners and then they’d have to request permission from them. It is all going to depend on what it is. There’s going to be music issues. We don’t own the copyright for this material. News organizations can make judgement of fair use, but we can’t grant you those rights.

Gevinson: If you were requesting a copy from the Library of Congress, from our digital archives, we would need permission from the copyright holder to make that access available. What we have available in the streaming library is for research, educational and informational purposes.

Changing gears a bit, I want to talk about the creation of the AAPB, and what you’ve learned that could help others. In 2008, the CPB commissioned a report “to investigate the strategic and tactical aspects” involved in developing the American Archive. The study concluded “that the American people had invested over $10 billion in content that was no longer available to them.” Shortly after, a prototype for the American Archive was initiative with Oregon Public Broadcasting. What did you learn through that early project?

Cariani:CPB funded a pilot in 2009, managed by OPB, mostly to see what kinds of material was out there in the system, what would it take to digitize it, how might it work, and any potential pitfalls in the digitization process. In order to focus the work, they focused on obtaining archival content related to Civil Rights movements and oral histories created as part of Ken Burns’ World War II series.

They then asked stations who wanted to participate to look for material and they would pay for digitization. The stations managed the preservation digitization themselves — either internally or through a vendor. The stations kept the preservation files and sent OPB the proxies.

About 24 stations participated — OPB managed the project, and they got a lot of information out of it. They learned that each station wasn’t able to do the digitization themselves, and they learned that it was easier to have one vendor digitize everything in order to keep to standard formats.

Davis: Through that Pilot Project project, we learned that there needs to be consistency in technical file specifications, metadata specifications, and other vendor deliverables. Yes, it would be nice if all of our current projects were handled by one vendor, but that is not [always] possible [so there needs to be standardization of metadata.]

WGBH and the Library have committed to growing the collection by up to 25,000 hours of digitized content per year, and we try to be as flexible as possible when working with stations and organizations who want to contribute materials to the AAPB. We have worked directly with stations that have already digitized their content, and we have worked closely with organizations who are submitting grant proposals to develop the technical specifications and work plans for their digitization projects.

[We also learned that] there also needs to be a plan for how this material will be made accessible once it is digitized. During the Pilot Project, the materials that were digitized were never made available online in one central location. Now, the AAPB serves as this central location for research on historic public broadcasting.

In addition to digitizing, preserving and making materials from stations around the country available on our digital library website, we are also making strides in becoming a centralized portal of discovery, where researchers can find metadata records for digitized content available on other station digital library sites. We have recently piloted this work with WNYC and Louisiana Public Broadcasting, and we are continuing to acquire metadata records from organizations who make their collections available online, so that researchers who come to the national AAPB website can discover those materials available online elsewhere. This is similar to how the DPLA operates.

What kinds of collections are you acquiring and maintaining?

Davis: We're currently working on a project with WETA to digitize the PBS NewsHour broadcast programs from 1975-2007, as well as collaborating with American Masters to digitize their raw interviews, in addition to acquiring smaller collections from Ken Burns, Southern California Public Radio, etc.

Other collections recently acquired by AAPB other than those mentioned above include award-winning radio programs from James Voegeli, compositions from Donald F. Voegeli (composer of "All Things Considered" theme), Native American films from Vision Maker Media, and we'll soon be working with Washington University to acquire raw interviews from Eyes on the Prize.

What archives around the world inspire the work that you’re doing?

Davis: I’m inspired by the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision. They’ve done a lot of work around creative reuse of their archive, as they (and many other European broadcast archives) have already digitized much of their collection (with funding from the European Union). What we’ve been focused on currently is digitization and making materials available online.The United States is behind Europe in large-scale audiovisual digitization, largely due to differences in funding models.

They’re at the point where they’re thinking “How can we make use of this content?” There are a few others we follow closely as well: the National Audiovisual Institute in Poland and the Institut national de l'audiovisuel in France are each making use of their collection with different audiences.

Gevinson: I’m really inspired by Chronicling America from the Library of Congress. States have received money from the National Endowment for the Humanities to distribute to entities within the state to digitize newspapers going back to the 1830s through 1922.

It’s a wonderful, wonderful site from newspapers from all over the US and this kind of inspired us in terms of what we want to do collecting public TV/radio from all over the country.

Cariani:I love the New York Public Library’s menu collection — they engaged the public to help them transcribe the menus. I’m also very taken with the community oral histories that they’ve collected.

We’ve talked a lot about archiving radio broadcasts. What about digital material that stations are now producing?

Cariani:That’s always a challenge. Stations produce off-air digital material for the website. We’re capturing some, and constantly trying to figure out most the efficient way to capture it. You need to have the producers onboard to the archival process too, and help them. There’s no way the archives can do it alone. We need to have the producers aware that what they’re producing is worth keeping. And there’s a big question about how you might archive a website that contains links, games, videos — do you keep the code? Do you keep the images? There are ongoing discussions about this.

Davis: Another project, the AAPB National Digital Stewardship Residency, funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, has placed recent library school graduates at stations for 10 months. The residents work on specific projects related to digital stewardship, developed by the host station. They have put into place digital preservation practices, offer guidelines for the stations to continue to preserve material and make it accessible, and have given webinars for the public media community. We’re trying to build those skills and knowledge within the community and within the stations, because we can’t preserve everything.

Last question: How are you celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Public Broadcasting Act?

Gevinson: The act that created CPB and PBS and NPR had language in it that mandated the creation of our archive. We really are a part of that. 50 years ago, they thought that what we’re doing now was important enough to put in the documentation and we hope to preserve this material for the next 50 years.

  • 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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