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Vintage reel-to-reel tapes at WPRB. Photo: J. Waits

Preservation is One of the Most Important Radio Trends of the Decade

Welcome to 2020! As Matthew Lasar noted this week, this year marks the 100th anniversary of some significant moments in radio history, including KDKA’s first broadcast. While other stations were on the air with regular broadcasts prior to 1920 (shout out to Doc Herrold’s early broadcasts to fellow radio amateurs); KDKA’s debut is a rallying point for history buffs and will certainly be recognized at the next Radio Preservation Task Force Conference at the Library of Congress in October, 2020.

As we celebrate 100+ years of radio, it’s encouraging that audio preservation has become an increasing priority in the past decade. While radio participants and collectors are some of the most important preservationists (how would we find those amazing boxes of tapes if they hadn’t been squirreled away in basements and closets?), the past decade has seen growing institutional interest.

In the United States, the Library of Congress National Recording Preservation Plan was created in 2012 and by 2014, the Radio Preservation Task Force (RPTF) was developed out of that. In the ensuing years, the RPTF has brought together scholars, archivists, radio stations, collectors, and enthusiasts in order to develop projects to not only save endangered recordings, but also to increase access and use of these materials.

On Radio Survivor we’ve covered not only the Radio Preservation Task Force (of which I’m co-chair of the College, Community & Educational Radio Caucus); but also some more under, the radar archival and preservation projects that aren’t necessarily affiliated with libraries or educational institutions.

Thanks to technology and a DIY ethos, modern archives can even live in the cloud. Radio scholars and fans can surf the web to find recordings from every sort of radio imaginable, including college radio shows, famous rap battles, early episodes of the call-in talk show “Loveline,” and classic Dr. Demento shows. Thanks to the Internet Archive, one can also dig up obscurities that have been uploaded by radio aircheck collectors. That’s where I happened upon some 1970s gems from KFJC (where I volunteer).

On the Radio Survivor show we’ve highlighted quite a few archives and preservation projects, including American Archive of Public Broadcasting, the Hip-Hop Radio Archive, the Queer Radio History Project, the National Federation of Community Broadcasters archive at University of Maryland, the KRAB-FM Archives, and more. When learning about various projects, I’ve also been struck by the creative ways in which archivists are working to encourage radio preservation. A 2018 KEXP-hosted pop-up digitization event is a wonderful example of how archivists from several institutions shared resources and skills in order to help members of the general public digitize treasured tapes. And, as preservationists point out, time is of the essence since many radio recordings are housed on tapes that won’t survive for much longer.

Kudos to the radio stations, archives, libraries, and funders (including “Recordings at Risk” grants through the Council on Library and Information Resources) who have drawn attention to radio preservation in the past decade.

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