It’s no secret that I’m very interested in the preservation of college radio history and I’m happy to see more and more stations taking on projects to ensure that the importance of college radio is shared more widely. Earlier this week, Laura Schnitker wrote a piece for Antenna that beautifully describes her work archiving college radio history at University of Maryland.
She tells the tale of spotting a box at college radio station WMUC that read “Interview with Don McLean, Spring 1971. DO NOT ERASE.” She later learned that it contained an interview with the folk singer, as well as an early version of his song “American Pie.” After unearthing that piece of folk music history, she discovered that the station had more than 1800 pieces of audio material hidden away in a storage room. Soon after, she began the work to create a WMUC archive in the University of Maryland’s library, which ultimately led to an exhibit and a symposium on college radio history last year. Schnitker writes,
One thing I’ve learned in the 10 years I’ve been archiving broadcast history is that radio stations have been notoriously remiss in preserving their histories. If they saved anything it was usually printed records; audio recordings were most often destroyed after the stations were reformatted or sold. With no aftermarket for old broadcasts, and the added complications of performance copyright and rapidly changing sound technologies, many station managers probably thought these recordings were more liability than asset. A large portion of the audio collections I manage at the University of Maryland Libraries came from unionized, dumpster-diving sound engineers whose appreciation for their historic value outweighed everything else.”
I have seen some of these collections myself (even at WMUC, during my 2014 visit). In the days before KUSF was forced to leave its large quarters in University of San Francisco’s Phelan Hall, its upper floor storage area was packed to the rafters with scavenged LP collections from local commercial radio stations, decades worth of reels of campus lectures, and even an antique phonograph. And I know from talking to folks at various radio stations, that items have ended up in dumpsters when universities have refused to provide space for materials. According to Schnitker,
I’ve heard from participants at other campus stations who have described their own storage rooms of neglected recordings that no one knows how to manage, or even care about. I cringed when one station advisor told me that an old reel containing a remote broadcast of Woodstock was being used as a coaster by their current DJs. However, the difference here is that most colleges and universities have the built-in resources to both save their materials and provide public access to them. This is precisely what they should be doing.”
To me, this is the critical point, that school’s actually have the RESOURCES to help college radio stations archive and save their materials. Schnitker was in a unique position as both a college radio DJ and an archivist and she worked to create WMUC’s official archive. She explains,
As student organizations, campus radio stations are part of university life, and their historical records belong in their university archives. When I asked Maryland’s university archivist Anne Turkos to establish a WMUC Collection in 2011, we embarked on a mission to demonstrate the station’s importance to campus history. With the help of WMUC student staff members, we identified the historic audio and print items that were no longer being used and moved them to the more stable environment of the special collections library. We created inventories and a finding aid, and thanks to the libraries’ new media reformatting center we began ongoing digitization of the audio materials. Listening to them revealed a multi-faceted history I hadn’t expected to find. In addition to music, there was 50 years’ worth of news, sports, dramas, live performances, promos, community affairs and even self-help programming.”
As I wrote last week, college radio history buffs have been inspired by Schnitker’s work at University of Maryland and are working to create their own collections. A few weeks ago I featured Mike Lupica’s efforts at WPRB at Princeton, which include the launch of the WPRB History website. This week, CMJ interviewed Lupica and got more scoop on the project. Lupica explains,
I’ve been geeking out on radio history ever since I saw Empire of the Air documentary, but the real motivation came last year when I attended a college radio symposium at the University of Maryland. That’s where I met Jennifer Waits (Radio Survivor) and Laura Schnitker (University of Maryland archive department). the University of Maryland station had put together an amazing exhibit that told the complex story of WMUC’s history in a really compelling way, and that was the moment I realized I had to do something similar for WPRB. My years at WFMU taught me how much listeners love engaging with an organization that’s got a great story behind it, so the goal of the new history website is to put WPRB’s story out there in a way that invites the public to delve into it.”
One of the many things that I like about the WPRB project is that also describes the role that WPRB plays within campus culture. Lupica says, “Every generation of alums describes WPRB as ‘a sanctuary’ from the rest of campus life. Given the academic demands at Princeton, it makes me incredibly happy that so many people recall WPRB as the one place on campus that not only allowed them to stretch out and be spontaneously creative, but also encouraged it. I think this short piece written by Lily Prillinger captures that spirit perfectly.”
If you are thinking of embarking on a college radio history project, please let me know. I’m still working to sign up stations, universities, and private archives so that they can be listed as affiliate archives of the Library of Congress’ Radio Preservation Task Force.
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