Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Pacifica's Archives: A Preservation Oasis

Pacificans often call it The Archives or just PRA, an astonishing resource, virtually the only audio collection of its kind, more than 50,000 recordings that chronicle the social, cultural and political movements of the second half of the 20th century.

The McCarthy hearings, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Vietnam War; the voices of Dorothy Dandridge, Allen Ginsberg, Malcolm X, Margaret Mead, Alan Watts, Rachel Carson, Bertolt Brecht, Che Guevara, and countless others; rare musical performances from Coltrane to Dylan; documentaries, debates, poetry, drama, and historic moments – it’s all there in a climate-controlled Los Angeles vault.

After more than two decades on the air, Pacifica decided to begin formal preservation efforts in 1972. The idea was to save, transfer and distribute key broadcasts to schools, libraries, other radio stations, and to individuals who wanted to own a small piece of history. The decision was made to keep the library at KPFK in Los Angeles. In 1986, the National Federation of Community Broadcasters added its own archives to the collection, and by the end of the decade about 7,000 unique recordings had been restored. By the 1990s, however, the project had become enormous and the Board wasn’t devoting sufficient funds to keep rare material from deteriorating. Preservation is a costly, labor-intensive process and some tapes are so brittle that they disintegrate when handled.

The determination of PRA Director Brian DeShazor, along with the realization that both irreplaceable history and a potential income stream were being neglected, produced a change of priorities. The archives staff grew, grants were obtained, and the Board decided to devote at least two percent of the annual budget to preservation. Today many historians and scholars consider the Pacifica Radio Archives one of the most important audio collections in the world. With a line item budget of its own and status as a formal department, PRA is sometimes described as Pacifica's "sixth station."

Brian greeted me on the second floor of the KPFK building in North Hollywood the day after my first visit to the station. A precise, fair-skinned man with a deep passion for historic preservation, he was eager to explain the importance and urgency of PRA’s work. Even though Pacifica’s annual budget included more than $500,000 a year for preservation, it wasn’t enough, he said. In truth, it would take millions to rescue the thousands of tapes still sitting on long rows in the vault. Many hadn’t even been reviewed yet. And PRA’s job went far beyond that.

Once an audio jewel is identified, it must be digitally transferred and then duplicated. The archives also handle production of CDs sold as premiums during station fund drives, provide producers with access to relevant excerpts for their shows, give program directors material to enhance coverage of major events like Black History Month, make the collection – including more recent shows – available to affiliate stations for broadcast, and work with outside organizations that have nowhere else to turn for specific rare recordings.

PRA also has to raise a major portion of its budget, mainly by organizing an annual fundraising marathon broadcast on the sister stations. To supplement this income, it licenses material to publishers and the film industry, creates premium packages on specific themes, and encourages individual listeners to “adopt” tapes, which basically means underwriting the cost of restoration.

The Board didn’t seem sufficiently committed to what was, after all, a time-sensitive project, Brian felt. And station managers balked at giving up even one day of local programming for PRA’s annual on-air drive. This was the soul of Pacifica, its legacy on tape, he insisted, yet many “profoundly irreplaceable sonic documents” might still be lost unless preservation became a much higher priority. Like almost everyone I was meeting, he felt that he (and the archives) was unappreciated, and gently probed to see how committed I was to supporting the work.

Meeting with the seven person staff I was struck by the calm, upbeat atmosphere. In contrast to staff I’d encountered at some stations these people seemed to truly enjoy their jobs. Reinforcing that perception, there was little turnover or discussion of internal politics. On the other hand, they sounded detached, as if PRA was a separate organization, more like an audio library or museum than part of a national broadcasting operation.

How did they get along with the KPFK staff just downstairs? I asked. Brian flashed an ironic smile and said that contact with minimal. In fact, Eva Georgia, the station’s General Manager, rarely visited the second floor.

That was disappointing – but not a surprise. Each unit or station operated without much interest in what the others were doing. If anything, they viewed other parts of the organization as competitors for limited resources. Words like “fiefdoms” and “balkanization” were used frequently to describe the dynamic. Everyone wanted respect, but most people stressed the unresponsiveness and limitations of others rather than how they might collaborate.

Part Eleven of Pacifica Radio: A Listening Tour

Next: Electronic Democracy & Civic Media

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