Rediscovered Radio: The Accidental Archives at WYSO-FM

Throughout 2016, WYSO is mining its archives to find hidden gems from the 1960s and 1970s. We’ll listen in on protests against the Vietnam War, the shift from civil rights to Black nationalism, and women’s liberation. With support from Ohio Humanities, the project is exploring this tumultuous time in American history through our Rediscovered Radio series…and this blog.

As we delve into the historical audio, we’ll unearth deeper meanings and new perspectives on this era. We’ll present additional media and commentary on the events, the people, and the changing times. Look for posts from the Rediscovered Radio team and others with insights and analysis to complement the on-air stories.

For our first blog post, Archive Fellow Jocelyn Robinson brings us a short history of the archives and the impact it’s had on WYSO, radio preservation initiatives, and the digital humanities landscape.

Less than ten years ago, back in 2008, WYSO-FM, did not have an archives. As a public radio station in Yellow Springs, OH that was one of the smallest National Public Radio (NPR) affiliates, I believe I can safely say that nobody was thinking about or planning an archives at the time. An archives simply wasn’t on anyone’s radar. The station was busy celebrating its 50th anniversary—and doing what small radio stations do, trying to stay on the air, repairing its tower from lightning strikes, growing its membership base through on-air fund drives, producing a few local news and music programs to fill the gaps between NPR shows such as Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and hiring a general manager with a national reputation. Until, that is, a somewhat accidental discovery and a series of serendipitous events initiated the establishment and development of the WYSO Archives.

In 1991, when the WYSO studio relocated from the second floor of the Antioch College Student Union, where it had been since the early 1960s to another building across campus, WYSO’s tape library, representing programming dating back to the station’s founding in 1958, was tossed into boxes and plastic garbage bags, shuffled off to a musty, moldy storage room, and promptly forgotten about. Over two decades later, the station’s new general manager stumbled on those boxes and bags of forgotten media. Neenah Ellis knew she’d found something precious; those tapes were an important chronicle, not just of the radio station itself, but of Antioch College, of the local community, and of the entire country.

Much of the material had been produced in the decades after WYSO had evolved from a weak signaled campus service to the greater Miami Valley’s primary source for National Public Radio, with nationally known shows such as Car Talk and Fresh Air, as well as bluegrass, jazz, and other locally produced programs. Over 3,000 reel-to-reel tapes, DAT recordings, floppy disks, and other media were moldering in that storeroom and in dire need of rescue, in the short term, as well as long-term organization, preservation, and access. WYSO, like many public broadcasters, had made the switch to digital formats a few years before, and the rediscovered material was in both analog and early digital formats that represented this monumental shift. Playback was still possible, but the clock was ticking, both in terms of the stability of the media and availability of the hardware and software needed to access some of it.

Right about the time the tapes were found in 2009, a project emerged in the public broadcasting world that would change the game for WYSO-FM and a handful of other public media outlets, and ultimately, for all of public media. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) announced the creation of the American Archive of Public Broadcasting (AAPB).

A Congressionally-approved study commissioned by CPB made clear the need for such a repository. According to the resulting report, in the years since public broadcasting first hit the airwaves, the American public—taxpayers like you and me—had “invested over $10 billion in content that was no longer available to them”[1] because of the shift in formats and due to the cost of developing and maintaining access to that content. A large broadcast service like WGBH in Boston or WBEZ in Chicago might have some resources to devote to such efforts, but certainly, small stations like WYSO-FM would never have that capacity. The report further encouraged CPB to develop a working prototype for the Archive, so in February of 2009, CPB partnered with Oregon Public Broadcasting, and the American Archive Pilot Project was launched.

The American Archive Pilot Project brought twenty-four public television and radio stations from across the country together to identify, restore, digitize, and make accessible roughly 2,500 hours of material related to civil rights and veterans of World War II. The stations had indicated that much of the material that had been produced in the early years of public broadcasting had been lost or was in some semblance of decay, so a sense of urgency informed the project’s mission. Information gathered through the Pilot Project helped CPB frame the Archive’s core activities, including “ inventorying, metadata gathering, restoration, analog-to-digital workflow, rights and permissions, and online access.” [2]

It was through this component of the AAPB project that WYSO-FM was able to launch its own archives project, the WYSO Archives. As one of the twenty-four stations to receive funding from CPB at the start of the project, WYSO-FM was able to bring in a professional archivist to begin the arduous task of rescuing the rediscovered radio in the moldy bags and boxes. Deanna Ulvestad, head archivist at the Greene County Public Library, was engaged to stabilize the collection and assist in identifying and nominating material to be digitized as part of the project.

