The Endangered Sounds of Community Activism’s Largest U.S. Archive

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Below is a post from Dr. Josh Shepperd about the Pacifica Radio Archives. If you have an issue you would like to write about for this blog series or a previous post that you would like to respond to, please email archivesissues@gmail.com. Please note that opinions expressed in Archivists on the Issues posts do not indicate an official stance of SAA or the Issues and Advocacy Roundtable.

Dear Colleagues –

Please be notified about an impending crisis with one of the largest and most important radio archives in the United States. I write to you as Director of the Radio Preservation Task Force (RPTF), a Library of Congress project spanning over 120 universities, museums, and archives. We’re working to identify and map the sites and content of radio history in the United States. The task force additionally acts as a national research project in which scholars, archivists, and collectors are working together to innovate strategies to combine preservation and education into one holistic process. This sometimes includes advocacy for the protection of historical recordings when they’re endangered.

The Pacifica Radio Archives hold over 90,000 hours of community activism history, produced by Pacifica journalists, community organizers, and DJs. Recordings have been taped and preserved since the Pacifica Network began in 1949. For those unfamiliar with Pacifica, their founders innovated community radio in the United States. In contrast to other valuable noncommercial experiments such as public broadcasting, Pacifica has provided airspace to activists themselves to conduct organizing work within communities, from every background and almost any imaginable perspective. Remarkably, the archive has preserved nearly every one of these broadcasts, in the process building the most important sound chronicle of activist history in the U.S.

Radio turns out to be an unusually important and largely untapped primary source. We’re finding that historic recordings feature comprehensive nontheatrical documentation of American history after 1930. Public forums, interviews, and news reports that aired on radio exhaustively covered transnational, national, and local historical events. Additionally, radio has provided a valuable account of the evolution of local dialect, public opinion via call-in shows, the history of American sports, and a portal into local civil rights histories that might not have left a paper trail other than community organizing broadcasts.

It’s for these reasons that the RPTF enthusiastically entered into a partnership with the Pacifica Radio Archives in 2015, as one of the oldest and largest repositories of the cultural history by sound in the United States. Until recently, the Pacifica Radio Archives have also served as an exemplar for how to run a contemporary sound-based library. As a community driven project, Pacifica needed help procuring funds for operations and preservation. For this reason the RPTF put together a 10-university advocacy team of faculty researchers to help the Network write grants to digitize and preserve their collection. Pacifica was also set to host an NDSR Resident from the American Archive of Public Broadcasting.

However, just as these initiatives were set to begin, the Pacifica Executive Board of Directors unexpectedly implemented austerity measures on archive staff and maintenance, including massive pay cuts and the cancellation of these national collaborative projects, leading to the resignation of longtime Archive Director Brian DeShazor.

That so much free expert labor would be turned away by a nonprofit institution without explanation has raised many red flags to our national consortium. Further, Pacifica seems to have developed no backup plan for how to organize maintenance of their infrastructure, which has led many in the sound archive community to speculate that the recordings will become collateral damage of the Board’s reported internal dysfunction. And preservation work for the Archive’s materials needs to take place immediately. In some cases the degradation of even one reel-to-reel will amount to the loss of the only extant document of a historical advocacy.

Due to the Pacifica Board of Director’s decisions, the RPTF has been forced to change its internal recommendation from grant collaboration to advocacy that Pacifica is now an endangered collection. Please be confident that we have come to this conclusion for multiple tangible reasons, but I hesitate to speculate a single cause of Pacifica’s financial and organizational problems in this appeal. The current situation might simply be framed that fundamental components of the Pacifica Radio Network infrastructure are being dismantled without a strategic vision. The outcome that we fear most is that the archive will be treated as redundant or unsustainable, leading to its incineration. The task force has seen this happen multiple times already – at least 75% of the historical radio recordings in the United States have already been destroyed. It’s important to point out that this outcome would be an entirely elective decision, one that would result in a catastrophic reduction of our historical memory.

With full respect to the integrity of this historic institution and their principled tradition of broadcasting, we believe that a temporary deposit is in the best interest of the collection. It is of utmost importance, by our judgment, that these recordings are maintained, digitized, preserved, and made available for educational research. The abandonment of the collection would equate to the erasure of a substantial document of the history of community activism in United States. However, should these materials be at least stored at an educational institution, the RPTF would be able to continue with grant writing activities for preservation and implementation of these historic recordings in classrooms and research theses. Further, the recordings would be even more easily accessible to Pacifica’s wide listenership in a library setting.

Dr. Josh Shepperd is Assistant Professor of Media and Communication Studies at Catholic University in Washington D.C., and Director of the Library of Congress’s Radio Preservation Task Force.

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