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Progress Report: Archiving Cassettes & Minidiscs

As I’ve written before, I’m in the process of archiving my collection of audio work that’s on audiocassette and minidisc. It’s a process that has unfolded in fits and starts over the last few years, but I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. I’m nearing my last couple dozen tapes and discs, after digitizing about 300 in total. So here’s a progress report.

For the most part, the contents of these physical media are programs I’ve created myself—interviews, radio airchecks and the like—and other irreplaceable audio of an important or sentimental nature, like mixtapes or albums that are not on a streaming service or easily obtained on CD. A minidisc player was my main portable audio device from about 1997 to 2007, so I did amass a sizeable repository of albums I dubbed to MD and mixtapes. But I deemed only a handful of these to merit archiving.

As I charted my progress in digitizing all the tapes and discs, one of my concerns became: What would I do with all this media? I didn’t relish the thought of simply tossing hundreds of minidiscs and cassettes into a dumpster; that is both too wasteful and environmentally unfriendly. Yet, the contents of these artifacts is of interest to few people, in anyone at all.

eBay: Where Old Media Lives (and Sells)

I was relieved to discover that there is actually an active trade in used minidiscs and cassettes on eBay. The popularity of minidiscs, in particular, surprised me, since I felt like I couldn’t even give them away if I tried.

However, it turns out minidisc is a very robust medium, with many ardent enthusiasts still making use of the first practical digital recording format for average consumers. In fact, I can attest to this robustness. Out of the approximately 400 discs that I’ve either digitized or reviewed and reformatted, fewer than a half-dozen failed. Even amongst those, the failures weren’t with the little disc itself, but rather the plastic housing, wherein the protective shutter wouldn’t close or open correctly.

Moreover, at the start of this project I had four working minidisc recorders, all between 12 and 14 years old (one has since been sold off). The only niggling defect is the LED display on two models, which dims over time. Yet their playback and recording functions remained.

Even more surprising is that used minidiscs are going for between $1 and $3 each on eBay, which is the same range I paid for them new in the mid–2000s. I chalk this up to the fact that they haven’t been manufactured for at least five years, new-old-stock is drying up, and used ones still work well. It makes me happy that not only do my used discs end up in the hands of someone who will use them, rather than a dumpster, but I get a few bucks, to boot.

Particularly valuable are Hi-MDs, which are the 1 GB discs introduced in the mid–2000s. The culmination of mindisc technology just before flash memory recorders and smartphones would push the format aside, this final iteration of the technology allowed you to record uncompressed audio and upload it to your computer over USB. Used Hi-MD discs go for about $10 a pop, and I sold a couple of new, still-sealed ones for more than $20 per. I’m pretty sure that’s more than I paid a dozen years ago (not counting inflation).

Also in demand are the last generation Hi-MD capable minidisc recorders, which fetch hundreds of dollars in good, working condition. With luck these prices will hold up until I’ve finished my archiving project.

Used cassettes, even, can be sold for a dollar or two each, provided they’re still in working condition. The caveat here is that only the higher quality chrome and metal tapes from well-known brands like TDK and Maxell command these prices. Presumably the buyers have a need to make decent quality reordings, and new tapes from these brands are no longer manufactured.

After Digitizing, Off to the Archive

Still, I must insist that this project is not, and has never been about cashing in on my used blank media. That said, I’m pretty certain that I’m still not quite making back my initial investment; of course, that was never the point to begin with. It’s simply good to know that all this plastic and ferric oxide isn’t headed directly into a landfill.

Now, just because I’ve digitized all this audio onto a hard disk doesn’t mean that it’s safe forever. Hard drives fail–often more easily than a single cassette or minidisc. So I’ve got two copies stored in the cloud, with paid services where at least I have a service agreement giving me some measure of protection. I’m also making a second hard disk copy.

The next step is to organize everything better and add appropriate metadata, especially to the archives of my old radio show and associated interviews. Then I plan to begin uploading these files to the Internet Archive, and linking back those archives to my radio show’s website. I know there are a lot of dead links to audio files on the site because I moved hosts over the years. Giving everything a home at the Internet Archive should help lend even a little more permanence.

Though not every episode of the show was a gem, the show does serve as a history of sorts of the indepdendent media and media justice movements of the 2000s, which may be of interest to historians or people who were there.

I must admit it is satisfying to watch the to-do pile of tapes and discs dwindle, and then get shipped off to new owners who will put them to use. I think it will be even more satifsying to get my radio show archives in order and preserved at the Internet Archive.

As Matthew reminds us when he mines forgotten audio treasures at the IA, even at the time when broadcasts are transmitted and recorded, it’s tough to know what future interest or significance they may have decades down the line. That’s why I urge every independent, college or community radio producer to take care of your recorded works and considering preserving them at the IA, if nowhere else.

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