The first order of business was to organize the material to see what exactly was in those bags and boxes. It so happened that the reel-to-reels had been literally pulled off the shelves at the old studio, still in their labeled tape boxes. The filing system on the labels worked years ago, and it would work now; Deanna set up tables on which to sort the tapes according to the types of programs and dates that were listed on the box labels; those labeled with M were music programs, and PA stood for public affairs. The reel-to-reels covered the time period from the late 1950s through the early 1980s, so the material was further sorted by decade. As it was, Deanna was able to select roughly 200 hours of reel-to-reel recordings to be digitized, most of it originally recorded in the 1960s and 1970s. Descriptions were researched and written, metadata created, an internal searchable database was prepared in CONTENTdm, and then the files were ingested to the AAPB system, PBCore. The DATs and other media were identified under different filing systems, and those materials were organized and set aside, as they fell outside the content stipulations for the grant. These media would provide the basis for another project, another day.[3]

Once the tapes were sorted and organized, what to do with them? They couldn’t go back into those bags and boxes, or the musty storeroom. Suitable accommodations for the collection had to be identified. As would happen more than once in the course of the project, the Greene County Public Library stepped in; Deanna was aware of surplus shelving, and arrangements were made for a donation. A room was set up that at the very least was secure and dry, and the tapes and other media were safely arranged in a dedicated archival space.

The material submitted to AAPB was rich. Antioch College and Yellow Springs were active locations in the civil rights era. In particular, one event galvanized the local community, the Gegner barbershop incident. Many, many local citizens and college students from Antioch College, Central State University, and Wilberforce University, were involved in protests that erupted in this 1964 demonstration that made the national evening news. Student reporters covered the events leading up to the demonstration that saw law enforcement use hoses and tear gas to break up the crowd. The streets of Yellow Springs looked more like the streets of Birmingham, Alabama, and WYSO was there.

In 2010, an additional opportunity arose in relation to the historical tapes. The American Archive Content Inventory Project (AACIP) gave WYSO-FM another infusion of grant funds to survey not just the analog holdings, but born digital files going back to the station’s conversion in the early 2000s. Based on the number of records submitted to the project, the station was able to digitize an additional seventy-seven hours of reel-to-reel recordings, bringing WYSO’s total to nearly 300 hours of digitized material. In all, the national project amassed more than 2.5 million records, and an additional 35,000 hours of analog content were digitized.[4]

As the AAPB project continued unfolding, a complementary project was initiated at WYSO-FM. The WYSO Archives would include an oral history component to further enrich the content of the collection. Brooke Bryan, an oral historian, folklorist, and then graduate student at Antioch University, was charged with working with the Yellow Springs community to structure gathering the stories of local elders who had been active in the civil rights movement. The stories of those days would make excellent additions to the developing collection. They are still being collected, again with some sense of urgency, as the elders who hold these important memories are passing away.

In order to gather and preserve the oral histories, a training program was launched. Interested volunteers would learn how to handle digital audio recording equipment and obtain the requisite interviewing techniques, and would also learn how to produce short radio documentaries. Community Voices trained its first cadre of producers in 2011, and then the program took off like a rocket. To date, over 50 people have been trained in the annual course, and the WYSO airwaves are alive with yet more locally produced programming.

While all of this was taking place, WYSO-FM itself underwent some major changes that had further impacts on the development of the WYSO Audio Archives. In May of 2012, WYSO moved into newly renovated studios, once again necessitating the physical move of the archival collection to yet another building. This time, the tapes and other media would be moved in an orderly manner, and would share space with the station’s music library in a secure, temperature and humidity-controlled, UV-protected room with ample shelf space for the collection and maximum accessibility to the materials.

The second change involved a situation that had an effect on the legal and intellectual control of the collection; the FCC license of the station, and thus, its ownership, changed hands. The fraught and convoluted relationship between Antioch College and Antioch University had come to a head in 2008 when the Board of Trustees of Antioch University formally closed the Antioch College campus. At the time, the station’s license remained an asset of the University. All grant funds, and the legal documentation for the oral history program, were managed through the University. In a brave move, alumni of Antioch College bought the campus from the University, and reopened an independent Antioch College in 2011. After several years of wrangling the renewed Antioch College struck a deal with the University, and the WYSO-FM license was transferred back into Antioch College’s hands in July of 2013. The transfer thus necessitated addressing the legal title to both the collection and the oral history materials several times over a period of just a few years.

