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For Pacifica, history isn’t just old tapes in a box

Originally published in Current, June 21, 2004
By Jeremy Egner

When NBC and C-SPAN recently needed audio of John Kerry’s 1971 speech to Congress, they obtained it from an unlikely source. Pacifica Radio was the only broadcaster with a pristine copy of the 2004 presidential candidate’s indictment of the Vietnam War.

“NBC’s old copy had a lot of the inflammatory stuff edited out,” says Brian DeShazor, Pacifica’s archives director.
The incident demonstrated the usefulness of Pacifica’s ongoing initiative to digitize and preserve its substantial audio archive in Los Angeles, which began in 2002. The collection of recordings, more than 45,000 tapes’ worth, contains uncensored audio of some of the most notable artists, thinkers and newsmakers of the mid- to late 20th century, including significant and controversial figures such as Black Panther leader Huey Newton and Palestinian advocate Edward Said, who seldom spoke on mainstream media.

Pacifica netted approximately $345,000 for its preservation initiative, appealing to listeners for designated donations and winning preservation grants — two from the Recording Academy totaling $55,000 and two from the National Endowment for the Arts totaling $30,000.

Pacifica created a searchable website (www.pacificaradioarchives.org) dedicated to its archives in 2001 but officially inaugurated the preservation project with a national fundraising marathon in October 2002 that earned $180,000. A similar event last fall brought in $80,000.

The cash enabled Pacifica to obtain digital duplicators, but DeShazor says the most crucial step in the process was to create an identity for the archive. “It’s a problem in all media,” he says. “People assume archives are just old tapes in a box somewhere.” By recasting archival material as living, culturally valuable content, Pacifica made a case for its continued support. In addition to the single-theme drives showcasing older recordings — such as an hour of environmental material or an hour of civil rights speeches — the radio network incorporated remarks by Malcolm X, Timothy Leary, Anais Nin, Bertrand Russell and others into regular fundraising broadcasts.

This year, Pacifica is giving affiliate stations a discount on archives compilations they can broadcast or use as donor premiums, DeShazor says. He hopes the move will raise the vault’s profile among community radio listeners beyond the reach of the five Pacifica stations. “Somewhere in Kansas, they’ll finally get to hear Malcolm X,” he quips. With a revamped website to be launched next month, the archives will improve its online search mechanism and allow web visitors to read transcripts and buy copies of audio.

So far, Pacifica has digitized just 2,500 of roughly 45,000 documented tapes; DeShazor estimates that there are 5,000 uncatalogued tapes in storage. For each, archivists create two CDs, an MP3 file digitized at 24 mbps for storage on a hard drive and a new reel-to-reel analog master because, as DeShazor notes, no one knows how long digital formats will last. “The life expectancy of digital is really precarious,” he says.

Mylar tapes from the 1970s and 1980s are some of the most deteriorated recordings in the archive — in worse shape than older but more durable acetate tapes. DeShazor says Pacifica will have to outsource highly damaged tapes for costly repair.

Even as Pacifica works to demonstrate the value of old material to potential donors, it continues to discover its worth to listeners. For example, Defining Black Power, a 1996 doc featuring audio of Martin Luther King Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks and others, continues to be one of Pacifica’s highest-pledging shows. The network also repackaged its raft of political convention recordings into a two-hour documentary hosted by Amy Goodman, A Passel of Pomp and a Circus of Circumstance. The doc will air on Democracy Now! July 15 and 16.

Then there are the archive’s future holdings. As the Kerry speech demonstrated, broadcasters can’t predict which of today’s protesters will be tomorrow’s presidential nominees.

Web page posted June 28, 2004
Current
The newspaper about public TV and radio
in the United States
Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.
Copyright 2004

EARLIER ARTICLES

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OUTSIDE LINKS

Pacifica Radio Archives.

Clippings about Pacifica's archive project.

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