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Thursday, May 8, 2014

BAM & WNYC Archives—Shared Histories

Badge; WPA New York Civic Orchestra label; Chester Nimitz and Fiorello LaGuardia. WNYC Archive.
WNYC is in residence at BAM for RadioLoveFest (June 4—8), when eight of New York public radio’s most beloved shows are presented as live theatrical engagements, plus additional events. Here, WNYC archivist Andy Lanset talks with BAM’s archivist, Sharon Lehner, about preserving and sharing, respectively, 90 and 153 years of each major institutions’ collections.

Sharon Lehner: How did you become the director of archives at WNYC?

Andy Lanset: I was a public radio reporter doing field recording and engineering as well. I got involved with preservation work as well. That, along with periodic overtures at WNYC about the need to do something with their collections, eventually led to starting the WNYC Archives as a department in 2000. It wasn't till after then that I went to through the library program at Pratt at night. And you?

SL: A similar circuitous yet organic path. I began as a performer but what really interested me was the process of creating performances. What are its historical roots, influences, components? Really an interest in the ontology of performance, leading to a graduate degree in performance studies focusing on contemporary performance, which brought me to BAM as a fan. I started part-time at BAM, which created a full-time archives position in 2005; I was finishing a degree in Archival Management and Historical Editing at NYU.

AL: What cataloging and content/digital management systems do you use?

SL: In the BAM Hamm archives we have a highly customized version of Collective Access, an open-source, web-based relational database. Because performance is event- rather than object-based we try to model the event (production) rather than an object—a data set describing the production: dates, artists, genres, elements of the performance. We also describe the time in which it occurred and relate it to a concept or work.

Our relational database is a kind of hybrid between a digital asset management (DAM) and a catalog; form follows function. The production (a description of a past event) is the center; we relate productions through time to an idea, such as Hamlet, and relate all of the objects in the archives—programs, video, correspondence, scripts, scores, and other objects—to the people involved, the production, and the work. Before we had dynamic descriptive digital tools, we were left with a list of performances, a catalogue of objects. New tools allow us to visualize this data in new ways.
Anna Pavlowa program, Oct 16, 1924. BAM Hamm Archive
SL: How common is it for radio to archive programming? Can you talk about building an archival program at WNYC?

AL: Radio stations, particularly commercial ones, are notorious for not saving archive materials and/or simply dumping them when moving or expanding. In the case of WNYC, starting a department 76 years after the station went on the air was a challenge. There were materials in-house at the time held by individual producers in various cupboards, nooks, and crannies in the old Municipal Building where we were located from 1924—2008. There has also been a vast amount of material in other institutional collections (each with its own migration history) around the country and we've worked closely with those organizations to digitize and repatriate broadcast as well as photo and paper materials for our mutual use. This effort led us to work closely with the New York City Municipal Archives, New York Public Library, Public Broadcasting Archives/University of Maryland, Library of Congress, and many others, plus individual producers, and purchasing items on Ebay.

SL: How has a hunger for content on digital platforms changed the perception of the archive?

AL: They say "content is king." With the advent and growth of the internet there is a significant call for content that 24/7 news production can't satisfy—or risk being repetitive and boring, as we've seen. Being the organizers, catalogers, and preservers of this content naturally makes archives the go-to place for blasts from the past. In my case, the aim is to allow the contemporary news and feature reporters the ability to seize control of time by juxtaposing elements of sound that help make the whole greater than the sum of its parts, by informing the present with context, texture, and the "subtle nuances of history." In short, what assets can we draw on to make us a destination, either on the radio or web, for information? The archive collections are key.

Not being a news organization, I'm sure your situation is a bit different. You probably don't check the obituaries as soon as you get up in the morning while I need to keep my finger on the pulse of those without one, to find that Lopate or Lehrer interview with whoever just passed away, because it is news.

SL: How has this thirst for content changed the practice of an archives program?

AL: It has meant more work as producers in addition to the usual archival demands from staff for reference work, preservation, acquisition, cataloging, and storage. This is reflected in the available grant monies for preservation as well. It is no longer sufficient to preserve a collection to the current standard, you need to digitize it for public and scholarly access through the web as well. And this includes all the various archival formats within the collections.

Transmitter; WNYC Anniversary graphic; 1992 DNC pass; WQXR news correspondent. WNYC Archives.
SL: Can you talk about the change in your mission statement that reflects this thirst for content?

AL: Along with our mandate to "collect, organize, preserve, document and make available for production all original work generated by and produced in association with WNYC and WQXR Radio," we had to add "showcase" to the list. Since we know this material better than anyone else, it effectively makes us the best people to make it publically accessible. Now we push metadata and audio directly from the catalog to the web as well as blogging and, like everyone else, being drawn into social media as a tool for pushing traffic to these URLs with new (old) content and adding graphics where possible. Can I use more staff? Sure. I'm guessing you're in the same boat. Web analytics, hits, likes, retweets, etc...are suddenly something we need to consider.

SL: Yes, it seems that is why so many archivists are talking about getting content out in the “stream” via open linked data. I worry that we allow analytics to determine what is worthwhile. You know what P.T. Barnum said: “no one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.”

SL: How important is it for you to have working old equipment?

AL: Because sound recordings require the proper playback equipment we are extremely dependent on obsolete tape decks and turntables. We have just about every professional format ever used, beginning with aluminum and glass-based lacquer discs, to acetate tape, F-1 Beta tape, DBX 700 on VHS tape, polyester tape, DAT, CD, cassette, flexi-disc, etc. So, we need equipment and styli for the proper playback and reproduction specifications for each media, analog or digital. Fortunately, we have a professional broadcast engineering staff at the station that helps us maintain this equipment.

SL: Why are radio archives important?
Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch BAMbill cover
1984. BAM Hamm Archive

AL: Radio archives are important because radio has been around for a significant part of the last century and the technology is demonstrably a more intimate medium. Its pioneers have always sought to innovate, simplify, and make portable the ability to capture sound. No film to develop (still or moving), easily edited, relatively inexpensive and compact, easily transferred/transmittable over phone lines for many decades. Radio reporters can wirelessly or optically send in whole reports over cell phones or laptops. When I started, we typically carried alligator clips to do essentially the same thing. It makes it more democratic (small d) in a way—it's everywhere. What kid didn't put together his/her own radio show at home with an old cassette recorder?

SL: Because performance is not "mediated," it also becomes "small-d" democratic. (And also "small-a" art.) Performance often explores liminal spaces—thoughts and feelings that are not fixed, ambivalent. This liminal space cannot really be archived but descriptions and documents of performances tell us something about what we are unable to define and express otherwise.

SL: What do you imagine that WNYC archives can tell us about ourselves 150 years from now?

AL: It's my hope that our productions will provide an accurate reflection and perspective of the New York metropolitan area at a given point in time. Like a photograph, I expect that we capture the moment for future historians, researchers, and the public. Obviously, like all photographs, journals, and documentary productions there are subjective and editorial influences that are involved in creating a final production. Those elements will be there, for better or for worse, despite our efforts at objectivity as a news organization. As a result, like everything else, listeners past, present, and future, need to 'consider the source.'

SL: Can you highlight a few projects utilizing your content in innovative or interesting ways?

AL: Ten years ago we produced an 80th anniversary interactive timeline with material from the collection and research from our weekly E-Newsletter, NYPR History Notes. Link:

And more recently, our NEH-funded preservation project is outlined here.

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