With legal ownership of the radio station and the physical condition of its collection finally stabilized, it was time to address access to the WYSO Archives.

In 2013, the radio station made a commitment to provide outreach and public programs utilizing the archival collection. Through completing the Community Voices course earlier that year, I had become intrigued by the digitized material. I produced my culminating feature piece for the course, a look at the civil rights era in Yellow Springs in the early 1960s, using some of the digitized historic tape. I had never done any radio production before, but the process of combining my interests in race and identity with the historical material and the medium of radio was thrilling, and I was hooked. With the support of a grant from Ohio Humanities, WYSO-FM appointed me its first Archives Fellow, and Rediscovered Radio was born. For the next sixteen months, from late 2013 through early 2015, I had the privilege to get to know the historic audio intimately. I listened to most of the 277 hours, assisted others in accessing files for various projects, and created a series of short radio documentaries and specials utilizing it.[5] By bringing the events represented in the historical audio into context through excerpts woven with contemporary interviews and my narration, listeners of WYSO were able to reflect on the past and contemplate the present. The series earned awards from public radio organizations at the state and national levels.

At this point, I was one of the few people with immediate and direct access to the collection. As part of its mission to serve its community, the Greene County Public Library (GCPL) stepped up yet again. With an agreement brokered between Neenah Ellis at WYSO-FM and Karl Colón, GCPL director, the collection was made available on both institutions’ websites in June of 2015. This would not have been possible without the dedicated work of Deanna Ulvestad, who put in many hours above and beyond those funded by the two grants to enter the collection into CONTENTdm so it would be accessible on the library’s server. Deanna also serves on AAPB’s PBCore development group, helping to refine the metadata schema facilitating interoperability for all public broadcasters’ platforms. The grand opening of the WYSO Archives’ public access was celebrated at the new Antioch College’s first commencement in June of 2015, with a multimedia event attended by producers, staff and volunteers from WYSO’s founding through the present.

While the WYSO Archives has achieved tremendous success in the short time it has been in existence, the truth is that, in some fundamental ways, the cart has been put before the horse. The serendipitous events that have fomented its development and use have not included the creation of mission-based policies and procedures. In fact, at the present time there is no stated mission to guide the future development of the collection.

Back in the fall, I met with Toni Vanden Bos and Lisa Rickey of the Wright State University Special Collections and Archives to learn more about best practices for digital archives. They pointed me to materials, mostly available online, to help guide the management of the WYSO collection. They also shared their struggles and experiences with preserving audiovisual and born digital materials. [6] One of the great “aha moments” for me was the realization that digital media is in some ways so fragile,[7] that paper materials that are centuries old can be easier to conserve and preserve than Information Age records created just a few years ago. This realization gave an added urgency to the development of the WYSO Archives, especially in terms of preservation. New born digital material is being created every day, and we need to make provisions for its future.

The WYSO Archives also contains a number of documents, program guides, posters, news clippings, photographs, t-shirts, and other materials that are auxiliary to the audio collection. These materials are invaluable when determining when a particular program may have aired, or who produced it, or who was on the station’s staff at a particular time. While some of these materials have been organized by a volunteer archivist into acid-free folders and boxes and are shelved in the climate-controlled room along with the other media, no finding aids exist yet to assist researchers.

Another grant opportunity for WYSO-FM has proved fruitful: the AAPB project has funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) for the National Digital Stewardship Residency (NDSR), a project to develop curriculum and expertise in the preservation of audio visual materials. According to the AAPB website, “The AAPB NDSR project will place seven residents at diverse geographic public television and radio organizations across the country and thus expand the locally based NDSR model to a national level. The project will also provide important information and lay the groundwork for a virtual national NDSR fellowship program.”[8] WYSO’s request has been funded, so developing some of the administrative infrastructure, those needed policies and procedures, will be included in the resident’s work, as will conducting additional collection inventories of born digital media, metadata development for the AACIP digitization project, and transfer or reformatting of DATs and other outdated media. This grant funding will permit WYSO-FM to finally, after eight years, achieve some semblance of a genuine archival program.

