While looking for info on a BBC session recording of the 1980s new wave / post-rock band Talk Talk I stumbled upon a version of the band’s Radio 1 broadcast on a site called Past Daily. Digging into its archives I discovered a treasure-trove of audio archives, from a 1991 CBS Radio world news roundup reporting on the Civil Rights Act of 1991 and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, to a rare live concert recording of David Cassidy, the former teen heartthrob who passed away last week.
Archivist Gordon Skene is the person behind Past Daily, and I immediately dropped him an email asking for an interview so I could learn more. Skene is a music journalist, and in the early days of the CD he worked on the digital remastering of analog master tapes from record labels like Vee-Jay and Specialty. He then worked with Rhino Records, helping to produce box sets like “Great Speeches Of The 20th Century,” “Great Moments of the 20th Century,” “The 70s’ Culture Box,” “The Baseball Box,” and “The 80’s Culture Box,” earning him two Grammy nominations in the process.
Skene was kind enough to answer my questions over email, and what follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
PR: What is Past Daily? And, what is its history?
GS: Past Daily was originally called Newstalgia and it was part of another blog around nine years ago. The parent site was very political and contentious, and it also used a very small portion of my archive. So I left that site about five years ago and started Past Daily, which I wanted to fashion after the French radio station Radio France Internationale, running the gamut of news, history, talk, music and pop culture, all in one place.
I realized that not everyone responds to the same thing, and unlike a radio station, [with a website] you don’t have to listen to what you don’t want to in order to get to what you do want. [That’s] better for me, so I can mix it up and keep it interesting. I am amazed at the eclectic tastes of most people, though.
PR: Are these recordings from your own archives?
GS: Yes. I’ve been collecting recordings since 1963.
PR: What is the source of these recordings? Were they recorded by you off the air, in the studio, or a variety of sources?
GS: It’s a variety of sources. I perfected the art of dumpster diving in radio station trash cans as a kid. But I have also gotten things from stations, networks, [and] traded with other institutions. I don’t collect “old time radio,” so those recordings I have run across, I [have] usually traded with institutions or collectors who have news/public affairs discs they don’t want. I’ve also gotten things from garage sales, swap meets—a whole pile of different places.
PR: What motivated you to share them with the world?
GS: I didn’t want to drop dead and have this warehouse full of stuff no one knew about, [or have it turn out] that spending a good chunk of my life collecting could very easily wind up in the trash or sold on Ebay. I am also horrified by the lack of history knowledge many people have, particularly during a time when knowledge of what has happened before is crucial. I also wanted to introduce people to things they may not be familiar with, especially music. In a weird way, it’s my version of giving things back.
We tend to not learn from our mistakes because we forget. We’re living in grave and dangerous times, and knowing that there is something that has happened before that has had a different result is crucial to us as a people and a society. The more people are aware of what has happened and what has gone on before, the better off we are.
That’s one of the reasons I am such a stickler for the best quality sound when I post something. I don’t want people to get hung up on something because it’s old. I want them to listen to something and learn from it.
Sometimes you just can’t get around [the sound quality]. For example, I have a lot of shortwave broadcasts from World War II—German radio, French radio— that weren’t recorded under the best conditions to begin with, but they are crucial because most people haven’t heard them. Anything [with sound quality] that I absolutely can’t get around, I offer a caveat [for]. Like last night, when David Cassidy died, I ran a concert he did in Rotterdam that was broadcast by VPRO in the Netherlands. Well, the sound was pretty crappy—it came from either a bad AM radio broadcast or a shortwave broadcast. But it’s one of the few examples of David Cassidy during that period in a concert setting. So I ran a brief disclaimer and posted it, because it was important to run, from a historic standpoint.
PR: Do you have copyright on any of these recordings, or do you obtain permission from the copyright holders to share them?
GS: It goes in several different directions. Past Daily is a free site. I don’t charge for anything. I am also a non-profit. That said, I also license material from my archive for films, TV and commercials. I always preface anything I provide with obtaining permission from the copyright holders first.
As far as running stuff on my site, particularly newer material, I usually ask the artist if I can run something of theirs. Ten times out of ten they are thrilled. Which is why I don’t run any commercial recordings on my site. Particularly with concerts and [live] sessions, those are used as a way of promoting an artist or band without depriving them of income via commercial disc sales. The commercial recordings and the concerts/sessions represent entirely different versions of a song and, if anything, [the live versions] promote the idea of buying the commercial recording, as well. Being a two-time Grammy nominee, I am very much on the side of the artist.
PR: Have you considered storing copies on a public archive, like the Internet Archive?
GS: I plan to turn everything over to the University of California Santa Barbara at some point. As much as I like Archive.org and appreciate what they’re doing, I consider 99% of it to be a document dump. In other words, you have to know what you’re looking for in order to make it work. Otherwise, you get lost or you’re confronted by a pile of material that either isn’t relevant or it’s listed by date with no listing of contents. Or, it’s someone’s 5,000th generation dub from one of those “Golden Days Of Radio” [internet group members] whose recordings are mostly all crap and who do history no favors.
I strive to present history in its best sounding light. And I avoid those radio collector groups like the plague. I have never had a good experience with them. From previous experience, I am not a joiner. I was briefly associated with ARSC (Association for Recorded Sound Collections), but they are primarily people who want everything and have nothing in return. Or what they do have exists in a million different forms already. I have never thought of them as a particularly serious group of people.
PR: Do you actively record radio broadcasts or other new material now? If so do you do it digitally or in analog?
GS: Yes. Before they phased it out, I was recording some 30 hours a day of radio materials [on my computer] via the Radioshift application. I did that from 2003 until last year when they no longer offered the radio plug-in. It was perfect because I could record up to five programs simultaneously, and timer-record programs to catch Europe live. I still have one eye on breaking news and capture it via Audio Hijack Pro, but only one thing at a time.
At this point I wanted to dive into some of the geekier and more technical aspects of what Skene does in order to digitize and preserve all these historical recordings.
PR: What’s your procedure for digitizing and preserving these recordings?
GS: The basic procedure is to get a flat (no EQ and no filtering) work master [recorded] on CD, and then upload it to my computer where I use mostly BIAS Peak and Soundsoap Pro. I will use Quattro for speed correction and Audacity if the master source is from tape. It would be great if one program did everything, but unfortunately they don’t. Quattro is the only program I can do running speed correction with.
PR: How do you make that first CD transfer?
GS: A standalone CD recorder, Tascam RW900SL.
PR: What kind of tape decks and turntables are you using for digitizing your analog sources?
GS: Tape decks run the gamut, because the tapes are in so many formats and speeds. The reel-to-reel decks are an Ampex 440–2, an Otari MX–5050–2 and 4, a Technics 1500 and a Tandberg for [slow speed, long-running] 1 7/8 IPS tapes. The turntable is a Technics SP–15 with a Shure SME Arm, Stanton 500 cartridges and a GE VR-II cartridge for 78s and 16″ discs).
Transferring [records] it’s important to get the right sized stylus, because I am a big believer in garbage in, garbage out. So I have a range of disc styli that I use for 78s and 16″ transcription discs with a GE VR-II phono cartridge. The mono LPs get the Stanton 1mm stylus. The object is to get the cleanest transfer, and work from that.
Plus, Sony and Panasonic DAT machines.
PR: As a rough estimate, what percentage of the recordings on your site came from tape or record?
GS: 70% tape, 30% transcription disc (16″ acetate).
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