A Turn Toward the Ruins of Radio History

May 25, 2015
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radioruin1Post by Peter Schaefer, Marymount Manhattan College

Given the tremendous wealth that continues to pour into Manhattan and Western Brooklyn, it’s hard to imagine that in the 1970s New York City came perilously close to declaring bankruptcy. The city nearly defaulted on large loans due in part to revenue reductions associated with decreased local manufacturing. To help remedy the situation deep cuts were made across the municipal budget. As a result, New Yorkers saw a city on the brink of collapse with irregular garbage collection, shuttered local libraries, and public school classrooms bursting beyond capacity. Public broadcasting was particularly hard hit with hiring freezes at the municipally owned public radio station WNYC, along with a reduction in staff and constant threats to curtail broadcasting hours. Budget cuts to stations like WNYC resulted in dramatically decreased efforts to save material from this era. In retrospect, the financial catastrophe of 1970s New York might seem like a mere pothole on the road to the city’s current renaissance. But in regard to radio preservation, the ‘70s fiscal crisis left a giant crater in the historical record.

WNYC logosBefore visiting the WNYC Archive I assumed that the older the broadcast era, the spottier the historical record becomes. That is not the case, however. Due to the 1970s fiscal crisis, WNYC recordings from that era are the least represented in the archive. It’s contrary to what one might assume, but there’s a richer and more comprehensive historical record for NYC public radio of the 1930s than for the 1970s. This example attests to the fact that what’s included in an archive depends on much more than the durability of recording formats. Archives develop over time because of decisions made in response to cultural assumptions and economic imperatives more so than the material conditions of sound recording. These decisions are often hidden from view when archives are made publicly accessible.

RPTF1In regard to radio preservation efforts, such as the vital new Radio Preservation Task Force, how might we think differently about the representation of extant materials such that what’s not preserved is also a part of the public face of an archive? In what follows I consider the implications of embracing the monuments to radio history while simultaneously acknowledging the surrounding ruins. I explain some of the emerging norms for radio preservation, and I conclude by connecting contemporary fallacies about the utility of information to the question of how to represent radio history.

The Radio Preservation Task Force, along with other like-minded initiatives such as the American Archive Content Inventory, is establishing what it means to preserve 20th century radio history in the 21st century. This history is still being written, but so far the public access points for the radio historical record employ tagged audio clips, social media updates, and keyword searches to databases. These interactive options are an important resource for communication historians and the public at large, and at the same time, these options are becoming ossified as the way we access the cultural history of radio. What if we offered additional ways of showing radio history that do more than provide a means to access and comment on surviving documents?

devon1Contemporary radio preservation efforts tend to present history in ways that elide the space between the past and the present. For example, take the show Nights in Latin America broadcast on WQXR from 1947 to 1971 and hosted by Pru Devon. Although the vast majority of WQXR materials are lost to the ages, much of the content and supporting documents related to Nights in Latin America survive. Ms. Devon’s daughter saved her mother’s scripts, research notes, air-checks, and fan mail and recently donated these items to the WQXR archive. The ruins of the station’s past now appear forgotten as preservations efforts for the show oscillates from transient to permanent.

Radio history appears stable, durable, and immutable via tributes to Nights in Latin America aired on NPR shows like All Things Considered and represented online. These preservation efforts and its attendant public face, do not show the fact that the historical record for WQXR is spotty at best. Some lacquer discs, some quarter inch audio tapes, and some assorted ephemera comprise the bulk of the archive for the station’s long 20th century legacy. What we see in this example is the wide gap between the appearance of an archive and its actual content. As a result, radio preservation efforts when made publicly accessible typically appear as an unmediated report of an ideally preserved past.

wqxr1Without some nod to the ruins of radio, cultural artifacts are represented in ways that gloss over the decisions that shape an archive’s contours. These decisions may be motivated by economics (as seen in the 1970s NYC fiscal crisis example) or by cultural values (as with the historical revisionism of the Radio Preservation Task Force) or by other fortunate circumstances (such as the mindful conservation of a family legacy as with the example of Nights in Latin America). But in all cases, radio preservation efforts stem from a lineage of integral decisions. Some of these decisions might be lost to the ages as well, but there is value in striving to represent this loss, however imperfect.

Just like there are often disguised decisions that shape an archive, decisions are made in the creation of all contemporary data sets. I frequently encounter students who are surprised when I encourage them to use resources other than Google Scholar to access scholarly literature. These students don’t yet know that Google is a filter not a portal to a limitless universe of information. Anecdotes such as this reflect why I think now is the time to call attention to the ruins of radio history. Common access points for radio’s past offer easily accessible and instantly recoverable historical artifacts. These interfaces deepen historical knowledge but also lend credence to notions of information as a means for social control.

The historical record is being deployed in new ways via aggregated data sets. Evgeny Morozov refers to “solutionism” as a mistaken belief in the ability of big data to solve social problems that range from health care to crime. To put such faith in aggregate data analysis ignores the fact that all data are imperfect reflections of the reality they represent. To embrace the gaps in the radio historical record works against current tendencies to believe in the essential unmediated status of data, whether these data pertain to non-network radio broadcasts or data directly connected to social issues. In short, a turn toward radio ruins serves a critical function in the fight against an ideology of information control.

Now you might be thinking that it’s fun to privilege the vibrant strands of radio history, and it’s a downer to acknowledge what’s lost, but it doesn’t have to be that way. The gems uncovered via the vital work of radio preservationists will sparkle even brighter if shown in context as the rare items that they are. In other words, a turn toward radio ruins doesn’t have to be just about loss but could help make what’s found appear all the more special. And in so doing helps embrace the particular against the aggregate.


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