Funding for bringing the collection alive via a second season of Rediscovered Radio, was granted by Ohio Humanities. Throughout 2016, I will lead a team of Community Voices producers as we delve into the Vietnam War era holdings of the collection, with Jonathan Winkler of Wright State University and Molly Wood of Wittenberg University serving as the humanities scholars attached to the project.

Also in 2016, WYSO-FM will collect more oral histories from village elders, Community Voices will train its sixth group of local producers, a scholarly symposium on digital humanities is planned for October (American Archives Month), the strategic planning process for the archives will finally begin, and development of WYSO-FM’s accidental archives will continue.

And what of the larger American Archive of Public Broadcasting project? The initial excitement and enthusiasm for the national project was certainly dashed when Congress dropped funding for the CPB’s digital initiative from $36 million to just $6 million in FY 2011, then eliminated it completely in FY 2012. Without funds to continue the project, CPB and a national advisory panel sought to find another institution that could take on further development of the archive, and to continue to preserve the historic audio, video, and films produced by public broadcasters, and find a permanent home, one with an organization “accustomed to preserving cultural archives, capable of digitizing and sharing media assets, dedicated to supporting the mission and organizations of public media, and able to raise substantial funds to sustain these efforts over many decades.[9]

In 2013, CPB chose WGBH and the Library of Congress to jointly continue the work of the AAPB. As of this writing, all 40,000 hours of material digitized thus far are available for on-site viewing and/or listening in either Boston or Washington, DC. An online “reading room” went live in October of 2015, with those materials available “for which permissions [have] been obtained or which may prudently be presented for research, educational and informational purposes under fair use and other legal doctrines.” Together, the two entities hope to seek funding for outreach and further development of the collections, and to collaborate with other public media outlets to “keep, organize, and provide access to the cultural treasures created by the public media system” and reserve the public broadcasting legacy for future generations.”[10]

 

[1] Alan Gevinson, “A Brief History of the AAPB,” American Archive of Public Broadcasting, accessed November 30, 2015, http://americanarchive.org/about-the-american-archive/history.

[2] Gevinson, “A Brief History of the AAPB.”

[3] Deanna Ulvestad, (Head Archivist, Greene County Public Library) in discussion with the author, September 28, 2015.

[4] Gevinson, “A Brief History of the AAPB.”

[5] “Rediscovered Radio,” WYSO, accessed November 30, 2015, http://wyso.org/topic/rediscovered-radio#stream/0.

[6] Toni Vanden Bos (Archivist and Cataloguing and Preservation Manager) and Lisa Rickey (Archivist for Digital Initiatives and Outreach), in discussion with the author, October 7, 2015.

[7] Sam Brylawski, Maya Lermin, Robin Pike, and Kathlin Smith, editors, ARSC Guide to Audio Preservation, Association for Recorded Sound Collections, Council on Library and Information Services, National Recording Preservation Board of the Library of Congress, 2015, 3.

[8] “American Archive of Public Broadcasting National Digital Stewardship Residency Program,” American Archive of Public Broadcasting, accessed November 30, 2015, http://americanarchive.org/about-the-american-archive/projects/ndsr.

[9] Gevinson, “A Brief History of the AAPB.”

[10] Ibid.

Bibliography

“American Archive of Public Broadcasting National Digital Stewardship Residency Program,” American Archive of Public Broadcasting. Accessed November 30, 2015. http://americanarchive.org/about-the-american-archive/projects/ndsr.

Brylawski, Sam, and Maya Lermin, Robin Pike, Kathlin Smith, Editors. ARSC Guide to Audio Preservation. Association for Recorded Sound Collections, Council on Library and Information Services, National Recording Preservation Board of the Library of Congress. 2015.

“Caring for Digital Materials: Preventing A Digital Dark Age.” Connecting to Collections Care. Accessed September 25, 2015. http://www.connectingtocollections.org/archivedigital/.

Garvey Schubert Barer. “Digitization, Preservation and Distribution.” Pacifica Radio Archives Preservation and Access Project White Paper. 2012.

Gevinson, Alan. “A Brief History of the AAPB.” American Archive of Public Broadcasting. Accessed November 30, 2015. http://americanarchive.org/about-the-american-archive/history.

“Rediscovered Radio.” WYSO. Accessed November 30, 2015. http://wyso.org/topic/rediscovered-radio#stream/0.

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